Vintage Triple Bill: The Ghost of Christmas Films Past
by Koom Kankesan
Christmas can be a time of repetitive X-Mas classics: It’s A Wonderful Life, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Scrooged, various Grinch incarnations, you know the drill. If you’re looking for holiday movies that aren’t quite in the ‘ho ho homily’ vein, yours truly has three recommendations to whet your appetite. They all happen around the Christmas season. Do they have any Christmas meaning or do they simply use the yule time milieu as a colourful backdrop? Let’s take a look.
Lethal Weapon (1987) is a film that’s set around Christmas time in L.A., although the weather’s so sunny you’d be hard pressed to know. The only ‘snow’ here is cocaine and there’s lots of it. Veteran cop Roger Murtaugh’s (Danny Glover) counting his blessings when he’s saddled with loose cannon Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) as a partner. At first, their differences in age and temperament clash but that soon gives way to the unadulterated joy of pursuing a chain of drug runners that may or may not be linked to Murtaugh’s old army buddy.
The sheer joy of Lethal Weapon is the action sequences, brought alive by Gibson’s manic, nervy energy. Whether he’s poking bad guys in the eyes Three Stooges style, handcuffing himself to a potential suicide case, or running down a highway in bare feet, this guy does not disappoint. It’s probably the greatest of buddy cop films and Danny Glover provides just enough salt and space to enable Gibson to do his thing. All of the actors are great in fact – it’s a perfect genre movie and director Richard Donner hits it out of the park, much as he did with the first Superman. And I haven’t even talked about the character that Gary Busey plays.
There’s even a kind of cleansing shot of Riggs by his wife’s grave at the end of the film. Doused in rain (in high contrast with the weather during the rest of the film), it signifies Riggs’ rebirth and transformation, capped by a moment where Riggs gives Murtaugh the special ‘suicide bullet’ he’s been keeping since he no longer needs it. The sequels continue this trend – by the last instalment, it’s basically a prime time sitcom – and that’s a big part of the problem. Scriptwriter Shane Black leavens the original with a darkness and edge you just can’t eradicate, despite the bustling comedy the studio executives added, despite the Christmas references, and despite the inanities committed by Mel Gibson in the present era.
The early nineties brings us Batman Returns (1992), Tim Burton‘s second twisted foray into the world of the caped crusader. Though this movie is set at Christmastime, it’s only an excuse to throw up set pieces with fake snow, artificial dark skies, and looming gothic Deco facades. This film can best be thought of as a Christmas present to Tim Burton’s inner child where Warner Bros. literally let him let him do anything he wanted in return for making a second Batman film. Though Burton has credited The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke with providing inspiration for the first Batman film, he never really loses the influence of the sixties television show. There’s such an oversized toy style campiness to the films that the darkness never completely lands; you feel like it’s just one big top away from being a three ring circus.
There’s even a carnival gang in the movie that terrorizes people: villains on stilts, skeleton costumed motorcycle bandits, and a fire breather in a Devil outfit. Batman (Michael Keaton) deals with the fire breather by swiveling the Batmobile around and blasting him with its exhaust flame. Batman commits heinous acts of comic violence without batting a batlid. One time, he stuffs a cartoonish bomb into a strong man’s shorts. I’m not kidding. This film is just bonkers and that’s what I love about it. It’s got star power galore but is so weird that the character Christopher Walken plays is one of the more normal ones. Danny Devito (The Penguin) is made to look and act in a manner that seems calculated to literally make you throw up your lunch every time he lurches onto the screen. Michelle Pfeiffer (Catwoman) vamps around in latex and stitches as if the entire world’s a fetish club.
Pfeiffer does have the best lines and seeing her return to her apartment and drink milk straight out of the carton in a transported daze as she becomes Catwoman is one of my most favourite scenes from a superhero movie. She once tells a couple of security guards to stop ‘mistaking your pistols for privates’, announces that, “life’s a bitch and so am I”, and the Penguin refers to her as, “just the pussy (he’s) been looking for.” Once again, I’m not kidding. At one point during their altercation, Catwoman fondles Batman’s crotch and he just grins goofily.
The story doesn’t make much sense – it’s the smoky, inky visuals and the murderous deranged foreplay you come to Burton’s Gotham City for. I’ll never forget the Batvehicle speeding along the walls of a sewer tunnel, the real live penguins waddling around with striped rockets strapped to their backs, or the massive rubber ducky style boat the Penguin uses to sail through the sewers. There’s not really much in the way of Christmas character resolution by the end. They’ve kept Catwoman alive simply for the marketing potential, The Penguin has passed on, mourned only by his faithful penguins, and Batman’s still doing the same ol’ brooding and fighting. But it’s good fun!
The end of the nineties brings us to Eyes Wide Shut (1999). This film by Stanley Kubrick gets panned but I can’t think of a more grand movie to end one’s life and career with! The film is loosely based on the novella Traumnovelle (Dream Novel) by Arthur Schnitzler, its story coloured by a carnivale/Arabian Nights sensibility. To achieve these dream hues, Kubrick uses a palette of purples, blues, and reds – Christmas colours! – using the decorative lighting of the season as a guide. He also builds a detailed set of streets in Greenwich Village, New York which like the real New York, feels cold and damp without necessarily being snowy.
I am certain that in time, like The Shining which was at one time considered a flawed Kubrick film, this film will be hailed as a masterpiece. Not that it isn’t without flaws – the casting of Tom Cruise (and his then wife Nicole Kidman) as a doctor trying to navigate intrigue seems counterintuitive. Yet, Cruise is perfect for the role and even masters a perfect Kubrick stare as he wanders around New York, hurt and puzzled. Her revelation that she fell for a random stranger the previous summer launches Bill Harford (Cruise) on a quest that ends with a dead woman and very few answers.
Most people see Eyes Wide Shut as a sex film but it’s not in keeping with 8 1/2 Weeks or Basic Instinct. There is some glorious skin on display in the film but there is much more – much careful and graceful filmmaking, subtle and evocative mystery, moments that hammer and thrum like heartbeats, naturally unnatural and filled with magic. It is a film about sex, but sex in terms of knowing oneself or how one relates to one’s partner or the consequences of all that knowledge. Kubrick had wanted to make this film since the 60s and as a meditation on bourgeois relationships, it wouldn’t have been out of place alongside a 60’s Antonioni or another European film. However, 90s audiences had no idea what to do with it and the film was considered an artistic failure.
Its greatest value is as an experience that delicately and skillfully takes you into the mode of dream. The film is divided into night time and the day after and the experience of watching it is as mesmerizing and haunting as anything I’ve ever seen. Because Kubrick pays a lot of attention to detail and uses deep focus to keep both foregrounds and backgrounds sharp, it’s easy to believe that everything that happens to Dr. Harford is ‘real.’ The more times you watch the movie, the more you have to admit that the sensations and impressions are heavily coloured by Harford’s emotions and thinking.
It is a Christmas movie in that the holidays are usually a time when we’re forced to reckon with ourselves and our loved ones. For many, it’s a time plagued by stress and the confrontation of inner demons. The resolutions under which Dr. Harford and his wife find themselves by the end of the film don’t resolve any of the narrative questions but they do signify that there’s something ultimately mysterious and unknowable regarding why we couple.
Christmas can be a time of getting gifts but it should also be a time to acknowledge what we have. I’d like to say thanks to Comicon.com for giving me a space to write my reviews. I’d especially like to thank Erik Amaya, my editor, who is thoughtful and intelligent and gives me the space to write about things I’m interested in, though they often seem contrary to the popular culture and blockbusters covered by many of the site’s other contributors. Finally, I’d like to thank any readers who took the time to read my pieces this year. It was a difficult year for many of us, and I am no different; being able to slowly return to writing reviews has helped immensely.
I hope that 2021 brings many wonderful films, cultural experiences that are both memorable and enervating, and realizations that help us all grow into someone better. Thank you!