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The way its painted on the Big Screen, you’d almost think that Christmas Eve was the Big Day.  It’s when things happen.

It’s Kim Basinger in a scarlet and fur-edged cloak setting off bullish cop, Russell Crowe’s curiosity in L.A Confidential.  It’s the date of the semi-ghost story Festen director, a captivating Thomas Vinterberg tells on the dvd extra, The disclosure of Festen. And it’s the ghostly visitations to Scrooge in any one of 30-plus movie A Christmas Carols.  Or Doris Day waiting to tell morose husband, Barney (Frank Sinatra) at midnight that she is pregnant, except he attempts suicide by driving full throttle in a white-out in the meantime in Young At Heart  in Bridget Jones’ Diary, we learn that Christmas Eve is the horror of a day Mark Darcy discovers his Japanese wife having an affair with his one-time Best Man (Hugh Grant).  It is the courage, hope, steel – and, unbeknownst tragedy in Polish officers in a Russian POW camp celebrating Christmas and singing carols from home in Katyn.

In the circumstances, Christmas Day itself feels like an anti-climax.  But Christmas Eve is the drama, the expectancy, the storm before the calm, the birth of Christmas Day when ends are tied up, the going-without-saying.  In so many films, it is the culmination, and if not the culmination, the day when things begin to turn right, as in Frozen River.  Christmas Day is seen to be a sign on screen that All Manner of Things Shall Be Made Well.

A Merry Christmas to you all.

I will return for Boxing Day and be writing up to Epiphany on January 6th when the decorations come down.  And after that, I’ve news of a new project.

It’s not as if there haven’t been any Christmas films scheduled at local cinemas this December. Western production companies love to tie movies in with holidays and festivals, and Christmas is, of course, one of the biggest.  At the start of the month, arthouse cinema audience were treated to snowy Norwegian marriage tangle drama Happy Happy, and The Hunt, about an innocent man labelled a paedophile, is still being screened.  The multiplexes on the other hand pulled out Nativity 2: Danger In The Manger and Rise of the Guardians for the younger end of the school holiday crowd.  A digitally remastered version of Home Alone is being released on Friday, by the skin of its teeth before the Big Day itself.  It is just the thing to mop up victims of the Boxing Day lull and bored thumbtwiddlers desperate for New Year’s Eve. (Boxing Day is one to catch then too, of course.)

What is striking is how lacking in imagination are most movie-house schedulers, especially given the brpad range of Christmas films they could choose from.  There really are ones to suit all tastes and ages.  Yet, at many surburban cinemas, last year’s Aardman Animation, Arthur Christmas has been the only other seasonal film screened, if at all this year.  Even showing the original Nativity starring The Hobbit star, Martin Freeman as a companion piece to Nativity 2 appears to have crossed very few cinemas’ minds.  Of the London cinemas listed in The Independent on Saturday’s Radar section, the Clapham Picturehouse was, this week, the only venue where iit was being shown.

It is the arthouse cinemas which seem more keen to put on at least a bit of a Christmas show, though they are often at limited times or days rather than week long showings.  Stalwart It’s A Wonderful Life remains one of the favourites, but of the other films shown, what can be seen emerging is a generally accepted Christmas film ‘canon’: selected titles are on the whole familiar and much-loved. Whereas television schedules are a smorgasbord of favourites and lacklustre time-fillers, those cinema managers who make an effort to develop any form of Christmas programming seem more savvy.

If they’re not screening it’s A Wonderful Life, then Christmas would not be Christmas without either Die HardGremlins, a version of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol and especially the delightful The Muppet’s Christmas Carol, and Elf.  Of that last film, director Jon Favreau interestingly. wanted to create an old-fashioned Christmas movie.  The whole cast, notably Will Ferrell as the fish-out-of-water human elf, Buddy are superb.  Released less than 10 years ago, Elf is already a seasonal favourite.   

But there is one London cinema I must give a well-deserved shout-out to. (I’m interested to know whether any other cinemas in other towns and cities can compete.) Since last Saturday running through to 29th December, the independent Prince Charles Cinema off Leicester Square in the West End has been spreading cinematic sparkle.  They have already shown BrazilMeet Me In St Louis (in which Judy Garland has never looked so lovely), Jingle All The WayBad SantaTrading Places, and Scrooged.  I plan on seeing the double-bill of A Christmas Story and A National Lampoon Christmas Vacation this Thursday evening.  As well as the afore-mentioned, the original Miracle on 34th Street and White Christmas are scheduled for this Saturday, and the cooler Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Lethal Weapon are showing Thursday week.

Something for everyone, then.

(For further details of Prince Charles Cinema’s Christmas programme, go to: http://www.princecharlescinema.com


In the bleak midwinter Bruce Willis looking for life in 2030’s Philadelphia

This is something they don’t teach you in history lessons. But 20 years ago today, there was a close call for most of the human race. And it took a guy with the initials J.C to pull us back from the brink…

THE DAY A KILLER VIRUS WAS STOPPED IN ITS TRACKS

Among Christians, today is St Lucia’s Day, where in Sweden eldest daughters, representing the martyr, wear a crown of candles and serve breakfast with special cakes for the family. Alternatively, today can be celebrated as Twelve Monkeys Day. For 13th December 1996 is the date scientists in 2030 pinpointed when a virus which went on to kill 5 billion people was first released in Philadelphia.

Had it not been for James Cole (Bruce Willis in a non-gung ho role) travelling from fourteen years hence back to December twenty years ago to track down the source of a killer virus deliberately spread via the world’s inter-city flight paths, the vast majority of humanity would have been wiped out.  And never even made the Millennium. Or social networking, come to that.

It’s A Wonderful Mind-Bending Gilliam Christmas Movie

Back in the real 1995, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys was heralded with a clever hush-hush marketing campaign that covered street hoardings in posters which mirrored the grafitteed logo of Brad Pitt’s eponymous animal rights group. 

Inspired by the French film, La Jeteé (1962), (and itself an inspiration for last year’s Looper), Twelve Monkeys pairs with Brazil (1985) as a mind-bending Gilliam Christmas movie (though the Nativity features at the very beginning of The Life of Brian (1979)).  It is also, of course, not Bruce Willis’ first festive film: Die Hard (1988) and Die Hard 2 (1990) are both set on Christmas Eve.  

A Languid Angel And A Dead Store Tree

Although Twelve Monkeys never leaves winter, Cole’s jump cut between centuries jerks us around as much as a plot which cleverly plays with our assumptions of whodunnit.

We initially follow criminal, Cole in 2030, who, clad in high protective layers has been ordered on a mission through what turns out to be a manhole into the snow-deep city of Philadelphia.  He traps a bug in a jar as a contemporary specimen to see if there remains any sign of the deadly virus.  He wanders through the cobweb entangled cavenous atrium of a decrepit department store. A statue of an angel hangs languidly, and there is a large dead Christmas tree.  He disturbs a flock of pigeons in the building and they fly upwards through the shattered glass roof.  

We catch a glimpse of how the store once was. On the air we hear the strains of a seasonal song.  Or is it in Cole’s head?  There is a lion on a rooftop.  Cole has to avoid a grizzly bear.

Always Winter, Never Spring?

The deep snow that lieth all around suggests that it is certainly winter, whether or not Christmas itself is still being celebrated beneath the ground a third of the way into the Twenty First Century.  Scientists know that symptoms were first detected in Philadelphia on December 27th from where it spread across the planet, and have calculated that it must have been released around December 13: Cole’s task is to help stop it in its tracks and so prevent the terrible outcome.

Yet rather than being some glorious pre-virus world, the 1990s corners of Philadelphia he investigates and the people who iive there are shabby and barely clinging on to reason and civilised living.  Nevertheless, James is compelled to remain in this time, through love for psychiatrist Kathryn (Madelaine Stowe) whom he has managed to almost convince of his sanity, but also through a strange sense of familiarity even though he is due back in the future.

Magic And Confusion Of Ordinary Life

We can’t help but note the parallels with Cole’s future investigation in his protective suit.  Philadelphia also has impressive architecture like City Hall where years hence he has seen a lion wander among its parapets.  Inside a department store (in reality, Wanamaker’s Department Store[1]) he’s reminded of how he saw it in 2030: the pigeons high above, the angel here about to be raised, and the Christmas tree now in full sparkly bloom.  The time traveller has come full circle.

In 1996, there is the magic and confusion of ordinary life, of mundane traffic jams and a family of giraffe running along the motorway and pink flamingos in the sky because of a group of animal rightists gone wild.  And James is reminded too of a cracked recording of a woman’s voice calling from this past, warning of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys: “They’re the ones who are going to do it.  I can’t do anything more now. I have to go.  Have a Merry Christmas.” Via fate and time, love has tracked Cole down.

[1] http://www.Movie-locations.com

Christmas movies are often derided as seasonal schmaltz, but the best carry a seam of darkness entwined with the sparkle.

In an image as heartwarming and festive as chestnuts roasting on an open fire.  James Stewart in his best-loved role as George Bailey, stands smiling beside the glittering Christmas tree, one arm cradling his little girl (Karolyn Grimes), the other around his devoted wide, Mary (Donna Reed).  The Christmas film favourite, It’s A Wonderful Life presents us with Hollywood’s approximation of a holy family: the good, decent Baileys, who pray  and help their neighbours in post-war, small-town America.

Yet the tinsel and Christmas cheer of the film’s conclusion is not what makes it such a perennial favourite.  There is darkness beyond the homely glow – just as there was in the Nativity story – captured by director Frank Capra as the maelstrom that whorls around George Bailey’s seemingly settled existence.  If the film’s explicitly Christian worldview still resonates it is because it frames life’s disappointments and hurts so accurately too.

However, while George Bailey manages to make something of what Psycho’s Norman Bates would have termed the ‘private trap’ of Bedford Falls, Bates is totally ensnared by his own.  Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror classic is a Christmas picture so bleak that we can only tell the season from the date, Friday December the Eleventh across the opening shot of Phoenix, Arizona and some barely noticeable Christmas decorations seen from Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh’s) car.

In fact, the only reason the date is given at the beginning of the film at all is down to Hitchcock’s attempt to explain the second-unit crew’s glitch in filming decorated city streets that he had no time to re-shoot later.[1]  Ironically, the date’s very inclusion brings a new dimension to the entire film.  If the aforementioned film still from It’s A Wonderful Life exploits aspects of what we understand in the West as the grammar of Christmas – family, tree, tinsel – then the complete absence of such tropes in an American film set at Christmas is, by definition deeply disturbing, and ultimately chilling.

But the visual absence of Christmas also serves to underscore the very tragedy of killer Norman Bates (so cleverly portrayed by Anthony Perkins) as a young man who never had a chance.  He thus becomes the child of a very Unholy Family indeed, a lonely tormented lost boy in a lost world who still sleeps in his childhood bedroom, his teddy and globe on top of the bookcase beside his small bed.  And, ironically, that makes him less of a monster and more human.  The Bates Motel then, is an unforgiving universe where the spiritual light offered by Christmas has never been able to break in – with horrific consequences.

Psycho is made deeply disturbing, and ultimately terrifying by its void   But David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007)  about a real-life series of killings, the first of which occurred at Christmastime days after the alleged murderer’s birthday, show how his acts mock the festival.  He chillingly wishes media folk involved in the case a ‘Merry Christmass’.  The sparkle and celebration, the very spiritual meaning in the December air seem to be made null and void by the man’s evil acts.  Two fictional period police dramas, the Nick Cave-scripted The Proposition (2005) and Curtis Hanson’s 1997 LA Confidential, adapted from James Ellroy’s Fifties’-set novel,  both steamroller Christmas celebration and comforting tradition, and leave it for dead under an onslaught of domestic violence, torture, and mass murder – and, coincidentally vicious rivalry among three men.  Yet this cinematic suggestion of the religious festival, let alone the very meaning of Christmas struggling to survive in a bleak world is not a new one.

Horror and violence after all, is part and parcel of Christmas since the original nativity story when Jesus’ family fled as refugees into Egypt as Herod’s soldiers slaughtered every child under two.[2]  Brokenness and darkness is notably present and explored in often the best or most memorable of Christmas films.  But then, were there not life’s darkness, there would have been no need for the original Christmas in the first place.

Yes, there are damaged film children who go on to do great evil like Norman Bates, and the protagonist of pre-Halloween slasher eye-view flick Black Christmas (1974) who lives in the attic of a college girls’ house of residence and duly bumps off the students one-by-one.  But there are also those who as adults play out the trauma of their childhood Christmasses before they are healed.

About A Boy (2002) is essentially a Christmas ghost story for Hugh Grant’s moneyed layabout as he annually suffers his late father’s seasonal sole hit over the airwaves.  Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself (2002) because as a 5 year old he inadvertently killed his sick mother by not letting her in the house one snowy Glasgow night.  In Young At Heart (1954), Frank Sinatra’s Barney Sloan attempts suicide on Christmas Eve by memorably turning off his windscreen wipers in a snowstorm because he doesn’t believe he deserves better. This remake of Four Daughters (1938), feels like a Christmas film simply because so much of significance occurs during the festival.   Unbeknownst to dour musician Sloan, the yuletide gathering of the clan of sunny wife, Laurie (Doris Day in a surprisingly successful star-coupling) sets the scene for wrongs to be righted.

The point is, these characters’ stories do not end at Christmas.   Christmas is both an important stage and a signpost to where they are heading.  They have passed through the darkness towards hope.



[1] Rebello, Stephen.  Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho. Dembner Books, NY, 1990. P 90.

[2] Matthew 2: 13-23

(An earlier version of this piece appears in the current issue of Third Way magazine.)

Today is officially the Feast of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam.  The religious festival is celebrated in countries across the European continent in a manner very much as English speaking countries celebrate Christmas Day.  St Nicholas or Sinterklass has a long white beard and dresses in red like the bishop Nicholas did in life.  He carries a book in which is indicated whether a child has been good or not.  He also has an assistant, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).  Children put out shoes or clogs he will fill with presents.

It is not difficult to see where our image of Santa Claus or Father Christmas came from.  It goes way back before Coca Cola’s red and white livery, and the beginning of cinema.  But Sinterklass is a figure who has lasted, whom the movie screen still has room and an audience for. As I reported on my last blog, Santa takes centre stage on the Rise of the Guardians posters to tie in with this month’s release.  He is a broad-shouldered hulk of a man given a Slavic accent by Alec Baldwin.  He appears an intimidating gruff figure with his Naughty/Nice tattoos on his arms (not having enough fingers on which to spell it out, presumably), but he assures Jack Frost that he has not forgotten the sense of wonder at his core.  Baldwin’s choice of accent seems an attempt to drag back Santa Claus close to his Old World roots, a rare decision in Hollywoodland.  The only other similar portrayal that comes to mind is Leslie Nielsen’s Macys Store Santa in the dire All I Want For Christmas.

What is notable about Rise of the Guardians is that the problem of children’s unbelief is exactly the same problem faced by Santa in Jon Favreau’s delightful Elf.  His sleigh after all runs on their faith.  In both the 1947 and 1994 versions of Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street, it is initially one little girl’s (a very young Natalie Wood) whose sense of wonder and magic is at stake: is the twinkly-eyed store Santa, otherwise known as Mr Kris Kringle the real deal?  But it ends in court over establishing who this old man really is.  Even in gritty drama Frozen River, hardbitten Ray cannot imagine how her Native American friend cannot celebrate Christmas: it is the children who miss out when there’s no Santa, she muses.

Santa in the movies tends then, to be the fat red-suited good guy.  So much so, that it’s a challenge to put a new spin on the story.  There are only so many times that you can retell the  age-old ‘of course he exists!’ tale and maintain its freshness.  Enter stage left Billy Bob Thornton as Bad Santa.  Foul-mouthed, cynical, child-loathing, hard-drinking safe-cracker and he’s appearing in the local department store’s toy department this holiday.  He’s a very unlikeable character but he’s also very funny.  And by the end we know he’s a got a soft core revealed by his ‘odd couple’ friendship with an unloved lost boy.  (This film is the dark, dubious flipside of Miracle on 34th Street where a child believes in a Santa who isn’t…)  There might be a Hollywood cop out in the last reel.  Or it might be my own cynicism at the true spirit of Christmas breaking into the film.

But my favourite Santa-twist is that in the poorly directed & scripted and very low budget 1984 British horror fiick, Don’t Open Til Christmas.  The premise is that a serial killer is on the loose in London – and he’s murdering store Santas one-by-one in extremely violent ways.  There’s something very seedy about this film, and the Fangoria website ripped it to shreads.  But it has two redeemiing features. Firstly, for women such as myself who were girls in the 70s, it features the first and final feature film role of tv teen heartthrob, Gerry Sundqvist (his life sadly turned to tragedy).  And secondly, that premise.  There is still to be written a quality horror script around this Christmas theme.  There.  That’s your  challenge.

 

By the time Christmas is mentioned in Thomas Vinterberg’s chilly, taut The Hunt, the damage has been done. ‘Are you excited about Christmas?’ Grethe, the nursery head puts to infant Klara (a startlingly impressive Annika Weddenkopp).  And the little girl, moments before snubbed by the lone male teacher with whom she was besotted, spits out: ‘I hate Lucas!’ Within minutes she has concocted a devilish tale about the man, spiced up by the disturbing porn images her teen brother earlier forced her to see, and which Grethe must take seriously.  Small-town witchhunt unknowingly set in motion, Klara asks ‘Is Santa coming this year?’

The Hunt is the complete antithesis of It’s A Wonderful Life.  While Vinterberg makes it clear to us that the niaively hands-on Lucas (Cannes Best Actor Mads Mikkelsen) is as innocent as George Bailey, there is little rallying round, let alone prayer support in this isolated Danish community. (Indeed, at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is underscored the very rightness of the battered, isolated Lucas turning up but we also recognise the corresponding unChristian unforgiveness of the rest of the congregation.)

On the contrary, the macho camaraderie and hard-drinking culture of the local deer-hunting fraternity seen at the autumnal top of the film turns on Lucas.  There seems to be a strong  demarcation between men and womenfolk in this town.  There’s an aggressive streak among the men, and that Lucas’ ex-wife won’t even talk to him suggests his own dark past.  Yet the ganging up of the female nursery teachers against their one-time colleague looks like a witches’ coven too.  Extreme violence is meted out not only on Lucas but his loved ones but it appears the flipside activity of a community unable to truly engage with their children.  The kindness Lucas first showed by accompanying best friend’s daughter Klara to nursery was because her parents were too busy arguing that it was neither their turn. It is striking too how no one other than victim Lucas is able to admit to themselves that young children can lie and be vindictive.  And when Klara later admits she was being foolish after all, the adults take it that she is in denial.  it feels like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

I have yet to see how a Christmas film can be a Christmas film without either mention of the season or the sight of decorations.  Yet films such as Frozen River and Young at Heart while depicting Christmas follow the pattern of Easter of characters overcoming trials, a ‘death’ of self to take them anew into the future.  What we witness in The Hunt is Lucas’ Via Dolorosa, his bloodied Good Friday journey.  But he has seen the dark heart of the people he lives among, and there will be no respite from that knowledge.

Animation The Rise of the Guardians is actually set in the run up to Easter, and it is really a Peter Panish Jack Frost’s (voiced by Chris Pine) and Aussie Easter Bunny’s (Hugh Jackman) story.  Which is a bit of a swizz given that it was released this week and Santa Claus with his Naughty and Nice wrist tattoos features centre stage on the film posters. Sandman and Tooth Fairy are also in the same gang, brought together to protect children’s  dreams and sense of wonder from the dastardly Pitch Black (voiced by Jude Law who should play sinister roles more often) who wants to replace hope with darkness and fear.

For thinking adults, there are some huge conceptual holes.  For one thing, if the good gang are supposed to have been protecting the children of the world and bringing wonder, hope and dreams since the Dark Ages when Mr Black last ruled, how do they account for the suffering of the children of Hiroshima, Chernobyl and those living under Nazi Germany?

Plus the action sequences are retina-burning in that ‘children’s blockbuster’ manner.  But, as with Nativity and Nativity 2, the point is not to watch The Rise of the Guardians with your thinking cap strapped on too tightly.  It is colourful, lightly amusing, reminiscent of Monsters Inc and with a heady mix of characters:  the under 10s will love it.

It is the movie against which all other Christmas movies tend to be measured; the movie local cinemas are most likely to screen as a festival-themed attraction outside of the latest sparkly family fare; the movie regularly cited by people as their Christmas favourite. Yet  Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (U) happens to be a 1947 black and white tale of how American small town Christian values triumph amidst life’s trials.  Nevertheless, in the hard-wired, high-tech Twenty First Century, It’s A Wonderful Life remains a celebrated film that still holds its own.

It wasn’t always thus.  When It’s A Wonderful Life was first released, although it was star, James Stewart’s post-war comeback movie, it only fared moderately well at the box office.  It’s ‘Christmas classic’ status evolved through repeated showings on television in the run up to the festival once it had gone out of copyright and proved cheap to broadcast.  Viewers warmed to it.  In the same way that many people annually reread Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to watch It’s A Wonderful Life has become part of the Christmas ritual.

Interestingly, there is a mythic/fairy tale quality about both.  The turning of the pages at the beginning of the film even suggests that the audience is being introduced to an age-old fable.  And the message that the individual can be heroic, a force for good whatever their circumstances, that what each of us does matters is a very potent one.

Whereas Dickens’ novel redefined the meaning of Christmas for Victorian readers, It’s A Wonderful Life continues to inspire we who live in the cinematic age.  (The digital age has yet to reveal anything comparable.)  Clearly Capra’s classic is of its time, its assumption of the inherent rightness of caring capitalism reflecting the political mores of a western world recovering from the Second World War.  (Ironically, the way Stewart’s George Bailey manages his savings and loans company has in itself proved a rejoinder to the workings of our own financial culture.)  Yet the film’s context is also explicitly Christian.

Bookended by the Liberty Films company’s chiming belll, a motif itself redeemed by the film into suggesting heavenly celebration, Bailey’s rescue from the pit of despair at the impending loss of all he holds dear (“He’s worse than sick, he’s discouraged”) takes place on Christmas Eve.  The film opens onto a view of the rooftops of Bedford Falls, the soundtrack is of George’s wife, his children, his relations and friends praying with all their might for God’s protection for the desperate man.

And prayer is seen to work.  Perhaps It’s A Wonderful Life’s most heartrending scene – which moved James Stewart to tears when it was shown during his televised interview with Michael Parkinson in the Seventies – is of George seated at a bar, almost out of his mind at the thought of the impending financial ruin caused by the disappearance of a then massive $8000 from his loan company’s coffers, and struggling for the words to ask for help from God.  The subsequent appearance of “angel – second class” Clarence (Henry Travers) represents God’s response.

For someone with “the IQ of a rabbit, the faith of a child”, Clarence’s jump into the river is a stroke of genius and sheer chutzpah (the last thing a self-obsessed potential suicide about to drown expects to view from the bridge is someone else flailing in the water below, crying for help).  It also embodies the Christian principle of being prepared to lay down one’s life so another might live, and strikes directly at George Bailey’s heart.  For George cannot stop helping others regardless of the cost to his own plans and dreams.

That is his downfall and his salvation.  George’s lifelong ambition of doing “something big, something important”, his dreams of escaping “this crummy little town” are continually thwarted, as much by his own selfless acts as by circumstances beyond his control.

Even his honeymoon in New York with the devoted Mary (Donna Reed) loses out to his concern that his customers are not bought out by a greedy banker, Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore).

It is as if there is an invisible barrier around Bedford Falls that George cannot penetrate.  There is horror in the limitations enforced by small town life, and clearly his anger, violence and self-hatred that erupt at a moment of crisis have been repressed for years.  (This is almost as feel-good a film as Slumdog Millionaire…)

Yet the very reaching out to others that has sealed his fate ensures that George’s friends and family are there for him, too, at his time of need.

In gaining spiritual maturity in coming to terms with the life marked out for him, George Bailey is also assured that he is not alone.

(An earlier version of this piece first appeared in The Church of England Newspaper.)

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