Christmas Comfort Viewing

Christmas ornaments, candles, bow

    Image courtesy Pixabay

A couple of years ago, we talked about “comfort reading” at Christmastime.  “Comfort viewing” is, of course, just as vitally frivolous a concern.  What kinds of shows are good to watch at the holiday season?

Tone and Timeliness

I’m going to use the term “movies,” because most of the ones I have in mind are theatrical-length.  But the category includes TV programs as well, from “novella”-type brief movies to the half-hour (minus commercials) Christmas specials.  Most of them are available on demand or on DVD in this day and age, so the old distinction between scheduled programs and view-on-demand is less important than it used to be.

Not all Christmas movies are comfort movies.  We’ve got plenty of more or less gloomy shows about dysfunctional families or Christmas catastrophes, too—TV Tropes collects some under the heading “Twisted Christmas.”

They don’t have to be literally disastrous.  I recall seeing Home for the Holidays (1995) some years ago and being surprised how generally unpleasant the story was.  Bill Murray’s variant on A Christmas Carol, the 1988 Scrooged, is a good deal darker and more horror-like than most such Dickens adaptations.  We’ve got action movies, which by definition are not soft and fuzzy:  Die Hard (1988) leaps to mind.  (Maybe there was something in the air in 1988.)  Searching “Christmas horror movies” kicks up quite an array of bloody holiday tales, with which I am (deliberately) unfamiliar.

That’s not what I want to talk about here.  The majority of Christmas flicks tend to be comforting on the whole, even though there’s conflict; they draw on the warmth, generous feelings, and general connectedness of this holiday.  As a colleague recently put it, they’re the kind of stories that “serve as an antidote to the evening news.”

If you want an action movie set at Christmas, by all means pull up Die Hard, or its sequel Die Hard 2 (1990); I like those.  But for purposes of today’s discussion, I’m going to assume we are aiming at heartwarming.

Connie Willis, A Lot Like Christmas, coverThe following are my own recommendations, of course, not a comprehensive survey.  You can find on Wikipedia a commentary on “Christmas by medium”; a list of Christmas films; and a list of TV specials.  For a more focused and informative survey, there’s a set of excellent lists at the end of Connie Willis’ collection A Lot Like Christmas (2017).

A Quick Taxonomy

There are several ways a movie can be appropriate to the season, depending on what sort of Christmasy you’re looking for.  I tend to divide them up this way:

  • Movies about Christmas
    • Religious
    • Santa-related
  • Movies that involve Christmas but whose focus is elsewhere; for example, Christmas romances
  • Movies that happen to be set at that time of year, but in which the holiday itself plays a relatively minor part; or that have particular scenes set at Christmas

All of these can be good, healthy holiday fare.  We may want one atmosphere for Christmas Eve, for example—and a rather different mood for New Year’s Eve.

The Nativity

The Nativity Story, posterThere are probably a lot of video productions that depict the Christmas story itself—the birth of Jesus—but I’ve tended to rely on just a few.  2006’s The Nativity Story takes a straightforward approach, with empathetic characters, steering a middle path between excluding and emphasizing the miraculous—a good mix for contemporary sensibilities, to my mind.  Further back, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth contains in its early sections an appealing rendition of the Nativity chronicle.

Scene from Amahl and the Night VisitorsSlightly offstage from Bethlehem, so to speak, is an old favorite of mine, Amahl and the Night Visitors.  This brief opera was composed for television in 1951 by Gian Carlo Menotti; I have a DVD copy of the 1955 telecast in black and white.  Amahl is a young crippled boy whose wild imagination and enthusiasm soar despite the poverty in which he and his widowed mother live.  They are astonished one night to receive a visitation from three kings, following a star to find a different child.  The music is haunting and lovely; the story blends humor with deep feeling.

In the Spirit of Christmas

There’s a wider field of movies that have their roots in the original Christmas story, but capture the spirit of the feast in different ways.

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is of course the most well-known example.  There are all sorts of film versions of the book, including those with Scrooges played by Reginald Owen (1938), Alastair Sim (1951), George C. Scott (1984), Captain Picard Patrick Stewart (1999), and Kelsey Grammer (2004, a musical).

Mr Magoo's Christmas Carol posterA favorite Christmas game is to re-do the story by casting favorite character ensembles, such as Mickey Mouse and friends or the Muppets, to play Dickens’ parts.  Or one can transpose the story into the modern day—I mentioned Scrooged above.  I must admit that, for me, the Carol that will always be the canonical screen version of the tale—chalk it up to ‘imprinting’ as a child—is the one featuring 1960s cartoon character Mr. MagooMister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962) has the distinction of being the first animated TV Christmas special.  It’s a surprisingly faithful rendition of the original story, using a lot of Dickens’ original language and managing to convey considerable seriousness, as well as comedy, with extremely minimal artwork.  The songs, by noted Broadway composer Jule Styne, are also remarkably effective.  Or so it seems to me—there’s bound to be a sizable nostalgia factor in my evaluation.

George Bailey, Mary, and Zuzu with tree, It's A Wonderful LifeAnother cluster of films springs from It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), which takes place at Christmastime and may constitute the very definition of “heartwarming” in America.  This story, too, has been adapted into innumerable variations in TV movies and series.  I like Wonderful Life, though I prefer to keep it to once every two or three years for fear it’ll become cloying.  And for some reason I think of it as a good show for New Year’s Day (still within the “octave” of Christmas).  Among the spinoffs, one of our family favorites (for grown-ups) is The Family Man (2000) with Nicolas Cage and Téa Leoni, a kind of reverse-Wonderful Life in which the main character is given a glimpse of how his life would have been better if he had made a different decision years ago—as a spur to making a new decision now.

Sometimes a spirit-of-Christmas movie may involve some kind of Christmas miracle—for example, Miracle on 34th Street (1947, remade in color in 1994).  Sometimes it simply involves a Christmas celebration:  A Muppet Family Christmas (1987) gains some of its abundant cheer from wacky Muppet-ish comedy, but more from being a kind of family reunion, including not only the familiar Muppet Show cast but also characters from Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and Muppet Babies.  I’d put the venerable Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and the original TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966) in the same class.

An honorable mention in this category goes to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), which is so brilliantly awful that Lucasfilms (so I hear) has never allowed it to be commercially released as a recording; it’s only available in bootleg versions.  I’m not telling who gave me my copy.  It’s fun to see the familiar characters hamming it up in the context of a Wookiee celebration of “Life Day,” but beyond that, I wouldn’t advocate it for either sentiment or space opera.

Jewel in The Ghosts of Christmas Eve (Trans-Siberian Orchestra)I’m particularly attached to The Ghosts of Christmas Eve (1999), a 46-minute frame story for a series of songs by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra featuring Jewel.  The story, about a runaway girl who takes refuge in an abandoned theatre on Christmas Eve, is sufficiently sentimental to qualify; and if you are at all fond of TSO, you’ll love the music.  In particular, this is the show that includes “Promises to Keep,” which I tapped a couple of years ago for the Quote of the Week page.

The Santa Mythology

Many Christmas-specific shows, on the other hand, focus instead on our good friend Santa Claus.

This isn’t a bad thing per se.  There is, after all, still a connection:  St. Nick was, in fact, a saint.  But the system of amiable legends that’s gathered around Father Christmas provides ample fodder for drama (and comedy) without explicitly going back to those roots.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer posterThere’s a class of TV specials that have, for us older kids, the pleasure of nostalgia, and also (as far as I can tell) still appeal to more recent generations.  The archetype may be Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), the first of the Rankin-Bass animated holiday productions.  The Abominable Snow-Monster, the Island of Misfit Toys, and Hermey the elven-dentist have become familiar icons of of pop culture.  I also have some fondness for Frosty the Snowman (1969).  Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970), a favorite in other branches of our family, gives us a novel sort of origin for Mr. Claus.  Full-scale live-action movies have also drawn on the Santa mythology.  I found Will Farrell surprisingly tolerable (playing off Zooey Deschanel’s sardonic romantic interest) in Elf (2003).  As I recall, Arthur Christmas (2011) wasn’t too bad either—though now that I look back at it, that one was CGI, not really live-action.

From there, we slide down a formulaic curve into routine holiday episodes of all sorts of TV series.  I’ll take Inspector Gadget Saves Christmas (1992) as a sample (my kids used to watch the rather amusing Inspector Gadget).  As a useful litmus test, any show that invokes “saving Christmas” is generally at the bottom of the barrel:  “saving Christmas” may be glossed as “ensuring that toys get delivered,” and signals that the primary concern has moved from anything important to mere presents under the tree.  Such episodes may be mildly entertaining, but won’t be comforting.  It’s hard to be heartwarming when the crucial issue in a story is just to make sure that nothing interferes with the distribution of toys.  Note that The Grinch was specifically designed to make the contrary point:  Christmas comes for the Whos of Whoville without any presents at all.

Rise of the Guardians posterOn the other hand, the Santa mythology can develop into something of real depth, depending how the author takes off with it (so to speak).  Our counter-example is Rise of the Guardians (2012, based on a series of books by William Joyce).  This tale actually manages to meld epic fantasy with a pop-culture undercarriage, as various eccentric holiday icons including the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, along with “Nicholas St. North,” collectively the “Guardians of Childhood,” battle the ‘Dark Lord’ Pitch.  The story has a genuine point, too:  the glad surprise of good gifts coming out of nowhere is presented as crucial to the innocent acceptance of childhood.  What’s at stake is the disillusionment of children, not just their asset inventory.

Guardians also features a genuinely Badass Santa (“Action Santa” division)—a Santa who’s not just jolly but rather formidable, like the Father Christmas who appears in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  To combine high merriment with forceful purpose can make for an intriguing contrast.  (While researching this point, I was charmed to discover that in DC Comics mythology, Santa visits Apokolips to give Darkseid a lump of coal each year.  Here’s the actual graphic-novel scene.  Now that’s badass.)

Tangentially Christmas-Related

In the next ‘ring’ away from the center, we have movies that involve Christmas tangentially, but not as the main theme.  The holiday season casts a fireside glow, as it were, that invites other genial stories to blossom in its presence.  Romances, in particular, bloom here:  there’s nothing quite so sweet as a Christmastime romance.

White Christmas movie posterThis category may overlap with some of the spinoff movies above.  An iconic example is White Christmas (1954), which is good fun with an actual good deed (helping out one’s former commanding officer in the postwar era), as well as two romances, at its heart.  (If you want a sort of earlier prototype, with less plot but more holidays, you can alternate it with Holiday Inn (1942), where the song “White Christmas” actually originated.)

There are lots of more modern examples, which vary in the degree of the story’s connectedness with the holiday.  My favorites include While You Were Sleeping (1995), which I find endearing although for some reason it was never a great favorite with the rest of my family; Love Actually (2003)—any movie that plays “God Only Knows” over the final scene gets extra points in my book; The Holiday (2006), a kindly romantic comedy about two women who switch homes for the season and find love; Serendipity (2001), a far-fetched but enjoyable rom-com with John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale; The Sure Thing (1985), starring a much younger Cusack for the college-age set.  Christmas in Connecticut (1945) exemplifies the same sort of approach in a previous generation.

Further afield, we have a range of movies one can arguably justify as Christmas material for one reason or another.  Steven Spielberg’s 1991 Hook, an intriguing sequel to the Peter Pan story, is set at Christmastime.  About a Boy (2002), which seems intended to demonstrate that Hugh Grant cannot play an unlikable character, no matter how dubious that character may be, involves a Christmas setting.  The Shop Around the Corner (1940), a tale with which I feel a certain kinship for other reasons, has its climax on Christmas Eve.  Father Christmas makes a cameo appearance in the movie version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), as noted for the novel above.  Even Little Women, in its various film iterations, features Christmas scenes.

Hallmark Christmas Romances

The Hallmark Channel has created an entire cottage industry of Christmas romances in its annual “Countdown to Christmas” seasonal blitz.  It appears that Netflix, as with romantic comedies generally, has now decided to join the action, with a very similar look-and-feel (The Holiday Calendar, 2018); and the Lifetime channel has also entered the competition (Christmas Around the Corner, 2018).

If you don’t watch out, you can spend the entire season swimming in an ocean of these holiday love stories; if I’m counting this correctly, Hallmark alone produced 22 new shows this year, not counting those returning from previous years.  It’s hard to choose which ones to check out; they all sound much the same in the blurbs.  They don’t tend to be terrifically great or abysmally bad; to my mind, they tend to fall either just above or just below my usual cutoff criterion (namely, would I seek it out to watch again?).

Obviously, there’s a lot of repetition, but as usual, “Tropes Are Tools”:  it’s not whether you’re drawing on a well-established pattern, it’s how well you use it.  The standouts (those that land above the line) tend to have a little something more going for them:  perhaps especially engaging actors/characters, a little more plot complexity or depth, wittier dialogue, or the like.

Angels and Ornaments posterA couple of examples will serve to illustrate.  Angels and Ornaments (2014) features a particularly winsome heroine, and, in defiance of the traditional meet-cute, she and her opposite number have known each other all their lives.  They have to come to the realization that they’re meant for each other, a subtler and more interesting process than love at first sight.  To facilitate this process, we have a matchmaker angel, who, in the tradition of It’s A Wonderful Life, is not an angel strictly speaking but a dead human being—who has his own story and character arc.  His encouragement of the main characters’ romance is sometimes silly but reasonably believable; he gives them some sound advice.  The story also involves writing a song—not a tremendous song, but likable enough (as it recalls the movie) that I downloaded it for my audio playlists.  (You’ll note that I give extra points for music; you may or may not have the same reaction.)

A Christmas Detour (2015) gives us an engaging pair, apparently mismatched from the start.  They end up on a road trip together, along with a married second couple, when a snowstorm closes down an airport.  The main characters, Paige and Dylan, develop a relationship along the classic friction-then-affection lines (what TV Tropes dubs “Belligerent Sexual Tension”), and that development works pretty well.  Closure comes when the heroine finally arrives to meet her boring, snobbish fiancé’s equally off-putting parents, and finds (of course) that Dylan is who she really wants.  Meanwhile, the secondary romance—a long-married middle-aged couple that start out constantly sniping at each other (‘Like An Old Married Couple’), but become reconciled with each other via the Christmas spirit and the inspiration of watching the main characters fall in love—adds interest.

Sturgeon’s Law applies, as always—but some of the Hallmark ventures do make good, meat-and-potatoes holiday fare.

Conclusion

There are those who object to the “secularized” versions of Christmas that inspire many of the movies above.  But I see it the other way around:  Christmas is so powerful an idea that it casts a sort of penumbra on everything that comes close to it.  The stories that are not explicitly religious aren’t a distraction from the “true meaning of Christmas.”  Rather, they reflect the feast’s tendency, like a benign infection, to seep into and ennoble everything related to it.  (I wrote a song, about twenty-five years ago, to make just this point.)  The luster of Christmas gives an extra warmth, a heightened sweetness, to romance and toy-giving and every other good thing.  And who couldn’t use a little added warmth at this chilly time of year?

A merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

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The Simple Stage

The Crucible

I don’t see a lot of stage plays.  Generally I wait for the movie version to come out.  (Which took quite a while in the case of Les Miserables—though in that case I actually did see the play twice on stage.)

Cruscible-side-shot-1Recently, however, I had occasion to see a performance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), by the Lumina Theatre Company:  my son was in the cast.  (Portraying one of the villains; and he did it very well!)  The Crucible is one of those plays that many people have been exposed to, often as a high-school reading assignment.  But I had managed to miss either seeing or reading the play, up to now.  It was a powerful experience:  a moving story, well performed by Lumina.

As is well known, The Crucible is set in the period of the Salem witch trials in 1692-93.  It’s also an allegory for the McCarthy hearings on Communism (1953-54) during the “Red Scare.”  I don’t know whether the term “witch hunt” for such persecution-by-investigation originated with Miller’s play; the phrase has certainly seen a lot of mileage since.

At the moment, however, I’m not interested in the politics or the story, but in an aspect of the staging that caught my attention, and reminded me of a couple of dramaturgically similar cases I’ve seen before.

The Austere Stage

Scene from The CrucibleI’m even less of an expert on the stage than I am on movies; but even I, as a layman, was struck by the simplicity of the stage setting.  There was no backdrop; walls and ceiling were black.  A series of tall panels vaguely suggesting a forest marked the left and right sides of the stage.  The performance depended on adroit use of a few simple props—a bed, a table, some cooking utensils—to indicate whether we were seeing a bedroom, a kitchen, or the anteroom of a court.

Black Box Theatre, Howard County,MD

Howard County Arts Council’s Black Box Theater

Apparently this is a “thing.”  As people with a wider background in theatre probably know, there’s a style called the “Black Box Theater” (which was literally the name of the particular theatre where this performance occurred).  Wikipedia says:  “A black box theater (or experimental theater) consists of a simple, somewhat unadorned performance space, usually a large square room with black walls and a flat floor, which can be used flexibly to create a stage” (emphasis and link omitted).

 

It seemed to me that in The Crucible this stark environment served well to focus our attention on the characters and their interactions, rather than on the surroundings.  Actors wore period clothing, but otherwise there was no strong sense of historical setting.  That seems especially appropriate in a case where the author intends us to see not only the events happening in a particular time and place, but also their analogue in 1950s American politics, or other situations.

That reflection reminded me of a couple of other times when I’ve seen a show that worked better on a relatively bare stage than in a movie.  As a rule, the movie version of a show like Oklahoma! or The Sound of Music has the advantage of being able to present the setting with greater realism and vividness:  we can actually see the Midwestern plains or the Austrian mountains.  And today’s CGI technology can set before us almost any imaginable background.  But sometimes we don’t want to emphasize the particular setting.

Man of La Mancha

Man of La Mancha original playbillMan of La Mancha (1965), with a book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, and music by Mitch Leigh, is derived from Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote.  The play is not intended as a complete adaptation of the novel; one might, in fact, argue that the authors make use of selected parts of the novel to build a story whose effect is quite different from what Cervantes intended (something I want to address at a later date).  It was the Wasserman-Darion-Leigh musical that strongly influenced me, starting in high school.

The musical begins with a frame story:  Cervantes himself is in prison, waiting to be examined by the Inquisition.  To pacify and intrigue the other prisoners, he draws them into an impromptu enactment of scenes from the novel (Don Quixote) he is writing.  The story-within-a-story focuses on Quixote’s absurd, yet ennobling, idealism in conflict with the brutal realism of everyone else except his loyal servant Sancho Panza; and on how Quixote’s eccentric view of the world influences a young woman at an inn, a prostitute named Aldonza, whom he insists on seeing as the noble lady Dulcinea.  As the inner story concludes, back in the dungeon Cervantes is called up to face the Inquisition.  He now ascends to meet his fate with courage as the rest of the cast reprises “The Impossible Dream.”

Man of La Mancha program (Shady Grove Music Fair, MD, 1970)I’ve seen Man of La Mancha on stage twice, once in 1970 with Howard Keel, and again with the Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2015.  The 1970 production took place in a theatre-in-the-round, which eliminated the use of any backdrops at all; though, as I recall, there was a long, impressive stairway that could be lowered from the ceiling to illustrate the opening and closing of the dungeon.  This comports with Wikipedia’s description of the original production:

The musical was performed on a single set that suggested a dungeon. All changes in location were created by alterations in the lighting, by the use of props supposedly lying around the floor of the dungeon, and by reliance on the audience’s imagination.

Scene from Man of La Mancha, Shakespeare Theatre Company

Man of La Mancha, Shakespeare Theatre Company:  note largely black backdrop

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production was not theatre-in-the-round, but used a similarly spare set, with a catwalk above and again, a stairway that could be raised and lowered.  Both the 1970 and the 2015 iterations were excellent and moving presentations of the stage play.

The movie version of the musical (1972) was disappointing.  It didn’t help that the producers cast Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren in the leading roles, since neither of them could really sing—although visually Loren was a perfect Aldonza.  But even aside from the musical issues, the screen adaptation, depicting a green countryside (with windmills) and the inn where Aldonza works, seemed distinctly less effective than the stage version.

Man of La Mancha, movie sceneWhy?  Eventually I concluded that the whole point of the show—competing and radically different visions of the world—was undermined by the fact that the movie used real landscapes.  Viewing the story, one has to keep in constant tension the world as Quixote sees it (giant, castle, lady, varlets) and the world as everyone else sees it (windmill, inn, sullen and degraded woman, rough and violent muleteers).  In addition, with the frame story, it’s also necessary to keep in mind that this is theoretically being acted out by prisoners of the Inquisition in a dungeon.

So in this story, we have to keep three levels of realities before us at once.  But with the movie, the director had to commit to one or the other vision:  either film an inn and leave the castle imaginary (and the dungeon tacit), or vice versa.  Unless the movie simply filmed a production of the play—a compromise which rarely satisfies anyone.  In this particular case, the greater realism of the movie version actually blunted the effect of the story.

Godspell

Godspell play posterThe 1960s-1970s were the era of what one might call big-concept musicals—at the opposite end of the spectrum from the wholly frivolous musical comedies of the 1930s-1940s.  Like the folk Mass of the same period, Godspell (1971) sought to convey a fresh view of Christianity by putting it in the form of popular music and styles.

The play describes itself as “A musical based upon the Gospel according to St. Matthew,” though it doesn’t actually confine itself to that Gospel.  It’s structured as a series of musical numbers with skits illustrating classic parables, bookended by stylized, minimalist episodes representing the initial calling of disciples and the Passion.  The characters, except for Jesus and perhaps John and Judas, are non-Biblical, and the entire cast is dressed in colorful informal clothes reminiscent of the “hippies” of that period.

Godspell cast on stage

Godspell cast on stage: note black background

I saw the play at least once or twice back in the 1970s, though I don’t recall the particular venues.  Like Man of La Mancha, it was presented with a minimum of props and without backdrops.  The focus was on the music and the actions of the characters.  It wasn’t individual personalities or character development one focused on; the characters themselves are somewhat arbitrary, without history or backstory.  Rather, it appears they were deliberately designed to represent a group of Everypeople.

The modern style of the music, together with the lack of time and place cues (as in The Crucible) and the randomness of the costuming, serve to lift the play out of its historical place in first-century culture.  That abstraction made it more accessible to contemporary young people.  (Whether it still has that effect now, fifty years later, I can’t say.)  Rather than being distracted by the antique ambiance of robes and horses and Roman soldiers, the audience could perceive the Gospel stories in a new light.

Godspell movie cast, New York CityAs with Man of La Mancha, the popular stage play was promptly followed up by a movie version (1973).  The producers and director chose to set the movie’s activities in New York City.  The characters’ antics are seen against the Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square, the top of a World Trade Center tower, and other well-known New York locales.  Wikipedia observes:  “While the play requires very little stage dressing, the film places emphasis on dramatic location shots in Manhattan.”

In this case, the musical aspect of the movie was fine.  At least one critic considered the movie soundtrack better than the original stage cast album.  Yet, again, it seemed to me that overall the movie was not quite as effective as the stage play.  The realistic modern setting did not improve upon the minimalist furnishing of the stage play.  I concluded that, if the goal is to abstract the essence of the Gospels as universally applicable, regardless of time or place, the movie setting isn’t an advantage:  it lifts the action out of first-century Palestine, but ties it back down to contemporary New York.  The very spare, austere stage set helps the viewer make that abstraction.

Conclusion

I’m a great fan of CGI, and look forward to seeing a full-fledged dramatic presentation using virtual reality (VR).  Modern technology allows us to present almost any science fiction or fantasy setting—things we never see in real life—realistically enough for us to suspend disbelief.  But when we don’t want realism, simplicity may be a better approach.  Even in our high-tech age, the plain theatrical stage has its uses.