10: Miracle on 34th Street
Halloween has passed, which now means that it is Christmas! (I’m giving it some necessary re-branding -- apologies to Jeb! ™.)
Christmas! ™ is now a really familiar product of the American consciousness, with many fine brand features, including these:
1. Hysterical shopping/mass consumption/credit maximizing events, generally involving really inconvenient/unpleasant store hours, mass hysteria and irrational behavior that spreads through the population faster than fear of Ebola; limited product availability similar to what you find during natural disasters; counter-intuitive use of the word “Black” as an apparently attractive descriptor (rather than the accepted “Red and Green” brand colors).
2. New, strange dietary rules that require seasoning everything from coffee and beer to milk shakes, pizza and burritos with artificial flavorings mimicking a mix of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves, mysteriously labeled “pumpkin,” after a vegetable that doesn’t contain those flavors and that is no longer sold in stores.
3. A creative re-invention of a perennial political theme known as “The War on Christmas” (no relation to “War of the Worlds”), where use of the word “holidays” (derived from the phrase “holy days”) is suddenly interpreted as an extreme form of religious blasphemy and some strange (apparently random) cultural artifact (this year it is paper coffee cups) is used to demonstrate a fictional political conspiracy and persecution apparently equivalent to genocide. This is generally fantastic in its extreme use of imaginative inventiveness and popularity. HG Wells, eat your heart out.
4. The seasonal emergence (starting in August, when the summer heat has just slid past its maximum) of 24/7 “Christmas Music” radio stations, a strange kind of auditory mushroom bloom that features music about “joy” and “happiness,” that is always in the minor key of dirges, sung by someone who seems to have finally drained their liquor cabinet. If it’s in a major key, it’s by the Beach Boys and it’s about how Santa likes girls in bikinis and the Bop.
5. The resurrection and re-broadcast of popular films that were considered stale, stiff and uninteresting when they were first released, now re-branded as “Kristmas Klassics ™” and listened to/viewed with the kind of religious awe that people used to reserve for the finger bones of saints. Generally, these iconic artworks have very little to do with Christianity or religion (with the exception of the new feast of “Christmikah”) but do often contain cryptic references to ancient cultural artifacts like “horse-drawn sleighs,” “chestnuts,” “parsons” and “winter.” These are usually broadcast in 24-hour back-to-back repeats, so people whose sleep medications are ineffective have something to “cheer up” their November nights.
This last item, in particular, is something that I would like to talk about, in part as counterpoint to my last essay, which some of you may have found, um, a wee bit negative and over-the-top depressing. I see the Kristmas Klassics ™ feature of Christmas! ™ as a sign of hope. Yes, this too is counter-intuitive, kind of the way the appearance of a worm-eating bird is a counter-intuitive sign of the reduction of your heating bill: “when that red, red robin comes a bob, bob, bobbin’ along.” (I recognize that this is a cultural icon only meaningful to those born pre-Global Warming ™.)
In particular, I’m particularly fascinated by Christmas! ™ movies, which, like every Red-Blooded American ™ I look forward to sleeping in front of each year. I’d like to point out that, in addition to their low re-broadcasting fees, they share some interesting common characteristics. In particular, I am struck by how, more than any other forms of entertainment (besides cable TV and talk radio) they tend to be crammed with the kind of social and political commentary that we don’t ordinarily think of as “entertaining,” especially since most of it is so dated as to be really “historical.”
One of the nice things about talking about these Christmas! ™ movies is that you, my fellow Red-Blooded Americans ™ have all seen them so many times that I don’t have to worry much about you understanding my literary references (as Paul Simon says: “you know exactly what I’m talking about”)… though they are also a bit like The Pledge of Allegiance ™, in that you have probably seen them so many times that you probably never bother to pay conscious attention to what they are saying.
Correct me if I am wrong here, but I think the old movies that most often wallpaper our TV screens this season are “Elf” (2003), “Home Alone” (1990), “Scrooged” (1988), “A Christmas Story” (1983), “A Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) and “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946). You may suggest others, but I’d be surprised if you come up with any that have the re-play presence of these. (Okay, maybe the Tim Allen “The Santa Claus” movies, but those are so dumb/bad I can’t handle talking about them, and Jim Carrey’s Grinch is really just a terrorist attack on Dr. Seuss.)
These Kristmas Klassics ™ are markedly different in tone and content from the “old chestnut” movies that were on TV when I was a child (never in 24-hour binge-a-thon format), though the last two (“Miracle” and “Wonderful Life”) were out then and occasionally shown. The movies that everyone played in the 1960’s were “White Christmas” (1954), “Holiday Inn” (1942), “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944), and “Babes in Toyland” (1934), which were all pretty purely “entertainments” without political commentary. (The Peanuts Christmas Special was also often shown then, but that was a News Klassic ™ .) A possible exception was “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), which is definitely social/political (though in datedly obscure and allegorical way) and was shown heavily at holiday time, though it’s not really a Christmas! ™ movie.
Not that the new Christmas! ™ movies are dry historical documentaries and unentertaining – all contain famous comic actors and fair amount of comedy, ranging from the fondly gentle kind, to the biting and savagely sarcastic. But these are not really comic movies. The four most recent ones -- “Elf” (2003), “Home Alone” (1990), “Scrooged” (1988), “A Christmas Story” (1983) – all contain still living stars, and each of these, generally speaking, is really a movie about the problem of humans trying to survive in a creepy landscape of modern narcissism and commercial meanness and brutality – a serious social theme, if I’ve ever seen one. “Elf” (the most recent and the currently most-played) manages to do this while being a semi-cartoon, surrealistic fantasy. I could write a whole essay on this movie all by itself (I won’t), because it’s a movie whose theme is almost identical to my own series of essays – the rampant selfishness and narcissism dominant in modern America, and the self-delusional world we have constructed to live in. It’s notable that the only nice, decent people in the movie are either mythological constructs (Santa and the elves) or Buddy, the main character, whose decency and sweetness seems over-the-top absurd and fake in the larger context. Sorry to ruin the movie for you, but this is really serious social commentary about the problem of modern solipsism under the disguise of an absurdist comedy. It bites--savagely.
|Santa in “A Christmas Story” – the hard reality behind our Christmas.|
Of course so does “Home Alone.” which is about selfishness and narcissism in family life (it’s about a family so mean-spirited and ugly that it has even affected the youngest child, who relishes having ditched his near and dear ones at Christmas) and a surrounding world so empty and lawless as to seem post-apocalyptic (the comically stupid but vicious burglars who want to “brand” themselves). “Scrooged” is no kinder, being about the absurdly selfish and cruel world of media and corporate culture. “A Christmas Story” is perhaps a little “kinder and gentler” (the Clintonesque irony is intentional), being a nostalgic flashback to the goofy landscape of early 60’s childhood, but there, right beneath the surface is the same world of ferociously mean, ugly people and a holiday season that is still all about, when you get down to it, “getting the best toys.” Contemporary Kristmas Klassic! ™ movies are all about how the problem of how “me, me, ME” leads us to “mean, mean, mean.”
The two older Kristmas Klassic! ™ movies are only slightly different (though they are still both about the same personal themes) in that their social message also has overtly political overtones. The most famous of these, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” strikes me as particularly weird in its iconic Christmas!™ popularity, given that it is really a film about the triumph of the New Deal over the evil capitalistic forces of robber-barronism and fascism, with an inspirational message that we all have to be upbeat in the face of adversity and keep on fighting The Good Fight. For crisake, even heaven in this movie has a paternalisitic government bureaucracy like the WPA and angels are a kind of public servant social worker with military ranks!
Though the political background in this is extremely archaic to contemporary audiences, its presence is actually why we still need to see the movie repeatedly during The Season of Warm Holiday Feelings ™ -- it paints a world that seems empty, sterile, and mechanical, even as we go tediously through the commonplace details of George’s childhood, romance and adulthood and yet… and yet… and yet… humanity and personal joy blossom at the end of the movie. In many ways, this movie sets the mold for all our subsequent Kristmas Klassic ™ films, with its grim descent into bleakness and it’s improbable humanity-affirming “feel-good” turn at the end.
I say “improbable,” but what we are really talking about here is stretching Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” (pardon me for my English major litcrit reference) beyond breaking: we’re talking pure miracle, folks. This brings me to my personal favorite of all these movies, the 40’s genre comedy “Miracle on 34th Street.” Though the movie has “miracle” in it’s very title, it’s a movie where the whole concept of “miracle” is so matter-of-fact ridiculous as to be declared legally insane – as it literally is in the movie. It takes place inside the honestly rendered commercial machinery of Christmas (Macy’s department store), which is, in turn, imbedded in the brutal merchantile/legal/political machinery of modern life. The central character, Maureen O’Hara, is a divorcee single mom (to the precociously beautiful Natalie Wood) and department store marketing woman, who has turned pretty cynical and angry about anything and everything that whiffs of bullshit, from men to Christmas. John Payne plays a decent enough guy (though he’s a lawyer, of course) attracted to her va-va-voom, but put off a bit by her difficult harshness. (In modern parlance, we would say the lady is a bitch.) Yes, there is a real Santa in this movie, though he’s really just a prim and fussy old guy (who has an immaculate beard and lives in an upscale retirement home) who insists on professional Santa ethics, which keeps on getting him into troubles … and then weirdly getting him out of them because of the ninja-like way his wacky ideas short-circuit the normal workings of the commercial and political world. He’s not a supernatural being but a genius management guru who understands, in a zen way, the deeper truths of life. . Only in the movie’s last seconds does reality flip and admit the possibility of magic and miracle… which still seems so insane a reality as to leave the main actors stunned and wide-eyed with denialist terror when they see it… and the audience flushed red-hot with the emotional reversal: I knew it was true! I knew it was true! I do believe, I do believe!
Because this then is what we really are looking for: the miraculous possibility of life-affirming warmth and humanity (I’d say “spiritual redemption,” but actually making this religious is more than most people would be able to stomach) beyond all hope, against and despite the contradictory “reality” of our disappointing real lives and our depressingly brutal real world. This is why we have elevated these rather odd movies to cult classics that we are willing to see again and again and again every year.
And this, I suspect, is why the Christmas! ™ season keeps getting a little longer each year (along with the need for Trickle-Down ™ commercial prosperity), though it brings with it an increasingly ferocious spending season that feels like a dangerous addiction with a really nasty recurring hangover. We know it’s not rational, given what is going on with us, but we desperately want to feel better. It’s in the words of this song by the great American spiritual leader, Johnny Mathis:
For I've grown a little leaner,
Grown a little colder,
Grown a little sadder,
Grown a little older,
And I need a little angel
Sitting on my shoulder,
Need a little Christmas now.
It’s unlikely, we don’t deserve it and we keep doing things that make our situation worse, but we still need to be convinced of the possibility of a miracle turn around. As Judy Garland mournfully and illogically sings, “from now on, our troubles will be miles away…” Though the world is cold and hard, the big city bitter and cynical, miracles may sometimes happen on 34th Street.
So I say to you, Merry Christmas, happy holidays. Make the yuletide gay. God bless us, each and every one! I, for one, need a little Christmas now.