“The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t” (1966)
Hollywood (a popular cultural abstract which we use as a convenient shorthand to identify the purely commercial cinema regardless of geographical origin) may be many things, but a reputable harbinger of advancing an unpolluted celebration of Yuletide spiritual innocence is certainly not one of them.
The characteristic common to virtually every Christmas film is the inevitable presence of a sneering blackguard of such a villainously contemptable disposition that they all but invite an eruptive hiss from the audience of such violently repulsed emotion that one would think William Castle had outfitted the theater with a hidden system of out of control compression air hoses.
These seasonal ne’er-do-wells are tasked with the unenviable burden- and thus providing the dramatic impetus of their films -of proving that good will and glad tidings are the foolish consistencies that are the true hobgoblins of little minds.* How insupportable are these characters who balk at the very concept of Christmas (and by villainous extension, as shamelessly proffered in every one of these films, the happiness of children), regardless of whether that concept is of the traditionally ecclesiastical variety or of the contemporary sectarian one in which the prominent holy figure is that of the department mall St. Nick, the modern symbol of all that is great and good and charitable, yet has been adopted by the purveyors (most especially the media, and most especially the movies) of capitalism, who have effectively converted Luke 2:11 into a mandate asserting that all modern forms of holiday cheer are based upon the fourth quarter retail sales figures (especially to all of those little elves at the annual Macy’s stockholders meeting).
Supplanting these altruistic holiday impulses is the movies; a cultural enterprise in which the only consistent conscious artistic impulse is to open big in the lucrative Asian marketplace; hardly commensurate with that brief reminder of spiritual values laid out by Charles Schultz’ blanket wielding sage as to the true meaning of the holiday, when everyone in Hollywood knows that, indeed, out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom, but only if what comes out of their mouths is the a screaming demand for cheaply manufactured movie franchise tie-in merchandise.
In “The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t”, the architect of holiday gloom is the appropriately named Phineas T. Prune, a man described as having a “pickle face” (a rather amusing conceit considering he is played by movie heartthrob Rossano Brazzi, who also directed), who has become the owner of the entire North Pole and, for reasons to be determined late in the film, thus conspires to exercise his landlord authority by evicting Santa for nonpayment of rent and thereby cancelling Christmas. Santa (Alberto Rabagliati) consults with lawyer Sam Whipple (Paul Tripp) who displays his legal guile by smiling so profusely he seems afflicted with terminal cuteness. Travelling to the North Pole with Santa, they confront the dastardly Prune, who continually pops in to irritate Santa, Mrs. Claus (Lydia Brazzi), eccentric foreman Jonathan (played with typical lack of restraint by Mischa Auer) and his entire elfin staff (who resemble Willie Wonka’s Oompah Loompahs minus the spray-on tans), as if he could just commute to the polar regions by taxicab, and, in the process, thwarting Whipple’s legal strategies by simply refusing to cooperate. Back in the city, Whipple devises a plan to earn enough to pay the back rent through the jolly red suited man’s employment as the world’s first department store Santa.
The film, obviously aimed at the young and impressionable, does a fairly substantial job of presenting yet another variation of holiday crisis via a rather blatant (despite being based upon an “original” story by Tripp) unacknowledged attribution to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, as well as a obvious nod to “Miracle on 34th Street”, especially with the former’s rather inescapable third act spiritual redemption, that here is triggered by the correction of a childhood disappointment so trivial it frightens to think- according to the film’s logic -what lifelong pattern of criminality could be unleashed through slights from the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy? Yet, for all of the convolutions of plotting- including Prune’s covert campaign of sabotage, abetted by an underused cobweb covered manservant named Blossom (wonderfully incarnated by John Karlsen, who here resembles Art Carney as reimagined by Gahan Wilson) –Rossano Brazzi’s script fails to take advantage of the many opportunities to infuse the film with a more biting satiric edge, instead surrendering almost every scene to the saccharine (Tripp’s constant preening doesn’t help).
With the film’s central character of interest being the top hatted, mustachioed Prune (think a live-action version of Snidely Whiplash), there is the possibility for the film to show a capacity for genuinely black-hearted subversive humor yet it disappointingly settles for clunky, badly staged pratfalls. There are a few early moments of invention (a song- yes, the film is indeed a musical -in which Prune is rueful that he is so bad he frightens himself, is amusing- the best songs belong to him -yet, unfortunately, Brazzi’s heavy Italian accent obscures many of the lyrics) but they are soon subsumed in the film’s overwhelming leaning toward the unrelievedly childish, which considering the film’s portrayal of Santa Claus as a helpless, unimaginative personification of the holiday spirit (he must be the most clinically depressed jolly old elf ever to inhabit the screen), goes a long way in explaining the unbearably immature behavior of the adult characters necessary in salvaging buoyancy in scenes undercut by this Santa’s grim-faced moodiness. (The one original suggestion of neurosis occurs with Santa experiencing pre-employment jitters as he nervously realizes he has never encountered a wakened child; a humorous insight unfortunately ruined, in song, by repetitive and inexpressively trite lyrics.)
“The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t” may not be the first film to address holiday depression, though- certainly unique for a children’s film -it may be the first that identifies it as a symptom of performance anxiety.
* with all due apologies for paraphrasing Mr. Churchill
Dear Cinema Santa: 2018 Edition
Once again dear friends (and you folks in Vermont) it is that time to weigh in on the past year’s accumulation of greedy impulses and dissatisfaction with the world of movies with our Dear Cinema Santa Wish List, an annual tradition here at CSR in which we ask for very little and expect to receive even less.
We are quite fed up with the Criterion Collection’s more recent lapses in judgment by ignoring truly interesting films and instead featuring the promotion of undeniable trash (“Valley of the Dolls”? Really?). So, here are a few titles that we are still asking for in case anyone is listening: Barbara Loden’s “Wanda”, Joseph Losey’s “The Go-Between”, Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore”, Ken Russell’s “The Boy Friend”, Solanas and Getino’s “The Hour of the Furnaces”, Jean Eustache’s “The Mother and the Whore”, Bo Widerberg’s “Joe Hill” and “Man on the Roof”, Michael Ritchie’s “The Candidate” and perhaps Eclipse box sets featuring the films of Mai Zetterling and Susan Sontag.
More movie theaters and fewer community performance centers. The trend toward non-profit groups buying out abandoned old movie theaters and restoring them is something that CSR can’t help but find commendable. However, instead of being used as a film venue as intended, most are converted into performance arts centers which, more often than not, play host to Mrs. Hastings’ 3rd grader production of “The Night of the Iguana”. At least the wrecking ball ends the suffering quickly.
The end of useless, endless and needlessly expensive political campaigns. Instead, let all of the prospective candidates show their mettle by pursuing their office as the prize of a giant road race, with inauguration papers hidden under a “Big WH”.
That the Caligula-inspired orgy known as the Golden Globe ceremonies are declared a “dry” party. Wonder how many of the Hollywood A-listers would still show up?
That the third day of August will from now on be known as Terry-Thomas Day. Just because.
That a new category in the MPAA ratings be introduced: an “S” signifying a STUPID film (No one admitted unless they’re willing to surrender their dignity). Doubtless it would have little effect on Hollywood’s continuing production of intellectually vacant films, but the honesty would be refreshing.
A cessation of the sale of popcorn in theater lobbies. It’s been done and now it’s time to move on to a more savory entertainment treat. Might we suggest bags of bacon bits?
A Congressional bill passed to be known as the Intelligence Anti-Discrimination Act, which would force any multiplex with six or more screens to permanently designate at least two screens to be dedicated to the exhibition of foreign and art house cinema.
In the grand scheme of things, our calls for less Mark Wahlberg and Robert De Niro have proven less than successful. (Might we suggest President Trump tweeting admiration and enthusiasm for both, thus poisoning their employability in Hollywood? Do we have to do the thinking for everyone?) But, on a more positive note, how about more Winona Ryder?
In a concluding note, we were going to ask for a moratorium on films featuring, starring or directed by that colossal bore George Clooney. However, the box-office returns of his last several vehicles may have proven that the public has gone a long way in granting this most precious of requests. God bless us, every one!
Dear Cinema Santa: 2017 Edition
Light up boys and girls and all of the ships at sea, for once again we’ve arrived at that time of the year in which the bonds of a year filled with fake empathy and grudging good deeds gives way to reveal our true motives of gain and avarice. Yes, it’s time for our annual nosedive into the wondrous world of begging a red suited fat guy (not to be confused with the fat Red guy from North Korea) to makes our cinematic wishes come true: it’s the annual Dear Cinema Santa wish list. Let us hope that in the year to come, at least one or two of these desperate pleas for a better film world may come true. And to those who might find this a complete waste of time, may the jolly elf leave you a bucket brimming with coal flavored popcorn. And to all (except the Fat Red guy) a good night.
Just one movie in which Morgan Freeman actually plays a despicably villainous character rather than his usual despicably dull fountain of goodness and wisdom.
A Meryl Streep performance (if we’re forced to travel that route) that does not rely on a painful accent nor eccentric costuming. Is it possible to reconcile her acting style with the requirements of that of the unaffected neo-realistic drama?
A cessation to the endless and quite meaningless critical egg throwing on the Internet concerning the relative value of Marvel superhero movies versus those of DC. Such embarrassingly impassioned arguments only serve to obscure the plain and simple truth that, with the rare exception, if evaluated by normal critical standards, none of these films are of estimable merit.
An end to the current trend in which every film reviewed is attributed with a Trumpian sociopolitical significance, especially since all of these films would have been conceived of and produced far before the election of the current President. Could we possibly drain this limitation of perspective from the critical swamp?
A serious reflection as to why it’s perfectly acceptable to portray the cinematic villainy of the German Reich (rightly so), yet there seems to be no end of the excuses and apologies for any acknowledgement of similar wartime atrocities attributable to the Land of the Rising Sun?
Despite the fact that every actress now makes the dubious claim of being a born-again virgin, how about a courageous show of hands from all of the women in Hollywood who actually willingly (explaining much) slept their way to the top?
Roles for some of our greatest actresses of maturity. Whatever happened to Joanne Woodward?
A sworn statement from (or court order for) Kenneth Branagh, preventing him from filming any further movie remakes. Please stick to Shakespeare.
The removal of all self-service fountain drink machines from our nation’s cinemas. These human fly traps relinquish the need for any further proof that for some unknown reason our entire moviegoing population seems mysteriously afflicted with an alarming frequency of spasticity of coordination.
How about Disney actually producing an occasional movie that wouldn’t outrage Uncle Walt?
DEAR CINEMA SANTA, 2015 EDITION
During this festive season, when the brief wisps of sunlight become briefer, granting increased concession to the agents of nocturnal chills, howling blasts of wind and the occasional welcome falling of celestial dandruff on the empty branches of winter, it falls upon the magnetic tug of nostalgic yearnings for a return to the warm caress of innocent days of youth, replete with schoolyard bullies, practical parents whose wisdom allowed for their child riding a bike or playing hopscotch without their binding their offspring in protective body armor that would make Navy Seals envious and a common sense view of society that allowed little Butchie to roam the neighborhood unaccompanied while selling subscriptions to Grit did not assume that every suburban block is saturated with oddballs seeking to replicate the Lindbergh kidnapping. But beyond the magnetic pull of a wishful return to such societal naivete lies the special prize that was the annual Sears Wish Book, the ultimate bible of kid’s greed for all things shiny, whirring and buzzing. The catalog of fingertip wonders that, through advanced practices of footnoting, annotations and cross-referencing skills that would make college professors shudder in awe, became a common mental meeting ground for generations of children who insatiable seasonal gluttony for unchecked merchandise acquisition was one of the founding cornerstones of the American economy, first notated in The Federalist Papers and later explored in great depth in the collected papers of both Hillel Hassenfeld and John Foster Dulles. In the great spirit of the Wish Book, we present our annual Christmas cinema want list, keeping in mind that the boy has been a lot less naughty this year than most of the Silver Screen offerings of the calendar year:
01) The discontinuation of the new trend of dine-in movie theaters, a development which can only lead to the inevitable “slippery slope” of bad patronage behavior. In a world in which rudeness has become as commonplace as breathing air, and the rules of etiquette are regarded as bothersome and antiquated as medical bleedings, there is little doubt that fortifying any notion promoting a public venue as a natural extension of the patron’s domestic altar of slobbery is a toxic step in the wrong direction. If the past offenses of discourteous chatter, seat kicking, noisome snacking and distracting illuminated phone texting were considered intrusive, just imagine the encrusted traces of an abstract array of greasy hand wipings leaving tar-like particulate trails of festering bacterial colonies genetically proprietary to the Black Plague finding succor in the folds of ridiculous reclining chairs that will certainly be subject to the indignities of snoring, the kinetic ballet of restless leg syndrome and incontinent nocturnal urination. Theater seats should not be a modern substitute for a field trip to the pre-Giuliani days of the Port Authority. Was sitting upright for two hours without the benefit of a nine-course buffet (to satiate the inevitable pangs of unquenched obesity) really such a burden?
02) The return of visible ushers whose function extends beyond sleepily yawning and flirting with the candy counter girls. Whatever happened to the days in which local teens or young adults, armed with red jacket and flashlight, were suddenly imbued with the same stern authoritative swagger as a Stalag watchtower guard?
03) The elimination of pre-sold movie tickets. Listen Chester, this isn’t Broadway, it’s the movies and part of the communal enjoyment of attending a film is the excited buzz of anticipation waiting in a ticket line. Where is the once treasured sense of camaraderie in seeing a film? Arriving at a theater only to find that the film will be unavailable for the next six days is not an enticement to patronize an already increasingly grating cinema experience. (And no, the endless lines at the concession stand, waiting for the Master’s Degree candidates endlessly perplexed over the difference between small, medium and large beverages is not a suitable substitute for communal filmic enthusiasm.)
04) A bit of restraint exercised in advertising upcoming DVD releases of films which are still playing in first-run houses. Recent sightings of DVD/Blue Ray pre-orders for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” on the day it opened at theaters attests, not to the film’s then-unproven quality, but to insatiable corporate greed. Can a film be enjoyed without it becoming an enforced perpetual lifestyle?
05) Less Robert DeNiro. An actor, who by now, it must be apparent to all, is no longer the legend-in-the-making actor of his youth, but merely an older, less energetic but equally mercenary version of Nicholas Cage, seems to appear more regularly on the movie screen than bedbugs in a New Orleans flophouse.
06) A ban on SNL alumnus from ever again starring in, directing, writing (or how about even attending?) another film. Lorne Michaels’ band of self-amused merrymakers has had a more detrimental impact on the American cultural landscape outside of hip-hop and, perhaps, Elizabeth Taylor. Michaels’ current controlling position at a major television network is a sufficient killing field in regard to the continuing degradation of modern comedy, and perhaps it is time to consider construction of an additional isolating immigration wall to be built around one specific Canadian?
07) Enough with the commercial product sponsorship of new films. Does Bond use two or single-ply paper towels? What does a Minion use to ease the painful itch of hemorrhoids? Does Hans Solo drive a Buick? Does anyone really care?
08) The return of Gene Hackman, long absent and long missed, to the screen.
In the continuous spirit of the late lamented Sears Wish Book- that compendium of childhood greed (ignoring the adult sections which focused more on anti-urchin merchandise such as clothing and dehumidifiers) that provided invaluable practical experience in the lost art of cross-referencing, footnoting and indexing one’s Xmas toy want list -CSR presents our second annual memo of desired gifts to the Jolly Fat Man in an attempt to plead a case for a happier, more worthwhile and perhaps even artistic cinematic year to come. In the event all of the following requests actually materialize, there is no need to thank me, simply slip a box of Cubanos under the door. (Thanks Obama Claus!)
01) No more Seth Rogen or James Franco films. Actually, the North Koreans seemed fairly aligned with this type of thinking recently, but- as is the pattern with most insubstantially intelligent dictatorships who fail to properly organize their thoughts -limited their ire to one specific film instead of going for the long-term prize. This is why you really can’t count on brutal, repressive regimes to do the responsible thing.
02) A demonstration of humility by Sony Pictures for an insubstantially intelligent dictatorship bailing their creatively vacant hides out of the proverbial accountant’s red by making a dim piece of work such as “The Interview” the subject of substantial public interest (read: dollars), especially by a demographic who would be hard pressed to find Korea on a map (no Harvard graduate, it’s not the capital of Nebraska) never mind be able to guess with 10,000 tries just who Kim Jong-un is anyway.
03) Finally an admission of an inbred lack of taste by those same people who will flock like lemmings to “The Interview” with the excuse that they are interested in the controversial subject as a matter of concerned public interest. Humbug! Let us imagine if a similar cultural curiosity would be piqued in these poser charlatans had the film in question been the latest by Michael Haneke.
04) Might we not add Adam Sandler to this short list of disposable offenses? Certainly it has taken longer to type this request than has been the average booking at the local megaplex of his last five films combined.
05) A moratorium on unnecessary ethnically condescending remakes. Is there really a need for yet another film version of “Annie” (weren’t the first two editions punishing enough?) except as Hollywood’s latest excuse to revisit easily exploitable materials through racial colorization? Also, aren’t there stories indigenous to The Black Experience (capitalized in deference to viewers of PBS who seem to take this kind of distinction seriously to the point of apoplectic self-righteousness- residents of Newton and Cambridge, MA take note) that might not only proffer projects directed on fresher paths, but give attention to worthy voices heretofore given little or no recent cinematic exposure? For instance, where are representations of the works of August Wilson? The novels of Chester Himes?
06) A cessation of the evolutionary program to modernize the movie theater. After the digitalization of projection, expansion of concessions (would you like dry sherry with that popcorn?) and a retrograde return to banked seating (in the old days considered practical not revolutionary), the local megaplex may have finally reached a zenith of insanity with the installation of reclining chairs, perhaps the final ingredient to make the theater going experience as close to watching a film in your living room as possible, except that you don;t have to pay a hefty premium to watch a movie in your own home. A message to theater owners: don’t charge for admission and then you can install all of the sofas and throw pillows you want.
Time again for major disappointment. It’s no secret that Chandler’s been a bad kid once again and will get the sock of coal (or the promise of a continued career of Jennifer Aniston, which is infinitely worse as coal burns for warmth, but there’s no use for a Jennifer Aniston movie) instead of what he wants out of the dog-eared 1965 Sear’s Wish Book (make-you-own-cigarette machines adjacent to the toy pages? Santa, I’m in!) but one must persevere until the sweet release of flaming Hades. So in that holiday spirit , here’s the new list for Mr. Kringle befitting the cinema season which never ends. (Nor does the lingering annoyance of sitting through “The Blue Bird”, but that’s another story for another time…)
How about a film in which the undead show some real taste (as opposed to reel taste)? A zombie movie in which someone worth consuming with gratuitous relish is shown: like an opening feast on the offices of the ACLU?
A realistic film about the American slave experience as there is no more an occasion for a film about this era with an uplifting message any more than it is possible to have an uplifting Holocaust story.
The return of cartoons, short subjects and even old newsreels (its about time the younger generation learns the world revolved before they gave it permission to do so) to fill the gap between showings. Theaters claim they had to get rid of these as they had to squeeze in more showtimes to make a profit (yes, that $80 tab that comes with a large popcorn and two beverages isn’t a sufficient profit bubble), a claim which is undermined by the incessant displays of slideshow ads (no dammit, I don’t want to buy a house from my local realtor who insists on showing their ugly mug shot) or promotional films for the most insipid cable TV (Didn’t we pay to go to the movies to get away from television, and why advertise your consumer competitor anyway?) or worse yet- movies production films that agonizingly reveal no interesting facts (except for more screen time for hack Hollywood egotists [the Will Smith family, you’ve been outed!]) about films you haven’t chosen to pay to see in the first place?
An afterword: The opening comments are not intended as an endorsement of child smoking (except in the case of obnoxious, out-of-control brats- you know who you are -who I would never discourage from doing anything that would hasten their premature demise) nor as an admission to personally smoking (proudly smoke free since- forever) but this disclaimer seemed a good idea just in case the ACLU (or any annoying watchdog organization whose membership would never pass muster under the scrutiny of a 10 watt bulb) wants to get their- hopefully zombie targeted -knickers in a twist.
Seasons Greetings Film Enthusiasts. Since the holiday season is upon us, it also means it is that time of year when movie reviewers will rapturously wring their hands with delight as they may spend the next several months wasting time ruminating over the worthless conception of their The Best Lists, or worse, endlessly contemplating the upcoming Awards Season (End of December thru October) where the American film industry puts on it’s lowest cut ill-fitting dresses, cocaine stained spats and Botox enhanced capped toothed smiles to attend the never ending parade of ceremonies of clueless self-inflated narcissism, leaving all confused lovers of film in the dust wondering from what lofty land upstream on Denial River comes the wince inducing pronouncement: “It’s been a great year for film!”
Still, being the holiday season, it also means that the year is coming to an end bringing with it hopes of renewal and rejuvenation, and with it the promise of better film seasons to come. To those of a more pessimistic nature, the passage of time brings you closer to the sweet release of death which happily marks the end of prospects toward your attending further Adam Sandler, Michael Bay or Taylor Lautner films. (Not to mention the umpteenth rebooting of superhero franchises.) So rejoice!
THE ANNUAL CHRISTMAS PUZZLER
Brought to you by Skittles, the All-American Christmas candy
The object of the puzzle is easy. Simply identify the Christmas movie from which each of the following ten images were taken. If you answer all ten correctly, you get nothing, not even a lump of coal in your stocking. However, we may refer your name to Santa, in which case he may be cross at your abject greed and stuff a dead squirrel in your chimney. Good luck, may the wisest and most accomplished of you prove triumphant, and- oh yeah- have a Happy Holiday!