Cinespect’s Guide to Surviving Christmas
Published on December 24th, 2011 | by Rebecca A. Brown1
By Paul Anthony Johnson
Christmas movies are scary. On average, they’re much more ghastly than a respectable Halloween fright fest given their potential for smarmy sentimentality and hollow affirmations of holiday cheer. Many seasonally appropriate movies are, I am convinced, genuinely harmful to your health, worthy of a surgeon general’s warning alerting potential viewers of the following: “This film may cause diabetic shock, destroy any residual faith you may have in a benign deity, and generally so lower your esteem for your fellow human beings that either hermitage or mass extinction will appear as attractive possibilities. View with extreme caution.”
Still, while holiday movie tradition may generally be regrettable, it’s nevertheless yielded a fair share of tolerable diversions and even a couple of genuine masterpieces. Hopefully, just enough of them to keep you alive and sane during the holidays, since if your extended family members make you suspect you’re adopted and you’re bored-unto-death by both football and parades, holiday movies often provide the only available escape route. I suspect that last-minute viewings of “The Man Who Came to Dinner” or “Gremlins” may have rescued several scores of Uncle Ignatzes and Aunt Utas from being strangled by deranged nieces and nephews over the years. Therefore, we have a special connection to the Christmas movies that enchant us–they’re not simply good movies, but valuable traditions that remind us of what we find tolerable and maybe even wonderful in the holidays despite the inevitable horrors they unleash upon us.
Of course, such are the vagaries of people’s tastes and respective psychotropic medications that what’s a life-preserving necessity for one might be a soul-crushing atrocity for another. But popular culture seems to have settled on a consensus set of favorites, movies that provide enough cold comfort to enough cold people that they’ve become something of a “holy trinity” of TV programming during the holiday season: Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), George Seaton’s “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947), and Bob Clark’s “A Christmas Story” (1983). Of course, the first of these titles used to be the behemoth of the bunch, as its public domain status insured that it was playing somewhere on TV at every hour of the day for the entire first 25 days of December, but now that someone once again claims ownership, showings are moderately scarcer. You’re still likely to randomly run into the other two, though, during lazy holiday channel-flipping, and even if you remain immune to their charms, you’re probably familiar enough with their particular rhythms and weirdness that they can lull you into passive acceptance. Then again, maybe the whole damned trinity just makes you break out into a nervous sweat.
In what follows, Rebecca A. Brown and I follow up on our Halloween-themed collaboration with an extended look at our favorite Christmas movies, those films that for one reason or another make the holidays intermittently pleasurable. We hope to convey a sense of what these movies mean to us personally, so be prepared for a little nostalgic reverie, as well as what they say about the holiday season more generally. While you’re in your padded cell, staving off yuletide delirium with repeated viewings of “Bad Santa” or “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” please take time to enjoy the following dialogue, which we hope will help your sanity endure what’s left of the Christmas season. Seasons greetings, mad movie mavens.
II: I’m Dreaming of an Incredibly Fucking Awful Christmas
By Paul Anthony Johnson
I think I had been avoiding the movie for a while. Who wants to bother with “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) at Christmastime, especially when you’re a 14 year-old kid, and you assume the picture playing in constant rotation on half a dozen different stations is as cloying as its reputation suggests? At the time, my favorite movie was either “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968), or “Touch of Evil” (1958) (plus ça change) and anything that didn’t possess at least a touch of apocalyptic nihilism extended beyond the scope of my patience. My adolescent idea of an acceptable Christmas movie was something along the lines of the Santa Claus serial killer movie “Silent Night, Deadly Night” (1984). So watching the beloved-for-all-the-wrong-reasons Capra classic was not a high priority at that point in my life.
Nevertheless, as will sometimes befall a lethargic lad hell-bent on avoiding productivity, I found myself lying about one dolorous ’90s Christmas morning watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And I loved it. It’s the most well-known secret in cinephilia that Capra’s man-of-the-people sentimentality masked a cynical misanthropy most clearly revealed in the fatalistic pessimism at the heart of both “Meet John Doe” (1941) and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I was thus pleasantly surprised to discover that “It’s a Wonderful Life” had a lot more in common with “Touch of Evil” and “Night of the Living Dead” than I had anticipated. Like the former, it featured a bleak vision of a violent nighttime world pulsating with a feeling of perpetual malice, and like the latter it presented a kind of siege narrative about a resourceful man trapped in the middle of nowhere and threatened on all sides by parasites of one kind or another.
I’ve since found that virtually every critical reverie of the film swoons over the despair that hides in plain sight at the film’s core, and every few years some ambitious scribe touts the discovery of the film’s dark heart anew (for a relativity recent iteration of this habitual epiphany, see Wendell Jamieson’s 2008 celebration of the film’s seductive bleakness in the New York Times. For many, though, Capra’s compulsion to greet even the most devastating narrative turn with a beaming grimace and a cloying touch seems less a beguiling irony than an aggravatingly glad-handed approach evocative of a hard-sell con job that no amount of reverential exegesis can redeem (Pauline Kael, for instance, called it “doggerel trying to pass as art”). But for me, the film’s powerful aesthetic contradictions give rise to, as the critic Stephen Hondzo once put it, “the sense of life being lived.”
The film’s particular animating tensions also happen to bear a striking resemblance to those that constituted film noir’s thematic core. In 1946, noir was still in its nascent stage of development, but had already produced a fair share of masterpieces, including Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” (1944), Otto Preminger’s “Laura” (1944) and Edgar Ulmer’s “Detour” (1945). Noir reflected growing anxieties about the definition of masculinity, the acceleration of urbanization, and the burden of responsibility in post-war America–in other words, the very same anxieties that “It’s a Wonderful Life” wrestles with from beginning to end. And as is often noted, the Pottersville segment in the film’s final act represents a full-blown embrace of noir aesthetics, as we see that a world without George Bailey is basically the kind of world where Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) might easily find a seductive means of self-destruction or where Al Roberts (Tom Neal) might deliriously lose himself to the great American nowhere of poverty row. Essentially, Capra literalizes all the tensions that animate film noir at its finest. As such, “It’s a Wonderful Life” fits nicely within the noir tradition, using its Christmas-themed frame as a way to highlight the fear of defeat and anonymity at the heart of so much of the greatest post-war American filmmaking. Every embrace of the sentimental plays like a temporary refuge from life’s cruelties, a convenient cloak that barely obscures the film’s terrors.
Even the redemptive return to Bedford Falls at the film’s climax, with its parade of characters each giving George Bailey his due, betrays a sense of manic excess that recalls the infamous final reel of F. W. Murnau’s “The Last Laugh” (1924), another film about the horror of a life lived too timidly that ends with an improbable reversal of fortune, as the prideful doorman of a posh hotel suffers the crushing humiliation of being demoted to washroom attendant, only to have everything suddenly put back in order thanks to a miracle inheritance. Murnau famously played the happy ending as overt parody, never meant to be taken seriously by anyone but the duped and the desperate. I don’t mean to say that I think Capra intended any overt duplicity in his handling of the finale, but I do think that he was a canny enough filmmaker that he knew the desolation hinted at in Bailey’s quick descent into suicidal despair and the glimpse of the Goya-esque travesty that is Pottersville required a hysterical overreach that could partially suppress memories of everything witnessed during the previous hour and thus guarantee a relatively happy ending. How successful one finds the suppression depends on the viewer’s sympathies–there are those who hear little Zuzu exclaim how the ringing bell means an angel’s got his wings and then gag at the saccharine indulgence, whereas when I hear those words I flashback to Nick the bartender (Sheldon Leonard) sadistically banging his cash register over and over again, his ecstatic, maniacal derision eating away at the film’s pretensions of piety. Once the hell of Pottersville has been revealed, it’s hard not to re-watch the film and constantly see in Bedford Falls and its denizens the shadows of their troubling doppelgangers.
Still, despite its excesses, I find the final sequence deeply affecting, partly because it constitutes such a powerful fantasy of affirmation. As Gilberto Perez has noted, “George Bailey…is not a figure of the common man but of the superior one, idealistically devoted to the common good and individually responsible…for fending off capitalist greed.” George’s redemption consists not in realizing that he has friends who care about him (the kind of Hallmark banality the scene reduces to in popular memory) but in being realized as the indispensable man, the one person on whom everyone’s fortunes and failures depend.
Part of the horror of Pottersville consists not simply in seeing how miserable life has become for all of his friends (except for Nick the bartender, who somehow seems to have come out ahead in the topsy-turvy dystopia of Pottersville) but in being rendered utterly anonymous, a non-being whose own mother doesn’t recognize him. In film, visual recognition often absolves all crimes and redeems all catastrophes. It’s precisely the sublimity of being truly seen, as if for the first time, that makes the finale of Chaplin’s “City Lights” so profoundly moving, and many of the greatest, most passionate romantic comedies of the classical era, such as Preston Sturges’s “The Lady Eve” and Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner,” hinge on the rapture of recognition. Similarly, the calamity of misrecognition is often the ultimate cinematic horror, from Henry Fonda finding his identity subsumed into that of a criminal in Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man” (1956), to a mother who finds that her daughter only perceives her as what’s for dinner in “Night of the Living Dead.” The ending thus reassures by completely undoing the nightmare of anonymity; George’s bliss comes from being truly, passionately recognized by everybody, and on the most aggrandizing terms possible.
The film’s distorted mirror image, both as an exploration of middle-aged disappointment and as a deeply sad holiday movie, can be found in Fritz Lang’s “Scarlet Street” (1945), a film whose parallels with “It’s a Wonderful Life” underscore the Capra film’s affinity with film noir. A remake of Jean Renoir’s “La Chienne” (1931), “Scarlet Street” follows the downward spiral of Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson), a timid bank clerk already living a wasted, narrow life married to a woman he despises (and who seems to return the sentiment), as he allows his obsession with a pretty prostitute and canny chiseler named Kitty (Joan Bennett) to destroy his life, eventually leaving him alone, homeless, guilt-ridden, and stalking the New York streets like a grieving Yuletide specter. The film begins with a scene that plays almost like a travesty of the “It’s a Wonderful Life” finale, as Edward G. Robinson’s profoundly pathetic cashier receives a gold watch for years of faithful service to his firm. The scene replays the acknowledgement that constitutes George Bailey’s salvation as a cold comfort for a life lived in the margins. The respectable grey men all gathered together, shaking hands with Cross in acknowledgement of his years of being a tolerable employee, shift priorities quickly enough so they can stare out the window at the boss’s young, blonde companion, waiting downstairs for her sugar daddy to return to the car. Robinson departs from his own party imagining the theoretical delights of having a woman like that by his side, while reminiscing to his coworker about his lifelong desire to be an admired painter. Here Lang conflates libidinal yearning with aesthetic ambition and mournful regret, accentuating the kind of sexual frankness that Capra only exploits intermittently in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In contrast to Chris Cross’s fantasies, George’s desire to explore the great beyond outside Bedford Falls seems so boyish because it’s so sexless–the sexual realities of Bedford Falls seem to have a leg up on Bailey’s fantasies in the very material forms of Donna Reed and Gloria Grahame. For his part, Lang lets artistic ambition and sexual realization mingle in an expert realization of a backlot Greenwich Village, imagined as a paradise of bohemian pretension and degenerate scheming.
As depicted by Lang, Greenwich Village, the setting for most of the film’s grotesqueries, plays like another neighborhood in Pottersville, and Joan Bennett’s deliciously cynical and manipulative streetwalker could be a smarter, meaner version of the Pottersville Viola (Gloria Grahame), the eternally delighted town tart turned harried hooker who’s one of Pottersville’s most poignant victims. The film follows Robinson as he seems to find in Bennett a possibility of the recognition that’s eluded him his whole life, recognition not as the dutiful employee who’s earned a gold watch after years of never making a nuisance of himself, but rather as a passionate artist with a fanatical devotion to his subject. Kitty’s tragedy consists of not recognizing the dangerous malice implicit in Chris’s infatuation, thus leading to her eventual murder at his hands. After a trial sequence that mocks Production Code convention by having a guilty man condemned to death, Lang leaves us with a shot of Cross as an utterly defeated man, haunting the streets of New York at wintertime, with nothing but a guilty conscience keeping him company. Chris’s final saunter down a sidewalk bedecked with Christmas lights and plagued by incessant Christmas music finds him confronting reminders of everything lost to him, the love he has destroyed, the home he has lost, and the future that grows dim in the distance.
Yet, for all the despair of its finale, “Scarlet Street” still strikes me as a moderately less agonizing film than “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Chris Cross’s blunders are fairly obvious, and his descent into perdition comes about due to the usual tragic blindness of a bored man stuck in a life with a wife he holds in contempt. Cross’s tragedy is that he’s an eternal simp, a guy any wise-ass can figure for an easy mark a mile away. George Bailey, in contrast, makes nothing but responsible decisions all his life, and his tragedy is precisely that he can never quite give in to his feelings of resentment and disappointment. It’s thus all the more horrifying that even this model of right-living civic respectability ends up in the same hell that claims Chris Cross, as they both become men defeated, guilt-ridden, abandoned to the oblivion of a desolate Christmas night.
Then again, George at least had Capra’s vision of the Almighty looking out for him. George’s universe needs a caring paternal deity more than Chris’s, because otherwise everybody and their good intentions are pretty much fucked. The moral vision Capra offers is almost medieval in its severity, presenting a cold, destructive world where the deck is always stacked against nobility and only supernatural intervention guarantees any kind of justice. Stripped down to only the bare, material facts of the world, the life Capra presents is one in which virtue guarantees no rewards, courage warrants violent reprisal, and intelligence merely means a fuller awareness of life’s inevitable betrayals. A world that miserable desperately needs the meager comforts provided by an avuncular, interventionist god. Or at least a Sanity Clause.
III: “Die Hard”: A Very ’80s Anti-Christmas-Christmas Film
Rebecca A. Brown
In the early 1990s, my mother, father, sister, and I embraced “Die Hard” (1988) as our first official Christmas movie. This profanity-riddled festival of lights served as a counterpoint to the sedateness of our quasi-Dickensian Christmas dinner or as a panacea for the occasional disappointment of our Christmas Eve movie at the theater. Ritualistic holiday viewings aside, I never tired of speculating with my father about John McClane’s (Bruce Willis’s) wifebeater, which transforms from glaringly white to military green in 58 minutes, and laughing uproariously at some of the most quotable action film dialogue ever delivered (“Just wound them,” Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) tells his “terrorists” when the LAPD attempts to storm the Nakatomi Plaza). My recent “Die Hard” screenings not only brought these escapist pleasures into focus, but also my (and perhaps even my family’s) unspoken reasons for appreciating its status as an anti-Christmas-Christmas movie. Christmas cheer takes a cynical turn from the beginning of the film, and the end result is a refreshingly anti-consumerist commentary in an abysmally consumerist decade.
At the beginning of “Die Hard,” John McClane disembarks from an airplane with a gigantic teddy bear in his arms for one (or both) of his children. The teddy bear, partly due to its sheer size, humorously undercuts his NY cop masculinity, which has already been visually referenced within the film’s first few minutes by his concealed weapon. The cuddly toy also loses its status as a Christmas gift when John leaves it in the limo that takes him from the airport to the Nakatomi Plaza with Argyle (De’voreaux White), the driver, thereby rendering it a mere visual accompaniment to the latter’s largely comic function. This visual Christmas marker is complemented by an aural one. On the ride to the Plaza, John attempts to dissuade garrulous Argyle from delving further into his past by telling him to put on some Christmas music. The radio plays Run D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis,” a song that not only mocks John’s displacement from New York but also revises the very concept of “pure” Christmas music by sampling and blending familiar holiday-time staples.
“Die Hard” further twists Christmas songs and sounds when Theo (Clarence Gilyard, Jr.) turns the LAPD’s attempt to infiltrate the Plaza into a Christmas story (“Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring except the four assholes coming in from the rear in standard cover formation”) and a dead body decimates Al’s (Reginald VelJohnson’s) windshield, just as he finishes the chorus to “Let it Snow.” Similarly, the movie advances its Christmas make-over when John arrives on the 30th floor of the Nakatomi Plaza. Here, he enters a disorienting foyer with Christmas trees, decorative presents, expensive art, and champagne so repulsive to his everyman sensibilities that he returns it to the waiter. The chilling sleekness of the space further highlights John’s status as a stranger in a strange land of greed and materialism and foreshadows the equally chilling confrontation between John and his wife, Holly Genarro (Bonnie Bedelia).
After his and Holly’s unaffectionate reunion, John challenges her professional decision to use her maiden name in a manner so passive-aggressive it might almost be called feminine. This scene not only demonstrates a power shift in the nuclear family but also has intriguing implications for John’s status as a Christmas movie husband. During the scene, Holly’s clothing reinforces her empowered status—she wears a reddish-pink blouse (sedate passion) and full-length beige skirt (business casual); John, in contrast, is half naked in his slacks, white wifebeater, and (possibly) bare feet. His physical vulnerability contributes to the notion that he is, if not an ineffectual cop, (claiming/justifying to Argyle that he couldn’t move out to L.A. because he had a six-month backlog of bad guys in NY he couldn’t walk away from), an ineffectual husband. John’s conjugal ineffectuality echoes George Bailey’s in “It a Wonderful Life.” George frequently ditches his wife, even on their honeymoon, for his so-called career that earns him barely enough money to survive. In this particular scene, one might also apprehend the specter of “The Old Man” (Darren McGavin) in “A Christmas Story” (1983) who proves to be an unaffectionate, frequently distant husband.
Holly, however, does not resemble her female counterparts in these Christmas films. For instance, while Mary Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” engages in home-decorating and child-rearing, Holly has a live-in nanny/housekeeper who takes care of the children while Holly works. She also maintains a prominent physical distance from her children by staring at their photographs on her desk and talking on the phone with them. Through her “terrorist” experience, Holly will eventually trade in some of her “tough as nails” career woman persona for that of the loving wife who reclaims her husband’s last name (and more than makes up for her initially cool reception with a passionate embrace and extensive kissing later in the film). Yet she still illuminates Mr. Tagaki’s assertion that she’s “made for the business” by confronting Hans with reasonable requests for his captives, labeling Hans a “common thief” when she discovers that his entire reason for hijacking the Plaza revolves around the +$600 million bonds, and by punching newscaster Richard Thornburg (William Atherton) in the face at the film’s conclusion. The latter move tempers her disquieting silence once she’s reunited with her husband and leaves the Plaza. (We assume her silence results from her traumatic captivity, but to her credit, Bedelia’s facial expression speaks volumes when John and Al affectionately embrace).
In sum, Holly is as verbally masculine as her husband at the beginning of the film, and one might argue that she maintains much of this masculinity throughout the film, ultimately trading her clever words for a variation on her husband’s dynamic physicality with that satisfying punch. In fact, Holly has more than a little in common with Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) in “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945). Elizabeth’s status as a domestic writer is hilariously undermined by her inability to cook, her imaginary child, and her equally imaginary husband. Even when she borrows a child to stage a fake Christmas celebration, she tells her war-veteran guest Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) that she will “give it to Nora to feed.” Initially, the child, which could inspire her maternal instincts, serves as a prop for her performance. Elizabeth is, in short, a career girl, who has even turned down her architect suitor several times because she does not love him (and by extension, eschews domestic entrapment). Like Holly, she only seems to fully find/realize love and happiness with her handsome, physically victimized man at the film’s conclusion.
Fortunately for Holly, John’s opportunity to become an action hero—the Nakatomi Plaza’s “terrorist take-over”—unconventionally bolsters his masculinity and refreshingly reasserts his humanity. While running around the building in only his slacks and wifebeater, John’s lack of shoes forcefully serves as a constant reminder of his physical vulnerability (“Shoot the glass!” Hans orders), and also serves as an ingenious point of comic relief (“All the terrorists in the world and I have to shoot the one with feet smaller than my sister’s”). It’s impossible not to cringe when, as an exhausted sweaty mess, he pulls glass from his feet in the bathroom, and asks Al to tell Holly that he loves her, and that he’s sorry he’s such a screw-up. In this scene, especially, John stages a form of redemption often ultra-present in Christmas movies, only in a much bloodier, violent, non-ghostly manner.
The concept of redemption might seem especially odd given John’s body count, but he never seamlessly kills the would-be terrorists, a point which we can attribute to his ineffectuality as a cop or his lack of experience with real violence. Even slender, wire-cutting Tony (Andreas Wisniewski) proves to be a physical match for John, so much so that he can only ensure his expiration by falling down the stairs with him. Likewise, when Karl (Alexander Godunov) finally corners John near the end of the film, their bloody battle rages on for several minutes. John only “wins” towards the end of this fight by enacting a marvelous neo-western killing, wrapping the chain around Karl’s neck to hang him high; however, we never see John shoot the body, even if he looks like he’s raising his gun. Thus, Karl returns, Jaws-like, at the end of the film, and it is Al, the trusty side-kick, who puts him to rest. This scene not only vindicates Al, who also is on the path of Christmas-time redemption, but reasserts John’s lack of prowess in killing his two most potent adversaries. (Not convinced? Consider that while John shoots Hans several times, the ringleader is still alive enough to hold onto Holly’s Rolex. It’s only after considerable struggle that John gets the Rolex off her wrist and Hans plummets to his death. Falling, rather than John’s shots, truly signals his demise).
These unconventional action hero qualities reinforce an issue most viewers were highly aware of in the late 1980s: director John McTiernan, whose sci-fi hit “Predator” (1987) featured the muscle-laden ’80s action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger, took a risk in casting non-established action hero Bruce Willis as the lead in his film. (I issue this remark having not read Roderick Thorp’s novel, “Nothing Lasts Forever” (1979), which “Die Hard” is based on). Willis’s considerable wit was a relatively rare quality in ’80s (and especially ’70s) action heroes. For instance, vigilante avenger extraordinaire Charles Bronson never possessed the same statuesqueness as Arnold, but capitalized upon an intense gaze, dynamic physicality, and dry humor. (One might apply these same characteristics to Clint Eastwood but add that his Dirty Harry one-liners are simultaneously weird, funny, and menacing). Sweaty, stacked Sylvester Stallone beat and shot the shit out of hundreds, occasionally even delivering a memorable remark, as he does in “Cobra” (1986) when the shooter says he’s going to blow up the store, and Sly retorts, “Go ahead, I don’t shop here.” (Predictably, Sly’s remaining lines are as unmemorable as Brigitte Nielsen’s singing career). Even Arnold occasionally exhibited a penchant for witty one-liners that were as explosive as the physical violence that surrounded them.
Willis could never emulate Bronson’s (or Eastwood’s) grace or withering stare; moreover, his muscular frame never inspired the same steroid-anxiety Sly and Arnold’s physiques did. Instead, physical prowess transforms into verbal prowess as Willis channels and outdoes his comedic performances as David Addison on “Moonlighting” (1985-89) and his extension of this role as Walter Davis in “Blind Date” (1987). (According to IMDb Bruce Willis trivia, the actor “ad-libbed many of his one-liners in the ‘Die Hard’ films,” which is easy to believe given his pre-McClane roles). With his smart-ass mouth (“Now I have a machine gun. Ho-ho-ho”), his aforementioned habit of getting beaten up, and his phobia (flying rather than snakes), John McClane resembles Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, without the intellectual curiosity or career success of the college professor-adventurer.
Like Jones, who is emotionally dysfunctional but not mentally unstable, John channels the “western” gunslinger. Yet John eschews the most obvious western hero reference (John Wayne/McClane) by telling Hans that Roy Rogers is the cowboy/hero he most admires, especially because of his sequined shirts. He punctuates this rather ambivalent statement, uttered with enough sarcasm to off-set any homosexual interpretations, with the delightfully masculine “yippee-ki-yay-motherfucker,” an appropriate rejoinder for any occasion. (And who hasn’t been tempted to use it at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and wakes?) McTiernan’s heavy-handed irony proves delightful as John’s punctuated one-liners substitute for Rogers’s songs, and John’s killing and destruction of the Nakatomi Plaza offset Rogers’s unambiguous goodness. Moreover, John’s sidekick, Al, whose performance pays homage to and deviates from Danny Glover’s in “Lethal Weapon” (1987) (another Christmas movie that takes place in sunny L.A.), remains physically separated from him until the end of the film. Unlike the vast landscapes traveled by real cowboys, wandering/riding through the Wild West side-by-side, John’s terrain for much of the film is limited to five floors and the roof of the Plaza; Al’s terrain is limited to several yards outside the building (which may or may not include the Twinkie-laden AM/PM just down the road). While Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans, harmoniously sang, “It’s Christmas on the plains, it’s Christmas out on the range,” John and Al are limited to a small portion of L.A. that’s cleverly made-over to channel and revamp the mythic Wild West. Ellis’s cocaine snorting early in the film and the thrill of the “terrorist take-over” suggest that this West Coast city easily rivals, in an ’80s kind of way, its nineteenth-century counterpart. With the exception of the 30th floor, the other floors in the Plaza are as sparsely inhabited/decorated as western filmic landscapes, thereby allowing John to steer his way through elevator shafts, hallways unnecessarily decorated with pictures of scantly clad women, a perilous roof, and other nearly empty spaces where wires, metal chairs, and beams replace sand dunes, cacti, tumbleweed, and quicksand. These spaces are alternately vast (the elevator shaft seems to have no end), and confining (the air shaft John crawls through), thereby providing a disorientingly modernized Wild West spatial experience. While Al remains outside, the space he navigates is far more limited and ultimately confining as he remains nearly stationary at patrol cars, reinforcing his “flat-footed” status, and never, until the end, upstaging his alpha-male partner.
The almost claustrophobic spatial confinement that Al and John experience is equally evident in “Black Christmas” (1974) and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But unlike those two Christmas films, “Die Hard” takes place over the course of several hours, thereby magnifying all Christmas stakes within a short time frame. To bolster this suspense, the film offers a deadly group of Christmas villains, a multicultural group of fake “terrorists,” hailing from Germany, Italy, France, Asia, and America. These thieves have an indispensable role in further elaborating the excessive Christmas materialism and empty signification John has already been privy to. Their emphasis on materialism is visually marked by their high-tech equipment and their mostly immaculate clothing—turtle-neck sweaters, black leather jackets, an expensive black suit, black slacks, button down shirts, a tweed blazer—that may (like Holly’s clothing) serve as a sort of symbolic suit of armor against John. (Hans’s brief John Phillips suit discussion in the elevator likewise reaffirms the vitality of clothing). It even extends, in unexpected ways, to the less than obscure object of their desires. There are seven locks on the Nakatomi vault that suggest a biblical connection to the Seven Seals. When Theo tells his boss that the impossible seventhlock on the vault is in his hands, Hans remarks, “It’s Christmas, Theo, the time of miracles,” thereby conflating the spiritual/religious connotations of miracles with the monetary. When the FBI unwittingly helps disable the seventh lock/seal, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony plays, and within moments, viewers are treated to the well-known strains of “Ode to Joy.” This is not quite the angels blowing trumpets as we expect upon the destruction of the seventh lock/seal, but it’s close enough. Moreover, the lyrics to Schiller’s poem underscore union/bonding among this equal opportunity theft organization (and potentially other literal or metaphorical thieves), which only +$600 million in bonds can create.
However, all the greed and empty signification dissipate, literally, as the film nears its conclusion. When Hans blows the roof and John returns to the 30th floor, small fires flagrantly burn in the foyer, a Christmas tree falls over while he climbs the stairs, and John shoots Hans and Eddie with a gun that he’s strapped onto his back with Xmas tape. Moreover, the bonds take flight, but no one attempts to grab this flammable (fake) money. In sum, the movie asks viewers not only to forget money but to forget (’80s) size—giant teddy bears, a Rolex, +$600 million in bonds, expensive foyers with multiple Christmas trees, a fully functional multi-cultural terrorist/theft organization, unscathed limos with a full bar—it doesn’t (ever) matter. In a film that’s bombastic from start to finish, “Die Hard” shows viewers that what ultimately counts as good Christmas cheer is the little stuff: meeting your male side-kick, ignoring the deputy chief of police, punching the unsympathetic newscaster, and riding off into the darkness (rather than the sunset) with your wife by your side, in a battered limo, to nondiegetic Christmas music.
IV: A Very Merry Dialogue
PAJ: So I thought I’d kick things off by noting the relative quirkiness of the two of us writing a Christmas article together, as you’re Jewish and I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, a faith that forbids its adherents from celebrating the holidays. How do you see these backgrounds informing our choices of movies and our reasons for loving them?
RAB: Indeed, that’s especially quirky, even for us. I’m wondering if your upbringing has had a strong impact on your ability to embrace the ending of “It’s a Wonderful Life”–i.e., it embodies a kind of redemptive, cloying, Christmas cheer that perhaps you pined for in childhood. For myself, I know full well that “Die Hard” is my ultimate Xmas movie because it’s so anti-Xmas–most of my other top Xmas movies are also anti-Xmas.
PAJ: So expound on your hatred of the Capra film. You are after all part of a noble tradition of “It’s a Wonderful Life” naysayers.
RAB: I am! Proudly! First off, I find the angel frame story to be hard to relate to–I like my angels existing in black-and-white, haunting libraries and hanging out with Peter Falk.
PAJ: Well, they are in black and white and seem to like reading books.
RAB: They are in black and white, but all but nearly all of them are disembodied. They like reading, but they’re not hanging around in libraries. However, the end of your “It’s a Wonderful Life” piece does nicely justify why we need angels and a higher patriarchal power within Capra’s world, so I “get it.”
Another reason I dislike like the film is Donna Reed, who plays a character I can’t stand. As you well know, I like “strong” female leads—and all Donna Reed does is let her husband walk all over her–even when she finally confronts him on his terrible behavior, it’s not especially startling or riveting.
And finally I maintain that the most satisfying ending would be for George to barge into his house, thankful that his identity has been restored, and then get hauled off to jail, with a big smile on his face.
PAJ: Capra had a thing for Christmas suicides. “Meet John Doe,” made five years earlier, also ended with a planned Christmas suicide, and Capra essentially couldn’t find a way out of the narrative cul-de-sac in that movie, leading him to shoot several endings, none of them satisfactory. So I also see the divine intervention as a way for Capra to avoid the headaches that plagued him with “Meet John Doe.”
And as far as Donna Reed, I can see what you mean in her later scenes as the dutiful wife, but for me all is forgiven by that parlor scene, where she’s so palpably hungry and angry over George Bailey that she seems on the verge of breaking down. And the glimpses of her broken relationship with her terrible mother is a prime example of Capra’s off-handed way of evoking the social hell that fills in the blank lives of his supposedly adored “little people.”
RAB: She’s never forgiven by me–she’s just not hungry or angry enough. She’s so ludicrously dutiful, even arranging their wedding night in the run-down house and playing her role as the good at-home war wife.
If she yelled at her mother, I’d like her better.
PAJ: Seething passive-aggressive hatred (“he’s making violent love to me, mother”) isn’t good enough for you?
RAB: Nope. It’s really not. Not convincing in the least.
PAJ: How does it fail to convince? I’m always left pretty chilled by her brief interactions with her mother.
RAB: It’s so short lived and then never alluded to again.
PAJ: I’m not sure I agree with that. I think it explains her character’s desperation regarding George and precisely why she’s not interested in Sam Wainwright. Sam is her mother’s ideal. Marrying George is her version of leaving Bedford Falls, and it’s one reason her Pottersville fate as an old maid (who presumably lives with her mother) is so horrifying.
RAB: I interpreted her disinterest in marrying Sam that way too. But her mother is just one in a long line of extreme, shrill caricatures in the movie, which is another reason the film irritates me. There’s very, very little middle ground for any character–it’s either mad as hell, despairing as hell, depressed as hell, dutiful as hell, good as hell, or happy as hell throughout the film.
Plus, the fundamental issue here for me is that I dislike Donna Reed as an actress.
PAJ: Ah. And I’m always inclined to argue that the anodyne Donna Reed TV show fatally tainted her image as an actress, since her film roles are much more varied and complex than her TV legacy would suggest.
And I agree about the psychological extremes in the film, but I think that’s one reason that I adore the movie.
RAB: That makes sense to me. You tend to have a great deal more patience than I do with behavioral extremes.
And I completely agree with you about “The Donna Reed Show”–I may be a victim.
PAJ: I think you see Mary as being animated entirely by her desire for George, thus the dutiful wife syndrome, but to me that desire is animated by her hatred of her mother, which makes it a bit more complex and less one-note than what you perceive.
RAB: Not really–I see her as animated by both, a little more George than mom, but mom too. The issue at stake again is the stark emotional extremism–hate, no middle ground.
As much as I dislike the film, though, there are scenes I genuinely and predictably enjoy, such as when Mary and George are both listening to Sam–it’s wonderfully uncomfortable and sexy. I like the way they move physically closer and closer, eventually too consumed to keep their lips off each other. I particularly like this scene because it’s so delightfully naughty for a 1946 film, and I think that Stewart marvelously conveys George’s repressed desire.
Likewise, I love the dance contest scene in the early part of the film, not just because it’s hilarious to watch Stewart throw his tall frame around. He’s not even remotely graceful but there’s some skill there, and moreover, an initial uncertainty that gives him a little extra depth.
PAJ: I want to quickly add here that for all my defense of Donna Reed, I do partially agree with you. I adore Mary throughout the first part of the movie, but it seems to me that once the two get married she loses her personality. I think I mostly enjoy the fact that she’s very much the active pursuer in the first half of the movie, a quality lost once she’s caught her game.
RAB: She is much more fun as an active pursuer, the dance scene being my favorite example.
PAJ: And I also think her kids are far too boringly adorable. In contrast, the child versions of Mary, Viola and George make for uncomfortably adult-like kids.
RAB: Her children are yawn-worthy, particularly Zuzu and her little flower. As a side note, I’d just read Marah Gubar’s blurb on “innocence” in “Keywords for Children’s Literature” before I started watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Her remarks about Shirley Temple resonated way too well in watching the child versions of George and Mary.
Gubar discusses an important phenomenon in children’s lit–that children so frequently have the concept of “innocence” grafted onto them by adults. But adults are also guilty of tarting up kids–case in point, Shirley Temple is often anything but innocent with her pouty mouth, perfect curls, and little dresses.
PAJ: Ah. Echoes of the infamous Graham Greene putdown of Temple.
RAB: The child version of Mary is not innocent in the way she looks at and interacts with George. It’s wonderfully subversive.
PAJ: Any thoughts on Gloria Grahame’s supporting role? She was of course one of the grand dames of film noir, and seems to be having a lot of fun here. I think one thing I love about the movie is that Capra’s frankly conservative adoration of small town nowheresville, USA leaves room for a frankly adoring view of the town tart.
RAB: I don’t find her overly impressive–to me she largely seems to function as problematic comic relief and an occasional pity object, although my favorite moment with her is when George doles out that great fantasy to her of running up to the hills and walking around–her horrified expression and then hasty departure crack me up as it’s uncertain which parts of the fantasy she finds more repellent.
PAJ: I agree. Great scene. And wonderfully played by Grahame. To me she’s a key part of Capra’s vision of Bedford Falls. While I agree there’s a certain condescending comic relief quality to how Capra treats her character, I also think she’s key to Capra’s vision of Bedford Falls as an essentially functional and humane place. Capra tries something tricky in the movie by remaining sympathetic to George’s sense of entrapment while also conveying the idea that Bedford Falls basically works as a community. So one of the most striking differences between Bedford Falls and Pottersville is that where Viola has a place in Bedford Falls, in Pottersville she’s a victimized outcast. It’s Capra turning the old saw about small town conservativism vs. big city liberalism on its head. I’m not sure it’s an honest reversal, but it is an interesting one.
RAB: I agree that she has an important place in the town and in the film at large, especially in the nightmare world. And I especially like the fact that George gives her money so she can get out of town but we never really quite know why he’s giving her money.
PAJ: One of those incidental glories of the Production Code, where we’re allowed to fill in the blanks with all kinds of possibilities. General thoughts on Pottersville and the film’s connections to film noir?
RAB: Yes, Pottersville is extreme, extreme noir, a nice starting point, visually and behaviorally for Welles’s “Touch of Evil” and Aldrich’s “Kiss Me Deadly,” although it’s fascinating that there’s much more sympathetic vulnerability in both Welles’s and Aldrich’s worlds.
But Bedford Falls is also a groovy reverse noir kind of place–i.e., the light and happiness help entrap George and instead of criminals and such adorning the streets, he’s persecuted on the streets of the town by good individuals.
PAJ: Well, both Welles and Aldrich are half in love with their vicious night worlds. For Capra, I think Pottersville really is just pure horror.
RAB: Yup–and it shows.
PAJ: I want to talk briefly about how “It’s a Wonderful Life” fits into the tradition of Christmas movies. I’m inclined to argue that the Christmas movie didn’t really emerge until the ’40s. In the ’30s, Christmas was largely relegated to cartoons plus “A Christmas Carol” adaptations.
Then in 1940, you get two key movies–Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner” and Mitchell Leisen’s “Remember the Night” (the latter isn’t so well remembered today, but it’s a terrific film–it’s kind of a rough draft of “Double Indemnity” with Barbara Stanwyck falling for Fred MacMurray midway through and deciding not to con him). And then there’s a wave of Christmas movies throughout the war years, with movies like Vincente Minnelli’s “Meet Me in St. Louis” and Peter Godfrey’s “Christmas in Connecticut” being obvious favorites.
RAB: Do you think that some of that emergence had to do with WWII and the need for redemptive, good cheer after that devastation?
PAJ: Definitely. That and the experience of families being separated due to the war.
RAB: Though couldn’t one make an argument that “The Thin Man” (1934) is a holiday film? Not surprisingly, of all the black and white Xmas film images that have wandered by my line of sight over the years, none are as wonderfully memorable or hilarious as Nick Charles shooting balloons on his Christmas tree while Nora rolls her eyes at him, wearing her new fur coat.
PAJ: Yes, but I don’t think of “The Thin Man” as being defined by its Christmas trappings in the same way that “Shop Around the Corner” or “Meet Me in St Louis” are. Though you may disagree. (And plenty of ’30s movies have Christmas scenes, I just don’t know of very many aside from “Three Godfathers” (1936) and “A Christmas Carol” (1938) that I would define as being partly about Christmas.)
RAB: “The Thin Man” may not be defined by Christmas trappings, but it is partially defined by holiday trappings more generally–Christmas through New Year’s. I think “The Shop Around the Corner” should be screened more often around Christmas, and frankly, it’s been so long since I’ve seen “Meet Me in St. Louis” that I’d forgotten it was a Christmas film.
PAJ: Any thoughts on the other Christmas movie I adore, Fritz Lang’s very merry “Scarlet Street”?
RAB: Re-viewing the movie reminded me that it contains my favorite Edward G. Robinson performance. He is so phenomenally pitiful in the film that several scenes are almost unbearable to watch. In particular, every scene involving Robinson and Duryea usually has me on edge because the latter is such an asshole and the former is such a schmuck. It’s a very unconventional Xmas film because Xmas doesn’t really enter into the film until the end. Nonetheless, the whole terrific dark turn after Chris’s discussion on the train with the journalists about murder and guilt is wonderfully apropos for bringing out the darkness of the holidays and, of course, Chris’s lack of redemption (i.e., becoming a bum with a death-wish) is fascinating since his name is one letter short of Christ. I am especially fond of the scene in which he returns to his motel room, and Lang ostensibly stages a mini-version of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” with the ghost of Christmas past (Kitty’s voiceover) driving Chris so crazy that he tries and then fails to hang himself. Of course, no ghosts come to Chris’s rescue so he’s eternally doomed to walk the streets (as you said yourself, like a Yuletide specter), repulsing those whom he passes by, that is, those who notice him because the film is also so nicely playing on the fact that a homeless/propertyless man is a very marginalized man, and thus, an ideal ghost.
PAJ: And what about Joan Bennett as Kitty? Despite the character’s many, many, many flaws I find myself feeling almost as mad for her as Chris, though that’s largely because Joan Bennett is a long-time favorite of mine.
RAB: Joan Bennett is smashing–one of the best femme fatale performances in classic noir. She plays Chris like a pro and even, occasionally, evinces a combination of genuine regret/amazement at his gullibility that one can’t help but like her. And Duryea’s violence towards her certainly helps with that. And of course Chris’s wife, Adele, is really another great femme fatale. Her domestic tyranny is positively chilling throughout the film–she is, hands down, more terrifying than any man.
PAJ: Duryea’s treatment of Kitty certainly helps her seem like a more tragic character. She has these little twinges of pity and regret throughout the film that Duryea always manages to squelch. And of course his behavior ends up dooming him, not just in the context of the plot but in terms of audience sympathies–it’s easy to forget at the end that he’s actually the victim of a grave injustice. I suspect the Production Code forgot as well, since I would have expected they would have normally objected to the execution of an innocent man on the grounds that it suggested that the American justice system was fundamentally incompetent and unjust. But Duryea plays the character as such a weasel that I think you kind of assume he must be guilty of some crime worthy of the death penalty, so it’s hard to feel much remorse.
So let’s shift gears to a different kind of Christmas movie, “Die Hard.” “Die Hard” itself comes at the beginning of another Christmas movie wave. Besides “A Christmas Story” and “Gremlins,” there’s not a ton of mid-’80s holiday movies. But then at the end of the decade, you get “Die Hard,” “Scrooged,” “Prancer,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Ernest Saves Christmas,” and “Home Alone.” So why did the end of the ’80s bring this new holiday wave?
RAB: The first thing that comes to mind is the political and economic climate–a sort of exhausted shift from the Reagan to the Bush years. I guess for me in terms of the political shift, I’ve always seen Bush as the ridiculous family values guy (sans broccoli consumption) and that whole onslaught of Xmas films and playing up the fractured, then reunited family Xmas thing might play into that.
PAJ: And one thing that makes “Die Hard” interesting in the context of ’80s action movie is that the hero, though estranged from his wife, is quite explicitly a family man. He’s sort of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover’s characters from Lethal Weapon rolled into one person.
RAB: He is a family man, but one who isn’t at the start of the film–he must redeem himself.
RAB: It’s almost poignant when he’s looking at the pic of his kids right before the “terrorists” come storming in. And then, of course, there’s the great scene when Holly turns the pic of him, her, and the kids, face down on the desk. A nice visual reminder of how she feels about him and his position in the family.
PAJ: And you also get a very cool shot introducing that photo, with the camera slowly panning to reveal the picture of John and his family, helping to flesh out his identity in a single shot. Though he needs redemption, John McClane is very unusual in the post-Dirty Harry world for being almost completely free of angst. The whole convention of the hero cop whose psychosis mirrors that of the villain was a very played out trope by the late ’80s, and Die Hard doesn’t really indulge in it at all. For all the ways he’s kind of a schlub and a loser, he’s remarkably psychologically sound for an ’80s action hero. Most ’80s action heroes were either crazy or emotional automatons, and John McClane is neither.
RAB: That he is. In fact, he never really goes bat-shit Mel Gibson–the closest he gets is when he limps over to Hans and Eddie, without his shirt, and says, “Hi, honey.”
PAJ: For that matter, Hans Gruber is a fun villain partly because he seems quite rational and like somebody who would be fun to hang around with on his days off, when he’s not murdering people.
RAB: Hence my utter fascination with him as a villain.
PAJ: You know, Sunday afternoons when he doesn’t have any plans and can just unwind.
RAB: On his yacht, earning 20%.
I also love the fact that his whole group is mislabeled as terrorists throughout the film, and that Gruber only ever kills the Japanese-American empire builder (who claims he won’t exploit his new business in Indonesia) and Ellis, the ’80s asshole cocaine snorter who is attempting to break up the nuclear family.
PAJ: And of course we all just want to hug him for murdering Ellis.
RAB: We do, and while we all like Mr. Takagi, he doesn’t have enough onscreen time for us to fall in love with him. However, it’s such a notably grisly death…
PAJ: Sure. It’s one of the film’s most exuberant indulgences in gore. So, does “Die Hard” seem to you to fit into a late ’80s turn toward angst-free action movies? And does that connect with the holiday trajectory we’ve identified?
RAB: Well, I think it does fit into this trend, but Mel Gibson was still riding the angsty-tide through the second Lethal Weapon film. But definitely, Van Damme wasn’t particularly angsty and neither was Steven Seagal.
PAJ: Sure, and those lousy Harrison Ford Tom Clancy movies were just around the corner, featuring a hero who also seems to completely lack psychological defects–to the extent that the character kind of lacks a personality.
RAB: Doesn’t the early ’90s (or is it mid-’90s) also mark Schwarzenegger’s turn to comic disaster (“Twins”) as well as a few of his less automaton-like roles?
PAJ: Yes, “Twins” is 1988, the same year as “Die Hard.” And there followed a whole awkward period during which Schwarzenegger tried to make it as a light comic actor–at precisely the same moment that light comic actor Bruce Willis was a making it as an action hero. “Kindergarten Cop” (1990), the movie in which Arnold got pregnant, etc, etc, the pain, the pain…
RAB: Oh, the irony…. I’m remembering all too well now why the ’90s kind of sucked in terms of action films, and why it was such a revelation to have Jason Statham burst onto the scene in the early 21st century.
PAJ: I agree. Die Hard actually represents a kind of end point for interesting American action movies for a few years. If you wanted great action movies in the early ’90s, you had to look to Hong Kong.
RAB: Absolutely. It was time for Johnny To and John Woo.
PAJ: Though there were certainly some big hits in the meantime–“Terminator 2” (1991) (which I’ve never cared for) and “Total Recall” (1990) (which I like, warts and all). Though the fact that they’re science-fiction/action hybrids set them apart from the whole hero cop/vigilante trend of the ’70s and ’80s.
RAB: I was the opposite as a teen–loved the Terminator sequel (never as much as the first, though, due to the lack of Michael Biehn) and never really got into “Total Recall.” There were also some fun mindless indulgences like “Demolition Man” (1993).
PAJ: “Point Break” (1991) and “The Last Boy Scout” (1991) do fit the tradition of heroic cop movies, though. Thoughts on those?
RAB: I’ve never seen “Point Break” (due to my loathing of Keanu Reeves). “The Last Boy Scout”–it’s bad, but fun. What I mainly remember about it is a great deal of goofiness, an inability to take anything about it seriously, and really big awesome explosions. Thus, definitely not in the same league as “Die Hard.”
What do you think of the hybridity of sci-fi/action in the ’90s? Something about reinventing the genre or reinvesting it with fun?
PAJ: I see the sci-fi thing coming about for two reasons–first, the success of “Aliens” and “Robocop” prompted every studio to put a sci-fi action movie into production. Secondly, most of these movies included pro forma swipes at ’80s corporate greed, which was expected by the end of the ’80s but safer in the context of a sci-fi allegory.
So time for me to fess up here: “Die Hard” is a movie I just kind of like rather than love, and I think we’ve been circling around the reasons–namely there’s no real conflict here (we never doubt he’s going to kill all the terrorists and win back his wife’s affection) and John McClane is just a collection of signifiers of working class authenticity without much internal tension or complexity or baffling contradiction to his personality. Which makes him interesting in the context of ’80s action movies, but ultimately not terribly compelling beyond Willis’s charm as an actor.
RAB: Eh, I might disagree with you a little on that. I think all the tension is just displaced–it’s between husband and wife, rather than terrorist and “fly in the ointment”–it’s a very playful film, and definitely endlessly fun to watch McClane’s creativity and “I-don’t-give-a-fuck-about-this-expensive-building-ness.” I also think that the terrorist take-over gives him the opportunity not only for that super-masculine physical indulgence, but also the opportunity to become a more nuanced and ultimately likeable action hero.
PAJ: I think I would find that angle more compelling had Bonnie Bedelia been defined more beyond her hair and business suit.
RAB: Oh, but she is defined by more than that—I think she’s very much identified by her no-nonsense temperament, which she displays not only to her husband, but also to Ellis, and beautifully to Hans. In fact, I find her fascinating because she never breaks down during the whole “terrorist” take-over, even when Hans grabs her. I enjoy the way she simultaneously reveres her husband and insults him with her reverence.
PAJ: True. She’s defined by the kind of stoicism that usually characterizes action heroes, whereas John is of course famously loquacious. But I think perhaps I just don’t find Bedelia a particularly expressive actress, at least not in this film, and she and Willis lack chemistry.
RAB: I think that the lack of chemistry between them works to make their relationship that much more intriguingly tense. I’ll also be the first person to say that the most romantic moment in the film is John and Al’s embrace rather than any of Holly and John’s interactions. (Although IMDb trivia claims that Willis actually hand-picked Bedelia for the role–or something to that effect). And no, I don’t find her overly compelling either, but in the context of the film and the way ’80s women often fall out in action films, I’m rather fond of her.
PAJ: And to go back to John, I do like how you draw out in your piece all the ways he’s sort of feminized, and throughout the film, McTiernan emphasizes his vulnerability. It’s as if physical wounds replace the psychological ones that usually define action heroes in the ’70s and ’80s. Which of course explains why he can’t be Mel Gibson in “Lethal Weapon” and just run in guns ablazin’ and mow down 10 terrorists at once.
RAB: Oh, that’s very nice–I like that last part a lot, especially since Willis definitely has not experienced the horrors of poor Charles Bronson in “Death Wish.” Or even poor Sly in “First Blood.”
PAJ: He doesn’t have the same death drive as Bronson or Gibson or Sly. Which makes him kind of overly bland to me, but also makes him somewhat unique as an ’80s action hero.
RAB: He has no death drive–his drive is unwitting corporate destruction and the reconstruction of the nuclear family.
PAJ: So I like how you suggest that John McClane ultimately reminds everybody of the true meaning of the holidays due to his utter disregard for material things. Or rather his very high regard for blowing material things up.
RAB: That seemed to be the Xmas message I took away from it, although one might expand and say that’s a holiday message more generally–equally good for Hannukah.
PAJ: And I think it’s one way the film nonchalantly folds in John’s no-nonsense, working class personality with the typical agenda of holiday narratives. John amuses pretty early on due to his alternate disdain/bemusement over the physical niceties of the high rise, from the computer to the carpet that feels so nice on his toes. He exists in constant contempt of material excess from the very start, despite the gargantuan teddy bear at his side.
RAB: Oh, very much agreed, and I like the way that that disdain also overlaps with his feelings about California more generally (like that great moment when a drunk executive embraces him at the party). That’s one of the reasons why that teddy bear really cracks me up. I adore the fact that it never reaches its recipient and there’s never any indication as to which child it’s going to–I like the idea that he really doesn’t know his children well and hates materialism so much that it’s a gift for both of them.
PAJ: Definitely. Kind of a hint of what might actually make him a problematic family man despite his good intentions. Speaking of which, I’m wondering what you make of the two moments early in the movie when he clearly has a wandering eye–first making googly eyes at the cute stewardess and then when he swerves his head to watch the skinny California blonde rush to her boyfriend. All of them are slightly extraneous details that don’t have clear follow-throughs in the rest of the film, but still seem very telling, though I suppose they amusingly parallel Bedelia’s flirtation with her cokehead co-worker.
RAB: I had forgotten about the stewardess moment until I re-watched the film a few weeks ago–I thought that that was some kind of indication of his “broken family man” machismo–ogling, since she smiles back at him. But it nicely throws the viewer off, because of the teddy bear–i.e., is she smiling at him because he’s cute or because he’s a slightly rough looking guy carrying a big teddy bear? The skinny CA blonde I’ve always thought just captures his attention because she’s so LA and he has nothing but hatred for the state (I like how he never says “fucking L.A.” or “damn L.A.” it’s “Californians” or “Fucking Californians” as if L.A. stands in for the entire state– ridiculous white stretch pants, pink shirt, super-blonde, and then jumps into the embracing arms of some tanned lug.)
PAJ: I saw his reaction as a mixture of attraction/contempt–maybe some arousal mixed with simple morbid fascination that such a creature actually walks the earth.
RAB: I definitely favor the latter given the expression on his face.
By the way, who is your favorite “terrorist”?
PAJ: Well, Hans of course. But after him Theo (Clarence Gilyard, Jr.), the nerdy African-American terrorist, because his character doesn’t seem to really fit in with his cohorts.
RAB: Nice–Theo has great lines.
By the way, one of the things I’m really enjoying about this conversation is that we’re not overly enamored of each other’s Xmas films.
PAJ: Yes, that is a nice trend, isn’t it? Though I think I have far more positive feelings towards “Die Hard”–a fine, likable movie I just never have any desire to revisit, than you do towards “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which actively irritates you.
RAB: Oh yes, more positive on your end towards “Die Hard,” but definitely some negativity as well.
PAJ: As you mention in your piece, the film very much emphasizes a sense of confinement. Two things interest me here: first, McTiernan is really good at alternating one’s sense of scale–at one moment he can make a hallway seem like a vast landscape (or think about the scene in which John first enters the building, and miles seem to separate him and the reception desk) and then the next makes it seem suffocating. It’s one way McTiernan clearly echoes Sergio Leone. In fact, you could argue that it’s a kind of remake of “The Good the Bad and the Ugly” where Bedelia gets the Clint Eastwood part, Hans is Lee Van Cleef, and Bruce Willis is Eli Wallach. Secondly, both of us talk about movies that deal with confinement, and I wonder if that’s something that comes from our odd relationship with Christmas.
RAB: Oh, I love that argument given my penchant for the Leone/Eastwood westerns, and, of course, Van Cleef. And I also completley agree with you here–the elevator shaft, in particular, looks endless in several shots, but that’s undercut by the fact that McClane must crawl, dangerously, his way out of there, or fall until he finds a good airshaft to crawl through. The roof also nicely alternates between vast and near suffocating.
And yes, I think that that may have something to do with our relationships to Christmas. I find it a confining holiday because the world seems to shut down. And more than Thanksgiving (because it lasts longer) there’s the family entrapment angle.
PAJ: Definitely. And of course if you’re not completely on board with holiday celebrations every trip to the grocery store can be a trip into Burl Ives hell. Which you don’t get with either Thanksgiving or Easter.
RAB: Absolutely. Christmas songs alone constitute a kind of horrible confinement/entrapment, especially if/when you work retail during the holidays.
PAJ: Another thing I love about “It’s a Wonderful Life” is that it’s very cognizant of the idea that Christmas can be depressing and suffocating as hell. And while John McClane obviously isn’t the depressive sort, he certainly suffers from a certain anomie as a result of his estrangement from his family and from LA not looking like he thinks a city should on Christmas. If you’re inclined to find an overabundance of Christmas signifiers alienating in the first place, his sense of displacement can feel very familiar.
RAB: Do you think that the lack of spiritual significance has had any bearing on the Xmas films you like or do you chalk most of that up to your taste in film?
PAJ: Hmmm. Hard to tell. I never liked most biblical epics, so holiday screenings of “The Greatest Story Ever Told” never generated any enthusiasm. But then again biblical epics generally violate my aesthetic standards on several fronts.
RAB: Agreed on biblical movies. I think I have the same problem–i.e., violates aesthetic standards.
PAJ: Other Christmas favorites?
RAB: I love “Fanny and Alexander.” Selected scenes in “Love, Actually.” “Bad Santa.” I just adore “Christmas in Connecticut,” in large part because I could watch Barbara Stanwyck in anything. But I always find her especially enchanting in that film as she lies and bumbles her way through the fabricated life she’s woven. It’s possibly my favorite comedic performance of hers, aside from Sturges’s “The Lady Eve,” when she makes a complete ass out of Henry Fonda.
And I do like Michael Curtiz’s “White Christmas”–it holds a bit of a special place in my heart due to all the singing and fabulous holiday costumes.
PAJ: Ah, now we’ve come to a Christmas movie I abhor. I just find it so damned gaudy and stilted.
RAB: It is both. I just like the goofy musical numbers because they’re so sparkly. Totally have a thing for sparkly, as long as it’s not vampire related.
PAJ: Makes sense. Then I can see the appeal of “White Christmas.”
RAB: I’m more than happy to confess how perverse it may seem to like “White Christmas” and dislike “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I think it’s simultaneously the dark horse of Christmas movies–a panacea to good cheer, Santa, singing, and sparkles–and at the same time really sets a lovely precedence of the entrapment/confinement that appears in other Christmas films, such as “Die Hard” and “Black Christmas.”
How about you? What are some of your favorite Christmas movies?
PAJ: Many of my favorites, such as “Shop Around the Corner” and “Meet Me in St Louis,” have also already come up in this conversation. I think “Remember the Night” should be more well known. I have some major reservations regarding “The Apartment” (well, one–Jack Lemmon), but I think it should come up more often when discussing ideal movies for the holidays due to its depiction of a soul-crushingly depressing, suicidal Christmas. And my favorite “Christmas Carol” is the 1951 adaptation with Alastair Sim. And I do quite like Bob Clark’s “Black Christmas.” And Joe Dante’s “Gremlins.”
RAB: “Black Christmas” was a total revelation–truly enjoyed that film. I’d forgotten that “The Apartment” qualified as a Christmas movie.
PAJ: Yeah, Shirley MacLaine is yet another would-be Christmas suicide in the movie. And we get the great, horrifying moment when Jack Lemmon tries to get a callous Fred MacMurray to console Shirley MacLaine while we see MacMurray standing in his new robe with Christmas tree and kids in the background. Ever get the feeling Billy Wilder might have been cynical about Christmas?
Most hated Christmas movies?
RAB: “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Home Alone” immediately come to mind.
PAJ: Yes, that Ron Howard travesty is just lamentable on so many levels. Looks terrible and the all-mugging all-the-time performances make my teeth ache. And no love for “Home Alone” from me either, although Roberts Blossom is actually very good in it.
I have a particularly strong hatred for “Jingle All the Way,” but I get the sense that the last decade has witnessed a real embarrassment of riches when it comes to shitty Christmas movies, though I’m not inclined to actually watch “Four Christmases” or “Christmas with the Kranks” to confirm that hunch.
RAB: Cringing at those titles. And Ron Howard is an embarrassment.
PAJ: As I mention in the intro, “It’s a Wonderful Life” makes up one part of the “holy trinity” of holiday movie programming, along with “Miracle on 34th Street” and “A Christmas Story.” Any thoughts on those beloved/tolerated movies?
RAB: Oh, it does indeed nicely make up a part of that holy trinity. I happen to really love “A Christmas Story” because I think it’s a really cruel movie–not just the frozen tongue on the pole scene, which makes me both cringe and laugh, but also the poor younger brother in his snow suit and, of course, the fantasy scene about writing the best school assignment ever that’s returned with a terrible grade. Then, there’s naturally the best lamp ever created that dad seeks to inappropriately display and the domestic discord it causes. However, I’ll have to admit that I’ve never seen “Miracle on 34th Street.”
What are your thoughts on those films?
PAJ: I have mixed feelings about “A Christmas Story.” There’s something stifling about its mixture of nostalgic sentiment and curdled cynicism (which I realize kind of echoes your thoughts on “It’s a Wonderful Life”).
RAB: I’ll be the first to agree that it’s anything but a perfect film–I find the voiceover occasionally annoying (stifling, in fact).
PAJ: On the other hand, the film does a decent job of conveying Jean Shepherd’s appreciation for the grotesque details of boyhood rituals at their most mortifying.
RAB: Oh, yes. And I suppose that liking “A Christmas Story” may have something to do with my fascination with childhood and adolescence.
PAJ: “Miracle on 34th Street” is blandly directed and not a film I can get too excited about. But I kind of like it anyway because it’s got these weird progressive leanings that are incidental yet critically important. So, for example, Maureen O’Hara plays a divorced single mother who is both successful and relatively happy (a source of controversy upon the film’s release). And when Santa Claus gets sent to a mental institution, he bonds with a fellow patient who is arguably coded as gay (within the conventions of classical Hollywood representations of homosexuality), and Santa essentially expresses dismay that homosexuality (or at least behavior that fails to conform to masculine norms) should be considered a mental illness in late-’40s America. So it’s kind of fun to see a classic Christmas movie where Santa is the friend of happy divorcees and a possible champion of gay rights.
RAB: You know, I think I might have to see “Miracle on 34th Street” this holiday season–you certainly make it sound like a damn good time.
PAJ: And I might try tolerating “White Christmas” again. Your comments on its sparkliness makes me think it might be best viewed as a kind of experimental film, a play of shiny light and primary colors against an almost abstract background. Proto-Brakhage, perhaps.
And on that festive note, I bid you farewell, and hope the holidays find you spending a festive night or two at the movies.
RAB: And may your holiday season be filled with spiked eggnog, lucrative spins of the dreidel, and the love of friends and family.