No Such Thing as a Guilty Pleasure–#8

Yeah, totally completely late. But my last film *will* get up before it’s 2012, even if it is after Xmas and a bit after Chanukah.

8) White Christmas (Michael Curtiz, 1954)

Before anyone bitches about how cheesy this film is, I usually watch it as a double feature with my first choice of this series, Black Christmas. It’s a lovely way to put the yin in the yang and give a kick to the sauce, so to speak.

Before you try, there is no talking me out of WHITE CHRISTMAS. First of all, there is Danny Kaye. I have a tiny little altar dedicated in my soul to that man that was erected as a small child when my parents gave me the Hans Christian Andersen (Charles Vidor, 1952) record and I memorized that. Additionally, I watched the film with a regularity matched only by with how much I watched The Court Jester (Melvin Frank, Norman Panama, 1956). In short, I watched the films and played those records a lot. Yes, I’m a Kaye-o-holic.The next thing about this film is that it’s a musical. I’m a musical junkie. Rogers & Hammerstein. Tommy by The Who. They all work for me. I love the singing, the dancing, all of it. But there is nowhere better to be fully entertained than in the old movie musicals where people could REALLY sing and dance. Could you imagine if today’s stars had to have the same kind of training in order to become famous that Kathryn Greyson or Judy Garland did? Exactly. We wouldn’t have so many complete failures and the output would be better. Not that I have an opinion about the subject or anything. But to act, sing, and dance…I love it. People now seem to think it’s “cheesy.” I think that they don’t know what they’re missing. Please pass me the Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 1952).Finally, there’s the Michael Curtiz thing. I never knew this until I was much older and an educated cinephile, but the director was Michael Curtiz. Hello! UH, Mildred Pierce (1945)! The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and, of course, everyone’s favorite Casablanca (1942)! So…ya know, it’s not like they just had some hack doing the film.

In any case, one last point I want to make about this film and why I love it. I have to say this at least once a day when I’m out with friends and someone looks up, grimaces a bit, and *oh no* admits to liking something that may not be so popular. They say, “Oh, this is my guilty pleasure.” And everyone nods, laughs, and it gets them off the “hook.”

What hook?

I will state, as my last statement of 2011, that I adamantly do not believe in guilty pleasures. If you find pleasure in it, you should not feel guilty about it and you should never let anyone ever make you feel guilty about liking it. I like this movie. I like it proudly. And I always will. It’s probably my favorite Christmas movie, it probably always will be, and I don’t care who knows it. See, guilt takes away from some of your pride and pleasure; makes you feel bad about what you like. I don’t believe that you should feel bad about art or media. It’s the antithesis of what it is there for.

And with that, I bid you adieu for the New Year, stay safe, stay well, and see more films!

Librarians and Ringing Bells-#7

While I wasn’t initially going to include this film, I was watching TCM the other night, and learned some new information about it that made it a whole new film to me. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the film, but there are other films that I think deserve a little more attention. See, this film is  everyone’s favorite film and, to a certain extent, this little piece of information that I learned on TCM is the reason why!

7) It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)

Inspired by an unsuccessful short story called “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren in 1939, Frank Capra’s film was released with a great less of a successful response than originally anticipated. While some attribute that to its dark themes or non-linear narrative, it also was going against super patriotic films like Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946) , which definitely gave it a run for its money.

So how did this film make the jump to becoming one of the most loved films in all Christmas-film-history?

Simply put, the answer to that question is copyright issues and television.

The film, released in 1946, was guaranteed protection under standard U.S. Copyright Protection laws for 28 years. So when 1974 came around, the film came up for copyright renewal. Within that time period, the film was only allowed to be played with proper permission and through proper dispensations, lest the individuals who wanted to show the film get in trouble for copyright infringement.

However, when 1974 rolled around, Republic Pictures, the original copyright holder, dropped the ball and didn’t renew the copyright. This started a media chain reaction that caused the film to become as fundamental to the Christmas world as Apple Pie is to the US image.

Long story short, It’s a Wonderful Life became public domain and shown on just about every channel on television during Christmas time for many years. You couldn’t switch a channel without seeing Donna Reed’s face. If it wasn’t for this little “accident” of Republic’s (which was “fixed” a few years later, thus why it doesn’t get played as such a multi-channel orgy as it had previously), this film would not be anywhere near as popular.

A little bit of history and copyrights go a long way…

So This is Christmas…–#6

I figured that for Christmas Day I would do a potpourri of sorts. See, alongside all the seasonal-related films that I adore, there are a whole bunch of TV shows, specials and songs with music videos. So this one is a little different from the others.

6) Holiday Audio-visual Mixtape

The first in all of this madness is a song I cannot go without hearing at Christmas time. It’s by one of my favorite bands, The Pogues, and features vocalist Kirsty MacColl. I have a special memory around this song, actually, related to the holidays. Sad, but Christmas-and-song-specific. I was in Ireland in December of 2000, spending my holiday break there. I was at University in England at the time, but I figured, “Hey- Christmas in Ireland, New Year’s in Scotland, sounds good to me!”

As I was walking around (I believe I was in Kilkenny at this point although I may have been in Galway– when I relocate those journals, I will correct this part of the blog), I was hearing a goodly amount of Christmas music and every place I went to seemed to be playing this particular song. While I didn’t think much of it, when I went into Supermac’s (the Irish McDonald’s, essentially), it seemed a little odd that these places were all playing the same exact song at the same time. At first I shrugged it off, and then, upon passing a newsstand, I saw the front of the newspapers: Kirsty MacColl had been killed in a very tragic swimming/boat accident in Mexico. I was devastated. Thanks to a friend I’d had since an early teen, I’d been a fan of her solo work as well, so this was just awful news. But at least I understood why every place was playing this song at the same exact time.

On the other hand, it was December, it is a Christmas song, and it has always been pretty popular so…who knows? It may have been playing anyway. In any case, I love Fairytale of New York, and you should too.

Another piece of music that I am highly tied to is one that came out in 1984, at the very height of when I was buying most of these individuals’ albums. It was a collaborative effort put together to combat famine in Africa and it was released around Christmas time. I remember that they blasted the living hell out of it when it came out and, hilariously enough, they still do. I remember being insanely excited about the video primarily (burgeoning archivist that I was, even then) because I wanted to make sure that I could name every single person singing in the video, and if I couldn’t (ie I didn’t know who it was), I wanted to find out more about them. Aurally I could identify almost everyone when I first heard it on the radio. Then matching it up visually was so. Much. Fun! At that age, I’m not sure if I was overly concerned about the kids in Africa as much as the fact that I owned an album from almost everyone on the Band Aid team (except, strangely enough, U2).

So, if you haven’t seen it before, welcome to the video that started them all…

On the Band Aid tip, there was a video that one of my favorite bands did that, while not Christmas-themed, was meant to parody this, and I would be remiss in my efforts here if I did not include it. I listen to this song every year around the holidays due to the video and its relation to the Band Aid video and also because it’s just a damn good song. Warning: if you hear the recorded version, it will not sound at all like the version you are about to witness, due to the fact that the recorded version is done by the band, and this version?? Well, you’ll see. It’s pretty fabulous.

So aside from the music video stuff, there’s a whole televisual side of Christmas that I dig on, and no, it’s not the Star Wars Christmas Special. While I’ve seen that and it’s…got its points, there are much better things you could be watching. If you want a little bit of the kitsch, I personally think that Peewee’s Playhouse Christmas Special (Wayne Orr, Paul Reubens, 1988) is probably one of my favorites. Anything that involves the Del Rubio triplets, Annette Funicello, Peewee Herman, and Grace Jones singing “Little Drummer Boy” automatically has me, no questions asked.

I’ve always been a Peewee fan, so a Christmas special from the Playhouse will always get my vote, but this one is especially fun. When it came out on DVD, I was thrilled to my eyeteeth. If you haven’t seen it, and that taste of Grace Jones whet your appetite, I would highly recommend it. It really is all that and a bag of chips.

On a more serious note, my favorite television episode having to do with Christmas comes from the mind of Rod Serling. If that didn’t clue you in, it is a wonderful episode of The Twilight Zone starring Art Carney entitled, “Night of the Meek.” Carney plays a man named Henry Corwin who is, for all intents and purposes, a seemingly “bad Santa.” As we meet him, he has just gotten fired for his drunken lateness to his job (playing Santa), and he is at the end of the line.

But, surprisingly for The Twilight Zone, this is an episode that has more of a redemptive stroke than normal and much more optimism (although for Serling, his kind of optimism is not everyone’s optimism). This episode is about what the season is truly about: holiday spirit. And no matter how grim I may seem at times about the holidays, and no matter how Grinch-y I might get, The Night of the Meek renews my soul.

But Rod Serling is the man who truly makes me think. About many things. So, while I love many of the other Christmas specials and films, it is truly Night of the Meek, Season 2, episode 11 of The Twilight Zone that truly makes the holidays a holy and sacred occasion. If you haven’t seen it, I beg of you to give it a chance. It will air this holiday season. Watch out for it. It’s what it’s all about, at the heart and soul of it.

Bright Light! Bright Light! or How I Learned to Love Microwaves–#5

Joe Dante is one of the nicest and most knowledgeable guys you’ll ever meet in your life. From the first time he ever programmed a festival at the New Beverly in 2008 (discussed here by the inimitable Dennis at Sergio Leone & the Infield Fly Rule), I knew he was one of the “good ‘uns.”  Realistically, I had known this since I was a kid, but I reserve judgement on someone’s person until I get a chance to meet them (if I get that good fortune- which is rare- but in LA…it happens). However, Joe is absolutely golden. But I really should’ve known that since this was the man who gave us Matinee (Joe Dante, 1993), a film that has a lightly-disguised William Castle-like character (and I’m a huge Castle fan) and is dedicated to the undying love of cinema. I also should’ve known this since I remember seeing Innerspace (Joe Dante, 1987) with my mom in the theater as a kid and thinking it was one of the coolest movies ever, adoring the Sam Cooke song, and thinking that is this was what movies were about, I wanted to see ALL OF THEM all of the time. And yes, I’m a huge fan of The ‘burbs (Joe Dante, 1989) as well. I was so very pleased to get to see that at the New Beverly a little while ago as well.

But, as we are all aware, the erudite Dante made a Christmas film. And it is not just any Christmas film, it is the Christmas film.

5) Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)

One of my friends is probably the ultimate anti-Christmas-film person. He’s down with the food, but the “happy happy joy joy” stuff and any kind of religiousness? Keep that the hell away from him. It’s just not his style. But he loves Gremlins. He really, truly adores this film like it was going out of style. And considering some of his other favorite directors are Tod Solendz, John Woo and Werner Herzog and he believes that Salo by Pasolini is a staple…this is saying quite a bit.

He’s not alone, however. Gremlins  is widely considered a classic. And I think it’s generally because not everyone likes Christmas in its Joyful Portrayal. See, every bright room has some dark time, and to many people (myself included) the dark time is, in many ways, a great deal more interesting. In fact, if you were to take a look at the other “classic” Christmas films, they are all a bit dark, which leads me to question why we have so much trouble recognizing that. I mean, to be completely honest, It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) is a film about a guy who wants to commit suicide. How cheerful a theme is that around holiday time?

Polish Gremlins poster. I love Polish posters.

A man I wrote about a few entries earlier, Bob Clark, has dipped into the “dark time” of the Christmas room twice, with Black Christmas and with A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983). While the latter film is more comedic, it has more edge than a straight-up, feel-good comedy. Most of the film centers on the gun that the child-protagonist wants, and how his parents think that it will “shoot his eye out,” not to mention the rest of the dark things that happen to the young members of the cast. Are we supposed to injure children in Christmas films? Heh. Well, maybe in my kinds of Christmas movies. As long as they’re accompanied by the right balance that Clark gives us (which he definitely does, in Christmas Story– if you haven’t seen that one, see it).

Gremlins has monsters in it. And lord help me, I’m a sucker for a monster movie. I don’t care what season it is. And, more importantly, it has the significant interplay between human, monster, and sympathy. The things that will always get me. You put those things in a film, and more often than not, I’m YOURS. Then you add humor and a dark view of the holidays??? SOLD!! Gremlins has been on my list for these reasons and always will be. People can try to knock it, but they will always fail. In my mind, it is an essential. It wouldn’t be the holidays without it!

Santa with a Machine Gun–#4

I realized after revisiting my last Christmas favorite, I really dig Christmas-themed films that are shot in/around Los Angeles and where Los Angeles plays a key role. Ok, so clearly a good chunk of the films made are filmed in Los Angeles. Of this I am clearly aware. However, what I am speaking of is the group of films that make it a point to mention the city, continually referring to it and positioning it, visually and narratively, as a character within the film.

One of my very favorites amongst these that also uses the Christmas theme is also one of the most beloved to many other folks I know.

4) Die Hard  (John McTiernan, 1988)

While I have seen this film many times, I finally got the opportunity to see it on a big screen a few weeks ago and I was blown away. It was the perfect example of how a film changes completely in the transition from small-to-large screen. I argue with people all the time about theaters and supporting them and how necessary it is, but seeing Die Hard on a big screen, in 35mm, just drove that point home even moreso.

I could give you the standard spiel about how you notice more within the film on a big screen or how Die Hard is an action movie so it has better resonance and power bigger, but those are things you probably are aware of. The basic truth is that films were not created for small screens. They were made for the cinema. Therefore, whether you are watching them projected via 35mm or some digital manner, they should be seen the way the artist intended their work to be seen.

You wouldn’t hang an authentic Van Gogh painting in the local McDonald’s, would you? It would be inappropriate. Television is a different thing. That was created specifically for the little box. In that, it works perfectly, and it is platformed absolutely to its advantage. But as we start losing theaters, we start losing the possibility of seeing films like Die Hard on a big screen and that is a real tragedy.Seeing this film in all of its glory, large and in charge, was like seeing it for the very first time. I sat there and I thought: well, I may not celebrate Christmas, but the fact that I’m getting to see this, on a big screen, and it’s so exciting, and shot so well…this is my Christmas. John McClane is my barefoot Santa! Hurrah!

In general action films get me pretty happy, but this time I was practically exploding with cheer and good will towards the whole theater. It’s a celebratory film and the Christmas aspect of it adds that extra layer that makes it just that much more suspenseful. It would still be a good movie without the season’s greetings, but that makes it a great movie.

Hallidays With Johnny Gossamer–#3

My third film pick is a piece of glory from one of my very favorite modern film writers today, Shane Black.

This film, like the last one, does not center on Christmas but it takes place during Christmas time and continues to remind the audience of the holiday season throughout in various ways (costumes, sets, etc.).

3. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (Shane Black,  2005)

I adore this movie. I think I have watched it more times than most of the films in my collection. But…that goes with the territory. Films written by Shane Black (especially those called The Last Boy Scout) are generally on heavy rotation around here.

But this film is especially precious to me. If you have read this blog for any amount of time or even glanced at other pieces I’ve written, you will notice that I enjoy the noir genre quite a bit. Well, this is comedy-Christmas-noir, in a sense. It’s self-aware and self-reflexive without being obnoxious; it’s entertaining and very smart without coming off as pretentious, it’s an all-around excellent film.

So let’s talk Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Not only is it a wonderful film, but it’s got historical roots. It may look and act like a modern-day piece, but in reality, it is not simply the Raymond Chandler names for the film “chapters” that are based in the literary past. The entire film springs from the tradition of pulp fiction. Shane Black got the inspiration for the film from a novel by author Brett Halliday, nom-de-plume for prolific writer Davis Dresser.

Novel that Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang was based on

Dresser/Halliday’s work was made into several films in the 1940’s and a variety of radio shows as well, primarily featuring the detective Michael Shayne.  Aside from the narrative, Black manages to engage Halliday’s work into Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang by inventing a series of pulp fiction books by a writer named Johnny Gossamer. The books look a great deal like the ones written by Dresser/Halliday and published by the company that he later formed with his wife, Torquil Publishing. While the average observer would simply be entertained by this and might think it perhaps a simple pulp fiction reference, I find it to be even more rewarding to have that extra “bonus” link to the Mike Shayne novels.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang does it all right. It works on all the “right” principles: Hollywood, holidays, intrigue, humor.  It is also one of the first films to platform a gay character without having him function as a stereotype. While action and gun battles may not scream “jingle bells” to you, the gal running around in the Santa costume is pretty easy on the eyes, and Robert Downey Jr.’s detecting in this outdoes Sherlock Holmes any day of the week, any month of the year.

 

A "Johnny Gossamer Thriller" in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, looking pretty close to a "Mike Shayne Mystery"

If you haven’t seen this film, please do. It’s highly recommended and highly rewatchable. And what are these films about anyway but insane rewatchability, right? In essence, when you’re finished lighting that menorah, chuck this in the DVD player, get this from Netflix, hell- do a blind buy on Amazon or at Amoeba or your local DVD shop. You won’t be sorry.

What’s Your Function in Life?–#2

The next film on my list needs…well, a little bit of introduction. It may be the only film on the list that readers haven’t heard of and/or seen, and it is very likely to be the strangest of the bunch. While the whole film doesn’t take place at Christmas time, enough of it does that when I first saw it, I immediately put it on my list of “Favorite Christmas Movies.”

It is a Japanese film and the filmmaker is primarily known for directing television commercials. In addition, he is also quite well-known for his visually dynamic and surreal style. I was first introduced to this film at an all-night film fest, and was stunned into submissive awe, excitement and jaw-dropped silence (if all three of those can go together, which, in this case, they did).  I attempted to search it out, and found that it was quite difficult to find. I was lucky enough to get a copy and can now watch it at my leisure (which I do).

This film, while definitely not for everyone, is a special film. I love it and am extremely happy that I own it and can add it to the films I will watch to celebrate Chanukkamas/Christmukkah.

2) Survive Style 5+ (Gen Sekiguchi, 2004)

The first thing to note about this film is that it is a pop-culture aesthete’s wet dream. Then again, it is a Japanese film. It is all shades of pinks, blues, greens, and neon…everything. In fact, one could even say the soundtrack is neon. Watching Survive Style 5+ is like mainlining immense amounts of acid and ecstasy to your eyeballs and narrative analysis zones all at once. In other words, this movie is a trip, man.

The inimitable Sonny Chiba

But I love it.  Not only does it have Vinnie Jones of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels fame, but it also features Sonny Chiba (has been in everything), Tadanobu Asano (most famous for playing Kakihara in Ichi the Killer but also has a reasonable roster), and Jai West (in Love Exposure, another crazy film I adore, and played Young Ioki on the original 21 Jump Street TV show).

Survive Style 5+ : a movie that is unlike anything you have ever seen or will see again

The film doesn’t take place entirely at Christmas time, nor is Christmas the MAIN theme to the film (if there is just *one*), but in my humble assessment, it is during the “Christmas act” of the film where all of the different storylines take their final, pivotal turns. The film itself functions as a type of interlocking anthology piece of sorts, and when each storyline reaches the Christmas chapter, they peak, like they were on the drugs guiding the creation of this piece of enthusiastically adrenalized coloring-book madness.

There are tons of films that have “famous Christmas scenes.” As I’ve been watching all the multitudes of Xmas specials on television, most of them have been quoting Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincent Minnelli, 1944) as being first on that list. While there is no denying Minnelli or Garland, I have to say that the sheer visual explosivity of Survive Style 5+ mixed with just the right amount of sweetness works for me on a level that I treasure dearly. Yes, I admit to having very different proclivities when it comes to my holiday cinema treats, but I dare anyone to watch the Kobayashi family storyline and not become attached to their struggles within the narrative, surreal or not.

While Survival Style 5+ may not be Capra, it is certainly memorable, and I do not say that in any kind of backhanded compliment-type manner. While it may not initially come across this way, this film has wonderfully redemptive qualities, and (for me) makes perfect holiday viewing. The lessons that the characters learn within the sequence of events are not dissimilar from many within a standard Christmas special: love, family, loyalty, friendship, gameshows, psychotically-charged existential hitmen…ok, so maybe not every Christmas special involves the last two, but my point still stands.

Viva Friends!

If you get a chance to check out this film, I highly recommend you do so. But before you do, I would suggest that you ask yourself what your function is in life. You might need to know. Just in case.