Film

Something Santa This Way Comes, or The Worst Noel

Everyone's idea of a perfect Christmas is vastly different. Some can only see it in shades of pearly white. Others have images flecked with (mostly) green.

Why can't Hollywood get Kris Kringle right? Why is it up to those playful puppet masters Rankin and Bass to make a believable St. Nick out of a crass Coca-Cola logo? From high concept hokum like The Santa Clause to more bewildering Yuletide yuck like Santa Claus: The Movie, Tinseltown has a terrible time dealing with that annual obese gift giver. Maybe it's the bountiful (and heart disease capable) belly like a bowlful of jelly. Perhaps it's the ruddy cheeks and shoddy fashion sense (Who wears all red? Really?). It just might be the regular right of passage aspect to the character, peers and parents eventually ruining the "Friend of the Fictitious" aspect of his personality. Or it could be a combination of incompetence and pro-Easter Bunny/Tooth Fairy bias.

Whatever the case, Christmas and its elephantine emblem just can't catch a real cinematic break. The results are almost always ridiculous, cloying, infantile, simplistic, soaked in an aura of unnecessary folklore, or fudged in such a way that Father Xmas himself - whatever he truly is - would be fearful of looking at his adapted personage in the North Pole's mirrors. About the closest anyone in the business called show has come to getting Santa Claus "right" is the remarkable 1942 film Miracle on 34th Street, and even then our white bearded wonder had to be declared insane before anyone would jump to his defense. Apparently, a sickly old coot is acceptable in the realm of the mythic mirth maker,

As the years have progressed, the elves' main employer has battled Martians, taken on Satan himself, attempted to battle the Winter Warlock, and more or less mutated into a combination cautionary example and comic book superhero. No longer content to check children for their natural "naughty and/or nice" proclivities and bring them action appropriate booty come 24 December, Santa now shapeshifts into a disgruntled CEO, an aging artifact, a post-modern menace - and in some horrifying cases - an actual costumed killer. Indeed, horror films have sensed the savaging being offered by their mainstream brethren and turned a once viable symbol of the season into spree killing psychopath ready to deck the halls with bows...of blood and gore.

Of course, Christmas itself is a load of materialistic crap. Christians continue to decry the lack of 'savior' in this annual display of credit card self destruction and yet why they'd want their favorite he-man messiah hanging out with the likes of Hardrock, Coco, and Joe makes little or no sense. But even when they try to take back the true reason for the season, they come up with shallow celluloid dung like The Nativity Story. You remember that debacle, don't you? The tinsel and holly cash-in meant to make everyone enamored of Jesus via Mel Gibson's torture porn take on The Passion feel all First Noel-ish? Heck, even the stop motion animation take on the tale - aka The Little Drummer Boy - wasn't as lame.

With awfulness like Deck the Halls, Surviving Christmas, Christmas with the Kranks, and Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas stinking up the place, it's not hard to see why the average onscreen yule is pretty cruel. It's so bad that even middling mediocrity like National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is heralded as some manner of Advent classic (YIKES!). True, you can cut Bob Clark's clever A Christmas Story some slack because it doesn't deconstruct the holiday so much as wrap it in a pink rabbit pajama facade of knowing nostalgia. And let's not let TV off the hook quite yet. After all, it was the Boob Tube that gave Marlo Thomas the idea to turn It's a Wonderful Life into a post-That Girl goof It Happened One Christmas and made the once famous Fonz look even more foolish in An American Christmas Carol.

Between daft depictions and bumbling backdrops, everything about Santa and his celebration argues for awfulness. Rarely, if ever, is he mentioned as a timeless movie character, and when positioned against other calendar-specific fare, Christmas films rarely hold up as well as titles taking on Thanksgiving (Planes, Trains and Automobiles), July 4th (you name it...) and - of all things - Groundhog Day. Maybe it's the diabetic coma one hits head on when visions of sugarplums are crammed into their subconscious, mostly via Madison Avenue. With the popularity of the person and place within our typical set of traditions, you'd figure they'd both get a better deal.

It could, however, be something slightly more complicated. As an icon, Santa can mean a lot of things: a bringer of hope, a conglomerate shill, a youthful folly, a regular disappointment. He's been used and abused by all the countries of the world, maintaining his fairytale status in some places, forged into the phoniest of materialistic flagstaffs elsewhere. Making one universal version of his origins and meaning would, therefore, be pointless. It can't be done - or at least, hasn't been as of this date. The same applies to the date in question. Whether you spend 12 or 24 days fa-la-la-la-la-ing or believe in an opulent/frugal gift ideal, everyone's idea of a perfect Christmas is vastly different. Some can only see it in shades of pearly white. Others have images flecked with (mostly) green.

So it's not the attempt so much as the attitude. Instead of realizing that nothing all encompassing can come from a specific season, Hollywood plugs (and flops) away. Only foreign filmmakers like those in Finland get it, through their vision of what Santa really stands for is quite dark and disturbed. In the recent Rare Exports, we may be witnessing the future of Christmas-oriented cinema; re-inventive while reverent, disturbed while tapping into the root nature of a mystical man making value judgments on children before rewarding/punishing them for their behavior. Like those glorious Grimm Fairy tales, Santa at his core is a means by which haggard parents threatened their offspring into some manner of civilized etiquette. Mind your social manners and you'll get a stocking full of sweeties. Ignore the warnings and it's a lump of coal - or worse.

All of which makes movies about said psychological staple so tough. Everyone has a different memory of when they first heard of old Saint Nick, or when the eventually learned that Santa was a fraud. They recall the horror at finding out that Mom and Dad usually "played" the role while they were all tucked in and dreaming. They can remember the face of the friend who spilled the beans, or the exact hour when Father roped them in to help put your baby brother's bicycle together. It's a loss of innocence, a coming of age contact point for everyone. Of course, no studio is going to make The Day I Learned that Santa was a Sham for prime holiday box office fodder. Instead, they will still try and compensate for everyone's beliefs...and bungle the attempt in the process. Not exactly the best way to celebrate peace on Earth and goodwill towards men, huh?

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