Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What I Want For Christmas Is...A Good Christmas Movie!

Why we are sucked into a holiday time warp of nostalgia

I must have been about three or four the first time I saw Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I conscious had begun to realize what Christmas was or at least what my parents thought it was. My Mom was full of excitement that “Rudolph is on tonight!” As I sat three feet in front of the RCA cabinet television, my imagination was completely sucked into this three dimensional moving world. The story seemed to be taking place right now in front of my eyes, no doubt helped by Burl Ives’ fantastic narration. “Rudolph” was everything a great family film should be: A plucky hero (Rudolph), a trustworthy sidekick (Hermie the elf), a scary monster (the Abominable), memorable songs such as “We’re a Couple of Misfits”, a love interest (Clarice) and a genuine father/son conflict. All of this was wound into a tight-written story by the Rankin/Bass production team which, had they had the backing to extend the T.V. special into a feature film, would have been considered one of the best ever made.

I was in awe of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and its appeal has crossed from the baby boomers that initially saw it in 1964, the me-generation 80s kids, through Generations X and Y and up to the present day of children who have yet to be categorized. 2009 will mark the 45th anniversary of “Rudolph” and its timelessness need not be debated. It is still watched by more than ten million people as is the other mainstays of Christmas specials, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” One begins to wonder why these films, almost half a century old, have an appeal to a public which seems to view all recent attempts at Christmas shows with cynicism.

If one were to make a list (and check it twice) of the truly memorable Christmas films and specials over the last thirty years, the list is shorter than Hermie’s dental career. “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street” was a humorous and heartfelt endeavor by Jim Henson which was aired in the late 70s. It is still available for viewing via YouTube and holds up quite well, particularly the “Gift of the Magi” sequences featuring Bert, Ernie and the late Mr. Hooper. 1983’s “A Christmas Story” is a classic unto itself. It is my Dad’s favorite Christmas film and I enjoy watching parts of it several times each year during the 24-hour marathon on TBS. I gave him a leg lamp for Christmas a few years ago, one of the few times he genuinely got something he liked. 1988’s “Scrooged” featured a macap – if erratic performance by Bill Murray and hilarious supporting roles for Carol Kane and Bobcat Goldthwait. 1989’s “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” may be the last of the truly great Christmas classics. Although uneven in places, Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswald channels the real spirit of Christmas in many of us. The concept of going out of your way to make the holiday special for your family and having it blow up in your face is more common to many than a strand of lights malfunctioning. 1990’s “Home Alone,” featured a premise which could have taken place at any time but Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern deliver classic comedic performances which deserve to be appreciated more than they are. All of the aforementioned films are guilty of pouring on the heart at the end. Nobody seemed to mind the clich├ęs at the time, yet it seems ages since a similar film was greeted with a warm heart and not the cynicism currently prevalent towards Christmas films.

The question exists inside us like the internal debate about Santa Claus. Is it the world that has changed or is it we who have turned into cinematic “Scrooges?” Is it the formula which has aged unto a purgatory of Lifetime Network films or have we just lost our “inner Clark Griswold” that pushes us to make a few weeks in December just a little bit happier? Many of us agree with good old Charlie Brown: Christmas has become too commercial. It isn’t “real” anymore. We ignore the voice of Linus, choosing to revel in the parodies of Christmas. I am guilty as anyone of loving these things. From Al Bundy in “Married With Children” being shown by his guardian angel, Sam Kinison, that his family’s life would be better if he was dead, South Park’s Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo, to the ultimate endgame of Christmas films, “Bad Santa,” I laughed at them, every one. How can we reconcile the ridicule of the present with the idolization of the past? Have our hearts, like the Grinch’s, grown three sizes too small?

The answer is not in a moral or parable but in our history. “Rudolph.” “Charlie Brown,” and “The Grinch,” were not created in an era of cynicism and despair, but one of hope. The creators of these films lived through a horrible war where nations were devastated and up to 70 million people were killed. In the face of such destruction, beacons of hope were inevitable. There was a desire to make the world a better place for our children and give them the magic which had been lost upon so many as bombs dropped and servicemen knocked at the door. The themes in these aforementioned films were those of understanding one another, forgiving people for their faults and believing that magic happens if you believe in it just enough. These people were thankful that the entire planet didn’t get blown to bits. That’s a pretty hard philosophy to follow. Hopefully, we never will.

“It’s A Wonderful Life,” arguably the greatest Christmas film or special ever made, was released after the end of World War II but takes place when the outcome was seriously in doubt. The economy was faltering, bad bankers were abundant and nobody knew if their loved ones would come home. Capra’s era is not that different from our own. We’ve got bad guys our army has to fight, bad bankers which we could only hope to stop and an uncertain future if we can make it enough to provide for our loved ones. The past speaks to us because it tells us the truth. We really do want to believe despite our prevailing sarcasm. Maybe we don’t really feel the desperation of hope that Capra did, the triumph of earnestness of Charles Schultz, the redemption of Dr. Seuss and the belief in magic of Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass. We should thank the highest star on Christmas Eve that they gave it to us and that we should not need to go through it ourselves.

I urge everyone to look outside the regular Christmas tree of T.V. specials. The new ones might not be so bad. Maybe they just need a little love. Sometimes that’s all that we need. Just a little lift. A guardian angel, a spark of belief, a resilient tree or a shining red light in the darkness. Give the present as much attention as the past. Not just for yourselves, but for the future you long for and want for your children. Enjoy the new specials on Lifetime, Disney and Nickelodeon. Think of how you felt seeing Rudolph fly, Clark Griswold cry in the attic and George Bailey holding Zuzu under the tree. Maybe it does take a miracle to believe in Christmas these days but as Joel Grey sang in “The Night Before Christmas,” even a miracle needs a hand.

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