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.