Short Ends and Leader

'Tis the Season to Be Murray: 'Scrooged' (Blu-ray)

Once, it was regarded as something of a failure. Now, it’s a mandatory part of any shoestring Saturnalia.


Scrooge

Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Bill Murray, Karen Allen, Robert Mitchum, John Forsythe, David Johansen, Carol Kane, Buddy Hackett
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Year: 1988
US date: 2011-11-01 (General release)
UK date: 2011-11-01 (General release)

One of the great things about time is that it creates perspective. The more of it that passes by, the better the opportunity to review and reconsider. It applies to everything and anything, from the serious to the superfluous, the meaningful to any media. What may not seem so special upon first glance ages into something that’s either wrongfully criticized/celebrated or rightly defended/dismissed. This has especially become true in the world of film. Thanks to the Internet and the every shifting marketplace of ideas, what was once seen as a miss suddenly becomes a halting hit. Case in point – the seasonal satire inspired by Dickens immortal A Christmas Carol, Scrooged. When it was initially released, it was seen as a desperate move by a comedian whose commercial cache had suffered since his superstarmaking turn in Ghostbusters. Now, it takes its place among the pantheon of post-modern holiday laughers.

Of course, the truth centers on certain cinematic realities. While far from perfect, the Richard Donner directed farce at least finds a clever way of updating the iconic Ebenezer Scrooge for a 20th Century audience. Our hum-bug hero is a top TV executive named Frank Cross (Bill Murray) who is knee-deep in a massive spectacle production of the beloved Victorian seasonal story. Featuring questionable casting and stunts in abundance, the fate of the entire network rests on this live broadcast. Under tremendous pressure from his boss (Robert Mitchum), Frank needs everything to be perfect. Into this mess comes the ghost of a former friend and mentor (John Forsythe) who warns of a life in pursuit of nothing but career.

Indeed, Frank had a chance to be happy with social worker Claire (Karen Allen), but he put his professional life ahead of anything personal. Naturally, we then get the haunting by three distinct spirits – a crude cabby Ghost of Christmas Past (David Johansen), a sinister sprite-like Ghost of Christmas Present (Carol Kane) and a technologically advanced Ghost of Christmas Future. Along the way, Frank learns of Claire’s heartache, his brother’s determination to connect with his famous sibling, and the day to day struggles of his put upon personal assistant, Grace Cooley (Alfre Woodard). Vowing to make a change, Frank sabotages the Christmas Eve extravaganza to make sure his millions of viewers understand the real reason for the season.

When you consider the crap it has to compete against – Christmas with the Kranks, Jingle All the Way, Deck the HallsScrooged easily steps away from the pack to become a cynical yuletide treat. Dividing critics upon its release in 1988, it was/is either ahead of its time or a mere aesthetic survivor. Like A Christmas Story and It’s a Wonderful Life, it represents a woefully underappreciated entity that found a way to thrive over time. Now, we can't conceive of a Noel without these favored films. But 23 years ago, audiences were less than enthusiastic. Scrooged stumbled at the box office, took its time to earn its sugarplum stripes, and today still suffers from a last act malaise than undermines everything the beginning and middle meant to destroy.

Indeed, the finale is Scrooged’s artistic Achilles Heel. We know that Frank is going to have a last minute change of heart, the fact of his imminent mortality driving a newfound appreciation of life. We know that Grace’s mute son will speak, that Claire will find her way back into her ex’s affection, and that the dramatic curveball (i.e. California network creep Brice Cummings – John Glover) thrown into the mix will meet a silly, slapstick end. As with the rest of the film, it’s not a question of what will happen, but how it will get there. In the beginning, we got a great set-up, an interesting introduction into Dickens’ designs, and a tasty trio of spectral guides. Everything is ready for a ripping conclusion…

…and then Scrooged stumbles. As a matter of fact, it wildly whiffs the dismount and trips up on the landing. Murray may be one of the more complicated and engaging presences on any movie screen, but to give him a 15 plus minute speech speaks to a narrative that doesn’t really understand where it’s been. Up until the moment when Frank finds his inner holiday happiness, we’ve had humor tinged with blackness, comedy both dark and dopey. Yet once the screed starts in all its adlibbed lameness, Scrooged just stalls. It just goes on and on and on and on without every focusing in on a point. Instead, it plays like an unnecessary star turn by a performer demanding the spotlight.

Luckily, the rest of the film makes up for such a pathetic payoff. As with many high concept efforts from the era, Scrooged is filled with big production value and even bigger, over the top F/X. The Carol within the Carol is classic, featuring such laugh out loud casting as Buddy Hackett as Ebenezer Scrooge and gymnast Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim. Equally entertaining is Bobcat Goldthwait as the nerdy, nebbish Eliot Loudermilk. Donner, as he has done throughout his journeyman time in Tinseltown, delivers everything with a clear, concise approach. Nothing quirky or surreal – just the story of a vile TV executive and his tenure as a tyrant-in-the-making. Even Murray manages more chuckles than challenges. When the material threatens to overwhelm his smart ass sensibilities, he finds a way to win us back.

In the long history of motion picture re-examinations, Scrooged clearly comes out on top. Time has indeed been kind to this not-always-nutty funny business. With each passing Christmas, Murray's manic performance and the unique take on the celebrated source finds more and more favor. It will never take the place of such secure title traditions as Miracle on 34th Street (the original, not the various remakes), the 1970 musical version of Dickens' famed figgy pudding, and anything Rankin Bass. But with the continuing commercialization of the holiday and its various tinseled temptations, something like Scrooged feels more and more like a natural extension of things. Once, it was regarded as something of a failure. Now, it’s a mandatory part of any shoestring Saturnalia.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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