I’ve just written a short piece for the academic blog, The Conversation, on Christmas films.
This is a slightly longer edit of the piece:
The nightmare of Christmas – five films that capture the real Christmas spirit.
‘It’s like Christmas – except happy’
- Ben Cafferty, The Veep (2015)
Christmas, it goes without saying, is a particularly grim time of year. Rolling around with grinding, Groundhog Day relentlessness, it is an interval of dark days and long nights, kitsch music, clothing and décor, enforced jollity, stilted family gatherings, over-consumption and end-of-year lists (detailing the films, books, exhibitions and cultural events you missed during the last year). As is demonstrated by Christmas with the Kranks (Roth, 2004) – the John Grisham adaptation in which a couple whose kids have left home decide to avoid Christmas by going on a Caribbean holiday only to find themselves shunned by their appalled neighbours and children – participation in this ritual is not optional.
Moreover, as US folk-singer, Loudon Wainwright III observes in the song, Suddenly It’s Christmas, the joy goes on for weeks:
‘When they say “Season’s greetings”, they mean just what they say: It’s a season, it’s a marathon, retail eternity.’
This sense of the endlessly protracted festivities is captured most effectively by the last episode of the UK TV series Black Mirror, ‘White Christmas’ (2014), which places the protagonist, Joe Potter, in a new circle of hell. This modern morality tale ends with Potter trapped forever in a snow-bound shack on Christmas Day, while Wizzard’s 1973 single, I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day, plays repeatedly on a radio that cannot be turned off.
Christmas films are almost as old as the medium of cinema itself. Perhaps the first, directed by Brighton film-maker George A Smith, dates from 1898. This is, therefore, a highly selective list of five films that really capture the Christmas spirit.
Big Business (McCarey, Horne, 1929)
Laurel and Hardy are particularly closely associated with Christmas in the US since their musical, March of the Wooden Soldiers (Meins, Rodgers, 1934), has been screened every year on network TV at Christmas since the 1960s. Big Business, a silent two-reel short, offers a more critical take on the period. The premise is that the hopelessly inept pair are selling Christmas trees door to door – in sunny California. In attempting to sell a tree to one reluctant customer, they quickly become embroiled in a battle that culminates in the enraged customer smashing their car to pieces while they destroy his house and garden. It is a brilliantly economical example of slapstick comedy, and functions as a metaphor for the self-destructive escalation of armed conflict. It also works as a metaphor for the ritual of present-giving at Christmas. Following the study of gift economies and potlatch rituals by anthropologist Marcel Mauss and philosopher Georges Bataille, we might understand the gift, not as a generous, altruistic offering, but as a self-aggrandising demonstration of a superior wealth and power, expressed as the capacity to waste. The gift is an aggressive challenge to the recipient to respond with a more extravagant gift, to waste more. To give is, in effect, to demand, and this film captures the accelerating violence of gift-giving beautifully.
Jingle all the Way (Levant, 1996)
The violence associated with gift-giving is also the theme of the superficially light comedy, Jingle all the Way, released in the US, with bare-faced irony, in an extended ‘Family Fun Edition’, and which film critic, Roger Ebert found depressing for ‘its relentlessly materialistic view of Christmas’. The film tells the story of a workaholic businessman, Howard Langston (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who has neglected to buy his son a present and sets out at the last minute to buy him a ‘Turbo Man’ doll, only to find out that this year’s sought-after toy has sold out everywhere. In the course of the film, Langston – played perfectly by the improbably muscular Schwarzenegger as a character bubbling with barely contained rage and panic, and ready to snap – encounters vicious shoppers, contemptuous store-workers, a criminal gang of counterfeit toy-makers all dressed as Santa Claus, aggressive police, and an unstable postal worker who inadvertently delivers a bomb to a radio station, while his creepily lascivious divorced neighbour tries to seduce Langton’s wife and befriend his son. In a syrupy conventional ending, Langston’s son realises that his father is the real ‘Turbo Man’, but it is the satirical account of the abject, desperate desire to consume, that is the film’s principal theme.
Bad Santa (Zwigoff, 2003)
The abject quality of Christmas is depicted even more directly in the black comedy, Bad Santa. The film’s central character is Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), a safe-cracker who passes himself off as a department-store Father Christmas so that he and his accomplice can rob the stores after closing time. A foul-mouthed, racist, lewd, chain-smoking, incontinent alcoholic who hates all children, but especially the sweetly ingenuous young boy, Thurman Merman, who is convinced, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that Willie is the real Father Christmas. ‘What is it with you, anyway?’, he asks the boy at one point. ‘Somebody drop you on your fuckin’ head?’ The film is a satirical retort to the classic Miracle on 34th Street (Seaton, 1947), which centres on Kris Kringle, a kindly New York department-store Santa who, it is implied, is the real Father Christmas. However, whereas in the earlier film, the question of Kringle’s identity is treated as a matter of the importance of belief in the face of rational evidence – a theme that is explored with chilling single-mindedness in the animated film, The Polar Express (Zemeckis, 2004) – Bad Santa exposes the gap between the pious, traditional image of Christmas epitomized by Norman Rockwell magazine covers and soft drink adverts, and the ugly reality of contemporary commercial culture. In his laziness, his selfishness and vindictiveness, and in his unconstrained appetites, Willie is the monstrous embodiment of the spirit of Christmas as a nauseating interval of excessive consumption.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Helander, 2013)
This Finnish horror film takes the monstrous figure of Father Christmas as a rather less comic device. Derived partly from Alien (Scott, 1979) and The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982), the film’s premise is that an American archaeological operation has located something deep below a mountain in the snowy wilderness of Finland and is blasting the mountain in order to uncover it. As reindeer and children begin to go missing, the local villagers begin to hunt for the culprit, and find themselves besieged by Santa’s helpers, the elves who are stealing and kidnapping children to offer to the giant, horned Santa who was unearthed by the dig and is encased in a block of ice. At the film’s droll conclusion, the locals set up a lucrative business exporting the captured elves for service as department-store Santas. The film proposes that the European origin of the Santa Claus myth lies in this much darker story of serial killing and kidnapping and in so doing highlights the deep strangeness of the story we tell to our children – that they are watched over continually by an invisible elderly man who can see everything they do, and, having judged their moral worth, enters their houses and bedrooms secretly to reward them with gifts.
It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946)
In a discussion of the populist, sentimental and nostalgic tendencies of Frank Capra’s films, Jeffrey Richards describes this classic Hollywood film as the director’s ‘last, great, triumphant affirmation of faith in Individualism’ (77). The film is typically remembered fondly as a hackneyed, feel-good film, an example of a group of films that have been termed dismissively ‘Capra-corn’, but in some respects it is one of the bleakest titles on this list. A reworking of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the film tells the story of George Bailey, who is about to commit suicide on Christmas Eve, but is persuaded not to by his guardian angel who demonstrates to him how important he is to other people in the town despite his failure to realise his personal ambitions, by showing him parallel realities from which Bailey was absent. As Richards observes, the film is ‘an allegory of post-war America’ in which the small picket-fenced town, Bedford Falls, ‘represents the nation’, and ‘George Bailey the spirit of individualism’. However, as film critic Ronald Bergan argues, ‘although it is a fine example of a well-crafted, well-acted classic Hollywood movie, it is also a deeply reactionary one.’ Bailey is an everyman who has comprehensively failed to realise his ambitions to travel the world, go to college and become an architect. Instead circumstances have left him trapped in Bedford Falls – an environment as claustrophobic as Joe Potter’s hellish shack in Black Mirror – in a boring job, watching time pass.
Bailey decides not to kill himself after he is persuaded by the angel that he has played an important role in stopping the predatory financier, Henry F. Potter, from taking over the town. We might read the film’s message positively as an injunction to be happy with your lot, no matter how meagre it may be – to ‘put up and shut up’. More broadly, in its celebration of capitulation and compromise, the allegorical film is a defence of the status quo of American finance capitalism. As Richards observes, ‘In the film, it is George Bailey who triumphs, but in fact it has been Henry Potter’. Or, more bluntly, as Bergan observes of the film, ‘It’s a wonderful lie.’