Wednesday, December 31, 2014

what the hell have we gotten into, here?

A few questions must be answered before moving on to bigger things. For example, the obvious one: why Christmas?

(And, I need to get my nitpicks out of the way early with this movie because they are actually few.)

Shane Black has a tendency, as it were, to set movies around Christmas (from Lethal Weapon to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to Iron Man 3). Ivan Radford at Vodzilla last year, said it like this:

In 1987, Lethal Weapon blew Christmas wide open. It turned out that Christmas films didn't just have to be festive and feel-good; they could be both of those things and feature guns, swearing and prostitutes too. Happy fucking holidays.

First, a nitpick: Lethal Weapon does not feature any prostitutes. One prostitute, Dixie, has a couple lines at the beginning of the film. That's it. Porn stars and strippers get some screen time, but not really prostitutes. But, moving past that, yeah, a Christmas movie doesn't have to be festive... Except, allow me to nitpick again. This movie with the family dinner at the end--even if we don't see it--is just as festive as, say, Home Alone. I quoted Black's bit from Den of Geek before, but here it is again:

Christmas is fun. It's unifying, and all your characters are involved in this event that stays within the larger story. It roots it, I think, it grounds everything. At Christmas, lonely people are lonelier, seeing friends and families go by. People take reckoning, they [take] stock of where their lives are at Christmas. It just provides a backdrop against which different things can play out, but with one unifying, global heading. I've always liked it, especially in thrillers, for some reason. It's a touch of magic.

Riggs is one of those lonely people; in the script he picks up a hooker just to watch some TV with him. But, really, his root is the job, not the season. I think what the Christmas setting does here is not so much root the events of the film in something larger but in something quite small and singular. These are two specific cops involved in a specific case at a specific time in a specific place. It mitigates the larger story, rather than root in it. The larger story is something like the suburbanization of crime, the drug trade leaking out from the inner city. By focuses the story so exactly, the inherent danger of the situation is isolated.

(Amanda Hunsaker's autopsy happens way too fast. Morning after she jumped to her death, they've already done it. Don't think so.)

Another question: why Family Feud?

You probably didn't even noticed this one. I only noticed it because I just started reading Black's script today and it's actually in the script that Family Feud is on Riggs TV when he wakes up in the trailer at the beginning of the film. I'm guessing that Family Feud is something domestic. Plus, it's a sort of foreshadowing what is to come. Hunsaker's "family" is going to come after Murtaugh's.

(Using a helicopter when you're killing someone seems like a bad plan, unless you've got a ship far enough on the coast that no one can follow you. Helicopters have IDs. They are trackable. They make noise. You don't sneak up on people unless you've got that Blue Thunder helicopter, and this one is not that. Right before the helicopter arrives, Riggs is shown to be outside. He should have heard it coming. And as good a shot as he has been shown to be, he should have done some damage to the helicopter or the people inside.)

(Secondary nitpick: Hunsaker just happening to be drinking some egg nog when he gets shot is a lame movie gag. Give us some egg nog spurting instead of blood. It's cheap.)

(Tertiary nitpick: First, they use a helicopter, which should not have worked. Then, they come to kill Riggs on the street. Nevermind that they have no way of knowing his location right then, they might as well have used the helicopter again. They speed in and screech to a stop before shooting. Mr. Joshua needs some driveby lessons. Drive in slow, along with the rest of the traffic if there is any, don't draw any attention to yourself, then just take the shot.)

Another question: Why the cat and why the dog?

Symbolism, of course, though a little twisted. The cat Burbank as the domesticated animal. Riggs' dog, which in the script is a stray that kind of adopts him in a scene before the Christmas tree lot, is something more like Riggs, a little too dirty to be domestic. But, clean enough--it's hardly a mutt--that you can imagine it once was.

(A question, and perhaps a nitpick: why does Amanda Hunsaker have a twin sister? To be fair, the movie does not tell us that she does, but her father mentions have another daughter and in her yearbook, we see a Beverly Hunsaker next to Amanda. Now, that doesn't mean they have to be related, but considering the character's last name in the script is Lloyd and presumably was changed to Hunsaker to be more unique, I think whoever made the prop is telling us that Amanda and Beverly were twins. But, does this matter to the course of the movie? If we never meet Beverly, never see that she, you know, did not get into drugs and pornographic tapes, then there is no comparison to be made.)

Another question: Why Vietnam?

Except I already sort of answered that one yesterday. This movie like many an 80s action movie is part and parcel of the tail end of the Cold War. I will be making this argument all month, I bet.

There are lesser questions, of course. Does Murtaugh just have a boat because he's preparing to retire? Why does Riggs wipe off his gun before pointing it at himself? Considering the Family Feud thing, why is Looney Tunes playing when he puts the gun in his mouth? And a potentially bigger question that might need to be answered another day: why do they take off Rianne's clothes between the dry lake and the club?

(The final nitpick--and it's a big one--is that, well, Riggs really has no reason to not be suicidal anymore at the end of this movie. Murtaugh asks him if he's crazy or really as good as he says he is. My problem is that these two are things are not antithetical; he can be both. In fact, I think he very much is both. He is suicidal, he is crazy, but he is also pretty damn good at what he does... because he is crazy. It's actually a little strange, really, that being quick to pull his gun and use it means Riggs is crazy; in 80s action movie terms, that is practically normal. But, in this story, Riggs' approach is supposed to be extreme, supposed to be a sign of his insanity. And, he tells Murtaugh that killing people was the only thing he was ever good at. He was messed up before he was married, messed up before he lost his wife. Now, he's just got nothing to lose.

We can presume that Riggs has grown attached to his new partner and his family--and I think that's what we do. The movie does not give us enough reason to believe this has happened. The day they get tortured, the day that ends with Riggs' fight on the lawn with Mr. Joshua--this is only their third day as partners. Riggs should not be leaving his bullet for Murtaugh. Maybe he feels a little better about his life now that he's got a partner willing to work with him (or so it seems, at least), but suicidal thoughts don't just go away like that. His relationship with Murtaugh is a rebound at best. Riggs is going to be missing his wife again soon enough. Hell, by Shane Black's own logic--and remember, Riggs is his brainchild--a lonely person like Riggs will feel lonelier upon seeing that family together... well, there's some mitigation, I suppose, in him being a part of this one. Cinematic shorthand has demonstrated that the family has accepted him.

But, if we assume that Riggs was suffering from actual depression, that he was actually suicidal--and his gun in the mouth scene was him alone so cinematically it is presenting truth--then the transition to where the movie is telling us he is at the end, after only 2-3 days--that is dismissive of real mental illness.)

Now, on with the positive--

i think i'm an eighties man

Start us off with "Jingle Bell Rock" and we know it's Christmas time. Give us a half naked woman who seems a little high and we know... What do we know? Close on the cocaine she snorts and Christmas lights reflected off the glass of the table, and Christmas becomes a setting for something twisted. And, we don't even have dialogue yet in this, one of the greatest Christmas movies ever--Lethal Weapon.

Character introductions: Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) introduced naked in a bathtub, his family comes in to wish him a happy birthday. Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) also introduced naked. Nakedness is important. Present us with dangerous men at their most vulnerable and we should know there is something a little different going on here than your usual cop movie. I think of movies like the Dirty Harry films or the Death Wish films. The suburban life of one of our leads is one notable difference. The lonely trailer life of the other... I'm trying to remember if we ever saw any of the home life of Paul Kersey or Harry Callahan. There was some life outside the police station, of course, but not--I'm pretty sure--the domestic... bliss of Murtaugh's homelife.

Next we see Riggs, he's trying some cocaine himself. We haven't actually been told he's a cop yet. Come into this movie blind and his revelation here would work on the audience as it works on the drug dealers. Then, home for a little contemplation of suicide. Riggs is damaged as Callahan or Kersey surely would be, but the movie doesn't just point it outward.

A great bluesy score, a lot of inexplicably wet streets at night, and a romantic comedy-style setup with the "meet-cute" in the police station. Lethal Weapon is one of the definitive 80s action movies, and the definitive "buddy cop" movie in my opinion. Out March 6, 1987, a week after A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors, the top box office list for that weekend is a whole bunch of movies familiar to me.

Lethal Weapon at #1. Saw that opening weekend on the big screen. That second Freddy Krueger movie at #2. Wouldn't see that one until much later on TV. Platoon at #3 in its 12th week of release. Saw that one opening weekend on the big screen. Angel Heart at #4. Wouldn't see that one for a few years, would write a paper partly about that one for my Magic and Witchcraft anthropology course at USC.

(For the record, that paper would also include Live and Let Die, The Believers and The Serpent and the Rainbow. It was a paper about the representation of Voodoo in film. Writing that paper I would watch Angel Heart for the second time after having watched it previously at my sister's house. Watching movies I wouldn't otherwise have seen with my parents--which actually wasn't that many movies--at my sister's house was... well, not a regular thing, but a thing.)

Outrageous Fortune at #5 in its sixth week. Saw that one opening weekend as well, probably. Some Kind of Wonderful (another John Hughes movie) at #6. I actually do not recall seeing that one in the theater, mostly because I've seen it many times on video. That and Can't Buy Me Love made the regular rotation in the late 80s, early 90s in our house, perhaps because of a couple teenage daughters, perhaps just because they're good movies. Mannequin at #7 in its fourth week. Probably saw that one its opening weekend. Hoosiers at #8. Definitely saw that one its opening weekend. Black Widow at #9... not even sure what that movie is offhand, but still might have seen it... Looked it up on IMDb just now and, sure enough, I saw that one at some point. On video, I think. Crocodile Dundee at #10 still in its 24th week. Saw that one opening weekend. Radio Days at #11. Watched that one sometime later on video or maybe on TV. Didn't care for it much. Over the Top at #12 in its fourth week. Saw that in the theater, but not sure if it was opening weekend.

The point is, as I have mentioned before I saw a lot of movies as a kid (and as an adult). I saw Lethal Weapon (pretty sure) at the Mann 3 theater in Hastings Ranch. Second time I saw it was a little more interesting--in a tiny little theater inside the front end of a ferry between Ireland and England with the boat rocking on some big waves.

(Interesting movie connection: Hunsaker mentions working with Air America during the war. A few years after this Mel Gibson would star in the Air America movie.)

(More meaningful movie connection: I'll get into this more in a few weeks with Rambo but repeated references to "the war" are not just a coincidence in timing for a movie like this. Like I have argued that slasher films were born in part as a response to the feminist movement, I must argue that 1980s testosterone-filled action movies were born as a response to the Vietnam War; Siskel and Ebert called movies like Missing in Action and Rambo and Uncommon Valor the "this time we win" films. For the first time, America had lost a war. Sixties counterculture had birthed the swinging seventies and now a challenge to American hegemony and, let's face it, American masculinity--because, surely, if countries have genders, the United States is a cowboy constantly overcompensating for something--meant we had to prove our might around the world and on the silver screen... which also traveled around the world, probably doing just as much long term damage as our soldiers.

Now, there's an idea that could use some backup.

Action films like Lethal Weapon, no matter how intelligent the script, reinforced the American notion that might makes right and a little more force will always win out. We can take a beating just like Murtaugh and Riggs can. We can have our kids taken--it's a daughter here, but it might as well be a son sent off to die on the other side of the globe--and come right back and kill the bad guy.

Like some of the material I'll share regarding John Rambo in a few weeks, Martin Riggs is representative of a certain piece of America. He married in '75 or '76, just after the war ended. And, things probably seemed alright for a while. Then, old darkness reemerged as the Cold War was on the brink of exploding or ending. The only way Lethal Weapon could be more... meaningful as far as that goes, is if Mr. Joshua or General McAllister were Russians. That is an 80s film.)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

if you want to come back tomorrow, i could—

i have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted and burned.

That's the last time I did a recap post, and that was too long ago. As Groundhog Day plays tonight, I shall recap a few entries.

For example, back in September, I watched a few romantic comedies, starting with When Harry Met Sally...:

Day 395 - men and women can't be friends got into the definition of romantic comedy. Day 396 - write about things that happen to other people gets a little personal because I do that from time to time. Day 397 - sit with someone and not have to talk gets into the commentary track. Day 398 - the only person i knew in new york is me getting annoyed with Annie Hall as a side project in my week of When Harry Met Sally..., and suggests that a romantic comedy needs to be urban. Day 399 - i'm too structured gets into Social Penetration Theory and my general approach to blogging about movies. Day 400 - one of the secrets that no one ever tells you is about the friendzone. Day 401 - the sex part always gets in the way finishes off When Harry Met Sally... by introducing a little Jane Austen.

Then came Moonstruck. First, Day 402 - love don't make things nice deals with singular moments that lead us into relationships. Day 403 - she's dying. but i could still hear her big mouth starts to get into the connection to La Boheme. Day 404 - you tell me a story and you think you know what it means continues into that connection as I watch La Boheme in addition to Moonstruck. Day 405 - but i can see what the true story is gets into the commentary track. Day 406 - it's not really a story returns to La Boheme, suggesting that it and the film do not play well together. Day 407 - the past and future is a joke to me now gets into a few nitpicks. And, Day 408 - i'm not eating alone does not talk about Italian Americans, instead opting to argue that love is silly.

Day 409 - the fatal love potion begins my week with The Mirror Has Two Faces be jumping around from mirrors to la petite mort and our inability to step into the same river twice. Day 410 - anything you want to talk about gets into Dowd and Pallotta's (2000) "norms and rules governing romance." Day 411 - academic opinions that are purely subjective argues that Greg (Jeff Bridges' character in the film) has "manufactured a position that is unsustainable" by trying to have a marriage without sex (love). Day 412 - divisible by themselves involves reflections and Day 413 - everything is about sex involves sexual innuendo, while Day 414 - how childishly you're behaving involves Genderlect Styles. Day 415 - a soulless manipulation demonstrates how, no matter how much it may try to be otherwise, The Mirror Has Two Faces is still just a romantic comedy.

Day 416 - we both screw people for money starts off my week with Pretty Woman by immediately getting into the original script--$3,000--and already complaining, when I hadn't even realized just how much I would dislike this movie soon enough. Day 417 - i needed a little pick-me-up suggests that this film is almost a critique of capitalism but a failure at being a fairy tale. Day 418 - i don't need any romantic hassles this week, on the other hand, is a bit of my critique of capitalism via Pretty Woman. Day 419 - i refuse to spend the next three days fighting with you is my attempt to like Pretty Woman. It almost works. Day 420 - who does it really work out for? does a little better job of suggesting this movie is actually pretty good even while being cynical about love. Day 421 - only cause you're paying me is me "finding the good." Day 422 - we lost our way returns to $3,000 because I think I like it more than Pretty Woman.

And, then, with a month of romantic comedies behind me, I returned to Groundhog Day for Day 423 - i need someone to give me a good hard slap in the face, in which I prove the film is not a romantic comedy.

Then came my month of slasher films, which ran a little differently; instead of watching each movie seven times, I watched a different slasher film each day, tracking the genre through several decades. I will mostly just list them here:

And, I returned to my old friend Groundhog Day again with Day 457 - no matter what happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life.

Instead of a genre of films, the next two months dealt with holiday movies. First up was Thanksgiving. And, first up for Thanksgiving was Planes, Trains & Automobiles, beginning with Day 458 - everything is not an anecdote. Day 459 - a million bucks shy of being a millionaire deals with how American this movie is. Day 460 - have a gay old time posits the film as romantic comedy. Day 461 - the last thing i want to be remembered as is an annoying blabbermouth is a short bit about dates and routes. Day 462 - i talk to much. i also listen too much is me connecting with this movie. Day 463 -what you see involves a handful of screencaps. And, Day 464 - if you catch me running off with my mouth… is about John Candy and his character of Del Griffith.

Next up for Thanksgiving was Dutch, staring with a comparison to Planes, Trains & Automobiles with Day 465 - i'm a little surprised to see myself here, too. Day 466 - you got any amusing anecdotes? deals with class and things we don't see in Dutch. The class thing continues in a piece about the titular character: Day 467 - a working-class nobody . Day 468 - no better way for two guys to get to know each other… expands on that since both Dutch and Doyle are unlikable, and that circles right back into class with Day 469 - …than to spend a couple days in a car. Day 470 - i'm not taking anymore of your crap provides some of the best and worst moments in Dutch. Day 471 - i think this makes us even deals with class, film audiences, Thanksgiving and Freud.

Day 472 - if i told you the long version… begins my week with Pieces of April. Day 473 - the most perfect thing ever involves some play-by-play and Day 474 - if not now, when? justifies having assholes as characters... and hypothesizes a time-loop version of this story. Day 475 - too many memories deals with damaged people on the way to hope. Day 476 - in the kitchen deals with the metaphor of the titular April as Thanksgiving turkey. Day 477 - i am so critical… is me running out of negative things to say while Day 478 -'s one of my worst faults is me relating to April.

The month of Thanksgiving movies ended with Home for the Holidays. Day 479 - what life is all about starts the week with some play-by-play. Day 480 - i'm half crazy and Day 481 - clown family get into family. Day 482 - isn't it just too perfect, what i did? breaks down the script. Day 483 - time doesn't matter starts getting into the inherent nostalgia in holidays. Day 484 - shoveling the turkey and stuffing the snow details how American Thanksgiving food tends to be. Day 485 - i wish i had it all on tape ties family to memory to nostalgia.

And, then I returned to Groundhog Day again. Day 486 - can i be serious with you for a minute? takes all the stuff from the Thanksgiving movies--learning to accept other people, appreciating family, appreciating difference, wanting to go backward into our memories--and jumps off of all those, through Groundhog Day, into something more personal. It happens.

My month of Christmas movies begins with Home Alone, starting with Day 487 - all the great ones leave their mark, a fairly basic review. Day 488 - it's no big deal gets into why Kevin should not be afraid of Old Man Marley. Day 489 - i'm not afraid anymore delves into the creation of self, and that continues in Day 490 - old enough to know how it works. Then, I return to Old Man Marley (this time as a Christ-Figure) in Day 491 - when christ was born. Day 492 - through his funhouse details the injuries sustained by the Wet Bandits. And, Day 493 - the season of perpetual hope argues that Home Alone is, in fact, not a Christmas movie.

I returned to slasher films, while still dealing with Christmas, with Black Christmas, which was a little confusing at first, as mentioned in Day 494 - it's a new exchange, but I was able to pay a little better attention the next day with Day 495 - insinuating stuff and not coming out with what they mean. Day 496 - stop me is me disagreeing with the movie's twist ending, as is Day 497 - i still want to do those things, sort of. Watching Silent Night, Deadly Night prompted me to get into the Canadian film industry and the state of horror films at the time Black Christmas was made in Day 498 - expanding his act. This led into an exploration of male melodrama and slasher films (again) with Day 499 - come right out and say it. Finally, Day 500 - the party's over gets into urban legends, specifically "The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs."

Christmas got less deadly with National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, starting with a basic review in Day 501 - the warm embrace of kith and kin. Day 502 - resolving differences and seeing through the petty problems of family life brings us back to family. But, Day 503 - i don't want to spend the holidays dead counters that a bit. Day 504 - standards that no family even can ever live up to justifies holiday nostalgia and returns somewhat to the formation of self. Day 505 - you shouldn't use that word, my daughter watches the movie and comments, and I respond. Day 506 - the man was… was wearing a blue leisure suit is about the yuppie couple next door and the purpose they serve in this film. Day 507 - best to just let him finish is what about my experience with Christmas movies.

My month of Christmas movies ended with A Christmas Story. Day 508 - infinitely subtle devices explains how this movie is actually about Christmas more than the previous movies. Day 509 - everybody knows that suggests a sort of universal relatability to A Christmas Story. Day 510 - speaking in strange tongues is about what goes into a story. Day 511 - his true medium comes back to the universal thing. Day 512 - has anyone seen flick? details a few other movies involving the Parker family. Day 513 - he knows. he always knows is about the panopticon of of Santa Claus and Christmas. Day 514 - the soft glow of electric sex suggests that A Christmas Story is about the conflict between discovering sex and remaining a child.

And, tonight I had Groundhog Day on once again. But, there was so much going into this entry, I had little to say... though, I think Rita might have a donut addiction and Phil might actually have spent some time homeless. Anyway, this entry is Day 515 - if you want to come back tomorrow, i could—.

The next month will be slightly different. So that I can watch Groundhog Day again on Groundhog Day, I am adding an extra movie. But, it will only have six viewings. The other four will have seven as "usual." And, they will all be action movies from the 1980s.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

the soft glow of electric sex

Sticking your tongue where it probably shouldn't be. Fantasizing about how much your teacher likes you. Fantasizing about being the savior to everyone around you. Just another day in the life of an adolescent boy.

Yesterday was serious. Today—not so much. Unless, of course, it is.

A Christmas Story is a coming-of-age story for Ralphie Parker. As mentioned in the commentary track (and as should be obvious to anyone watching the movie) the one throughline of the film is Ralphie's pursuit of the Red Ryder BB Gun. I've written before about the "cowboy" as the "quintessential man's man" and that comes into play here again. Ralphie, on the brink of not being a child anymore fantasizes about being a cowboy (and also about being a spy, given the Little Orphan Annie decoding bit, but maybe that scene isn't to be taken so literally... more on that below). Ralphie seeks a phallic symbol he can use to demonstrate his manliness. There is not even much of a reach between the literalness and the metaphor; the film climaxes with Ralphie exploding into violence after an open display of emotion, effectively combating the feminine (emotion) with the masculine (violence).

Sidenote: Scut Farkus, of course, wears a coonskin cap, placing himself visually already in the camp of masculine. He also wears a leather jacket, as does his toadie Grover Dill, whose costume resembles the member of a biker gang in a "fifties" film.

Separate from the violence, there are two other scenes that point to Ralphie's path through puberty. The first is acknowledged (indirectly) by Director Bob Clark in the commentary track. The second is, I'm pretty sure, original to me.

First—the lamp.

Clark suggests the lamp represents the Old Man bringing pornography into the house. In his narration, adult Ralph specifically refers to the lamp as "electric sex." No wonder Mother seems threatened. Her husband has brought sex into a house with two young boys. Ralphie and the younger Randy are both fascinated by the lamp. Ralphie immediately reaches out to touch it, sliding his hand up toward the point where—and you may not notice this since the leg is only briefly seen without the shade—the curve of the severed leg's butt begins. His mother stops him and he narrates: "My mother was trying to insinuate herself between us and the statue." This is whatever the opposite of Oedipal complex would be, I suppose. The threat separating Mother from son is the intrusion here. The lamp.

(Clark also suggests that that stenciled lettering cutting off at the edge of the case so it says HIS END UP instead of THIS END UP was deliberate. Whose end?)

The Old Man wants to put his "trophy" on display, much like an older man going through a mid-life crisis with a younger woman at his side. The lamp is his younger woman. And, when he goes outside to look at it from the street, Ralphie touches it again. Mother stops him again. And then, he puts his hand on it again at least three more times, briefly before Mother sends him away to the radio.

The thing is, she sends him to a girl. Little Orphan Annie. But, the key here is that Annie is inaccessible. Mother has pointed him toward an unattainable female instead of this new, more sexualized arrival. And, the movie cuts to a schoolday, Ralphie fantasizing about his teacher. It is not sexual, of course, but puberty is confusing. Sexual ideas get mixed up with nonsexual thoughts. Ralph not only wins his teacher's approval but that of his entire class. They literally hold him up as the exemplar of greatness.

Before Ralphie comes back to Little Orphan Annie, Ralphie has another notable coming-of-age moment, being tasked to help his father change the tire. Ralphie isn't much help, of course, but he has a separate coming-of-age moment with his "F dash dash dash word" moment. Saying that word is something reserved for the adults—we know Ralphie learned it from the Old Man, Schwartz' mom knows he learned it from the Old Man, but Mother does not make that connection; the point is the Old Man is allowed to say it because he is an adult.

(Sidenote: the mother tastes the Lifebuoy soap. Roger Ebert, in his review calls this one of "many small but perfect moments" in the movie. He argues, "There is a real knowledge of human nature beneath the comedy" in moments like this one. The human nature on display is Mother trying to connect with a son she is losing to adolescence.)

On to Little Orphan Annie. There is a secret message to what happens here in Ralphie's "first secret meeting." Ralphie goes to the bathroom to be alone, "the only room in the house where a boy of nine could sit in privacy and decode." Decode is, of course, code. As he works the cylinder of the decoder toward payoff, adult Ralph tells us "it was coming easier now." Mother and Randy wait at the door, and Ralphie gets angry, defensive about being in the bathroom. "I'll be right out, Ma. Gee whiz," he says the first time. Then, "Alright, Ma, I'll be right out." Then, "I'll be right out, for crying out loud." Each response louder than the one before. Meanwhile, adult Ralph narrates: "Gee. Almost there. My fingers flew. My mind was a steel trap. Every pore vibrated. It was almost clear. Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!" Then, the energy is lost, the payoff not as great as he had hoped. For years to come, Ralphie will try to get that energy back again and again. He leaves the bathroom "to face the world again, wiser." He has taken another step to becoming a man.

The next scene, though, Ralphie is having milk and cookies in the kitchen. His mother is holding him to his childhood as best she can. And, that is when she goes into the living room to break the lamp. She wins this round. But, she will lose the war. Ralphie will get older, no matter what she does.

(Meanwhile, Ralphie is rejected by his teacher and she becomes the Wicked Witch of the West—classic adolescent behavior: the girl who rejects you is, of course, not a normal human. And, Mother is there dressed as a court jester to support her. This rejection, of course, leads to the violence I have already mentioned.)

Mother does not tell the Old Man the details of Ralphie's fight, of course. That acknowledgement would make Ralphie's adolescence more real than she wants it to be. She has also created a new secret bond between herself and Ralphie, cementing his place as her little boy a little longer, the Old Man and his attempt to bring sex into the house a failure. And, Ralphie is left turning to Santa Claus; he is stuck being a kid a little longer so he can ask for a way out of his childhood--that Red Ryder BB gun.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

he knows. he always knows

Let us get on with the end of Christmas. Today, let us be serious, maybe a little cynical. The key to any Christmas movie, to Christmas itself, is a year-end assessment of the year leading to it. Particularly, the whole naughty/nice thing.

(Meanwhile, by the way, I’ve got the commentary track playing. Director Bob Clark and star Peter Billingsly. Nothing too exciting so far. Currently, after the Black Bart fantasy, Peter is talking about the cut Flash Gordon bit.)

As the year comes to an end, we are told (quite explicitly as children) that someone has been watching us all year. There’s no point in being told this after the fact, of course. What matters is that we have the idea in our heads that someone is watching in the future. Like religion, it keeps us in line because of the idea that someone is keeping track of our actions. In my (2014) piece on Plato’s charioteer, I argued that even the simple dichotomy of angels and demons, in the form of that cartoon image of the two tiny on our shoulders, serves to reinforce our actions toward the good. While, importantly, also reinforcing the idea that we choose to be good. I wrote:

...all of this—the charioteer [from Phaedrus], the shoulder angel, the two wolves [from Cherokee myth]—is just our own internal panopticon keeping us in line because we want to believe there will be some measure put to our choices in the future. Foucault (1979) suggests that we—he refers to “the inmate” but the effect is the same—”must never know whether [we are] being looked at any moment; but [we] must be sure that [we] may always be so” (p. 201). The only reason to ever choose between the good horse and the bad horse, the good wolf and the bad wolf, the shoulder angel and the shoulder devil is that we believe in the existence of moral rightness. This belief presumes that our actions will be weighed by, if not a God or gods, than [sic] by the society around us. The good/bad binary keeps us in line because we believe one option is the correct one. Foucault’s (1979) “guarantee of order” comes from the “invisibility” inherent in narrowing down the panoply of real choices we have to an obvious, and omnipresent, two. (p. 13-14)

Santa Claus is just one way of reinforcing that binary. A recent Washington Post piece (or at least a digital technology professor quoted in the piece) argued that the elf on the shelf “reif[ies] hegemonic power” (Holley, 2014). While I had heard of the Elf on the Shelf when this piece came up, I wasn’t entirely familiar with the concept. So, I looked it up. According to its website,, the Elf on the Shelf comes from a children’s book about Santa’s scout elves. Apparently, the story did not creep people out enough to not also buy little elf dolls (apparently, one comes with the book, but there is other Elf on the Shelf merchandise available) to leave around the house. There’s also a “Teacher Resource Center” for using the Elf on the Shelf in the classroom.

(First really notable bit from the commentary track: Jean Shepherd was in talks to do the voiceover for The Wonder Years at one point. I’m guessing that, had that gone through, he would have had some say on the tone of that show even if only through the quality of his voiceover, so that might have been a very different show.)

This is in an age when we let our phone track our location so we can tag instagram photos and tweets so everyone knows what we are doing at that location. The police state thing that Pinto and Nemorin (2014) get at might beg some questions, but it isn’t necessarily far off. Holley makes sure to point out that Pinto, who he talked to on the phone, “comes across as extremely friendly and not at all paranoid... She’s also completely serious.” Pinto and Nemorin write:

The immense impact of play in how children make sense of their world, their place in society, and their identity, and what is right and wrong has been well-documented. Play comes in a variety of forms and involves many different types of activities; children may role-play and interact with other people, or they may interact with things (toys or other objects), or a combination of both. In the course of play, children practice all sorts of social and cognitive activities, such as exercising self-control, testing and developing what they already know, cooperating and socializing, symbolizing and/or using objects in ways that are meaningful and exciting to them.

Play begets personality, essentially. Personality and identity. How a child plays pushes him/her into who he/she is going to be. That is why we engender (pun intended) another binary into our toys—boy and girl. Even A Christmas Story reinforces this binary—Ralphie seeks out the phallic rifle and rejects the specifically feminine-identified pink bunny suit. His open crying (feminine) is followed by deliberate violence (masculine).

(I noticed the other day the cut from the toilet to the pot on the stove, “from the pot to the pot.” Bob Clark admits in the commentary that this cut was not on purpose, but he often takes credit for it.

Any movie that is not about gender will generally choose not to blur gender lines. Unless, of course, it works for laughs.

(Gender will probably come up again tomorrow.)

Pinto and Nemorin continue:

When children enter the play world of The Elf on the Shelf, they accept a series of practices and rules associated with the larger story. This, of course, is not unique to The Elf on the Shelf. Many children’s games, including board games [Monopoly, for example] and video games, require children to participate while following a prescribed set of rules. The difference, however, is that in other games, the child role-plays a character, or the child imagines herself within a play-world of the game, but the role play does not enter the child’s real world as part of the game. As well, in most games, the time of play is delineated (while the game goes on), and the play to which the rules apply typically does not overlap with the child’s real world.

Elf on the Shelf presents a unique (and prescriptive) form of play that blurs the distinction between play time and real life.

They go on, but I want to diverge from Pinto and Nemorin because, I would argue, Christmas was already about blurring that distinction. Parents deliberately lie to their children about a magical old man and his elves (I won’t take this too far in suggesting God and the angels serve the same purpose... except inasmuch as I just have) are watching and weighing and will offer reward or... well, not punishment. Coal, I suppose, in the stocking. No Krampus in the modern lore to punish the naughty children. No Billy from Silent Night, Deadly Night to kill whoever is naughty (though other slasher film villains do continue that tradition throughout the rest of the year). My point is that Christmas itself serves the purpose that Pinto and Nemorin are putting on the Elf on the Shelf. Christmas—Santa Claus—already puts upon our children the idea that they are being watched. And, it makes them okay with it. We want them to not only believe in someone keeping track of what they are doing but to be glad for it. We want them to look forward to waiting in line to meet him as the year comes to an end, to look forward to the idea of him climbing down the chimney into our houses while we sleep.

Or... maybe we expect that our children are smart enough to tell the difference. No one is coming down the chimney. No one is watching you at all moments. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or whatever else you’re doing online—these are choices, not invasions of privacy.

Works Cited

Black, R.E.G. (2014). From Charioteer Myth to Shoulder Angel: A Rhetorical Look at Our Divided Soul. Colloquy 10, 36-49.

Holley, P. (2014, December 16). The Elf on the Shelf is preparing your child to live in a future police state, professor warns. Washington Post.

Pinto, L. & Nemorin, S. (2014, December 1). Who’s the Boss? “The Elf on the Shelf” and the normalization of surveillance. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

has anyone seen flick?

No Bob Clark directing, no Jean Shepherd narrating, A Christmas Story 2 is not immediately horrible. Instead of the Red Ryder BB gun, there are cars and girls now because Ralphie is a teenager. His fantasies herein go from being just about one (the girl) to being about both in a matter of minutes.

And we get bon mots like this from the Old Man: “Treat the gas like your wife and the clutch like your mother-in-law.” (Adding a punching motion to that last bit.)

A little too much farce to this one, Ralphie and Schwartz and Flick like the Three Stooges. And, if this was actually based one stories from In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, as it claims, the stories seem even more separate than in the original. And, the Old Man being cheap doesn’t seem to fit the character from the original.

There is a nice twist in Mother’s stash of money being revealed just after she learns of Ralphie’s money problem, but then she does not end up helping him; instead she buys fish to save face for the Old Man and his failed stint ice fishing. Ralphie’s helping out the poor family almost plays like a John Hughes story turn, but in the end, the film works much better than its low IMDb score suggests.

With Bob Clark and Jean Shepherd involved, My Summer Story (aka It Runs in the Family), starts well. Instead of aping moments from the original, it mentions Christmas then deliberately moves on, just as life should.

(Film connections: that last movie, A Christmas Story 2 has Daniel Stern from Home Alone as the Old Man, and this movie includes two different Culkins (though, neither one Macauley), plus Kieran Culkin was also in Home Alone, as Fuller. Ralphie’s new enemy (Scut Farkus having been demoted) Lug Ditka is played by Whit Hertford who played Jacob in A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. Less notable (because of the minimal screentime) you also see Betty Boop briefly in My Summer Story. Mae Questal, Aunt Bethany in Christmas Vacation was the voice of Betty Boop.)

Though My Summer Story should be set in 1940 (A Christmas Story being Christmas 1939), the film stock used plays a little too new. Someone on the IMDb board suggested this film seems more like The Sandlot’s ’60s than A Christmas Story’s ’40s. And, that makes sense. Weird thing, Charles Grodin, actually older here than Darren McGavin was in the original as the Old Man, seems younger. He also seems a little more... angry than the crazed zaniness of the Old Man in the original.

The personal property tax bit is actually pretty funny. Such a tax still exists in Indiana. Speaking of Indiana, though, I thought I had another—

(Film Connection)

—in the city scenes in A Christmas Story being filmed in Cleveland. Not set in Cleveland, though. A Christmas Story 2 establishes that Higbee’s is in downtown Hohman...

(The connection, by the way, would have been that Phil Connors grew up in Cleveland so he might have shopped at that same Higbee’s as Ralphie Parker, though a decade later.)

I won’t nitpick the timing of the Exposition in Chicago (which was in 1933) because, well, a fictional story can move stuff like that.

(By the way, Phil Connors, for those of you inattentive folks, is the main character in Groundhog Day.)

But, hypocrite that I am, I would like to nitpick the use of the Spaghetti Western music from the 1960s over the big spinning top battle because, well, you can’t have your messed up time work in both directions; that is just selfish.

Another nitpick: how does the cop from the exposition show up at the Parker’s house? It’s not even the same state.

In the end, the movie works better than A Christmas Story 2 but the ending relies a bit too much on sheer luck with Ralphie catching the fish.

Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss gives us the Parker family again. Jean Shepherd is involved again (for the record, this is 6 years before My Summer Story and 24 years before A Christmas Story 2, five years after the original) but not Bob Clark. Almost immediately, there’s something off. Interactions play more like a sitcom—for example, Ralph’s “For crying out loud” plays like a catchphrase that hasn’t been earned. Shepherd’s narration plays well enough, but Ralph’s search for his first job (Apparently the makers of A Christmas Story 2 never watched this or they would know Ralph had a job at 14 so 15-year-old Ralph should not be calling his Higbee’s gig his first job.) plays like a sitcom plot. Similarly, the yearly trip to the lake doesn’t quite fit with the access to the much closer lake seen in both My Summer Story and A Christmas Story 2. I guess that’s the problem when separate filmmakers both combine multiple short stories and make up other details to create separate movies coming from (at least in part) the same source material. Continuity be damned.

Speaking of continuity, I’ve already mentioned that A Christmas Story takes place around Christmas 1939, but the movie never tells us specifically when it is set. Red Ryder BB guns were introduced in 1938 so it’s after that. The Wizard of Oz was out in 1939 but Fantasia (which could be the style Mickey Mouse they’ve got in that parade) didn’t come out until the end of 1940. And, Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas, which we hear on Christmas morning, didn’t come out until 1945. Plus, Indiana schools were not racially integrated until 1949, Scut’s braces shouldn’t have existed until the ’70s, Ralphie’s glasses until the ’80s. And, many more, despite a hell of a lot of period-appropriate props and set dressing.

Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss, if not for mention of the lake trip early on should really be a couple shorter... episodes of the Parker family’s sitcom. The lost dog bit, Ralph’s first job, and the actual roadtrip are all quite separate story entities. Then again, Jean Shepherd insists that his In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, which everyone else considers a collection of short stories, to be a novel. As I suggested recently, this actually makes the movie a little more realistic but a lot less cinematic.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

his true medium

From A Christmas Story

From our apartment this morning.

One of those truthful scenes in A Christmas Story that I was talking about yesterday is the Christmas morning unwrapping and the chaotic mess that remains afterward. I don’t much like such messes, even though as a kid, once I had my own bedroom, it was often a mess—the room was small enough that I didn’t need the floor anyway, so I would leave books and things all over the floor. Because I don’t like such messes I have made a habit since my first Christmas (2007, I believe) to take the discarded wrapping paper as it falls and ball it up, tuck it all away in a discarded box. Like the Anal Retentive Chef from Saturday Night Live, I clean up as it goes. But, really, you can’t keep up with all of it. Excitement delays attentiveness. Like Daryl Zero leaving that receipt behind in one of my favorite movies (which I do intend to watch for this blog at some point), Zero Effect.

Emotion gets in the way of, well, the attachment to a cleaner space in this instance.


Sometimes, it just isn’t possible.

Watching a movie, though, sits you right on the brink of detachment and attachment. You’re separated just enough that you can enjoy even the most tense moments, but—if the filmmakers have done their jobs right—you are pulled in enough that you care about those moments, that you are invested in the characters. You worry, perhaps, about Kevin McCallister even though you know objectively that the makers of Home Alone are not going to let the Wet Bandits win. That’s not always the case; some films and some filmmakers (the less family-friendly ones) put characters in real danger.

A Christmas Story is not about characters in danger, though Ralphie does risk punishment (and, to be fair, his little brother does think the Old Man is going to kill him). For a kid—beware trite generalities ahead—and we were all kids (or are kids)—stuff like the triple dog dare or Scut Farkus are real dangers. “In our world, you were either bully, a toady, or one of the nameless rabble of victims,” Ralphie says. These social roles are real dangers for kids, identity markers that dictate social interaction, dictate the future. Regardless of any real violence from Farkus or Grover Dill, of course.

Having looked into the multiple stories that make up A Christmas Story, I’m not even bothered by—though I do notice—the separateness of the plotlines. The lamp really has nothing to do with the BB gun which really has nothing to do with the Scut Farkus Affair, and the Ovaltine mishap has nothing to do with any of them. But, that’s how life works. Different pieces flow right past each other and the only commonality is you. To take this even further, I think I’ll watch a couple of the other Parker family movies tomorrow…

Already “watched” the movie today. It was on as we were opening gifts.

I want to get to some of the extras as well, especially the commentary track.

And, to be done with Christmas just a handful of days after Christmas.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

speaking in strange tongues

The character of Ralphie Parker has been in no less than six movies. Several were on PBS so they aren’t readily available. I found a couple online, may watch them in the next few days. There was also a sequel to A Christmas Story... which has a 3.4 on IMDb.

For the record: A Christmas Story (1983) currently has an 8.1, The Phantom of the Open Hearth (1976) has an 8.2, Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby is a Friend of Mine (1982) has a 6.9, The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters (1982) has an 8.0, The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski (1985) has an 8.6, Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss (1988) has a 7.7, and It Runs in the Family/My Summer Story (1994) has a 5.7.

The character was also apparently in American Playhouse’s Concealed Enemies: Part I: Suspicion, a “dramatized account of the actual events that led to the 1950 conviction of former U.S. State Department Alger Hiss of perjury before a federal grand jury...” There’s more to the description but I cannot imagine how the fictional Ralphie Parker figures into it. Movies in Real Life also, apparently produced a scene from A Christmas Story in real life.

Ralph Parker originally came from Jean Shepherd’s book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. While Shepherd (who also narrates the film) always maintained that the book was a novel, structurally it is a collection of short stories. A Christmas Story is mostly based on four of the stories: “Duel in the Snow,” “The Counterfeit Secret Circle Member Gets the Message,” “My Old Man and the Lascivious Special Award That Heralded the Birth of Pop Art” and “Grover Dill and the Tasmanian Devil.” Additionally, “The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds” from Shepherd’s second novel, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories, was used. The five stories were collected in an A Christmas Story book in 2003.

More interesting, though, than the film coming from multiple short stories is where those short stories originated. Jean Shepherd performed such stories on the radio. He adapted some for Playboy magazine, but if not for poet and children’s book author Shel Silverstein, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and by extension A Christmas Story probably wouldn’t exist. Shepherd wouldn’t write down his stories because he “wasn’t a writer”—he didn’t even use scripts for his radio shows—so Silverstein recorded Shepherd’s stories and transcribed them then got Shepherd to help edit them. I’ve obviously never heard Shepherd on the radio—though he was on the radio as recently as the 1990s—but I imagine his stories (judging by his voiceover style in the movie) to be a lot like Garrison Keillor’s The News from Lake Wobegon. Lake Wobegon is to Keillor’s hometown Anoka as Hohman is to Shepherd’s hometown Hammond.

The nostalgic tone, the memoir-ish content—while this isn’t accidental, Shepherd has maintained that his “novel” was entirely fiction. Still, there is plenty of truth in such stories. I’m reminded of folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand (who I recently cited while watching Black Christmas) and his oft quoted (also the title of one of his books) “The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story.” Brunvand refers to capital-T Truth (i.e. facts) but I would argue that little-t truth is what good stories are all about.

This is where Christmas Vacation and A Christmas Story both work. The little interactions between characters in both films hold some truth to them. The characters and interactions in the latter may be far more pleasant on average, but that doesn’t make them more truthful, just more enjoyable.

Me—I can relate to Ralphie’s daydreaming, though I never did the Hollywood conceit thing of staring off for way too long while people around me tried to get my attention. A couple seconds maybe, but not nearly as long as, say, Ralphie standing at his teacher’s desk. As a parent, I hope I’ve been as excited and supportive as Ralphie’s mom when she’s got Randy eating like a pig or the Old Man when he’s talking to Ralphie about his just-opened BB gun.

As a writer, I’ve put elements from my own childhood into stories before... I was going to reference a few specific scenes in a few specific stories (the football field beating in The Man with the Holes in His Hands, for example) but that would be a) coy and b) a little rude, because most of my stories and all of my novels are unavailable. For a while, some novels were available, self-published, but I pulled them down a while back to do another editing run and haven’t gotten back to them.

The thing is, as a storyteller, as a writer, it’s easy to take details from reality and infuse fiction with them. That doesn’t make the stories factual but it may make them true.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

everybody knows that

Stray observation: The title card for A Christmas Story is all caps (or pseudo-caps) except for the “h”—that is lowercase. Is that, perhaps, because that’s Jesus’ traditional middle initial? OR just an aesthetic choice?

Speaking of tradition, there was an interesting note in the BoJack Horseman Christmas special (on Netflix this week). Todd (voiced by Aaron Paul) was promoting Christmas tradition and BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) told him just because something’s tradition doesn’t make it good. Todd’s response was something like, because something’s good it becomes tradition. In my philosophy of religion class a few years back, my teacher liked to talk about apotropaic practices. By definition, such practices have the ability to ward off evil, but more importantly (as she put it) the key to such practices surviving was that they took little energy and did nothing particularly negative. Nailing a bit of iron, perhaps a horseshoe, over one’s door, took little work, but provided peace of mind or at least a connection with other people who might do the same.

I wrote yesterday about how we can relate to a story like A Christmas Story even if its details don’t match up with ours. That is what makes a great movie, often. Many can relate to the story or can imagine themselves in the story. That’s what makes it work.

Then again, that’s so obvious as to be trite, isn’t it?

There’s so much silliness and corniness in this movie, that really, it shouldn’t work. But it does. Maybe it’s just that everything is so... happy and positive, unlike, say, Christmas Vacation, where jokes revolve around insults and injuries.

And, there was very little to say today. I imagine a sort of play-by-play entry coming in the next couple days, or something about the panopticon of Santa Claus, and some final thoughts on Christmas.

In the meantime, I will leave you with this—in a window just a couple blocks from here.

infinitely subtle devices

(Prior to writing this entry, I wrote an entry for my SE7ENTH ART movie blog on the new movie Whiplash—comparing it to a romantic comedy if you must know—and I just finished watching Bad Santa. Despite its blatant disregard for decency, that movie—Bad Santa—has a lot of... heart to it, the kind of thing you expect from a Christmas movie. And, oddly, I think it involves the actual holiday

(I don’t mean the literal day, of course, even though Home Alone barely gets to it and Christmas Vacation never makes it there. I mean, the setting is less arbitrarily Christmas... Well, that’s unfair to Christmas Vacation, I suppose, what with its focus on the whole capitalism thing and the Christmas gifts, even if we don’t get the denouement of anyone actually receiving gifts—

(Hell, maybe that’s my problem with Christmas Vacation—not to harp on that more as A Christmas Story gets started; it’s not about the giving of gifts, per se, or the receiving of gifts, either. It is somehow about the spending of money without the actual gift exchange. I asked my daughter recently what a Christmas movie should be about and she said something like, “It should be about how giving is just as good as receiving.” And, I get that. The gift exchange is central to Christmas. Whether or not that should be the case, it is the case. But, that doesn’t have to mean the point is getting gifts or spending money or whatever particular detail we could paint negatively. It is about giving. The biblical story that comes with Christmas even includes gifts.)

... and that sentence was so long ago, let us start over. Oddly, Bad Santa involves Christmas more than other supposed Christmas movies. Bad Santa is more explicitly about Christmas than, at least, Home Alone. Today’s film... Let us get out of this parenthetical.)

A Christmas Story, unlike some other supposed Christmas movies, is about Christmas, especially inasmuch as it is about nostalgia for Christmas past. And, since the movie itself is over three decades old now, even watching the movie (as we do every Christmas) is nostalgic, even before you get into the movie itself, looking back another four decades to a wholesome fantasy of Christmas and childhood and family.

I have seen this movie once a year for several years now. I’ve said before, I didn’t have Christmas as a kid. There might be some that would put the origins of my cynicism and pessimism there. Like my childhood was lacking something necessary for a healthy adulthood. It probably was, but I don’t think it was Christmas. But, that’s an issue for another day, or a visit with a therapist.

A Christmas Story.

The innocence inherent in a story where boys’ misadventures result in tongues stuck to poles rather than, say, violence—I’m comparing this to Stand by Me in my head—is impressive for a film coming out of the early 1980s. Scut Farkus and Grover Dill have nothing on Ace Merrill.

As A Christmas Story plays, a distraction comes to me. In that other blog entry I wrote tonight, I wondered if all stories were inherently the same. Are all movies inherently the same, just a handful of story types, a handful of themes. I’ve seen so many movies in my life, and each one is unique. And yet, so many aspects of movies are the same. Like the days of our lives, or, given this blog, say the days of Phil Connor’s life. Each film is just another iteration of the story of what it is to be human... except maybe stories about animals, but really those too. In one draft of the prospectus for my Master’s Thesis I wrote:

The community in question here will be that of long-form bloggers, whether or not they actively create a concrete community by interacting. They are necessarily part of a shared community, even if they make no effort to maintain it as one singular unit. And, they are human, living a human experience. Garfinkel (2002) tells us the point of ethnomethodological research is “to discover the things that persons in particular situations do, the methods they use, to creat the patterned orderliness of social life” (p. 4). The situation here is a dual one—blogging and going through a life crisis. In a way, my blog is already doing these things, making sense of a life that seems out of control to reestablish a sense of order. We all want to make sense of our lives. (Black, 2014, p. 16)

Probably quoted a bit too much there to make my point, but then again, maybe that last line is the ultimate point here. We are all inherently the same. The differences are just in the details. What my point was going to be is... and I admit there is some writing there that isn’t as formal as it should be for a scholarly piece, but I’ll get to that in new drafts. My point was to mention that one of the professors on my committee highlighted “they are human” and in the margin she wrote, “Who isn’t?” On the one hand, well, yeah, duh. We’re all human, in a general sense, but that doesn’t mean that we are not constantly defining and redefining what that means. Defining what it means to be human is not what my thesis will be about, but I’m not sure it is flippant or immediately dismissible to point out that, in this instance, bloggers are “living a human experience.” I think of Phil Connors, repeating the same day over and over and over again, each day the same except for what he makes of it—Hannam (2008) got a whole book out of that, and I’m sure many “self help” books revolve around the same idea. Life is what you make of it. Sure, circumstance makes it harder for some people than for others, but on some level, the experience of life is subjective, controllable. Arguably.

Coming back to A Christmas Story, I may not have had Christmas growing up, but I can still relate to this story. The details just don’t have to match our lives for a particular movie to work for us. Groundhog Day, Bad Santa, Home Alone, Black Christmas, Whiplash, Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story... any movie, every movie.

Kinda makes this blog a little pointless, I suppose.

But, it also makes it the most important thing ever.

At the same time.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

best to just let him finish

As National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation begins for the last time tonight, I want to enjoy it. I want to find the family interactions inside this package endearing and pleasant. There are moments that achieve this. Audrey’s support of her father when his lights fail, for example. Clark’s conversation with Ruby Sue, for another. Clark hugging everyone after the lights work comes close, but he (and the scene) overdoes it.

The question is not, for now, what is the meaning of Christmas or what is the meaning of a Christmas movie. Rather, what do I want out of a Christmas movie? The problem in answering this one is that I am not the audience for Christmas movies. Most any year, if a Christmas movie comes out, I won’t go see it. Most of them are nice, wholesome, family-friendly comedies, stuff like Jingle All the Way (haven’t seen it), Home Alone (saw it in the theater, seen it many times since), Elf (watched it once on DVD, was entertained but not particularly moved), It’s a Wonderful Life (don’t think I’ve ever seen the movie all the way through, but I have heard a radio play version of it several times), Miracle on 34th Street (never seen it), The Santa Clause (have seen maybe a scene or two), The Nightmare before Christmas (saw it at a second-run theater, have seen it a couple times since, fantastic visuals, beautiful design work and animation, but it just leaves me cold), Scrooged (saw it at that same second-run theater, and have watched it a handful of times since, including this year for this blog. Earlier this year, I also watched 12 Dates of Christmas for this blog, but it wasn’t nearly as satisfying.)... And, so many more. My kind of Christmas movie is something like Die Hard (saw it in the theater, have seen it many times since, and will be watching it for this blog next month) or Lethal Weapon (ditto), or Silent Night, Deadly Night (rented it from Blockbuster on one of my movie marathon Saturday nights about 20 years ago, and just watched it last week).

One of my favorite movies is a Christmas movie, if you just go by setting rather than subject—Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which I will be watching for this blog at some point, but I haven’t figure out when my “favorite movies” month will be). Bad Santa was entertaining but I’ve never felt the need to watch it a second time (though I do want to watch it this year because I recently learned a couple friends of mine watch it every Christmas and I’m curious about its rewatchability). Gremlins is a Christmas movie, apparently, but I kind of forgot about that angle. I’ve seen Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, as well as How the Grinch Stole Christmas (at least in part), and A Charlie Brown Christmas, but never really watched any of those until I was married—my wife had grown up with Christmas. Similarly, I had never seen A Christmas Story (which I will be watching this next week for this blog) until then either. Christmas was never my thing growing up but movies were. There are far more non-Christmas movies than Christmas movies, though, so while I’ve seen a few Christmas movies, the numbers just are not in their favor.

For comparison, the weekend Christmas Vacation came out in theaters was Back to the Future Part II‘s second weekend (I saw it the first weekend), The Little Mermaid‘s third weekend (pretty sure I saw that one its first weekend as well), Look Who’s Talking‘s eighth weekend (probably saw that its first weekend), Dad‘s sixth weekend (probably saw that in its first or second weekend) and All Dogs Go to Heaven‘s third weekend (may have seen that one its first weekend as well, but maybe not, since The Little Mermaid was out that weekend as well). It was also the 18th weekend for Parenthood (which I probably saw pretty early in its run) and the 24th for Batman (I had probably already seen that movie several times in the theater). The Bear and Steel Magnolias were also out that weekend Christmas Vacation came out (sixth and third weekends, respectively) but I wouldn’t see either of those in the theater. The next weekend War of the Roses would be released, but I didn’t see that one in the theater. A couple weeks after Christmas Vacation, I’d see Glory in the theater, and that weekend or soon thereafter (possibly at the second-run theater) Family Business. The Wizard, Driving Miss Daisy and We’re No Angels would also be out, but I don’t think I’d see any of those on the big screen. The week after that: Tango & Cash (saw it in the theater, probably that first weekend), Always (saw it on home video), Born on the Fourth of July (saw it in the theater) and Roger and Me (would not see it until more than a decade later, when Bowling for Columbine brought Michael Moore to my attention). Simply put, there are a lot of movies out there, and I have done my best to see a whole lot of them. Christmas movies, Easter movies... wait, is that a thing? Anyway, Christmas movies were never a priority. Most of the time, they seem a bit corny, schmaltzy, not my kind of thing.

Or they bypass “Christmas” mostly like many a Shane Black movie—the aforementioned Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang as well as Iron Man 3. Asked why his movies are set at Christmas, Black (no relation, by the way) told Den of Geek,

Christmas is fun. It’s unifying, and all your characters are involved in this event that stays within the larger story. It roots it, I think, it ground everything... At Christmas, lonely people are lonelier, seeing friend and families go by. People take reckoning [and they take] stock of where their lives are at Christmas.

I would suggest that taking stock thing extends through the whole “holiday” period through New Year’s. The Calendar, however artificial a construct, gets to us psychologically. The end of a year (as we’ll be having in less than two weeks as I write this) gets us to thinking. A Christmas movie—like Christmas Vacation—doesn’t necessarily help if we are one of those lonely people Black refers to; instead, seeing the happy family gatherings, if we see the film, demonstrates something that we are missing, or we just avoid seeing it... No, that isn’t it. We don’t avoid it, we just don’t make the effort. There are better things to do, and other movies to see.

It occurs to me, looking at lists of Christmas movies as I write this entry, that having a Christmas movie about someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas is not a thing; there’s always the Scrooge factor, the main character a Scrooge-figure who just hasn’t discovered the true joy of Christmas just yet. We don’t make movies about characters not celebrating Christmas. Or any special occasion, for that matter. Not without them coming around in the end, at least.

It’s not like I’m one of those Scrooge-Figures, by the way. I wasn’t deprived of gifts as a kid. We just did the whole gift thing on a different occasion (the Feast of Tabernacles, if you’re trying to gauge my actual religious upbringing). I liked getting gifts. I mean, who doesn’t. Nowadays, I don’t know that getting gifts is that important to me. But, I do like the opportunity to get stuff for my kids, especially stuff that isn’t on their Christmas lists. I also participate in at least one Secret Santa and one White Elephant exchange around Christmas each year. And, I think I’ve already mentioned that we’ve got a Christmas tree and stockings. We live in an apartment so there’s no elaborate display of lights outside. I can imagine going a little overboard with them if I had the space, though, do something fancy with blinking messages spelled out in the lights or something.

But no penguins.

Saw some penguins in a lawn display tonight and complained. Saer said it was fine because they’re cute. But, cute just isn’t good enough for me. Christmas, I told her, is a North Pole thing. Penguins are a South Pole thing. It’s just wrong.

And, my one lament with this week of Christmas Vacation ending is that I will never get to write about Rusty Griswold’s poster of turtles having sex.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

the man was... was wearing a blue leisure suit

There’s a formula John Hughes uses when it comes to making the despicable characters seem not so bad as the story goes—he provides somebody worse. In Dutch, for example, Dutch Dooley was a horrible guy, but at least he wasn’t as arbitrarily uncaring as Doyle’s father. Similarly, in Christmas Vacation, Clark’s (and the movie’s, really) reliance on money and capitalism in defining a good Christmas sits next to those yuppies next door. There’s nothing to like about Todd and Margo, right?

The thing is, there’s nothing particularly horrible about them. The movie just assumes we won’t like them so all the bad things that happen to them because of Clark Griswold, deliberately or not, are justified. They’ve got money. They’re too good for Christmas trees. They’ve got fancy entertainment equipment (destroyed by the ice) and fancy workout clothes. And, worst of all, they like each other. No one should like these people. Clark, on the other hand, all around good guy, loving (and faithful) husband and good father...

But, let’s break it down.

We are first introduced to Todd and Margo as Clark is going to cut down the oversized tree he’s gotten from the forest. Todd and Margo have metal briefcases, Todd has 80s stockbroker hair and Margo wears sunglasses... at night. “Looks like the toad overestimated the height of his living room ceiling.” Not so nice calling Clark a “toad,” Margo, but she’s got a point. Clark got himself a tree he does not have room for. Todd asks, “Hey Griswold, where do you think you’re going to put a tree that big?” A valid question, even if Todd’s tone is not very nice. Clark’s response: “Bend over and I’ll show you.” Well, that escalated quickly. Todd: “You’ve got a lot of nerve talking to me like that, Griswold.” I agree. Clark’s reply: “I wasn’t talking to you.” So, in response to Todd’s legitimate (if tonally a little rude) question, Clark has threatened to shove a tree into his Margo’s... well, let’s just say it would not go very well. And, Clark is kind of an ass.

Then, it’s Todd and Margo’s turn to be jerks. Clark is getting the ladder ready to get to work on the Christmas lights. Margo: “I hope he falls and breaks his neck.” Todd: “I’m sure he’ll fall, but I don’t think we’re lucky enough to have him break his neck.” Not nice. And, they’ve both got sunglasses now, though, to be fair, it is daytime.

Todd does seem a bit of a whiner when he says, “Well, obviously something had to break the window, something had to hit the stereo.” But, they came home from... wherever to find their stereo mangled, and in 1989 that fancy a stereo was probably pretty expensive.

Todd and Margo have matching workout clothes. In a different movie, that would be cute. Here, we’re supposed to see it as pretentious and snooty, like they’re too good for normal workout clothes. They also are into each other; Todd wants to drink some wine and kiss Margo all over. Margo has to take this a bad direction, though, as she insists (appropriately, but not politely) after he showers, of course.

And, after they have presumably showered, sure enough, they’ve got some wine and they’re making out like a nice happy couple. And Clark interrupts with his lights. And, the sudden return to darkness—twice—means pratfalls and damaged furniture for the Chesters. They are innocent victims this time.

On the other end of the spectrum, of course, we get Eddie. The yuppie couple—the Chesters, apparently—are bad because they think they’re better than people like Clark. But, Clark actually is better than the likes of Cousin Eddie. Clark inhabits some magical middle ground in which he’s amazing and the bad stuff he does just doesn’t matter.

Eddie wears a black dickey under a tight, white v-neck. Despicable stuff.

Todd appears briefly again, in time to interact with Eddie, emptying his “shitter” into the sewer. He smells the stench and goes back inside. It’s brief but we laugh, if we’re not already laughing at Eddie outside in his tiny little robe and his silly little hat.

Then Todd and Margo disappear for a while. Christmas Eve for the Griswolds takes the focus. We don’t see the Chesters again until Clark freaks out and cuts down a new tree. Their conversation about not having a Christmas tree—

Margo: “Aren’t you just the teeniest bit sorry that we didn’t get a Christmas tree?” [Nice. The Chesters don’t have to be the kind of people who don’t celebrate Christmas—clearly a bad kind of people for a Christmas movie’s audience. Margo is almost demonstrating some “Christmas spirit.” Then, she immediately ruins it.] “I mean, even though they’re dirty and messy and corny and cliched.” [At least she said “cliched” and didn’t leave off that “d” at the end like so many people do these days.]

Todd: [level-headed and an awesome counter to what’s happening concurrently with Clark] “Well, where are you going to find a tree at this hour on Christmas Eve?

—is interrupted by Clark’s new tree falling through the window. The Chesters, again, are Clark’s victims.

Meanwhile, the Griswolds and guests are playing Monopoly, a game about capitalism.

Amidst the squirrel action, we see Todd and Margo outside. They have apparently taken their time being angry about the tree.

Margo: “You just march right over there and slug that creep in the face.”

Todd: [level-headed again] “I can’t just attack someone.”

Margo: “Alright then, if you’re not man enough to put an end to this shit, then I am.” [Did she have to make it about gender? I mean, considering my history with that topic time and time again in this blog.]

After being attacked by the squirrel and dog, Margo returns home, her outfit a mess. “My God,” Todd says, “what happened to you?” And she slugs him. This is what Clark’s actions have driven Margo Chester to: violence. It is a sad, but not entirely unexpected, result of Clark’s destructive activity. The other, in retrospect, logical result is Eddie’s kidnapping of Clark’s boss.

And there we get the other bit of John Hughes’ formula: aside from Todd and Margo, we also get a Scrooge-Figure in Clark’s boss. And, Brian Doyle-Murray’s Frank Shirley, of course, has a quick change of heart to make everything ok, much like Roy Walley in the original.

Then, just to top Frank Shirley is his wife Helen who actually checks her makeup before following the police into the Griswold home. Still dressed in her nightgown, she has managed to put on pearls and a fur coat... but then, she gets upset at Frank’s getting rid of his employees’ bonuses.

you shouldn't use that word

Saer is watching Christmas Vacation with me tonight.

Her first comment/question: I don’t get why the intro is animated... It’s weird.

As I have already compared the actions in this movie to a cartoon—Clark falling off the roof, the nuclear power plant gag, and so many others—I think the animated intro actually makes sense. It sets the audience up for what is essentially a live-action cartoon. Physics is not going to matter, if the joke works better without. For example, that chunk of ice in the rain gutter—there is absolutely no reason it should shoot out like it does, but it allows for one more assault on the yuppies next door. (More on the yuppies tomorrow, maybe.)

Saer thinks the Griswolds, especially Clark and Audrey look very 80s. I told her this came out in 1989. She wasn’t surprised. Then, because I was looking at Audrey right then, I realized something—she’s wearing a beret and in European Vacation the whole family got berets (though Rusty’s was thrown off the Eiffel Tower).

Saer: “They’re kind of like the corniest family ever.” Though obviously true, it’s worth noting that this comment came right on the heels of Ellen’s “I don’t want to spend the holidays dead.”

Saer (upon seeing the tree): “This is such a cartoon.”

Saer (as Clark... flirts? with the shopgirl): “He’s a bad husband.”

...who should have learned not to fantasize about other women in the first film. Hell, in the second film, he didn’t. Even when he ended up in bed with another woman accidentally, and she seemed to not be bothered by it, he gets out of there right away.

Saer (in the chaos of the conversation after the grandparents arrive): “I don’t think they enjoy their family.”

Really, they enjoy the idea of family more than the actual thing. I won’t get into that topic again, because I’ve already talked about it, but that may be the point of family getting together on the holidays; we want it to go well because we wish that it would.

Audrey: Are you sleeping with your brother? Do you know how sick and twisted that is?

Ellen: Well, I’m sleeping with your father.

Saer: She chose that.


An observation: the Griswolds—Clark, Ellen, Audrey and Rusty—actually get along pretty well in this film, and maybe that’s a problem. Saer just called them a functional family, and aside from Audrey briefly complaining about the sleeping arrangements (and calling her brother a fungus when he puts his arm on her because they’re sharing a bed), yeah, they function pretty well as a family in this Vacation installment. All the problems are external, even though the “vacation” is at home.

Saer (in response to Clark crying while watching the old videos): “Ah, he’s so sensitive.”

And: “If he cares about his family so much, why is he such a bad father? Or, a bad husband; I don’t know how his fathering skills are.”

Perhaps, because Clark is imperfect. Human.

In response to the yuppies’ running outfits: “Why are they matching?” Beat. “That’s so... weird.”

The yuppies clink their glasses together and kiss and Saer says, “This couple needs to stop what they’re doing.”

Nuclear power plant gag: “What?! That is so not very realistic at all.”

Clark hugs his mother after the lights work... Saer: “This is so cheesy.”

Saer just called Eddie a “goober.” Good word.

(For those of you who were not around for the year of Groundhog Day, I “named” one of the supporting characters “Goober.”)

Saer (after Clark talked to his coworker about the Christmas bonus): “I don’t want to support this movie...” And, I wish I could get the rest of what followed word for word. Basically, she just complained that the movie is promoting the need for the Christmas bonus so Clark can get an “unfair” pool. This movie is promoting the rich white guy when “the check should go to poor people so they can have a good Christmas.”

Had to pause because Saer laughed so much at the “Shitting bricks” “You shouldn’t use that word” “Sorry, shitting rocks” exchange. She’s been sick the last couple days, so laughter led to coughing.

Clark: “I can’t even afford to be an elf.”

Saer: “I don’t think Elfs pay to do that. And, just because you’re a rich white guy doesn’t mean you’re starving in Africa.”

I think her wording got confused there, but she is sick, and tired, but she’s definitely my kid, complaining about the capitalist bit.

Saer calls the turkey scene annoying—she has complained in previous days at the overdone sound effects of everyone eating the dry turkey. But, she rather enjoys Aunt Bethany “saying grace”—laughter and clapping, and she joins in on the last lines of the pledge of allegiance and the “amen.” To the sound effects, Saer says, “It’s not that hard. You’re not chewing rocks.”

(Had never noticed before: Ellen doesn’t eat the turkey. She flips it off her fork onto the floor and puts an empty fork in her mouth.)

Saer, after Clark gets his “bonus”: “Wealthy white guy seeks money for unneeded swimming pool.”

(Despite my notions about Clark’s idea of Christmases past, he actually tells his father that all their holidays have been screwed up. Hadn’t noticed that before.)

Aunt Bethany’s national anthem gets a laugh and singalong.

I suggested, in response to Clark’s “I did it,” that the Christmas in this film (nevermind that the film never actually gets to Christmas Day) didn’t go well and Saer reiterated the capitalist thing: “All he cared about was his Christmas bonus and he got it, so it’s fine.”

In the end, Saer was “kind of disappointed.” She added, “The first one was a lot better.”