Monday, December 15, 2014
ON HOLIDAY MOVIES
It's been a while since I've had cable TV. And a lack of heaps of channels mixed with a green, damp December makes for the perfect condition to forget that The Holiday Season is upon us. Because for myself - and I'm sure this is true for more people than just me - The Holiday Season exists primarily on TV. (Inane Christmas music has become so insidious that I don't even hear it in grocery stores and post offices anymore.) TV specials, classic movies, and commercials are common snow globes in varied homes, in varied environs. When those globes get agitated, the swirling response is mostly Pavlovian: I catch just a few minutes of Jonathan Taylor Thomas dressed as Santa, rushing home to his family, or Jim Varney as Ernest dressed as Santa, racing the clock to save Christmas, or Tim Allen "Tool Time" grunting from beneath a Santa beard, and I'm imbued with something resembling "the spirit."
I'll bet you the Terry's Chocolate Orange from my stocking that we - us North Americans - rewatch holiday movies more than we do the films we'd cite as our favourites. Under oath, I wouldn't claim to 'like' Home Alone, but I've probably seen it at least once - sometimes twice or thrice, watching with different levels of attention, inebriation, or satiation - every year since 1990. That's in the neighbourhood of 50 times. I've seen a movie I don't actually care for more times than I've probably been to the dentist. What's wrong with me? What's wrong with us?
Under what other circumstances do we so consistently engage with entertainment that we don't consider "good?" I suppose there are terrible songs that nobody likes - which everyone loves - that get danced to at most weddings, but that's about it. But there is something special about poor holiday... Actually, let's not beat about the bush: these are Christmas movies. And Christmas movies seem exempt from having to be good, they just need to be on. They're less entertainment, more ritual. They're mostly there to float the infrangible idea of Christmas: the snow's always perfectly fallen, downtown stores have animatronic toy displays in the windows, and homeless people are Santa. Like lights strung up on a tree, you can kind of do a shitty job and it'll still look decent when seen from far enough away.
But that's not to say that all Christmas movies are garish decorations we pack away on the 26th. For my money - or, rather, for my second Terry's Chocolate Orange (which I get because my brother doesn't like his) - A Christmas Story and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation are straight up good. They're funny, and odd, and cynical, but also get around to kowtowing to the "specialness" of the season. I should add, too, that both of these stand out because they're exactly traditional, beginning-middle-end movies. They're almost anthologies, full of observations and set pieces. You can come into and out of them with little effort, getting up for beer and snacks and more beer with relative ease.
But whether they're terrible or legitimately watchable, there's an odd impermanence to Christmas movies. Even if we love them, that certain shine they have dulls when they're seen out of context. You can watch National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation in May, and it'll be okay, but it just won't be the same. These movies are points of access to a temporary cultural tradition, to a most fictional, temporary feeling about the world. Like a Terry's Chocolate Orange, I don't really like them, but Christmas morning just isn't the same without the disgusting things.