[26 November 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Adeste Fideles my ass! What is it about the holiday season that makes typically rational people go potty? They will wait in line for the latest media hyped fad gadget (usually something to do with electronics and a massive outlay of not necessarily disposable income), visit with relatives they’d rather see lying flat in their coffins than sitting upright at the dinner table, and pump more inappropriate calories into their overnourished pie hole all in the name of goodwill toward men and glad tidings of great joy. From a self-destructive standpoint alone, concerned parties would have the right to ask just what is Christmas’ major merchandising malfunction? Why does it make more or less decent people so desperate – and dumb? Ever since Coca-Cola thought it was a really cool idea to modernize an old Norwegian icon, stripping St. Nicholas of his old world class and posting him as a half god / half bowl full of jelly pitchman, the First Noel has meant one thing and one thing only: unbridled spending and equally uncontrollable material avarice.
It’s a shame really, since the primary position of the celebration (beside all the baby Jesus, away in a manger business) is the noble notion of it being better to give than to receive. This was later modified – by protest from the International Confederation of Underage Gift Getters, i.e., kids – to a less strident “it’s the thought that counts”. Both of these graduated versions of the Golden Rule are meant to make the sting of receiving dress pants from your favorite maiden Aunt a lot less painful. Stripped of their cynicism, the holidays should be a time where your own inner peace presents itself in acts of generosity and selfless consideration. Granted, how a $10 gift certificate to a livestock feed store symbolizes either of those concepts is a quandary for intellectuals and the Future Farmers of America to resolve. But as premises go, the whole give / receive, thought / counts core is pretty solid.
It’s just too bad that these formative facets don’t translate over into the realm of entertainment. Apparently, when deciding to place their wares within the yearly Yuletide grind, artists go whole eggnog hog for the cloying and cliché. The movies fell into this trap right off the bat. To Hollywood, the 25th of December marks an imaginary moment in time when everyone loves their parents / siblings, forgets their troubles and torments, and sees the sunny possibilities of an unfettered future laying pristine like freshly formed snow angels among the frozen white drifts of a extraordinary winter wonderland. But there’s a darker side to all these celluloid chestnuts roasting on an open fire; for every 34th Street set Miracle or example of what a wonderful life it truly is, there are other, more disturbing visions of festive cheer that twist the tenets of the holidays into hackwork horrors. For every cinematic stocking full of shiny bright goodies, there are large filmic lumps of dirty old coal.
from The Great Rupert
Take The Great Rupert (1950), for example. In this nauseating little nugget from the otherwise talented George Pal, The Amendola Family is flat broke on the day before Christmas. They wander the street, looking for a flophouse or discarded milk crate they can huddle into for the night. At one time, they were famous for their human pyramid act. Now, they are infamous for skipping out on creditors. When they con their way into a besmirched basement apartment owned by the Dingles, it looks like another game of advanced landlord abatement is about to begin. But the Amendolas don’t know that the Dingles are rich, having just come into some gold mine money. And the Dingles don’t know that the place where Daddy Dingle decides to deposit his dinero is also the home for a talented squirrel named Rupert. Yes, it’s that kind of film – one of those ‘be thankful for what you have because, through happenstance and a string of stultifying coincidences, you’ll end up with a magical varmint that drops dollar bills directly into your lap’ excuses for fun.
What makes this massively mediocre, besides the incredibly pedestrian stop motion animation that renders Rupert rigid and robotic, is the amoral message at its core. In many ways, A Christmas Wish (as the film was later re-titled) is actually a very good film for the modern holiday experience. It’s concerned solely with how much moolah you’ve got and how rapidly you can piss it away. The expert spenders in this movie (The Amendola family manages to blow $1,500 in seven days) prove that the commercialization of the season was inevitable. When they’re poor and yet still have their health and their familial love, they’re miserable. But when they suddenly find unexpected wealth, they go completely goofy and impulse shop themselves into a froth. Thanks to Rupert’s parasite-infused generosity, they become one-‘50s era circus act with a purely false hope for a happy holiday. Maybe the little rat should give them rabies, instead. Perhaps that would bring them back to some manner of fiscal truth.
from Santa Claus: The Movie
While it seems unfair to pick on a picture that wants to do nothing except extol the virtue of happiness – be it pecuniary or personal – especially when there’s a potentially cute critter involved, things get even riskier when Tinsel Town takes the supposed high road toward authenticity and mythologizing. Take something like 1985’s Santa Clause: The Movie (not to be confused with Hulk Hogan’s horrid Santa with Muscles, or the far less subtle horror film Santa Claws). The product of an early ‘80s ideal that argued for excess as a means of achieving box office success, this lavish production, purposely pumped up with pomp and preposterousness by Mexican maverick, producer Ilya Salkind, was meant to be the definitive take on the red-suited sleigh driver.
Hampered by some of the same formulaic tomfoolery that marred his other high profile projects – the original ‘70s Superman movies and the intensely popular Richard Lester / Musketeer sagas – Salkind’s film seemed purposefully made to challenge fellow countryman René Cardona’s 1959 Santa Claus, with its children as slave labor / Santa vs. Satan lunacy. One of the original purveyors of stunt casting (Charlton Heston as Cardinal Richelieu) Salkind wanted to delve into the much-beloved myth, lay out a brand new foundation for the entire flying reindeer / toy making / gift giving paradigm, and interlace it all with a subplot storyline involving greed, commercialization, and the overall tactless nature of the new modern holiday. In essence, he was making Kris Kringle’s original story, but turning the cultural icon into a comic book hero circa Salkind’s Man of Steel epics.
Only problem is, Santa has no real concrete ‘history’. He’s a combination of several seasonal symbols celebrated by numerous nations. In Salkind’s mind, this was easily resolved. Simply mimic Jesus in the resurrection department. The plot sees a couple of 14th century peasants killed off in a snowstorm. Via that universal power known as elfin magic – famous for cookies and reviving human life – the new Mr. and Mrs. Claus are made immortal. In order to amplify the obvious comic implications of such a situation, Salkind hired that drunken bad boy Arthur (otherwise known as British comedian Dudley Moore), and made the man’s diminutive stature a key narrative thread. When Moore—as the perplexed pee wee named Patch—feels left out of all the pre-present delivery decisions, he heads to the big city to seek his fortune. As screenplay luck would have it, the irritating imp runs into corrupt corporate bad guy (John Lithgow as B.Z.) who wants to own Christmas outright. All he has to do is tap Moore’s merriment manufacturing skills and reap the rewards of a market well cornered.
For anyone who thinks the time between Thanksgiving and New Years is a soulless bastardization of everything the season symbolizes, Santa Claus: The Movie manages to be even more mean-spirited. The opening deaths are typical of the tact taken by Salkind and his crew, including Jaws 2 helmer Jeannot Szwarc. Everything is too big, overblown, and phony, giving the scenes in the North Pole a scope that swallows anything remotely magical or meaningful. Even worse, lead actor David Huddleston is a Claus in costume only. He’s got the portly proportions, and the musical mulled apple cider belly laugh, but there is nothing here for the performer to prove. As long as he looks like St. Nick, nobody cares about his inner being. If only this were true of the dreadful Dudley Moore. It’s hard to imagine what Moore was supposed to do with this role. Surely, Salkind didn’t expect him to do the inebriated retard routine again, and yet there are hints of such forced histrionics all throughout the actor’s effort. Like everything else in this misguided mess, the obvious bad decisions made on the creative end destroy any inherent joy the material might have had.
The truth is, if moviemakers hate Christmas as much as their films seem to suggest, they should just come right on out and challenge its core concepts. Even better; if they feel the season is soulless and heartless, their movies should reflect such a strained social mindset. In ‘80, writer / director Lewis Jackson made the one true masterpiece of Christmas as a commercialized, craven crock. His movie, entitled You Better Watch Out, centered on an emotionally unsound man named Harold Stadling who’s given over to delusions of glad tidings grandeur. Ever since he saw Mommy getting frisky – literally – with Santa Claus one long ago holiday eve, the guy has reconfigured his life around a desire to be the seasonal symbol. He’s employed in a toy factory, fashions voluminous lists of children he views as ‘naughty’ or ‘nice’, and even preps his own personal Kris Kringle persona. As December 25th grows near, Harry has problems adjusting to the demands of his new, imaginary position.
Oh course, none of this ends well. Harold, imbued with the aforementioned spirit of giving vs. receiving, does his best to spread his own message of morals vs. materialism. For his efforts, he is harassed, ridiculed, and defamed, his desire to put the true meaning of Christmas and Santa back into the celebration met with violence and scorn. Naturally, this leads to a few deaths, but Christmas Evil (as You Better Watch Out was eventually labeled) is not really your basic bloodletting. Instead, this is an amazingly deep psychological character study, an unpleasant look at a person who just wants to take the holiday back from the media, the merchants and the moneymen. His motives are as pure as his mannerisms are peculiar, and yet he is met with some less than festive fear and loathing.
It’s a sad, shocking pronouncement. Jackson argues all throughout this ballsy antidote for the current corrupt notion of Noel that, even if something like Santa really existed, we’d reject it outright for the far more comforting notions that the season’s commercialization has created. If his Harold is indeed a representation of pure spirit, sullied by a populace who can’t see beyond his creepy, kid-ccentric façade, what does that say about us? Are we more in tune with Rupert’s easy money message or Salkind’s disturbing combination of the sacred and the slapstick, or have we simply forgotten what Christmas is supposed to symbolize? Certainly, Harold could be a criminal, capable of anything in the name of so-called ‘Seasons Greetings’, but if the myth were indeed made real, would we really want it after all? At its dark and disturbing heart, Christmas Evil is the ultimate ‘be careful what you wish for’ cautionary tale.
Because of bad distribution, and an implied connection to silly, slasher-styled holiday horror films (Black Christmas, Silent Night, Deadly Night), Christmas Evil never got the audience consideration it so richly deserved. Instead, it’s fallen into that motion picture purgatory where well-meaning films frequently go to grow old. Like the classic moment in Female Trouble where Divine’s Dawn Davenport shrieks out her hatred of family, festivities, and unfashionable flat heels, what our current Yuletide needs is a great big smack in the face. Turgid little efforts like A Christmas Wish and Santa Claus: The Movie only makes matters worse. Thankfully, Jackson’s jaded journey into the reality of the season’s true twisted soul is finally being re-released on DVD. Perhaps there is hope for our holidays yet. If anyone can save us from ourselves, it’s that pseudo Santa Harold Stadling. Not only does he understand the over-commercialization of Christmas, he has the perfect cure. Unfortunately, we may not like what it is.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/dreck-the-halls/