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Wednesday, Dec 19, 2007

When Santa sits back in his North Pole office and tallies up the boy and girl balance sheet every year, one wonders what exactly he uses as a means of measurement. It used to be that obeying one’s parents, doing well in school, and avoiding the pitfalls and problems of growing up were the essential benchmarks for a ranking of “good”, while putting a tack on teacher’s chair, pouring ink on Mommy’s rug and filling the sugar bowl with ants warranted a score of “bad” and a mandatory gift of furnace fuel. But now, in a world that excuses almost any behavior as part of the maturation process, it must be impossible to differentiate between disobedient and merely misunderstood.

The same thing applies to seasonal films. For everyone who wants nothing but visions of sugarplums and candy cane wishes, there are people who prefer their seasons greetings more mocking and satiric. Then there are a chosen few who can effortlessly manage between the two ideals, easily enjoying both the joyful and the jaundiced. Therefore, SE&L will separate its list of the best Christmas/holiday films of all time into two categories – naughty and nice. It’s the only way to cover all the jingle bell basics and make sure that everyone’s Yule is as cool as possible. While far from definitive, the undeniable delights of the divergent films featured guarantee no cinematic coal in any film fans stocking.

1. Nice: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Forget all the ridiculous remakes and stick with the sparkling and effervescent original. This terrific take on the commercialization of the season never fails to bring a smile to even the most mean, miserable face. Featuring Edmund Gwenn in a role that would redefine the personification of Santa for decades to come, this masterful little fable about belief and hope is a breathtaking combination of cynical and magical – the perfect combination of Christmas then and now. 

2. Naughty: Christmas Evil
Asking the disturbing question of how society would react to someone taking the role of Santa seriously, Lewis Jackson’s amazing motion picture assessment of one man’s descent into Kringle craziness remains a forgotten mistletoed masterpiece. In the lead role, Brandon Maggart spends his days in a toy factory, his nights making lists of the local school children. But when he finally ventures out on Christmas Eve, his moralistic intentions become confused, creating a memorable spree of Yuletide terror.

3. Nice: A Christmas Story
Few remember that Bob Clark’s now traditional cinematic treat was an unfettered flop when it first hit theaters in November of 1983. Apparently, audiences weren’t quite prepared to experience the knowing nostalgia of holidays circa the pre-War era. It took home video, and dozens of showings on Turner stations like TBS, to transform this clever comic take on holidays past into a timeless seasonal celebration. Now, devotees wouldn’t be caught dead missing a single moment of this festive familial farce. 

4. Naughty: Black Christmas (1976)
Bob Clark again, this time utilizing the holiday season for his inventive twist on the slasher film. Without the strict cinematic mandates that the genre would require throughout the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Clark created the first subversive slice and dice, providing little explanation for the sorority attacks, and no actual resolution. With a narrative featuring eerie phone calls from a horrifying killer named Billy, this film is a perfect antidote for all the tinsel and treacle.

5. Nice: Scrooge
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has long been considered a Saturnalia standard. But of all the versions of his venerable Victorian allegory, this 1970 musical version starring Albert Finney is the most magical. Using an Oliver-esque approach to its recreation of London (read: grimy and grim) and amplifying the story’s supernatural elements, director Ronald Neame and composer Leslie Bricusse deliver a wonderfully winning effort, truer to the literary classic than any other adaptation out there. 

6. Naughty: Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas
Stealing the stop motion animation crown from those loveable TV titans Rankin and Bass, Burton scripted a timeless treasure that suits both Santa and Satan quite well. As poor misguided Jack Skellington, the King of Halloweentown, tries to unravel the secrets of Christmas’ festive feeling of fun, we are treated to a world loaded with artistic marvels and inventive iconography. Perfectly suited for October or December, this is one flight of fancy that grows more and more magical, year after year. 

7. Nice: The Polar Express
Some still find this first experiment in CGI rotoscoping to be a little disconcerting – the humans do appear rather stiff and disturbing in their zombie like blankness – but no one can fault Robert Zemeckis’ Christmas Card come to life look for the film. Thanks to the 3D imagery, this movie comes alive with startling seasonal symbols and moments of sheer cinematic bliss. Like most holiday treasures, its thrills are as universal as a smile and as special as the time of year.

8. Naughty: Lucky Stiff
Another forgotten masterwork, this time centering on an overweight lonely heart that’s invited to a Christmas celebration by a red hot honey he meets at a ski resort. Oh course, she and her family are cannibals, cruising the country for fatted ‘calves’ to clean and dress for their own festive flesh feast. Starring voice-over artist Joe Alasky as the blimp, and Donna Dixon as the blonde with an eye for prime man meat, this quirky black comedy delivers nonstop laughs.

9. Nice: It’s a Wonderful Life
Like A Christmas Story, Frank Capra’s look at the fragility of the American dream was more or less ignored by late ‘40s audiences. But once TV took up its cause, and a lapsed copyright allowed unlimited home video releases, the once overlooked gem became a true seasonal standard. Featuring fine turns by Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore, what some found almost anti-American 60 years ago is now viewed as the perfect piece of old school Hollywood craftsmanship.

10. Naughty: Bad Santa
Nothing illustrates our post-modern mindset toward the holidays better than this crude family film about a drunk and debaucherous Santa who uses his department store position as a means of casing joints for his annual Xmas eve robberies. Unfortunately, a chubby little gingersnap known only as “The Kid” throws our Kris Kringle crook for a loop. The result is both hilarious and heartwarming, with just enough scatology thrown in to keep the Noel nasty


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Wednesday, Dec 19, 2007

In this Wire interview, these two icons discuss the latest Radiohead album of course but what was more interesting to me was their conversation about why albums are still important in a download age.

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Wednesday, Dec 19, 2007

Daniel Gross pointed out the obvious in this recent Slate column about the National Association of Realtors: You can’t trust anything their forecasters say.

Within the fraternity of financial and fiscal forecasters, the seers at the National Association of Realtors—longtime chief economist David Lereah and his successor Lawrence Yun—may be uniquely ill-equipped to deliver sobering forecasts. They work for a trade group whose mission is to buck up the spirits of real-estate brokers. And real-estate brokers—who live to sell, promote, and market—are constitutionally disinclined to hear anything but good news.

This is apparent to anyone who follows developments in the housing industry in the business press, yet the business press continues to report their meaningless sunshiny accounts of the economy as though it constitutes news, discrediting other analysts across the board. Journalosts could get much more reputable numbers from the National Association of Home Builders, a trade association rather than a sales association, with less of an agenda in its forecasts.

Since economic analysts have such strong incentives to be optimistic—it’s what clients generally want to hear, and optimistic forecasts foment increased confidence, which tends to feed on itself—a knee jerk pessimism is almost de rigeur for economists who wants to establish their independence. Nothing but innate contrarianism gives incentive to be negative. As a result, bearish views on the economy always seem to be more credible, regardless of the underlying economic data. Of course the data itself can be made to tell whatever story is preferred, if analysts are suitably unscrupulous and the reporters gullible enough. That’s why CEPR economist Dean Baker will never run out of material for his blog, Beat the Press, which recounts examples of shoddy or biased economic reporting—usually this is a matter of failing to give reference points for figures presented for shock value, or neglecting to adjust for inflation, or cherry-picking data, or presenting predictions as facts, or cheerleading for the Dow or the S&P 500 as though investors’ fortunes were synonymous with the fortunes of the economy at large. But like the NAR, the business press has the interests of its readers at heart, and seeks to keep them cheerful and reassured.

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Wednesday, Dec 19, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

This week: A potential interviewer interviews an interviewee. An episode rife with mispronounced names, awkward corporate chatter, and enough plot twists to confuse even the smartest intern.

Every week PopMatters will be offering an exclusive early look at a new episode of Backpack Picnic, an online sketch comedy show from ON Networks.

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Tuesday, Dec 18, 2007

Does it matter if an actor or actress is gay? Beyond all the hypocritical moralizing and dogmatic religious stances, should a film fan really care if a homosexual performer is playing a heterosexual part? We praise the non-handicapped for taking on the role of the regressed, and give out awards to thespians who literally change their bodies to become totally different ‘characters’, so why should it matter if a lesbian plays a leading man’s love interest, or visa versa? It’s not a new discussion in Hollywood, but when you consider the profile of the most recent ‘outed’ superstar, the issue gets raised all over again.

In accepting the Sherry Lansing Award at a Women in Entertainment Power 100 breakfast on 13 December, Jodie Foster offered an emotional speech which included her stating “I would like to thank my beautiful Cydney who sticks with me through all the rotten and the bliss.” She was referring to Cydney Bernard, a one time production manager and coordinator who has been the actress’s significant other since 1993. There’s no questioning their commitment, and recent rumors about the father of Foster’s two sons and the motives for this unusual break in her public facade are specious at best. Besides, Tinsel Town’s been ‘hip’ to the two time Oscar winner’s lifestyle for years, and it hasn’t hurt her box office clout or her standing in the industry.

Yet the question now becomes, will all that change? Nothing affects a star’s status quicker than a scandal, but there’s no chance of that happening here. So the only other factor that could come into play is financial—and in our current cultural state where intelligent design battles science for a place in the classroom and Presidential candidates wear their faith on their constantly self-aggrandizing sleeves, the ethos of Foster’s ‘choice’ will take many aback—one kneejerk reaction at a time. Remember, this debate will have nothing to do with talent, personal principles, or the need for greater tolerance and understanding in a post-millennial world. Your average mainstream moviegoer hears ‘gay’, and an entire universe of propaganda and proselytizing comes crashing down around their already narrow view.

You could call it prejudice, but the proper word is perspective. Sure, some will automatically turn their bigotry switch over to seethe upon hearing this news, but for the most part, audiences will do something akin to backseat driving (or Monday morning quarterbacking) and begin a ridiculous reevaluation process. Since most salient individuals acknowledge homosexuality as a fact, not an option, the idea of pinpointing her ‘change’ won’t be bantered about. But the idea that a lesbian can now play a romantic, passionate heterosexual heroine will definitely be part of the discussion.

Take this year’s excellent The Brave One, for example. Dismissing the vigilante aspect for a moment, the entire movie is based on a simple premise—how the loss of someone you love can lead an otherwise smart individual to the darkest depths of their soul. After the death of her doctor fiancé at the hands of a ruthless gang, Foster must face down the urge to kill as she slowly sinks into a kind of emotional malaise. It’s clear the couple connected—their first act love scene is tender and telling. Yet with this recent revelation, it’s not a stretch to hear audiences asking if Foster is truly capable of sincerely playing this role.

It’s not the first time that such a clouded concern has been forwarded. Right before production on the romantic comedy Six Days and Seven Nights, Anne Heche announced her relationship with comedian/sitcom star Ellen DeGeneres. The massive press coverage that accompanied the disclosure trickled into a less than cogent conversation over whether the actress, currently co-starring with macho megahunk Harrison Ford, could convincingly play someone interested in men. It seems silly now (just like the previous take on Foster), but the quasi-controversy produced pundit after pundit dismissing a gay woman’s ability to be believable as straight.

In general, such a sentiment is ignorant at best, a hate crime at worst. Dozens of homosexual men have successfully mastered the art of pretend known as acting, and while a few have stayed within their own orientation as a matter of pride or principle, others have experimented with all manner of roles, from action to comedy, horror to heroism. It seems downright silly to say this now, but any discussion about Heche should have focused on her limited screen presence and poor overall chemistry with Ford, not who she chooses to sleep with. It’s a standard that someone of Foster’s caliber will never have to address. But there will be those who find their broadmindedness broached, and revising history apparently helps relieve the unease.

Take the two Academy Awards she owns. Silence of the Lambs is such an asexual picture, and the acting in it so flawless, that no one could question any of the stars’ believability. Foster is Clarice Starling, flirtatious inferences with the entomologist and Dr. Lecter in equal uneasy amounts. There is nothing about the turn that speaks to stereotypes. But Foster’s first Oscar, for The Accused, may flummox some uninformed heads. In said film, she plays a white trash slut who fails to get the ‘no means no’ benefit of the doubt from a gang of barroom rapists. While many praised the actress for such daring and boldness, the ‘gay’ angle will keep the already tacky up at night.

Again, it all becomes a meandering matter of acuity. Does her ice queen bitchiness now come off differently in Spike Lee’s Inside Man? Was playing a 14-year-old prostitute for Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver more difficult for a young woman just growing into her sexual identity? Will there be some who from this point forward never believe her opposite a leading man, and are there others who will demand she take up a cause and outward agenda that she chose to embrace privately for decades? Insane as it sounds, does someone’s sexual orientation, a subconscious, private position, manifest itself in ways only outsiders can see? And will future flops—and all superstars have them—be blamed on issues other than creative bankruptcy?

In truth, these are the career concerns that arise whenever a performer is finally ‘outed’. It’s not really a question of hiring and firing—it’s a question of cash. The biggest heterosexual lothario can spread squalor and STDs all over the industry, and if his movies make money, he’ll be first in line for the next high profile project. Yet, as we’ve seen with Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, bad judgment and lifestyle lunacy can lead to a never ending barrage of bad press and—even worse—audience backlash. All the limited access minds of moviemaking need is a single hint that an actor or actress is box office poison and their prospects almost instantaneously dry up. And in our ridiculously fundamental social order, being gay could signal the start of such a downward trend.

As one of the best actresses of her or any generation, Jodie Foster has earned the right to be left alone. She’s been nothing but professional, and even centered in a swirling media firestorm over her link to the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan (she was relentlessly stalked by shooter John Hinkley), she remained a calm, considered antidote. Luckily, most of her growing pains occurred outside of the media morass that tends to permanently taint everything it touches—but this latest hackle raising headline will take a while to significantly blow over.

Until then, Foster will have to walk the mandatory tabloid tightrope. Every decision she’s made in the last 20 years will be front and center for speculation and aspersion. The next moves in her otherwise flawless occupational arc will be fodder for further dissection and disparagement. If her next film fails, will it be perceived as some form of audience message? And if it succeeds, does it stand for anything besides a superstar’s continued well-traveled track record? Someone’s sexual orientation should never be part of any aesthetic evaluation. It’s the work that should stand, not issues outside of it. Sadly, our society hasn’t learned that lesson just yet. Maybe Foster will change that. Odds are, she won’t.

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