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Christmas Movies, pt. 2

This list was compiled by Dean Duncan, a professor of film at BYU, and host of This'll Take a While on BYU Radio.

Scrooge

Directed by Brian Desmond-Hurst 

UK, 1951

What with the warm mythological haze of childhood ritual—this version, every Christmas Eve, from memory's advent to this sad exile in the soul-chilling USA—it's hard to bring any kind of proper critical perspective to this property.  Well—maybe not hard, but I just don't want tae.  Yes, there's a little bit of poverty in the production, or at least the tightened belt of post-war austerity.  (It's also badly in need of a proper restoration.)  Some of the casting falls a bit short.  A couple of sequences don't quite come off.  It's the same with the source, isn't it?  (Tiny Tim is an effective conceit, and a great reproof, and kind of all wet.)  But if this hastily assembled little seasonal novella isn't quite Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend, it's still got more fierceness and majesty and tenderness than you can ever exhaust, contain, or apply.  By accident maybe, and out of his own childhood sorrows, as well as his own imperfect, striving discipleship, Dickens fashioned something for the ages.  A sinner, repents!

As for the film, because of the source (get a load of that language!), because of its own modest, craftsman's qualities, not to mention the contributions of grand/parents and siblings and native soil, it stands more or less impervious.  "Fan!"  Alastair Sim is a genius.  And for some reason that little fragment of "Barbara Allen," especially at the start of the harmonies on that second verse, is overwhelming.  Death.  After?  

The Jolifou Inn

Canada, 1955

Directed by Colin Low

Full of Cornelius Krieghoff's nice, picturesque paintings of rural Quebec in the mid 19th century.  There's a striking idea, an amazing insight nestled right in the middle there.  According to these period images, and the period sentiments that support them, winter in those good, hard old days came almost completely as a relief and a respite.  Not near as much farm work to do!  Also, since this Anglo-Albertan director was on the brink of becoming as major as it is possible for a filmmaker to be, look at that imagery!  Cameras fly across that painted canvas surface, nearly to the point of dropping right inside.  Not great, but with seeds of greatness—here comes City of Gold.  

Watch the film.

Watch the film that followed (watch for how they render the photographs!) 

A non-Quebecois, speaking for Quebeckers?  Unless you're Robbie Burns, and the dialect is (sort of) your own, then dialect poetry doesn't seem to pass muster anymore.  William Henry Drummond, an Anglo-Irish emigrant to Canada, demonstrates why we might want to revisit that assumption.  Dear, devoted: The Habitant and other French-Canadian Poems (1897).  Watch

Paul Tomkowicz: Street-railway Switchman

Directed by Roman Kroitor

Canada, 1953

With this film Kroitor set out to combine the visual aesthetics of Carol Reed/Graham Greene's The Third Man with the New Testament's estimation of the unutterable importance of the smallest sparrow that falls.  The result is not only one of the chilliest films in the world—we don't want to be stereotypical or anything, but Winnipeg in the middle of the winter!—but one of the very greatest.  The Beatitudes, the Good Samaritan (dismissed outsider as moral exemplar) and Matthew 25: 31-40 all rolled up in one.  Perfect, perfect, perfect.

See it

The Days Before Christmas 

Directed by Stanley Jackson, Wolf Koenig, Terence McCartney-Filgate

Canada, 1958

The Maysles and Frederick Wiseman quite properly get celebrated for their pioneering observational documentaries, in the 60's and afterwards.  But they didn't invent the approach, nor were they the first to apply it to perfection.  Exhibit A.  Co-director Koenig not only cited Cartier-Bresson's notion of the decisive moment in photography (cf. C-B's seminal 1952 book), but he was able to absorb and then translate it to cinematic settings, to his moving, durating, documentary films.  It's a matter of cinematic method, as well as moral sensibility—equal parts penetrating and compassionate.  Watch, wait, see, be.  The Christmas setting gives this one a special warmth, or on occasion, an extra ironical chill.  The cold-hearted Scots mother, giving bare comfort to her exiled child!

Regardez (watch)

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Directed by Jacques Demy

France, 1964

Be careful about imprudent mis/alliances, young people, or you may one day find yourselves heartbroken on a devastatingly beautiful Christmas Eve at a French Esso station with the snow softly falling all around you.

Blades and Brass

Starring various hockey legends! 

Canada, 1967

The Tijuana Brass pastiche that serves as the soundtrack is very of its time, and it’s not much more than a gimmick.  But music has that ability of conforming itself to images, and what images!  Sharp, beautiful colour, a poetic combination of real time and slow motion, of straight on and high angle.  There’s not much coherent hockey going on, at least in terms of game narratives, or league overview.  In fact, in some ways, the image assembly is kind of perfunctory.  But ideas do emerge eventually, or a kind of structure—there’s a fighting section, and an injury section, and someone sure seems to favour the Habs.  That’s the greatest thing, for someone like me with a dim memory of the primordial figures.  This is original six, and the last year before expansion, too.  Get a load of these players!  There are insufficient glimpses of Howe and Horton, Mikita, Bobby Orr.  There are lots of role players, and a sense of how very important they are.  There’s the Gumper, flopping bravely all over the place.  There’s the question of how exactly Ed Giacomon got into the Hall of Fame.  And look at Bobby Hull skate!  And how magisterial Beliveau is!  A noble ruin of a film, giving a pretty good idea of a lost, past plenitude.

Skate! (watch)

My Night at Maud's

Directed by Eric Rohmer

France, 1969

Eric Rohmer's brainy dramatization of Blaise Pascal's wager, mingled with reflections on the relationship between mathematics and morality, and with a little Mozart thrown in.  Also, set on a snowy Christmas night.  Festive!  Actually, love and mercy. 

(Pascal's wager is here, in section 233.  The rest of the link leads us beautifully up to and away from the actual famous statement.  It's all really good.  Here's a summary:http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pascal-wager/.)  

Also, check out Roberto Rossellini's rigourous, rapturous biopic, Blaise Pascal (1972).

Mon Oncle Antoine

Directed by Claude Jutra

Canada, 1971

Medieval serfdom, set in the 20th century.  Begins cheerily, saucily (adult film!), youthfully.  Then, the ashes.  Christmas, Catholic world view, Duplessis in power. This doesn't look hopeful, but A Change is Gonna Come...

Une Vieille Boîte/An Old Box

Directed by Paul Driessen

Canada, 1975

There are so many cool animation styles that are beyond me.  Uncool ones are also beyond me.  

This film is another take on the little match girl, now in a modern urban setting, and with a dispensable old guy replacing the Dickensian child.  Andersen posits plenty/sufficiency as natural, so that poverty registers as an especial affront.  Here things are pretty bleak generally.  Where Andersen, appropriate to his child protagonist, sticks to what she has seen and what is nearby, Driessen extends the match girl’s visions spatially and temporally.  His main character, appropriate to his greater experience, envisions sufficiency that is long ago and far away.  As a result the message isn’t just or even widows-and-fatherless (James, 1:27) political. It is Christian.  The final stop in Bethlehem is stunningly indirect.  (Cf. Demy's The Young Girls of Rochefort, in which the final, agonizingly delayed union does take place, but it is withheld from us).  After that the guy doesn’t freeze to death. He’s just discarded, as is appropriate to the coldly sparse setting.  In contrast, then, what a resurrection!  

Ici (details)

The Sweater

Directed by Sheldon Cohen, after a story by Roch Carrier, who also narrates

Canada, 1980

A happy answer to Jutra's chilly view of pre-Quiet revolution Quebec (q.v.).  Dark times aren't always and only awful.  This bright film's fame and acclaim are actually fully justified.  You can still say things about that which has been thoroughly discussed.  I just don't want to.  

Well, except for this.  (Here comes some preposterous hyperbole, indulged in so as to be properly enthusiastic about two worthy things.)   Not since Danny Kaye 1953 (Amazon) has anyone so successfully, so joyfully narrated a children's story.

Fanny and Alexander

Directed by Ingmar Bergman

Sweden, 1982

Superstar/high-modernist director Bergman's culminating work, and a masterpiece. (And doesn't it know it!)  The long middle section echoes some of IB's most noted preoccupations about doubt and faith and stuff.  It's severely clear, admirably cruel, bracingly hopeless.  The last section is quite distinct, all mystical and magical, dark and occultish, full of layers and ambiguities.  The really long opening section sets the scene for all the dizzying stuff that follows: neuroses, resentments, betrayals—the usual August Strindberg/Ingmar Bergman specialities. More powerfully, though, this first section also provides what is about the most Christmas-y assemblage in film history.  Upstairs and downstairs, Masters and Men scurry festively all over, surrounded by seasonal food and lights and singing and dancing and everything.  It's all very beautifully designed and staged, very evocative historically, very inspiring with regard to your own observations.  (But should one try that trick with the matches?)  

The TV version is longer, and even better.  Also, this is a legitimately, markedly adult movie.  Proceed accordingly. 

A Christmas Carol

George C. Scott is Scrooge

US, 1984

Lots of TV production values.  George C.'s accent slips a bit.  That ghost of Christmas yet to come is a bit silly, if you want to think about it overly.  But the text is very well served and, especially, very well delivered.  Actors!  Many of them find something new, or something more to say with these super and now over-familiar characters.  Or, they're just really fine in their own right.  Scott. Rees.  Finlay and Woodward and Warner!  The latter is married, in this film, to Susannah York.  Flash back to the two of them, all antagonistic in Tony Richardson, 1963.

Look at them now, so sweetly reconciled.  It's stirring, somehow, these people dedicating their lives to performing things that might instruct and inspire us. Also, what Warner's Cratchit does on the subject of Tiny Tim is exceptionally true and beautiful.  Such little ones, and all the world to us.

“...Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”

“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”

“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child...” 

Gremlins

Directed by Joe Dante

US, 1984

My younger, more wide-eyed and Capra-corny self was very perturbed when this movie first emergéd, mostly because of that nastily contrived dad-died-at-Christmas story that Phoebe Cates delivers toward the end.  Impiety!  How dare they profane It's a Wonderful Life?  More, what mean-spirits!

Now, in my antiquity, I see it all a bit differently.  A comparison.  The Pythons' Life of Brian has no quarrel with Jesus, but rather with some of the dumb-and-worse things that his adherents get up to.  In the same way Gremlins is not so much anti-Christmas as anti-E.T (you know, o'er wondrous o'er sentiment).  Knowing that puts the stuck-up-the-chimney thing into a different light.  Same with all those gleefully malicious titular creatures.  (You should see them in the sequel!  [Really...]) 

Life of Brian likes Jesus well enough, but it doesn't believe in him, and as a result goes well into offensive territory on a number of occasions. Inadvertently, I think, but still, and actually.  I guess the viewer chooses which one to key on.  Same thing here.  Gremlins, as it goes gleefully along, misbehaves quite a bit.  Be bothered.  Don't.  Remember, though, all didacticism and no anarchy makes childhood a pretty smothering place. Read Luke, chapter 2.  Sleep on it.  Then put on Jerry Lewis.   

One Magic Christmas

Directed by Philip Borsos

US, sort of, 1985

This is kind of like The Great Mouse Detective or Rescuers Down Under.  Something good is starting to happen in Disneyland, but they’re not quite there yet.  Encouraging, though.  Could be the Canadian components.  (Look closely.  Those with eyes to see, let them see...)  

Anyway, here’s an honourable updating and commercialization of the Scrooge myth, in which a disappointed pilgrim is dragged through a therapeutic round of tribulation on the way to being wrapped in the arms of redeeming love.  (Also another entry in annals of crafty or cowardly substituting Santa Claus for Jesus.) Some tribulation!  Protagonist Ginny Grainger’s travails are so punitive as to be practically sadistic.  They sure sweeten the restorations, mind you, especially with all of those little Molly Monahan grace notes that we encounter on the way.  In fact, in some small measure, this is a bit like Carl Dreyer's magisterial masterpiece, Ordet (Denmark, 1955).  The little miracles almost make the big miracles unnecessary.  (It's a bit like Dreyer...)  The husband is a terrific creation, virtue both plausible and interesting.  The children are exceptionally beautiful.  The North Pole is completely successful, especially the variation with the elves.  Harry Dean St. contributes one of film history’s strangest performances.

The Sure Thing

Directed by Rob Reiner

US, 1985

More secular/Jewish than Christian/Christmas, I think.  But it does take place over the December break.  Road trip!  Starts with crass males, making crassly male assumptions.  These are complicated when said males come into contact with actually sentient, independent, intelligent females.  Suddenly crassness starts to have a tough time of it.  Comedy, with a message for its intended audience: appetite notwithstanding, you have to be ethical.  Sex-comedy (which, after all, acknowledges a challenge/question/problem that has to be faced on one's way to healthy, happy, fulfilling adult relationships) surprisingly and quite sweetly turns into something more fraternal, and even chivalric.  Funny, and gets around to setting a good example to boot.

Roger and Me

Directed by Michael Moore

US, 1989

Speaking seasonally, this documentary records some forced evictions that take place on Christmas Day, or thereabouts.  These evictions understandably stimulate glancing harsh language from the newly dispossessed, the which language gives this film an R-rating, which causes many people not to see it, and therefore spares them from a chance to seriously consider some of the more unseemly common practices of the entrepeneurial capitalism that they so strongly, even idolatrously espouse.  Mind you, this direness is not the whole of that picture.  Mind you further, Mr. Moore does, indeed, have a thing or two to answer for.  But GM was in conspicuous profit at the time, was it not?  "Are there no prisons?  Are there no workhouses?"

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Directed by Henry Selick

US, 1993

This is a really remarkable allegory, even if it was somewhat unintended by the filmmakers, or uncomprehended by some viewers who thought it reflected an eroding of Christian values.  It's certainly more remarkable, more substantial than is suspected by all the people who just got geeky over it. 

Consider.  The world is media-supersaturated, and it's full of crime and casual horror.  This results in nostalgic longings for the way things used to be, even if maybe things didn't really used to be that way at all.  A perfect circumstantial setting for a fable about that same battered, super-secular world, though now stylized and stop animated into unrecognizability.  Things are hard, but not exclusively.  Bad things happen here, but it's also where we live, together.  Not quite innocence and monstrosity!  (Was this Lot's idea as he bargained with the Lord on the brink of S & G.s destruction?)  

Doré

Nightmare... is not informed by the horror film's usual antecedents or sensibilities—Poe's grotesqueries and madness, Dostoievsky's wracking self-doubt, his quavering faith and frequent, seeming self-loathing, Kafka's inexorable, multiplying menaces.  Rather, in Selick's (and Burton's) fantastically realized land of waking, and of cheerful (!) nightmare, all that 20th century stuff is so familiar that it's become the norm, no longer even questioned.  The comfortable mayhem is even commercialized as the film craftily lampoons its own commodification, even while reaching deeper into the significance therof.   

This is the context in which Jack Skellington's accidental view of an unironically perfect Christmas world generates a yearning in him for some dim primordial plenitude, which he attempts with all sincerity to bring into his own monstrous reality.  It's like his Road to Damascus, except that he's not Paul, but rather some guy who heard a noise, turned to look from afar, and then saw a light that disappeared before he could get to it.  No Acts 8: 25-34 for him.  How could he ever get it right?  How could you ever blame him.

Jack's attempt fails for two reasons: he doesn't have the tools or experience to pull it off, and even his own inadequate perceptions are completely plowed under by the distorted picture he has to give to the hallowe'en folk in order to sell them on the idea.  A well-meaning but short-falling politician, in other words, forced to further compromise by the restiveness, the wanton distractability and ignorance of his constituents.  

("Nightmare..." is amazingly executed, but not so unprecedented, neither in technique nor sensibility.  Starevich [find the second part yourself]: . Trnka: watch)

Furthermore, the seemingly inappropriate, nearly sacreligious violence that is visited upon the kidnapped Santa might actually be neither sacreligious nor, if our intent has any bearing, even inappropriate.  It's merely the logically absurd embodiment of what happens when the monstrous tries to co-opt the sacred.  They knew where to turn, but not how.  Don't get mad, but be grateful.!  Or, don those missionary duds.  Maybe this film, this world isn't a red door painted black after all.  Maybe it is a field that is all white and ready to harvest.  

Elf

Directed by Jon Favreau

US, 2003

That long ago?  This is almost annoyingly popular and favoured.  It's not like it's perfect.  James Caan as the candidate for redemption is like Gene Lockhart playing an angel in Carousel.  With Ed Asner this time, we're still being coy and cowardly with this Santa Claus/Jesus thing.

Surprise link

Still, isn't it good?  Among other things it features an extremely long belch, and that stunt man leaping up onto that Christmas tree.

Tokyo Godfathers

Satoshi Kon

Japan, 2003

With this one the late, lamented Satoshi Kon brought Ford's 3 Bad Men and 3 Godfathers (q.v.) together, in a contemporary Japanese setting, ramping up the naturalism and all that usually goes along with it. The surprising result is a spectacular grown-up version ofThe Best Christmas Pageant Ever.  Think of it.  Really badly behaved people behave really badly, and do so next to a sacred season and situation that the well-behaved take too often for granted.  The result of the collision is that the circumspect see how self-satisfied and judgmental they have been, while the previously unacceptable, the previously irredeemable are cleansed in the blood of the lamb.  

Sound schematic, or over-insistent?  Thing is, there's enough back and forth here, enough incident, enough provocation, comedy, soap opera, violence and virtuosic set pieces to make the moral medicine go down pretty easily.  And without being diluted at all!  Impossible?  Another precedent, or parallel.  Naturalism, + opera, + a pointed moral at the end?  Raging Bull!  

This film really is so good for you.  Note how you are feeling when the straights on the train react to these homeless people in their midst.  We're appalled.  We've been manipulated into identifying with difference, with deviance even.  This has caused difference and deviance to fall away from our eyes, leaving only the brotherhood of man, not to mention the salvation that babies bring.  It's all beautifully crafted, extremely bold and funny and troubling.  Have the kids watch it.  You'll all have to do some explaining to one another.  Could actually make you a better person.  

Lassie

Directed by Charles Sturridge

UK, 2005

Eric Knight's original novel is dear and nice and nearly a classic.  Liz Taylor appears in the original film version.  There are a number of well-meaning sequels. None of any of these come close to this whopping thing.  The synopsis suggests simple, sentimental kids' story, which is true.  But this is the simplicity of saga, this is sentiment, not sentimentality, this is kids are of the kingdom of heaven.  True, Gregor Fisher's turn doesn't quite measure up to the Glaswegian glories of Rab C. Nesbit.  There—the only flaw I can think of.  

The humans, in town, take us through the assumptions behind the class system, as well as the way it functions.  Rotten privilege, resilient worker, some melodrama reinforcing the message, but also room made for some nice, necessary cross-class detente.  Dramatically affecting, and educational too.  As for Lassie, she shows us the Mythical Journey, the Elements, the perfidy of man and the Kindness of Strangers.  Could you see this ending coming a mile away?  Well, same with your assurances about an impending, millennial day.  It's not obvious, it's inevitable. Lassie is beautifully writ and designed and shot and especially acted.  Particularly by the dog.  (And Peter Dinklage.)  Overall, altogether, boom!!  Don't see it, or dismiss it, and you don't get to complain about no appropriate movies for families ever again.  

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 

Directed by Michael Apted

US/UK 2010

What have they done with that tender little book?  Where did the director of the sublime Amazing Grace go?  The reflective and theological bits are replaced by noise and tumult, especially as regarding Eustace/the dragon.  Aslan’s intervention was the whole point of that episode, and the high point of the whole book.  Where did it go?  Instead of private reproof and reclamation—he’s only a kid, after all—we get Eustace the dragon all the way to the end, defeating a fear-summoned sea monster.  What?!  It’s either commercial cowardice, tin ears, or the aesthetic obliviousness of the sponsoring Christians.

To give credit where it’s due, the kid who plays Eustace is quite tremendous.  He creates an obnoxious character who is also very funny—a tough order.  Also, whether by happy design or with stumbling dumb luck, the story does temptation and repentance very well.  It goes so far as to explore the types pertaining to Christ’s temptation.  There are the boys, drawn by appetite or pre-eminence, and there is the girl, doubting her worthiness.  While under the influence they are pretty well incapable of anything else.  Once delivered, what a phantom it all seems.  The wave effect at the end is cool.

Epilogue: 

It seems grumpy, it is grumpy to end on that last one.  It might seem disruptive or anti-seasonal to end on this next one.  Nothing symbolic intended.

Black Narcissus

Written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

UK, 1947

Superlatives are nearly or practically useless, but is this the most beautifully designed and photographed film ever?  A film, from a book, in which Western religious adherents, and maybe their Western religious tradition, are not up to the challenges, complexities and impenetrabilities of the mystical Orient.  This humility borders upon self-repudiation.  If it's not true here, is it true at all? Paradoxically, it also provides some of the most sweetly searing Christmas imagery in the history of the medium.  Deborah Kerr's Sister Clodagh remembers her native Ireland in a series of dazzling, green-grassed and red-haired flashbacks. The most exquisite of these occurs on a Christmas Eve spent with the man she'd loved, and subsequently lost.  Returning to the present, Clodagh finds herself back in the company of her sisters, all bravely singing these delicate carols in the midst of an obliterating Himalayan vastness.  Is this an exquisite sacrifice?  Or is it a great crime?  

Blaise Pascal has his answer, and so may the rest of us.  But in P&P's principled, charitable doubt we might also find what makes Christmas so important, so ultimately lovely.  A tiny babe, the weary world rejoicing, while all of its principalities rage just around the corner.  "Lord I believe; help thou my unbelief..."

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