It's a Wonderful Life?

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Chad Perman

It’s easy to lose track of your life. All of us do it, in one way or another, locked up so tightly in our own heads—our own private little worlds—that we lose sight not only of The Big Picture, but of our own smaller pictures as well: our families, our friends, the things we set in motion, the lives we impact and influence on a daily basis. Losing sight of this, it’s easy to feel hopeless; for many of us it’s almost a default setting. Which is precisely why it seems necessary to watch It’s a Wonderful Life at least one time each year. Not because it’s aired annually on television every December, not because Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart both consider it to be their best film, not even because the AFI once declared it the eleventh greatest American film of all-time. Instead, I’d suggest an annual viewing of this dark holiday fable simply because of the way it makes you feel once it’s over; the way it reminds you that your life matters, regardless of its shape or size; the way you interact just a bit differently with people (or at least, try to) for a few days after seeing it. Above all, you should watch it to remember your ripples.

Let me explain.

Dr. Irvin Yalom, a brilliant psychotherapist and writer, is, sadly, nearing the end of a long and distinguished career. As such, he’s turned his professional focus over the past few years towards death, and the long shadow it casts over every single aspect of our lives. How are we, the only creatures on earth aware of our own fragile mortality—no matter how well we live, how wonderfully we behave, how healthy we are—supposed to carry on with this awful knowledge?  In the face of this, what is the point, ultimately, of anything that we do? How do those of us not comforted by the tonic of religion, soothed by the promise of a better world awaiting us after this one, confront our own mortality without being utterly paralyzed by it?

Yalom, an existentialist to his core, concludes, finally, that we’re each responsible for making our own meaning in this life, but that the way we ultimately endure is through our “ripples”:

“The fact that each of us creates—often without our conscious intent or knowledge—concentric circles of influence that may affect others for years, even for generations…[and] this effect we have on other people is in turn passed on to others, much as the ripples in a pond go on and on until they’re no longer visible but continuing at a nano level.”

This idea, that we leave behind something of ourselves everywhere we go, is Yalom’s defiant, life-affirming response to any who “might claim that meaninglessness inevitably flows from one’s finiteness and transiency.” Our lives mean something, despite the limitations of our time on earth, because our actions will outlast us. We ripple on.

Of course, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), the everyman hero at the heart of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, doesn’t exactly come to the idea of “ripples” on his own. In fact, it’s all but forced upon him following a botched Christmas Eve suicide attempt. Clarence, an angel-in-training attempting to earn his wings, rescues George from the raging waters he’s jumped into, and then proceeds to offer him a rather ingenious gift: the ability to see what the world would actually be like if he had never been born into it. For the remainder of the film, George, in essence, is made aware of his ripples by being shown their absence. The war hero brother who never makes it to the war to save the lives of other soldiers, because George wasn’t around to save him from drowning in a frozen lake as a boy; the quiet, lonely sadness of his wife, Mary, and her life without him in it; the scores of people screwed over by the town’s resident Scrooge, Mr. Potter, because George wasn’t around to stand up for them, to fight back and provide a better way of life for the folks of Bedford Falls through his tireless work at the Savings and Loan.

Seeing the stark reality of a world without him in it, George begins to truly understand, for the first time, that the life he had thought was worthless—due to his failure to live up to his dreams and potential—was actually worth more than he could ever know.

And, sure, your own life might not contain such large ripples—at least not yet—but that certainly doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain any. Think of the lives you’ve touched, just this year. Think of all the lives you still have left to touch.

Think about your ripples.

*

Of course, there’s another way to read It’s a Wonderful Life, a much more cynical one to be sure, but one that I suspect goes a long way toward explaining its massive appeal over the years.

Who among us can’t relate to a life not going as planned, to endlessly deferring dreams in exchange for a type of quiet domestic desperation, to making small concessions that eventually turn into an entire life you’d never really meant to have?

George Bailey dreams of a life perpetually out of reach, always right around a corner he can never quite round. He makes all the responsible choices, the safe ones, the necessary ones, and in exchange gives up nearly all of his youthful ambitions—an adventurous Man of the World becoming, instead, a Family Man stuck back in his old hometown, running the family business. It’s heartbreaking to watch. And worse, it happens to almost every single one of us, in one way or another.

But It’s a Wonderful Life assures us that it’s all still going to be okay. It assuages that nagging voice in the back of our heads that tells us we were meant for something greater, soothes that itching ambition and resulting disappointment at a life not fully lived. Looking at it this way, it’s not hard to see why so many people love and embrace this film. Who doesn’t want to feel better about all the things they never did? Who doesn’t want to think that all the compromises they’ve made along the way will wind up bringing them just as much happiness as the dreams they traded them in for? Thus, we flock to It’s a Wonderful Life because it’s our therapy, a culturally endorsed, holiday-approved balm for all the miseries and disappointments that pile up around us with each passing year.

So I guess the question becomes, then, why am I so personally drawn to the film? Why do I insist on watching it every single year? Is it the idea of Yalom’s ripples (I hope) or merely the band-aid the film applies to my own regrets (I fear)?

Well, maybe it’s both. Maybe I need to be reminded that my life matters. That among the day-to-day domestic life I lead—the job I give my time and energy to throughout the week, the wife I try to love and support as best I know how, the two children I give my all to raising day after day, year after year—there is an undercurrent, mostly outside my conscious awareness, of meaning, a myriad of ripples that extend out in ways I might never see. There’s a comfort in knowing or remembering that fact, something that elevates an average life into a necessary one, giving a purposeful shape to the quotidian bent of daily actions.

But at the same time, if I’m being honest about it, I have my share of regrets about some of the turns my life has taken. Not that I don’t love what it’s turned out to be—I do—but just that it’s not at all the life I’d envisioned for myself twenty years ago, when I was eighteen years old and ready to take on the world. I never made it as a musician or a writer or a filmmaker. I haven’t accomplished grand things, or made any kind of exceptional mark on the world. My life, while amazing to me in all kinds of ways, is still a small and quiet one, insignificant to all but a handful of people. And watching It’s a Wonderful Life each year does help me feel a bit more okay with that, more accepting of my limitations, and largely comfortable within them.

*

Regardless, make no mistake about it, It’s a Wonderful Life is a tremendously dark film. It trafficks in the language of tragedy, noir, even outright horror at times—in some existential respects, it’s not all that far removed from a film like The Seventh Seal, a point I’ve tried to argue with more than a few baffled people over the years. Sure, there’s a jubilant celebration in the final scene, a happy ending of sorts which takes up, literally, less than five minutes of the entire film’s running time, but in comparison to all the darkness that’s come before it—compromise, defeat, depression, a nearly successful suicide attempt by the film’s main character—there’s nowhere near enough joy in the rousing rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” that closes the picture to balance everything out.

It always amazes me how many people so wholly misunderstand It’s a Wonderful Life, regarding it as something nearly the exact opposite of what it actually is. That it’s a holiday staple, cherished by nearly everyone at this point, is even more puzzling. There is no Santa Claus here, no Winter Wonderland, no whimsy, and precious little 'holiday spirit’. That it’s considered a Christmas film at all seems largely to do with the timing of George Bailey’s suicide attempt: a beaten down, desperate businessman, husband, and father jumps off a bridge on Christmas Eve.

Merry Christmas, eh?

That George finally decides his life is worth the living—after Clarence’s inspired this-is-your-life-without-you tour—and rushes home to hug his wife and kids and celebrate the holiday with his friends and family is certainly a nice touch, but hardly one that would justify its status as an Official Christmas Movie. In fact, for decades it wasn’t; if not for a clerical error in 1974, it might well be mostly forgotten today. Had its copyright been properly renewed that year, It’s a Wonderful Life would never have ended up in the public domain—an oversight that allowed any television station in the country to air it royalty-free for the next twenty years. As such, the film was programmed endlessly throughout the holiday season by most major stations (before NBC obtained exclusive rights to it in 1994) and was distributed by more than one hundred companies, forever cementing its association with Christmas. It was a strange twist of fate for the film: commercially unsuccessful at the time of its release, and not much thought about for the next three decades, it ultimately became one of the most endearing, iconic American movies ever made—a fact which surprised even Capra himself, who later remarked, “It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen. The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

Still, in the end, we gather around our televisions every December, we hold our loved ones close, and we let George Bailey’s triumphs and failures become our own. We embrace both the film’s existential anxiety and its inspirational resolution. We think about our ripples and our regrets, and how a full life is necessarily full of both. We accept, all over again, that this is just how it works. And maybe, just maybe, we reset ourselves a bit, armed anew with the knowledge that all of this matters, somehow. Because to live in this world, for even a single day, changes everything.


Chad Perman is the editor-in-chief of Bright Wall/Dark Room. He is a writer and therapist, living in Seattle with his wife and their two children.


Right Here Where We Live

 
all images © MGM

all images © MGM

 

by Erika Schmidt

Holidays can be hard.

I remember being little, feeling excited enough about Christmas to collapse in fits of ecstasy at the thought of the delights swiftly approaching: presents, special food, family from out of town. Snow.  

When did Christmas become more complicated than that? I imagine we each have our own reasons for feeling ambivalence or even dread about the holiday season, whatever holiday we might be observing. I have vague memories of my dad and his siblings bickering, old tensions simmering in the pressure cooker of the family gathering; teenage memories of my sister resenting every minute she had to spend in the house with relatives instead of out with friends; memories of missing my mom when I was with my dad, and then missing my dad when I was with my mom. Of pushing through old traditions even though they weren’t fun anymore because things weren’t the same as they used to be.  

Whatever the cause, that gap between what we want the holidays to be and what they actually are can be profoundly sad-making. For all the knowledge that we are lucky to be alive and to have certain advantages and comforts, times like Christmas can be hard for anyone who’s not right in the middle of the exact life they want to be living.

Of course, 2016 is a special case. Personal challenges have given way to a sense of national crisis in some circles. Many are confronting the devastating realization that America isn’t what they’d thought it was, and that they were enjoying a kind of blind privilege to have believed otherwise. Those with fewer illusions now see that the arc of the moral universe is going to be even longer and uglier than they’d expected. Others are on the defensive, struggling to reconcile their voting records with the increasingly clear, dark reality of their President-elect’s intentions. This year, many holiday gatherings will seat these varying perspectives around the very same table. And even those tables united by points of view, though they might be spared the sharpest conflict, will gather under a darkened sky.

The holidays, never more so than in 2016, tend to throw into stark relief the idea that life isn’t always working out as we assumed it would back when we were children, no matter how blessed we’ve been in the grand scheme of things.

*

Meet Me In St. Louis charts a year in the life of the Smiths, one such blessed family in turn-of-the-century Missouri, the year preceding the town’s World’s Fair. The title song, originally written in 1904 to promote the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, flits through the opening scenes as the Smith family go about their day. Younger sister Agnes (Joan Carroll) sings it trudging up the stairs to change for dinner. Grandpa (Harry Davenport) picks it up as he putters about in his bedroom. Teenage sisters Esther (Judy Garland) and Rose (Lucille Bremer) kick it up a notch, harmonizing with Rose playing piano and Esther dancing in her petticoat and dressing gown. Mother Anna (Mary Astor) and devoted housekeeper Katie (Marjorie Main) make ketchup in the kitchen; everyone schemes to rush Father Alonzo (Leon Ames) through dinner so Rose can have the dining room to herself for a romantic long-distance telephone call. Baby sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), after a day presumably spent causing mischief around town, hitches a ride home on the ice wagon. 

The Smiths are living a life of privilege, and not only because they have a big house, financial stability, and a protected seat at the American table. They are all together, healthy, vital, optimistic. Their existence is serene. Life is full of promise, with three children about to enter adulthood, two younger ones tumbling through childhood with vigor, and their hometown about to become “the center of the universe.” Traditions root them deeply in their world, and anticipation of the future keeps them active. Their days are filled with the types of trivial activities and pursuits that you realize are precious precisely when you don’t have them anymore. The Smiths sparkle with personality as they chase their individual little dreams. The house glows. 

About halfway through the movie, Father announces that he has received a promotion and will relocate the entire family to New York City before the new year. His proclamation is met with unanimous angst, from Grandpa on down to Tootie. Mother, however, eventually leads the family to fall in line behind Father and his unpopular decision: she plays a sweet old song called “You and I” on the piano; he sings; she joins in; the rest of the family circles around them and watches silently, sharing cake and effectively conceding the point. It’s a scene that communicates something profound about long-time love and family loyalty. But the Smith clan now has a weight on its back. 

It’s easy to dismiss the Smiths’ dilemma as a fortunate one. Easy to label Esther a spoiled brat, for instance, because she puts up such a fuss about leaving St. Louis, her high school, and her “Boy Next Door” love John Truett (Tom Drake). The world knows bigger problems, of course, but our feelings about family and home are never simple or trivial. By this point in the film, moments of real beauty and wonder have made a good case for the family’s beloved St. Louis against the unknown New York. The Smiths aren’t mourning their big house or myriad other material advantages, they’re mourning Home.

The film is populated with a combination of period-specific ditties and songs written for the film, mostly for Judy Garland, like “The Boy Next Door,”  “The Trolley Song,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Most of the pre-existing songs are presented as if the characters already know them, and have known them for years. Esther and Tootie do a rehearsed routine to “Under the Bamboo Tree” at big brother Lon’s going away party. Esther sings “Over the Bannister” to John alone after the party, when he tells her she reminds him of that song. This episode, in which Esther steals some time with John by asking him to accompany her around the house as she dims all the lights, is particularly lovely: The ritual of turning off each tiny light in the big, well-known house, each room requiring a different tool or process to darken it; the quiet sharing of that household ritual with a new love; two young people tenderly playing the roles of an old married couple shutting down the house after a party. Vincente Minnelli, who began his career designing windows at Marshall Field’s, was a director obsessed with visual details. He takes full advantage of scenes like this one. Each dying light offers a new, gorgeous shift in perspective. In her last, initially reluctant turn at playing a teenager, Judy Garland is at her most radiant; John Truett doesn’t stand a chance. 

It is in the midst of small but life-altering moments like this that Father drops his New York bombshell. Tootie has just had a particularly victorious Halloween evening after “killing” the scariest man in town. (In 1903 St. Louis, Halloween festivities apparently involved children throwing furniture into giant bonfires and stalking the neighborhood, knocking on doors and throwing wet flour into the faces of whoever answered, thus “killing” them.) Esther’s relationship with John is progressing. Rose is still in search of marriage proposals. The World’s Fair looms alluringly. We, the audience, are invested. We don’t want the Smiths to move either. For once, the grass is greener in our yard.  

Still, Christmas Eve arrives and the moving date nears. The house is packed up. The older Smith children go to the Christmas ball. John proposes to Esther, but their understanding is left ambiguous, her family’s impending move complicating their young hopes. When Esther gets home late that night, she finds Tootie sitting at the bedroom window, looking out onto the snow people they made together earlier in the day. They talk about leaving St. Louis. Esther makes light of things, joking and wrapping Tootie in the winter coat she has just taken off herself. But Tootie remains deflated, blue. Esther makes one last effort at comforting her five-year-old sister with a song from a nearby music box.  

*

If you haven’t heard Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” then you’ve never truly heard the song. As it turns out, it’s one of the saddest in the world. It was originally written for Meet Me In St. Louis, but the lyrics were later altered to make it happier—we have Frank Sinatra’s A Jolly Christmas to thank for that. 

The version Esther sings to Tootie is about putting on a brave face, hoping next year will be better than the current one. In the context of the film—made in 1944 as WWII raged on—it’s a relevant message. Like “Over the Rainbow,” this rendition also seems a little haunted by the knowledge of Judy Garland’s own troubles. As far as the scene goes, self-pity is uninteresting; determined hope in the face of hardship is always much more affecting. So Esther, putting aside her own worries about the future to pull her little sister out of the muck, is a potent mix. 

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Let your heart be light.
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight. 
Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Make the yuletide gay.
Next year all our troubles will be miles away. 

Once again, as in olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who are dear to us will be near to us once more. 
Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow.
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now. 

The better-known lyrics paint a picture of a contented Christmas now, as well as an assuredly blessed Christmas future. Instead of looking forward with hope to “next year,” we assure ourselves that “from now on our troubles will be out of sight/miles away.” We’re home free. While the original version wistfully asserts that in the future, “once again, as in olden days,” faithful friends “will be near to us once more,” the updated version simply states that hey, our faithful friends are here right now, again. 

Most jarringly self-congratulatory is the final stanza, the second line of which hilariously illustrates the essential difference between the personas of Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra: 

Through the years we all will be together if the fates allow.
Hang a shining star upon the highest bow.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now. 

Pardon me if I take too much meaning from these two versions of the same song. Perhaps it’s my own longtime ambivalence about Christmas that makes me appreciate an honest acknowledgment of the gap between perfection and reality. I’ll take yearning, grappling, and melancholy over complacent rhetoric any day. But then again, I grew up with Judy Garland’s voice in my heart. Tootie, caretaker of terminally ill dolls, aficionado of morbidity, doesn’t buy Esther’s stiff upper lip. She tears down to the backyard in her nightgown and starts sobbingly smashing up the snow people with a stick. This isn’t a totally alien impulse. She’d rather obliterate any remaining vestige of home, of the traditions she’s known and the love she’s experienced, if she can’t stay and keep experiencing it without condition. Sell the house, donate the toys, dispense with the turkey dinner—find something new and utterly different instead of pretending everything’s okay. Who’s with her?

WWII and the gorgeous darkness of Judy Garland aside, Meet Me In St. Louis is, after all, an MGM musical. Suffice it to say the Smiths do get to see the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Father sees Esther pleading with inconsolable Tootie in the backyard, lights a meditative cigarette, and proceeds to wake the whole house to tell them he’s changed his mind; they’re staying in St. Louis. It’s a scene that seems like a Shakespeare-comedy-clean ending, but also present is the deeper fact that this turn-of-the-century American male somehow senses that his action might forever damage the DNA of his family. And he chooses to change course. Can you imagine? Mother separates herself from the celebrating family to stand quietly among the packing boxes, tears shining in her eyes. Her husband notices and crosses the room to embrace her. 

*

Growing up with Meet Me In St. Louis, I wasn’t sure who I most identified with. Maybe Esther. But revisiting it now, as this wretched year draws to a close, as I nurse my heart and summon what resources I possess to face a challenging future, I am 100 percent Tootie. 

It’s late at night, and I am sitting at the upstairs window of my childhood home, on the last night it will be mine, looking down onto the yard, weeping. I am refusing all comfort, rejecting any soothing ideas, dismissing them as empty. I am breaking away, running down the stairs, outside of the warm house into the winter night in my flimsy nightgown. I am descending with fury upon the snow people my family and I made when the sun was still out. I am swinging recklessly, crying, yelling incoherently, frightening and glorious in my grief, my anger, my resolve. In this moment, I am both woman and child. My certainty about the injustice I see before me is absolute. 

Christmas and America. The truth is, they were only ever easy when I knew too little of the story. Before I ever imagined what it must have cost my parents to spend holidays together after their divorce. Before I had seen so many wrongs occur in my country. Before I had any inkling of how much I still don’t know and will never understand. Before my concept of hope became necessarily laced with grim determination.

Tootie and I are both mourning a future we had hoped for—hers involved continued wealth and privilege and lots of slightly-too-dangerous pranks; mine was more along the lines of believing that our imperfect world was moving slowly but surely toward justice. We differ, though, in that I’m no longer looking to my father, the White American Male, safe inside in his smoking jacket and mustache, to realize he fucked it up for all of us, to put out his cigarette and somehow take everything back. I know that won’t happen. He won’t make it right.

We have to do that ourselves. 

 


Erika Schmidt is an award-winning writer living in Berkeley, California. She is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. A graduate of Northwestern University's Creative Writing and Theatre Programs, she has trained as a writer at StoryStudio Chicago and Narrative Magazine, and as an actor at the School at Steppenwolf.


The Soft Glow of Electric Sex

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Kara VanderBijl

For Ralphie Parker, A Christmas Story’s 9-year-old protagonist, this is the year. This Christmas, he’s going to get the thing he wants more than anything in the world: a Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle.

Based on radio raconteur and writer Jean Shepherd’s semi-autobiographical anecdotes of growing up in the 1930s, the film centers on the last few days before Christmas in a small town in Indiana. It opens with a cacophonous, almost off-key arrangement of “Deck the Halls.” As a group of children press their noses to a window display of toys, the music hilariously concedes that yes, this is charming, yes, there are snowflakes softly falling, yes, there are cute children looking at toys, but the anticipation is about to reach a boiling point in this O-little-town.

Unfortunately for Ralphie, the maxim “you’ll shoot your eye out” is as well-known in his hometown as the name of the Lone Ranger’s nephew’s horse (Victor). As a result, Ralph’s various, desperate schemes to finagle the Red Ryder under the tree fall short. The adults in his life—his mother, his teacher, even the department store Santa Claus—do not understand why a boy would want to shoot his eye out.

They’re not wrong. Hand a boy a gun and you’ll end his childhood. Ralph’s daydreams paint him as the gun-toting caretaker of his family and the enlightened hero of his classroom. In one, he protects his mother, father, and younger brother, Randy, from a group of marauding burglars sneaking into the backyard. Once given the gun, Ralph imagines, he’ll cease to be the little kid who gets beat up by the school bully or has to sit in the backseat with his baby brother as his father changes a tire. He’ll be a man.

What Ralphie doesn’t notice is that the adult side of the household feels just as misunderstood as he does.

For most grown-ups, Christmas is an annual rat-race to rediscover the magic of childhood. Why else would we willingly participate in a massive industrial complex that promises to deliver happiness wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string, or hang twinkle lights like they’ll point us to peace on earth? Some years, we almost get there. Most years, we come to at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on the 25th of December, drunk and a little sad on the couch, with a bunch of tchotchkes in our lap that we don’t need from people we know too well to love. Whatever happened to Christmas? Whatever happened to waking up approximately three minutes after you fell asleep on Christmas Eve, so excited you sweat through your new flannel pajamas?

Ralphie’s father, commonly referred to as “The Old Man,” is a consummate enthusiast for whom the worthiest object of love is yet to be found. In the meantime, he contents himself with roast turkey and Oldsmobiles and changing flat tires like he’s in the pit at the Indy 500. He’s the ultimate authority in the Parker household (after Ralphie gets into a fight with the school bully, Randy wails, “Daddy’s going to kill Ralphie!”) and what he says, goes. Never mind that his authority is as arbitrary and quirky as that of an imaginative child. Whenever something breaks his order—whether it’s son his cursing, the neighbor’s bloodhounds wreaking havoc, or the furnace going up in flames—he seems as disappointed as he is angry, reminded once again that he’s actually, and unfortunately, in charge.

Then, he wins a contest and receives, in his own words, a “major award.” A major award that remains anonymous until it’s delivered to the Parker household shortly after dinner, nailed into a refrigerator-sized crate.

“It could be a bowling alley,” The Old Man surmises, giddy. He dives into the crate, flinging packing straw (the precursor to peanuts, apparently) at his family with abandon. It’s Christmas morning, come two weeks early. Whatever is at the bottom of this crate is more than a major award. It’s the second star to the right, and straight on until morning. It’s the proof that a finicky furnace, or boiled cabbage for dinner two nights in a row, are all worth it. That no matter what, the universe—Santa—God—gives us exactly what we want, when we need it most.

“It’s… a lamp!” the old man exclaims. A lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg, down to the fishnet stocking and the black high-heel.

The Old Man is ecstatic. Mrs. Parker is horrified. Randy loses interest. Ralphie runs his hand up the lamp’s calf, reaches a finger up to the nebulous place between its disembodied porcelain thighs. Mr. Parker plugs the lamp in, then runs outside to direct Mrs. Parker as she centers it in the front window. Neighbors gather. No one can tear their eyes off this bulb of bright glitz gleaming like that famous star from Orient Are, this scandalous stand-in for a Christmas tree.

Ironically enough, the leg lamp is as much a symbol of consumer goods as the good ol’ Tannenbaum has become. In the 1966 novel that inspired A Christmas Story, Jean Shepherd writes, “All popular non-alcoholic drinks were known in those days by a simple generic term: ‘Pop.’ What [Nehi Pop] made was simple ‘orange pop.’ [Nehi’s] company trademark, seen everywhere, was a silk-stockinged lady’s leg, realistically flesh-colored, wearing a black spike-heeled slipper. The knee was crooked slightly and the leg was shown to the middle of the thigh. That was all. No face; no torso; no dress—just a stark, disembodied, provocative leg. The name of [Nehi Pop, pronounced “knee-high”] was a play on words, involving the lady’s knee. Even today in the windows of dusty, fly-specked Midwestern grocery stores and pool rooms, this lady’s leg may yet be seen.”

For a while, the lamp beams from the front window, until Mrs. Parker breaks it, and the family brings home a Christmas tree. This foils and foreshadows Christmas morning, when Ralph, like his father, receives his own “major award.”

After all the other disappointing gifts have been opened and discarded into a jumbled pile, Ralph unwraps a final present from his father: a Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle. “I had one when I was his age,” The Old Man explains to Mrs. Parker sheepishly. As Ralphie fills it with BBs, his dad looks on, unconsciously mimicking every one of his movements.

If there’s ever been a well-known children’s story that’s actually, secretly for adults, it’s Peter Pan. Kids want to grow up. Kids envision adulthood as a glowing light at the end of a tunnel, a bright beacon guiding them through the slog of homework, chores, and pink bunny costumes. Adults, they’re convinced, eat junk for every meal, never have to go to school, and can spend money on anything they want. For adults, every day is Christmas, and they’ll do anything in their power to keep kids from joining in the fun.

The second star to the right, and straight on until morning, is what adults, not kids, daydream about. We remember childhood as a time outside of responsibility, when anything was possible and everything was magical. For children, we’re convinced, every day is Christmas, just minutes away from unwrapping the best gifts life has to offer. Don’t grow up! we beg. You don’t know how good you have it!     

As soon as he takes the gun outside to test its mettle, Ralph has to grapple with a very grown-up feeling: getting what you want, and finding out it’s not as great as you thought it would be. Ralph takes aim at a target on a metal sign, but the BB ricochets, knocking his glasses off his face. Not quite the scrappy-hero-saving-the-day moment he’d dreamed of. He rustles up some tears and decides to tell his mother an icicle did it. Strangely, it’s the least funny moment in the film. We know Ralphie’s trying to hold on to whatever magical powers he imbued on the gun. And can we blame him? He’s only 9. He has plenty of time to shoot his eye out. Plenty of time to realize that most magical and mysterious messages from the universe are just crummy ads.

But that’s okay, because he’s not alone. In my favorite Christmas Story moment, Mrs. Parker sends Ralphie to his room—“I want you getting right into bed and I don’t want to see the light on, you are being punished so no comic book reading, I’m gonna come in there and if I see any lights on… don’t you give me that look young man you’re going to get it!”—after washing his mouth out with soap. She watches him disappear down the hallway, then steps back into the bathroom, holding the bar of Lifebuoy. With a whimsical little shrug and what appears to be a smile, she hesitantly sticks it in her mouth. She gets it: There are no adults, not really.

 


Kara VanderBijl is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago, drinks tea, and falls asleep at parties. She is a former senior editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room, the previous managing editor of This Recording, and a former arts & culture contributor at Gapers Block.


Spielberg Nipping at Your Nose

 
illustration by Don Child

illustration by Don Child

 

by Jonathan Foster

At the end of The Terminal, Viktor Navorsky (Tom Hanks) steps out of the Ramada Inn on Lexington Avenue and into the cold winter night of Midtown Manhattan. The city is teeming with atmosphere; snow is falling, street lights are aglow, steam billows from beneath the asphalt. Passersby are bundled up in heavy coats, scarves, and knit hats. And Viktor is satisfied. He hails from the (fictional) Eastern European country of Krakozhia, but he has spent the past several months living at the airport after a surprise coup in his homeland dissolved his citizenship while he was en route to the United States. His passport was rendered null and void, thus denying him lawful entry into America.

On this particular night, however, Viktor is a citizen again. There is peace in Krakozhia and having now fulfilled his sole purpose for coming to New York—he made a promise to his dying father to obtain the autograph of jazz legend Benny Golson—he is at peace, too. Viktor waves down a cab and climbs into the back seat. “Where do you wanna go?” the cabbie asks. Viktor briefly ponders the question before answering. He seems touched by his own response. “I am going home.”

The Terminal was directed by Steven Spielberg so, of course, orchestral music swells on the soundtrack as the cab pulls away from the curb and, though it doesn’t make any immediate geographical sense, is next seen driving under the blinking lights and giant billboards of Times Square. The final shot cranes and tilts up to the night sky as Viktor rides off into the brilliant display of LED pixels and oversized digital screens—an electronic sunset, if you will. Before the film fades to black and the credits begin, though, Viktor’s cab passes by a tall Christmas tree in the center of the square, its lights drawing attention even amidst the overwhelming brightness of the surrounding advertisements. While there’s been no specific mention of Christmas up to this point in the film, and while the tree is visible only briefly, it’s hard to think of its appearance as being anything but intentional. Visual accidents or coincidences are extremely rare in a Spielberg movie. More than most directors, he has choices and resources at his disposal. He could have easily framed it out of the shot or even had it removed by his visual effects team during post-production. No, that Christmas tree is Spielberg’s gentle reminder that Viktor, like so many other protagonists in the director’s work, is finally going home.

After all, there’s no place like home for the holidays, right?

If that sentiment brings to mind the crooning of Perry Como, you’re probably not alone. I wouldn’t be surprised if Como was on Spielberg’s mind as well. That’s pure speculation on my part, but the filmmaker was turning 8 years old when “Home for the Holidays” was first recorded and released as a single in 1954, after which it quickly became one of the best-selling records in the country and one of the top ten most-played songs on the radio. (It reached as high as the eighth spot on the Billboard charts, which is pretty good for a seasonal tune, especially considering its competition was more dominant pop hits such as “Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes.) I’m sure Como’s Christmas song was unavoidable, even for an Orthodox Jewish kid growing up in the suburbs of Phoenix, and I can only imagine its message of family and community might have resonated deeply with young Spielberg.

This was the same time in his life when he was unhappy at home and alienated at school, uneasy with his own Jewish identity, and desperate to be accepted by his Gentile friends and classmates. “It isn’t something I enjoy admitting,” he told Parade in March 1994, “but when I was 7, 8, 9 years old, God forgive me, I was embarrassed because we were Orthodox Jews. I was embarrassed by the outward perception of my parents’ Jewish practices. I was embarrassed because I wanted to be like everybody else. I didn’t feel comfortable with who I was.”

He specifically remembers grappling with his identity around Christmas. He told Premiere in January 1994, “I kept wanting to have Christmas lights on the front of our house so it didn’t look like the Black Hole of Calcutta in an all-gentile neighborhood—our neighborhood used to win awards for Christmas decorations. I would beg my father, ‘Dad, please, let us have some lights,’ and he’d say, ‘No, we’re Jewish,’ and I’d say, ‘What about taking that white porch light out and screwing in a red porch light?’ and he’d say, ‘No!’ and I’d say, ‘What about a yellow porch light?’ and he said, ‘No!’”

In their optimism and populism, Rockwell and Spielberg share a vision of the country, and their artistic renderings of Christmas are strikingly similar as well. For both, it’s as much a holiday as it is a profoundly recognizable symbol of old-fashioned Americana.

For Spielberg, even at a young age, those Christmas lights represented less a religious celebration than they did an all-American aesthetic. (At least, his desire to fit in does not appear to have also involved a fixation with the virgin birth, or three wise men, or a manger in Bethlehem.) The secular trappings of the holiday—Santa and snow, wreaths with bright red bows, presents spilling out from under Christmas trees, and, yes, those tangled strands of multicolored lights—were a gateway to what most eluded the director during his formative years. They offered him a vision of the domestic ideal; happy families in cozy homes.

They were the ephemera that Norman Rockwell frequently painted onto the covers of the Saturday Evening Post that so captivated Spielberg as a child. “Rockwell spoke volumes about a certain kind of American morality,” Spielberg told The New York Times in February 1999. Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, the filmmaker was profoundly influenced by Rockwell. It's an influence that has informed his work every bit as much as Walt Disney or Frank Capra. Spielberg explained to CBS News in 2010, "[Rockwell] had a tremendous respect for the virtues of mankind, and there was a real sense of community, of family, and especially of nation." 

Spielberg often utilizes Christmas scenes and backdrops the same way he does film scores and camera movements. He wants to goose up as many moments as he can so that they land with maximum impact. Perhaps he’s taking his cues from It’s a Wonderful Life, one of four films Spielberg claims to watch before starting every new project. Can you imagine Capra’s film having anywhere near the enduring appeal if it climaxed on, say, August 24th rather than December 24th? Of course not. Christmas is the most richly cinematic of holidays. It provides easy specificity and situational value. It is a time of heightened anticipation, and it draws upon our own ingrained emotional and cultural associations with the season. Even as we grow older and our youthful enthusiasm wanes, the central tension of the holiday is still one of expectation: there’s the Christmas we’ve all been promised versus the Christmas we’re currently experiencing. Whether we live in a cold climate or not, and even if we hate shoveling snow, part of us is still dreaming of a white Christmas for reasons that are likely beyond our control. And that’s just a superficial example. There are obviously plenty of other ways life can color and complicate our Yuletide feelings: unemployment, divorce, sickness, you name it. Yet we’ve all bought into the picture-perfect depiction of Christmas, and anything less can be a disappointment. Spielberg understands that. His characters are often struggling to preserve that same idyllic version, too.

Christmas pops up in more of Spielberg’s work than you might initially recall. Some of it is a matter of historical authenticity. The events of 1941, for example, occur a week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, so, naturally, a little bit of the holiday would be incorporated into the film. In other instances, he is just remaining faithful to his source material: The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun are both adapted from novels featuring scenes set around Christmastime. But there are also films, such as Hook and Catch Me If You Can, in which the holiday is folded into the narrative as a clear and deliberate choice. Even Gremlins and Young Sherlock Holmes, both of which Spielberg developed and executive produced for his own production company, Amblin Entertainment, are Christmas-set fantasies. And then there’s Santa '85, the one and only Christmas episode from Spielberg’s short-lived television series, Amazing Stories, for which he conceived the premise. I’ll just present the plot synopsis from the DVD packaging without comment: “Christmas cheer is in noticeably short supply when Santa is arrested while delivering presents, and it’s up to one little boy to bust him out.”

Although 1941 contains the first specific images of Christmas in a Spielberg film, I would argue it was his previous effort, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where he first evoked the childlike sense of wonder that I nostalgically associate with the holiday. While reading the above anecdote about Spielberg pleading with his father to hang Christmas lights on their house, I couldn’t help but think of the importance of light in his movies. Few filmmakers understand the drama of light like Spielberg, and even fewer filmmakers actually direct light the way he does. His movies are full of silhouettes and reflections, blown-out windows and edge lights that glow like halos, characters framed against the setting sun and environments so full of smoke that light cuts through the atmosphere in clearly delineated shafts. So what is the climax of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, then, if not a spectacular half-hour light show? You watch, just as wide-eyed as Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), with the same rapt delight as children gazing at a neighborhood Christmas lights display, their noses pressed against the windows of the family car as it drives slowly past each house. It’s one of those sequences that affirms our belief that movies can be magical, and the unguarded innocence of Spielberg’s vision is both disarming and infectious.

Spielberg believes in magic all right, Christmas or otherwise. Just as little Susan Walker (Natalie Wood) learns in Miracle on 34th Street—one of Spielberg’s favorite holiday films, naturally—belief in such things is the ultimate celebration of imagination. “I believe. I believe. It’s silly, but I believe,” Susan repeats to herself at the end of the movie, and, of course, she is mightily rewarded. She receives the one gift she most wanted for Christmas: a happy, new home.

Spielberg believes in magic all right, Christmas or otherwise.

Happy homes, reunited families, and rallying communities have been the hopes and hallmarks of Spielberg’s characters ever since his feature debut, The Sugarland Express, in 1974. No matter how extraordinary the circumstances, his characters are usually fighting to protect these ideals in one way or another. Even a complete buffoon such as Ward Douglas (Ned Beatty) in an anarchic war comedy like 1941 is guided by these principles, but especially around Christmas. At the end of that film, he stands before his family and neighbors, holding a holiday wreath in one hand and a hammer in the other. He delivers a heartfelt message of solidarity: “We’ve been through a lot, all of us. We faced the enemy for the first time last night, right in our own backyards, and we came together, put our differences aside and carried on in the true spirit of America. I think no matter what happens, what sacrifices we have to face, we can carry forward like Americans. While we’re doing our repairs here, I’m going to hang this wreath on my front door. This symbol of Christmas, this symbol of peace. I just want to remind us all that we’re not going to let a bunch of treacherous enemy killjoys ruin our Christmas.” If it wasn’t for the insufferably cacophonous two hours that led us to this finale, it would be easy to think of this as Ward Douglas’ Norman Rockwell moment. The tableau practically paints itself. But because this is 1941, the first strike of the hammer sends Ward’s entire house sliding off of its foundation and tumbling over a cliff into the Pacific Ocean.

1941 is hardly a Christmas movie in the traditional sense, but Spielberg relishes the opportunity to recreate Hollywood Boulevard in all of its period holiday splendor. (He finally got to hang those Christmas lights.) Every lamp post is encased in hollow plastic oversized Santa figurines; parallel strands of illuminated ornaments are suspended above the streets; an iconic Coca-Cola billboard features Santa drinking his preferred soda; there’s even a statue of Uncle Sam dressed in Santa’s red getup, complete with bandolier and grenades (“Uncle Santa Has Gone to War”). This section of downtown is ground zero for a lot of the destruction and mayhem in the latter half of the movie, and these decorations are in the background of virtually every shot. Even when they’re out of focus, they’re still perceptible. They pop off the screen. Bright lights and colors abound here. There are the flashing marquee lights of the Hollywood State movie theater, the neon signage of the Crystal Ballroom, and the military searchlights that sweep the area, but it’s these Christmas decorations that truly set the scene and catch the eye.

It would be another six years after the release of 1941 before Spielberg would direct his next Christmas scene. In the meantime, he oversaw the production of Gremlins (described by director Joe Dante as It’s a Wonderful Life meets The Birds”) and Young Sherlock Holmes (conceived by screenwriter Chris Columbus to have the look and feel of a Dickensian Christmas novel). Those films were designed to further the Spielberg brand—and turn profits for him and his company in the process—while he developed more challenging projects, such as The Color Purple, for himself to direct. His adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was intended to prove he was a serious-minded film artist, to demonstrate he was more than just a popular commercial entertainer. But you watch the film and walk away with a much better understanding of Spielberg’s relationship to cinema than to the material. It’s not without beauty or humanity, but almost every moment is a “movie moment,” and there are few scenes that aren’t overworked for emotional effect. That’s certainly true of the sequence involving Sofia’s (Oprah Winfrey) Christmas visit with her family.

Spielberg strategically times a scratchy rendition of “The First Noel” to swell at the exact moment Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) performs a small act of kindness for Sofia, a woman broken after years of forced servitude. The song plays as source music on a phonograph in a convenience store. It’s Christmas Eve and, as we cut outside to hear Sofia’s boss, Millie (Dana Ivey), grant her the next day off work so that she can return home and spend Christmas Day with the children she hasn’t seen in eight years, Spielberg allows the song to play continuously through the moment. In all likelihood, it would not be audible where this scene takes place, but I’ll grant him artistic license. It’s purpose, though, is quite obvious. It’s there to underline the sadness of Sofia’s estrangement from her family while also amplifying the bittersweet potential of a reunion. It’s an extra layer of gloss on a moment that requires none. (Christmas music is meant for happier times, see.) But it soon envelops the scene, as it becomes fully integrated into Quincy Jones’ orchestral score. Celie and Sofia exchange encouraging glances, and “The First Noel” continues into the next scene.

Sofia’s house is lightly decorated. There’s some greenery lining the windows and doors, but it’s a far cry from the festive display seen in 1941. “That there’s your mama,” Celie tells the three children on the porch after Sofia and Millie pull up to the house. She encourages the children to go meet their mother. Sofia is trembling, nervous and emotional. Spielberg cuts to a wide shot as she limps out of Millie’s car. He strings out the moment as long as he can. (Again, there are few moments in The Color Purple that aren’t overplayed liked this.) Sofia and her children are quiet, even hesitant. Finally, the youngest child steps forward. “Hi, my name is Emma. I’m very pleased to meet you.” Emma extends her hand. Sofia, still trembling, slowly takes Emma’s hand in hers. The music once again crescendos on the soundtrack. Sofia brings Emma closer. She hugs and kisses her youngest child. The other two children step forward and they all embrace. Sofia is finally home. Other relatives and friends pour out of the house and onto the porch to witness the beautiful holiday reunion. Even Millie seems delighted by the moment. Sofia is surrounded by loved ones, who now escort her into the house. “The First Noel” finishes its four-and-a-half-minute interlude.

Once inside, “O Come Let Us Adore Him” can be heard, presumably coming from another phonograph. Stockings hang on the dilapidated mantle. A pitiful Christmas tree stands in the corner. Sofia pulls a child’s stuffed animal out of one of the stockings and begins to cry as she makes her way over to the tree. Emma approaches and holds up a small wrapped gift just below her mother’s chin. It’s a pose that would make Norman Rockwell proud. Sofia is slow to accept the gift. “Mama, why are you crying?” Emma asks. Spielberg can’t resist himself. He dramatically pushes in on Sofia as she sniffs, “Cause I don’t know y’all no more.” Everyone gathers around to hug and encourage her. But, outside, there’s a commotion. Millie, an inexperienced driver, is having trouble shifting gears in her car. She mistakenly believes the men offering her assistance are trying to attack her. Sofia steps outside to intervene and calm the situation. As it becomes increasingly, tragically, painfully clear that Sofia won’t be able to spend even an additional second with her family on Christmas Day, Spielberg allows “O Come Let Us Adore Him” to play us out of the scene. The final notes resolve themselves just as Sofia and Millie drive away from the house and a snow-filled gust of wind wipes the frame.

A variation of this scene from The Color Purple is actually echoed in Catch Me If You Can, released in 2002. In between those two films, however, Spielberg also managed to work Christmas into the London-set bookends of his overstuffed Hook, where Peter (Robin Williams) undergoes his own Ebenezer Scrooge-like transformation. (The holiday appears in Empire of the Sun as well, albeit briefly: the young protagonist and his parents attend a Christmas costume party at the house of a family friend prior to the Japanese takeover of Shanghai. Spielberg wisely sidesteps any seasonal indulgences here.)

In Catch Me If You Can, only two things stand between Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), the misunderstood hero of the film, and a merry Christmas: the FBI and a pane of glass. He’s recently been apprehended by the Feds for check fraud but, after learning of his father’s death, he has managed to escape their custody. It’s the night of December 26, 1969, and Frank crouches between the snow-covered bushes of a suburban two-story house, peering through a window framed with frost. Nat King Cole sings “The Christmas Song” on the soundtrack. The exterior of the house, elegantly decorated with white Christmas lights and a wreath on the front door, is a picturesque holiday postcard in the making. Inside, Frank’s mother sits on the couch in the warmth of the family living room. She is flipping through a magazine. She is at peace.

Spielberg says he always brings a copy of It’s a Wonderful Life with him on location. “I show it to the cast and crew,” he told the Associated Press in 1997, “and I tell them, 'This is the kind of picture I hope we can make.'”

This is the Christmas that Frank has been dreaming about for the entire movie. As Spielberg would have us believe, everything Frank did—every lie he told, every check he forged, every con he pulled—was to preserve the idyllic view through that window, a life without want for his mother and father and him. Frank is an optimist, just like Spielberg. Even after his mother divorced his father and remarried, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, Frank believed reconciliation and reunion was inevitable. And, yet, now he watches her smile at a man who is not his father, in a home that is not his own. As Nat King Cole begins to sing of “tiny tots with their eyes all aglow,” a young girl appears in the window before Frank. They watch each other, inquisitively. Frank recognizes his own innocence in the girl. “Where’s your mommy?” he asks. The girl points to Frank’s mother. Tears form in Frank’s eyes with the sudden realization that he is without a family and without a home, a criminal on the run from the law, not likely to have a merry Christmas for many years to come. Snow begins to fall as the FBI storms the front lawn. Frank waves goodbye to the young girl in the window, and to the happy life that will remain out of his reach. “The Christmas Song” continues as Frank is arrested and sentenced to 12 years in a maximum security prison.

Isn’t all of this, you know, a little manipulative? Of course it is. Is it effective? You bet it is. Somehow, Spielberg’s use of Christmas as an emotional shorthand in Catch Me If You Can succeeds in ways it simply doesn’t in The Color Purple. Perhaps it’s all a matter of genre. Catch Me If You Can is a fairly lighthearted caper, and a better fit for this kind of straightforward sentimentality, whereas The Color Purple is a much more complicated human drama that would rightly reject such grafting. This issue of balance has been a precarious one for Spielberg throughout his career, no matter the subject. When it works, the results are as varied as they are impressive: E.T., Schindler's List, and Munich. When it doesn't, we're left stranded with the likes of Always and The Terminal.

Regardless of the project, though, Spielberg says he always brings a copy of It’s a Wonderful Life with him on location. “I show it to the cast and crew,” he told the Associated Press in 1997, “and I tell them, 'This is the kind of picture I hope we can make.'” It remains a perennial favorite with his own family as well. He told Parade in December 2011, “Every single holiday, we’ve loved watching the classics: It’s a Wonderful Life with James Stewart and Donna Reed, Miracle on 34th Street with Natalie Wood and Maureen O’Hara. And, for some reason, my kids love watching The Wizard of Oz for the hundredth time.”

Spielberg is certainly not unique in his holiday viewing habits, but it’s remarkable how the DNA of those three particular movies form an almost inextricable link with his own work, which remains a nearly career-long meditation about the hopes and dreams of reunited families and rallying communities. He’s made it his personal mission to remind us, whether you click your heels together or not, that there really is no place like home.


Jonathan Foster received a BFA in Film Directing from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and has worked in almost every phase of filmmaking, from production and post-production to film festivals and exhibition. His interest in film criticism dates back to March 31, 1990, when his hometown newspaper gave his then-favorite movie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, only one star.


Um, Actually, The Holiday is a Good Movie

 
all images courtesy of Columbia Pictures

all images courtesy of Columbia Pictures

 

by Fran Hoepfner

Ah, the weather getting colder, city streets lit up, festive semi-religious music playing on each and every radio station. Every year, there are slews of classic, respected holiday movies playing in second-run theaters and on network TV; films like Miracle On 34th Street, A Christmas Story, and It’s A Wonderful Life. Even newer, pop classics have worked their way into the cultural stream, movies like ElfLove, Actually, and The Family Stone. Is Carol technically a Christmas movie? We’ll figure that out in a few years. That said, an oft-forgotten staple of the genre, one that is, in fact, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, is the 2006 Nancy Meyers’ romantic comedy The Holiday.

Hmmm, you might be thinking to yourself, The Holiday? Is that the movie where Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz inadvertently invent Airbnb? The Holiday, isn’t that the movie that is a normal romantic comedy but is also nearly two-and-a-half hours long? The Holiday, is that the movie where Jude Law (watch The Young Pope on HBO starting in January of 2017) reached his peak mid-2000s hotness and says, “Yes, I am Daddy”?

I thought that movie was supposed to be bad, you might be thinking to yourself.

I am here to address this once and for all: The Holiday is a good movie. If you watch it, you will have a nice time. You’ll laugh, you’ll smile, you’ll feel sympathy for its characters. You’ll say, “Huh, Eli Wallach is in this?” One more time: it’s a good movie.

The premise of The Holiday is fairly simple: Two women, Amanda (Cameron Diaz) and Iris (Kate Winslet), both unhappy in their personal lives, decide to get away on their own for the holidays and switch homes for two weeks. Amanda is an uptight, high-maintenance workaholic who edits movie trailers (an extremely “I’m a character in a movie” job) and Iris is a wishy-washy, pathetic ‘Vows’-equivalent writer for The Daily Telegraph (an even more extremely “I’m a character in a movie” job). They agree to switch homes under the condition that there are no men in either town. This movie starts out with the premise that men are just not any good. I’m on board.

But of course, this is a lie; there are unfortunately men in every town in every country until I invent a town that says otherwise. In Surrey, where Amanda is staying in Iris’s adorably quaint but highly unrealistic (it’s 2006; people own showers and I cannot imagine a world where Kate Winslet is just taking a bath every day) British cottage, there’s Graham (Jude Law)—and I would also watch a movie where Jude Law says, “I’m Graham” (Grey-hem?????) for two-and-a-half hours. Graham is hot and wears horned-rimmed glasses and is played by mid-2000s Jude Law. He’s a book editor (peak “I’m a character in a movie” job), because of course he is. Back in Los Angeles, Iris meets Miles (Jack Black) who is kind and affable and listens very closely when she talks, unlike her very bad old crush named Jasper who it is fun to BOO every time he shows up on screen. Miles, for what it’s worth, composes film scores (actually, this one is a real job). In addition to Miles, Iris also spends quite a lot of time with Arthur (Eli Wallach), an old Hollywood screenwriter who lives in Amanda’s neighborhood. The Arthur subplot takes up approximately forty plus minutes of the film, and it has nothing to do with anything, which I love! Nancy Meyers wanted this subplot, so the movie has it. End of story.

"Yes, I am Daddy."

"Yes, I am Daddy."

A lot of this likely sounds contrived and extremely mid-2000s—I would love to say I’m kidding when I tell you there’s a scene where a character sings The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside”—and that’s because it is, but I cannot overemphasize that this does not make The Holiday bad! It makes everything of that whole genre bad. Do characters talk both too much and to themselves consistently? Yes! Are there glaring incongruities throughout? Certainly! Does Cameron Diaz bring multiple coats with her on a vacation? Yes, I lost count!

If you can accept that The Holiday is made up of factors that we generally associate with bad movies—if that’s your baseline—from there, it becomes actually quite good. Both Amanda and Iris are full-fledged independent and likable female romantic leads. Amanda is a high-maintenance type of workaholic, but Graham doesn’t try to balance her out to make her more fun. Her commitment to work is respected and acknowledged. An early childhood trauma led her to working a lot to regain a sense of control. Sure, Amanda and Graham originally come together because they’re both hot—there are so many worse reasons to start dating—but stay together mainly because both of them find they’re seeking a family unit and compassion in the face of losing control earlier in their lives.

Iris, on the other hand, is trapped in an extremely emotional abusive relationship with Jasper (BOO). The main motivation for her trip was to get away from him after he announced his engagement to someone else, despite spending a lot of time with her. That’s bad! She recognizes that! And throughout her time in Los Angeles, she learns how to be on her own and how to seek out friends who listen to her and care about her. Is the entire Arthur subplot seemingly shaped around Iris learning that she is the romantic comedy’s “leading lady” versus the “best friend”? Hmm, sure does seem that way—but the pure release felt by both her and the audience when she finally kicks Jasper to the curb (BOO, and YAY) is excellent.

Look, I wouldn’t lie to you about a two-and-a-half hour movie (no, seriously, I wouldn’t). The Holiday is good. It really is. It’s a nice movie. We’ve all had a bad year, and couldn’t we use a nice movie? I think both romantic plots of The Holiday hold up better than more than half of the Love, Actually ones when you really think about it. Find where you can rent (Amazon) The Holiday—or pop in the DVD if you, like me, own the great movie The Holiday in a physical form—and grab a group of friends to watch it. This is essential, the group of friends part. If you watch The Holiday by yourself, you will feel joyless and stupid and bored. It’s two-and-a-half hours, for fuck’s sake. But with friends, you have a cornucopia of people who can say things like:

“Wait, so earlier the car refused to drive Cameron Diaz all the way up to the house but now it’s waiting outside?”

“Wait, so Jasper flew all the way to Los Angeles and didn’t tell his fiancée?”

“Wait, so the two child characters in the film each have their own cell phone even though it’s 2006 and that’s pretty weird?”

Not all movies are cinema; The Holiday is certainly not cinema. But it is upbeat and kind and romantic and Jude Law is just, like, extremely hot here, and when The Young Pope starts up, you’re going to want to remember him as Graham knocking on the door in the middle of the night and not as a young pope smoking a cigarette. The holidays, by and large, are often less about families and magic, and more about the path we choose for ourselves. Quite often, being happiest means being farther away from what we know.


Fran Hoepfner is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is a writer and comedian based out of the Chicagoland area.


In Defense of Sentimental Schlock: A Taxonomy of Made-for-Television Holiday Films

by Elisabeth Geier

Say you’re home for the holidays at your parents’ new house in the same old home town, sleeping in an unfamiliar living room. Say there’s not much for you to do between meals. Say the one or two high school friends you might actually want to see didn’t come home this year. Say you’re wary of going to the movies in town because the other people from high school—the ones you never want to see again in your life—are likely lurking in the concession stand line, or waiting just inside the restroom door, to assault you with awkward hello’s and how-are-you’s and did-you-hear-about-my-wedding/baby/novel/successful start-up/third advanced degree?

Say you’d rather stay in on your parent’s comfortable couch, so much more comfortable than any couch you can presently afford, and watch movies on their enormous flat-screen TV, so much more enormous and flat than any television you can presently get away with hanging on your bare, rented walls.

Say that despite your hometown agoraphobia, and the shroud of sadness and shame that inevitably descends after a few days in your hometown, you are still all about the fantasy of the hap-happiest season of all. You love Christmas, truly; the candy-coated, pine-scented, make-believedness of it all. You yearn for fantasy, for escape. You yearn for impossible scenarios with impossibly happy endings, poorly-scripted and cheaply-produced, probably filmed in Canada, preferably involving film and television stars in career shame-spirals (you can relate). You yearn for things corny and colorful to whisk you away from the dreary mundanity of everyday life. You want to go all-out, cheese-balls-to-the-wall sentimental.

Here, then. Add a little eggnog to that rum. Settle in to your corner of the couch. Turn on the flatscreen. Refer to this guide to made-for-television holiday films—with a guarantee that you will find at least one example from each genre on cable at any given time during the days surrounding Christmas—and give yourself over to the schmaltz.
 

THE FAITH-BASED FANTASY

© CBS

© CBS

Characterized by: tragedy and redemption; Scrooge-like characters rediscovering the meaning of Christmas; third-act shifts into Christian morality play.

Network(s): Ion, Lifetime, Up

The Classic: The Christmas Shoes (2002), based on the popular-among-a-certain-kind-of-Christian-moms, laughable-to-everyone-else song “The Christmas Shoes.” Rob Lowe is Robert, a beleaguered attorney whose work keeps him from engaging with his wife and daughter. Kimberly Williams is Maggie, an elementary school music teacher with a mechanic husband (complete with oil smudges and a cartoonish working-class New England accent) and a sensitive son. Watch as Kimberly Williams develops a mysterious, fatal heart condition, which she faces with dignity and grace! Watch as her precocious, sensitive boy sets out on a quest to buy her the perfect, final gift: a pair of Christmas shoes! Watch as Rob Lowe gives a master class in face-acting for television film: a closed mouth means disappointment; an open mouth means surprise! If you’ve heard the song, you know the ending, but the movie is still worth watching for the climactic, slow-motion race to give mama her special shoes before she meets Jesus tonight.

See also: The Christmas Blessing (2005), a sequel starring Neil Patrick Harris as the grown-up version of the boy from part one. I don’t want to give everything away, but yes, Virginia, there is a race-against-the-clock surprise organ donation. Plus even more of Rob Lowe’s face.

Palate cleanser: Stan Freberg’s 1958 single “Green Chri$tma$,” an indictment of holiday commercialism that makes a surprisingly poignant, and decidedly un-schmaltzy, case for the true reason for the season.
 

THE MATURE CHRISTMAS COURTSHIP

© CBS

© CBS

Characterized by: The country mouse/city mouse paradigm; redemption via charitable acts; middle-aged men and women finding love.

Network: The Hallmark Channel

The Classic: A Holiday to Remember (1995), starring Connie Sellecca and country music star Randy Travis. Divorced, beleaguered businesswoman Carolyn (Sellecca) leaves New York City for her South Carolina hometown, precocious pre-teen daughter in tow. There, she reconnects with her high-school sweetheart/former-fiance (Travis), who is now the town sheriff. He’s seen some trouble in recent years, but back in 1995, Travis was still a dreamboat. A wooden actor with terrible enunciation, but a dreamboat, nonetheless. And yes, he does sing in the film. There’s caroling. There’s a runaway orphan with a shaggy dog.  There’s a climactic birthing scene. And as a special holiday bonus, there’s Rue McClanahan (may she rest in heavenly peace), chewing the low-budget scenery as a meddling but well-meaning aunt.

See also: On the 2nd Day of Christmas (1997). Pre-fame Mark Ruffalo as a mall security guard who has a Christmas Eve run-in with a beautiful shoplifter (Mary Stuart Masterson, forever Joon in our hearts) and her precocious, pickpocket niece.

Palate cleanser: “Same Old Lang Syne” by Dan Fogelberg. Sure, it’s one of the cheesy holiday singles dominating the local lite-rock radio station every year. But it’s also more realistic take on the bittersweetness of reconnecting with an old lover, when you both “tried to reach beyond the emptiness/but neither one knew how.”


THE MAGICAL ROMANCE 

© ABC Family

© ABC Family

Characterized by: Modern variations on A Christmas Carol and/or Groundhog Day; Santa in trouble; Santa in love; Santa in a skirt.

Network: Freeform (formerly ABC Family), Hallmark, Ion, Lifetime, literally everywhere...the Magical Holiday Romance is the most popular made-for-television holiday movie genre of all!

The Classic: Snow (2004). Tom Cavanaugh (television’s Ed; dreamboat-y in his own right) is Nick Snowden, aka Santa Claus, Jr. His sleigh is grounded when one of his reindeer, Buddy, is captured by a big-game bounty hunter. Because the sleigh won’t fly with only seven reindeer (duh), Nick has to use a magical mirror (obviously) to transport back and forth between the North Pole and Southern California, where Buddy is being held captive in a zoo (of course). But guess what: the zookeeper is a beautiful, beleaguered lady with a tragic past and a big heart, and she loves Christmas! Bobb’e Jacques Thompson of Role Models fame co-stars as the requisite precocious kid who helps Santa spring the reindeer and get the girl. The best thing about Snow is that all the performers appear to be having a genuinely good time, even when holding a one-sided conversation with a reindeer. The worst thing about Snow is that all the kissing is close-mouthed. Can’t a Santa get some tongue?

See also: 12 Dates of Christmas (2011). A truly charming entry in the “Groundhog Day but for Christmas” subgenre (see also-also 2006’s Christmas Do-Over starring Jay Mohr, and 2013’s Pete's Christmas featuring Bruce Dern), this one stars Amy Smart as a beleaguered advertising exec in New York City whose stepmother sets her up on a Christmas Eve blind date with Zack Morris, er, Mark-Paul Gosselaar. Naturally, she hates him in at first. Naturally, they fall in love, but not before she relives the day over and over again, a magical journey triggered when a department store perfume salesperson spritzes her directly in the face.

Palate cleanser: Do you really need one? The magical romance made-for-television Christmas movie is the most wonderful made-for-television Christmas movie of all. Let yourself linger in the sickening sweetness of wintertime redemption and love. If you really must return to earth (don’t you know it’s terrifying here?), Judy Garland’s gut-wrenching rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” should do the trick. The real world is increasingly nightmarish, but we have to muddle through somehow.

To quote Dino and the Chairman of the Board, “it’s a marshmallow world in the winter.” Marshmallows are fluffy, confectionary fun, of course, but they’re also full ground-up pig skin and bovine bones. As merry and bright as this season can be, something dark lurks beneath the sweetness. You can’t avoid the darkness forever, but you can give yourself a day off.

This December, for at least an afternoon, save your cynicism and tell your refined taste to stuff it. Bury yourself in deep cable and hardcore holiday schmaltz. Will it make you feel a little dirty, a little guilty in the pleasure you take from seeing faith, love, and Santa save Christmas again and again? Sure. But you can purge the sickly-sweetness in January, when Oscar nominations are announced and you rush to see every respectable film you overlooked during the year. For now, let yourself sink into the sweet, pillowy, air-puffed nothingness of made-for-television holiday films.


Elisabeth Geier is an Associate Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is a writer, teacher, & etc. living in Portland, Oregon. She has previously lived in Dallas, Oregon; Missoula, Montana; Chicago, Illinois; Boston, Massachusetts; and Lafayette, California, and would be happy to direct you towards the best pizza in these locations.