the reindeer is a no:
Holiday-themed movies are as ubiquitious in the Christmas season as that inescapable, gawdawful novelty song by Paul McCartney that dominates the airwaves and causes more car accidents in December than driving on icy roads and overindulging at office parties combined.
But does a film necessarily have to include persecuted Santas and suicide-preventing angels to be a true "Christmas classic?" Before you slip in your well-worn copy of Gremlins or It's a Wonderful Life, consider some titles from The Pink Smoke's alternative list of movies that touch on the most wonderful time of the year (to varying degrees.)
frederick wiseman, 1984
~ by john b. cribbs ~
Having last season visited the sullied institutions of Henri-Georges Clouzot, we now turn to that cinematic master of institutions, Mr. Frederick Wiseman. Solidifying his reputation as cinema's greatest chronicler of modern American society through over 40 years of probing the inner workings of the country's most fundamental fixtures, the prolific filmmaker branched out over the last decade, turning his camera on two very different kinds of dance companies in Paris (La Danse, Crazy Horse) and broadening his scope to include more abstract subjects such as the language of art (last year's National Gallery). While Wiseman has always been interested in the poetry of the human soul at odds with the mechanical functioning required to make institutions run, lately he's focused on people who make the establishment work for them, whether it be the performers of La Danse, the content residents of Belfast Maine or the clients of his Boxing Gym. Which is not to suggest he's lost his talent for stinging observations and sober insights into how the perpetual gears of an organization can compress the individual spirit (just think about the student breaking down at the strain tutition hikes have had on her family in At Berkeley), but these days the man who made Titicut Follies seems more willing to give his subjects the benefit of the doubt. Maybe, the 85-year old Wiseman might be speculating, it is possible to transcend the walls we build around us. Perhaps we aren't defined by the places where we work, learn, play, perform and die.
No such hope was to be found in the director's work back in 1982, when a MacArthur Prize fellowship helped fund his first color documentary, The Store. Wiseman hadn't released a new film in two years (which wouldn't be long for most filmmakers, but considering his consistent output that's the equivalent of a decade in Wiseman terms) following the unsuccessful theatrical debut of his only fictional film, Seraphita's Diary. Set behind the scenes of the fashion world, Diary related the struggles of a model (portrayed by an actor) to reconcile the fantasies she projects with the reality of an incessant industry that manufactures image rather than gratifies it. The subject of a decidedly unglamorous system in place to fabricate glamour had carried over from Wiseman's previous documentary about advertising (Model) and led naturally to the portrait of a department store, the Neiman-Marcus shopping center and its corporate headquarters in downtown Dallas, that operates towards presenting its clients with ways to present themselves. Whether it's what coat they should wear, what color skin toner they should apply, what food they should eat (and what plate they should eat it off), how they should furnish their home, the conception and process behind getting products in front of the public eye is what Wiseman seeks to capture. "There's one word, the whole reason for it all: sales. A simple little word, and that's why we have the building," an executive flatly states at the beginning of the movie, comparing the store to a hospital and a mortuary(!), thus conveniently placing it in the gallery of Wiseman institutions. Any assumption that The Store isn't one of the director's "big" movies since it doesn't deal with the military, the health care system or a controversial agency is immediately undercut by the executive's statement: like any operation, Neiman-Marcus has a function, a philosophy and a team of people to carry them out: "We're an institution created to make sales."
Department stores are oddly disquieting. I've never felt comfortable in one,* and they're typically depicted in media with an unspecified yet imposing menace that even the famously neutral Wiseman can't avoid. High-angled shots of the ominous escalators makes it impossible not to think of Thomas M. Disch's existential nightmare "Descending," while Wiseman's inspired recurring transition of the elevator doors closing on one floor and opening on another bring to mind the sinister lift in the Avengers episode "Death at Bargain Prices." Strategically-placed models who become indiscernible from the poised mannequins recall John Collier's "Evening Primrose" (and the similar The Twilight Zone episode "The After Hours"). Of course it's also impossible to see the consumers of Neiman-Marcus and not create an instant visual link to the undead hordes revisiting that most "important place in their lives" from Dawn of the Dead, or for that matter the daper managers ingratiating themselves upon customers without being reminded of Chuck Jones' demented chase-comedy Hare Conditioned. That last comparison seems even more fitting when you consider Errol Morris' favorite scene in The Store: a birthday celebration featuring a man in a chicken costume that's as surreal than any Looney Tunes short. (See also: the department store setting of Carol, Marcus Pinn's forthcoming 2015 Cine-Mas write-up.)
But the imposing quality of Neiman-Marcus never stops the steady traffic of customers in which Wiseman eases us inside, opening with a long, quiet shot of Dallas then pushing into the city itself and all the hubbub and shove of urban traffic before ushering his camera into the hushed sactuary of the store. A sign in the window promises "Christmas Past, Christmas Present... Neiman-Marcus has the gift of Imagination." Wiseman filmed during the busy holiday season, yet there's no indication of Yuletide mania. Just the soft flow of idling shoppers basking in the warm mystique of immaculately polished display counters and fake snow on plastic pine trees as magical Christmas music (that kind of tinkling, trickling waterfall of chimes and bells heard over the shots of the display window at the beginning of A Christmas Story) plays abovehead. A tuxedoed brass quintet belts out carols, then later a jolly old man wearing a red suit with his coat slung over his shoulder like a sack offers his own atonal renditions of holiday classics (I'm kind of obsessed with this guy: he doesn't appear to be an employee, although someone who looks like a security guard doesn't seem to mind his warbling even though passers-by appear annoyed). Compared to the ruckus outside, the store is practically church-like in its tranquility, further upheld by the odd reverence with which employees and shoppers alike handle the ludicrously overpriced merchandise. A $2,000 set of toasting goblets. A $42,000 gold braclet described as being "almost understated in its elegance." A $9,000 necklace: "I don't think Santy Claus can bring me that!" If the store can't provide authentic Christmas magic, it can surely replicate its extravagance.
For what is Christmas but presentation? The merchants of Neiman-Marcus base their very existence on indulging a patron's sense of holiday excess, whether it's salesmen educating potential clients on the "luxury factor" of an authentic $45,000 "Texas fur coat," made with sable skins from Leningrad, or a make-up & skin analyst who informs her test subject that "this grouping here and this grouping here is the most harmonious." Wiseman presents a number of board meetings (it wouldn't be a Wiseman movie without board meetings) where the topic is often something along the lines of how Neiman-Marcus is the one outlet courageous enough to offer such ostentatious "fantasy" gifts as a $600 solid milk chocolate Monopoly set.** Specialists are on hand to help interested parties recognize a Chinese rug, a heavily-accented portrait photographer flatters her model by suggesting she do a nude shot and an inhumanly patient clerk gives the background of every goddamn piece of dishware to a condescending, cigarette-smoking customer who insists "the bigger the cereal bowl the better." If the retail agents come off a little overeager, the river of consumers certainly demand that amount of attention: when a saleslady assures one customer she's special, the customer blushes and asks her to say it again. One of the film's recurring characters is Meredith Hawkins, a ditzy socialite who apparently spends all her time admiring how her strong hips support the various outfits she models in front of several mirrors. Wiseman leaves no doubt in the film that the sellers are catering to an elite clientele, most of whom enjoy the pampering just as much as the experience of playing chess against a mechanical robot hand.
This is all really funny, and The Store might be Wiseman's funniest movie. Other nuggets of humor involve the disappearance of a crystal chandelier (be on the lookout for a plain, square box!), a couple in shorts awkwardly holding champagne glasses at a frilly store party (making all the formal guests seem like schlubs) and the incidental presence of Chilliwack's jaunty "Whatcha Gonna Do (When I'm Gone)" in the background of a grooming sequence at the beauty salon. Yet despite its playful tone, there's no hint of haughtiness. To his credit (and as per his well-earned reputation), Wiseman doesn't go for any obvious tactics in an attempt to mock or demonize his chosen venue of obscene consumerism, even though he filmed at the ritziest shopping center in Dallas during the height of holiday fever. While there's no question that Wiseman was interested in capturing a higher class of customer - he was turned down for funding by PBS because he refused to film at a more blue collar store like Macy's - he doesn't draw clear social lines, like the way he contrasted the workman lives of jockeys and stable hands to that of rich horse owners in his next film, Racetrack.
Wiseman comes back several times to Meredith Hawkins and her mighty hips, trying on clothes as a saleslady stands to the side like a servant, her only concern in the world whether or not a skirt is too heavy to wear all evening at a banquet. She's ridiculous, the outfits she chooses are gaudy and unstylish, but at the same time she's the ideal Neiman-Marcus customer. The institution functions to supply this very person, finding the correct way for her to present herself in all her tacky glory. Wiseman has no problem allowing Hawkins to strut about with absurd grandeur, but returns to her one-woman fashion show to emphasize how the everyday necessity of clothing and making ourselves up is directly connected to our shared reliance on (and strange comfort with) retail chains.
The manager's insistence to his staff that the mission of Neiman-Marcus is no different than that of a hospital, or an undertaker's, brings to mind Wiseman's classic Near Death. Cynical as it sounds, the director applies the same non-judgmental acceptance of the way things are and how institutions are run. In Near Death, we see orderlies treating a dead body like an object rather than a formerly living person, professedly apathetic as they cart the cadaver down to the morgue. The reality of the situation is, we have to clear this body out - another patient will be needing this room. There's nothing unacceptable about that, it's just sad, and it's the progression of logic for a working institution.
With The Store, Wiseman investigates further into the distinction between function and essence, how a machine indifferent to individual needs can still work to service the individual. The difference of course is that people go to hospitals because they have to, they go to a mortician because they don't have a choice - an institution like Neiman-Marcus relies on a population that seeks its services voluntarily. It's truly amazing that the same manager who preaches of "the grand purpose of every employee, be they president or floor sweeper" later gives a passionate speech about conformity, without a hint of irony: "Style is the perfection of a point of view. Point of view is what society is saying we should look like, live like, act like, be like, what we're trying to be." Society is dictating what we should look like - and we'll help you out with that! Just like a doctor cures a patient, we can cure you of your style maladies.
Whether floor sweepers are truly held in the same esteem as the higher brass, Wiseman makes sure to include every cog in the machine: phone operators in the trenches of high-volume holiday calls, jewelers and dressmakers toiling away like elves in their workshop,
a committee tasked with determining what attitude the baked goods department should adopt (turns out you can't sell blue roses next to kiwi tarts). Of note is a department manager who, convinced that the best way to get through Christmas is to have a positive attitude, starts the morning with "smile exercises" for her employees set to an aerobicized, banjo-heavy remix of Gershwin. Another employee on the phone with a customer acts as a personal Santa, scanning the client's wish list and letting them know what the store can provide, adding that, lamentably, "...the reindeer is a 'no.'" Again, it's all very funny, but it's also sort of invigorating to see the Neiman-Marcus team put all their effort into the introduction of "major bras" and the earnesty behind describing a fur coat as "a true work of art." Wiseman almost has us believing a suit who refers to "first step clerical assistants in some of the most remote areas of the service center that I've heard talk about Neiman-Marcus like they were literally running the company."
Wiseman clearly wants to believe that they are, almost desperately clinging to the idea that maybe the people make the company rather than dispassionately serve a heartless corporate agenda. He finds evidence to the contrary, though only sporadically among the wage-earning holiday workers. A decorator casually dumping flowers on the floor of a fancy dining room mock-up seems practically Buñuelian amidst all the poshness. A model, practically a living mannequin, makes her way around the restaurant, stopping at tables and interrupting diners to let them know about her dress and where they can purchase one just like it. Behind the scenes of jewelry manufacturing and sketching showcases the artistry, but is so clinical it takes the class out of it. There's a quick shot, lasting seconds, of a man stapling some lining inside a fur coat: he's probably doing it exactly right, but the process seems so slipshod - it's like he's assaulting the coat - that it cheapens the intended effect of the garment. Wiseman quickly cuts away, like he doesn't want to dwell on the apparently shoddy workmanship among the careful construction of the other clothes, but seems to concede that it's definitely important for us to see.
The cynical view of The Store can be found mostly in the sales meetings, where chain-smoking administrative types seeking "incredible customer acceptance" orate on the best way to sell to the "maximum potential." One such strategy involves enlisting department heads to determine their three best customers, then call them at home and invite them to come into the store, possibly even further compel them with the promise of free parking on Saturday. While Wiseman remains neutral to the concession that upper management is a fundamental part of the business concern, he also recognizes the shift in balance created by authority and can't help showing the managers standardize their employees. Just as shopgirls fuss over 'wear-now' clothing and fabrics they feel "really really strongly about," the bosses shape the shopgirls into the kind of person a customer would like to buy something from. Again, there's no serious class distinction, but the bosses' approach to managing their underlings is very much at the front of the film.
The only thing more important than the immaculate appearance of the store and its wares is the presentation of their employees: it's not enough to create a sales force, they have to reflect Neiman-Marcus' goals and unique ambitions. To that end, there's a meeting centered on just how special the attendees feel working for Neiman-Marcus. Is it hard for them not to embarrass their friends with shitty jobs by mentioning that they work here? This is an actual meeting! The man at the head of the table describes the "extreme emotional event" of going to N-M's famed "Zodiac Room" as a child, an experience he claims to remember as profoundly as hearing JFK got shot (which of course happened in Dallas). Perfecting the presentation of the employee is apparently the leader's method of indicating all the work behind the presentation of the store that customers never see. Do they think Christmas just happens? They need to be called and reminded that Christmas is happening, right here at Neiman-Marcus.
When a young woman interviews for a position, she says everything we know from the scene at the meeting the managers want to hear: how it's her dream to work for Neiman-Marcus, how everything in her life has led her to this wonderful opportunity, etc. She's audibly exasperated when the man interviewing her tells her it will be three weeks before she hears from them (if you do the math, it would probably work out that she would be informed around Christmas day). Her passion is palpable, but it's in service of obtaining a job at a department store. The relationship between overseer and supplicant couldn't be more clear.
Soon after this scene, we're treated to an elderly female employee being greeting by a bawdy birthday messenger in a giant, grubby chicken outfit who makes lewd innuendos about getting the clap about being "a little bit horny" (because he brought a party horn for her) before stripping off his costume in a clumsy bit of burlesque while singing a depressing song about aging. It's impossible not to watch this nearly ten-minute sequence without jaw dropped and eyes wide in disbelief as it transitions from greeting card one-liners to full-on sexual harrassment. For me, it's hard not to think of the young hopeful being interviewed. Maybe Wiseman didn't intend to draw a comparison between her and the woman being serenaded by the poultry pervert (both women are black), but the scenes are close enough together that it's hard not to. Is this what the young applicant has to look forward to? That if she pours out her heart and soul, maybe in three weeks she'll get a call letting her know that she's part of the Neiman-Marcus family, and that 40 years from now she'll be visited by a doofy idiot in a chicken costume who'll assault her with raunchy tunes and perform an uncomfortable striptease?
I love that you can see Wiseman and his cameraman John Davey reflected in the balloon in this shot. He doesn't let himself get caught on film too often!
After giving the audience a solid impression of the typical Neiman-Marcus work day (although it was clearly shot over several weeks, Wiseman gives the film the structure of a single day, opening outside Dallas in the early morning, returning to scenes with the same customers over the course of the film and ending with employees loading products on a truck outside the door, signifying the end of the work day), Wiseman watches a few couriers load packages onto a truck in the back alley and then leaves the store. He escorts us to a classy banquest where it's all tuxes and catering and xylophones announcing dinner (since it's Wiseman, we see the kitchen staff frantically preparing dishes), which turns out to be the 75th anniversary party of Neiman-Marcus. Art Buchwald delivers a fawning, joke-free speech to introduce CEO Stanley Marcus (who earlier in the film had used a morbid joke to detail the manufacturer/buyer bad practices). For his own address to the Texas elite, Marcus elects to sing a rewritten version of "My Way" sung Rex Harrison-style. In this exclusive environment, the floor sweepers and first step clerical assistants are all but forgotten. Your way? Does it all come down to one man after all? Why should he be honored with fancy galas attended by Lady Bird Johnson while another member of the Neiman-Marcus family is celebrated by being accosted in her cubicle by a giant chicken?
One of the great things about Wiseman's long, commentary-free films is that you can discuss them ad nauseum, but I'm going to try to wrap this up (no Christmas pun intended, it just came out like that I swear and I refuse to change it). At two hours, this is practically a short for Wiseman, but it penetrates its subject with the same scrutinous eye he turned on the complicated operations of the Panama Canal. Inadvertently a sort of time capsule for the era when presentation within the brick & mortar design was much more important than it is now, The Store seems less harsh in its focus on human contact as opposed to the faceless shopping conducted over the internet these days. For its limited geography, it makes an interesting anthropoligical look at Texas, a state where Wiseman also filmed Sinai Field Mission (an aerospace company in Greenville) and Boxing Gym (in Austin; Wiseman's wife, Zipporah, taught law at the University of Texas).
As his first color film, it represented a big transition. Wiseman had difficulty financing The Store, C.P.B. only came through after the film was shot to cover a portion of the budget; Wiseman had to take out a loan, putting up his collection of films as collateral (his almost 50-year career and 40+ film catalogue hasn't made financing any easier: money-raising for his latest, In Jackson Heights, wasn't helped by an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign). The fact that its observations are still relevant today gives its director at least one thing in common with the ethos of the Dallas Neiman-Marcus that he filmed for four weeks in 1981: "How we do it and why we do it is what distinguishes us from everybody else."
~ DECEMBER 17, 2015 ~
* I think for me maybe it's because, of all the man-made structures in America, an extensive retail outlet like a Sears or a Macy's make a grossly artificial attempt to resemble nature. The spirals of clothing hanging from racks are like bushes. The polished glass of display cases and inescapable mirrors recall the reflective surfaces of frozen-over ponds. The omnipresent overheard muzak feels like controlled changes in the weather, or the horrible mutated call of lurking wildlife. True, these impressions are largely based on vague childhood memories (I think going in for an eye test last year was the first time I've set foot in a department store since the days of cutting through J.C. Penney en route to the mall movie theater/pretzel kiosk back in high school), but the illusion of expanse has always seemed confining and disorienting, like a trap or a human zoo. Also unsettling: Joan Rivers' scene in Muppets Take Manhattan where Rivers and Miss Piggy get manic with the make-up.
** I guess it doesn't seem quite so excessive when you consider the $2 million dollar, 23-carat gold Monopoly set created in 1985, with rubies and sapphires atop the chimneys of the houses and hotels. In fact it seems more practical: you can always eat the chocolate.