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Blackened tinsel

Catherine von Ruhland

Christmas movies are often derided as seasonal schmaltz, but the best carry a seam of darkness.  Film critic Catherine von Ruhland ponders the shadows beyond the manger - and offers her top ten seasonal favourites.

It's an image as heartwarming and festive as chestnuts roasting on an open fire.  James Stewart in his best-loved role as George Bailey, stands smiling beside the sparkling Christmas tree, one arm cradling his little girl (Karolyn Grimes), the other around his devoted wife, Mary (Donna Reed).  The Christmas film favourite, It's A Wonderful Life, presents us with Hollywood's approximation of a holy family: the good, decent Baileys, who pray  and help their neighbours in post-war, small-town USA.

But the tinsel and Christmas cheer of the film's conclusion are not what makes it such a perennial favourite.  There is darkness beyond the homely glow - just as there was in the Nativity story - captured by director Frank Capra as the maelstrom that whorls around George Bailey's seemingly settled existence.  If the film's explicitly Christian worldview still resonates it is because it frames life's disappointments and hurts so accurately too.

It's A Wonderful Life shares the dark, mythic quality of literary predecessor, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  Bailey, like Ebenezer Scrooge, gets to view his life from outside, but as the Ghost of Christmas Present.  And unlike Scrooge, the granite edge of discomfort in Bailey's life comes from him having always chosen to do the right thing. His lifelong ambition of doing 'something big, something important', his dreams of escaping 'this crummy little town' are continually thwarted as much by his own selfless acts as by circumstances beyond his control. For George cannot stop helping others regardless of the cost to his own plans and dreams.  

It is as if there is an invisible barrier around Bedford Falls, oppressing George with the horror of the limitations enforced by small town life.  We clearly see how his angst, violence and self-hatred that erupt suicidally at a moment of crisis have been repressed for years.

Yet while George Bailey manages to make something of what Psycho's Norman Bates would have termed the 'private trap' of Bedford Falls, Bates is totally ensnared by his own.  Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 horror classic is a Christmas picture so bleak that we can only tell the season from the date, Friday December the Eleventh across the opening shot of Phoenix, Arizona and some barely noticeable Christmas decorations seen from a car.  The Bates Motel then, is an unforgiving universe where the spiritual light offered by Christmas has never been able to break in - with horrific consequences.

Psycho is made deeply disturbing, and ultimately terrifying by its sheer physical absence of Christmas. But David Fincher's Zodiac (2007)  about a real-life series of killings, the first of which occurred at Christmastime days after the murderer's birthday, show how his acts mock the festival.  He chillingly wishes media folk involved in the case a 'Merry Christmas'.  The sparkle and celebration, the very spiritual meaning in the December air seem to be made null and void by the man's evil acts.  Two fictional period police dramas, the Nick Cave-scripted The Proposition (2005) and Curtis Hanson's 1997 LA Confidential both steamroller Christmas celebration and comforting tradition, and leave it for dead under an onslaught of domestic violence, torture, and mass murder.

But we should not be shocked. Horror and violence are part and parcel of Christmas since the original nativity story when Jesus' family fled as refugees into Egypt as Herod's soldiers slaughtered every child under two.

In the best Christmas films, the trauma is somehow transfigured.  Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself (2002) because as a 5 year old he inadvertently killed his sick mother by not letting her in the house one snowy Glasgow night.  In Young At Heart (1954), Frank Sinatra's Barney Sloan attempts suicide on Christmas Eve because he doesn't believe he deserves better.  The point is, these characters' pass through the darkness.  It does not have the last word.  It turns out we are watching an Easter film.

Similarly, in It's A Wonderful Life - a Gospel film if ever there was one - George's limitations turn out to be both his downfall and his salvation.  The  very reaching out to others that has sealed his fate ensures that his friends and family are there for him too, at his time of need.  In George's life we recognise the choices we all must make, the circumstances we pit ourselves against, the delight of others in bringing us down - and the necessary 'acceptance of the things we cannot change' as the Serenity Prayer  puts it.  its potent, positive take-home message is that what each of us does matters.


Frozen River (15)
Courtney Hunt's gritty 2008 action movie about two worn-down lone mothers, one Native American (Misty Upham), the other white (Oscar-nominated Melissa Leo) thrown together as smuggling partners across iced reservation waters between Canada and the US in the run up to Christmas for the sake of their children.  Suspicion shifts to mutual respect and the risk of crossing the dangerous Frozen River - including encountering a miracle baby - brings an Easter Grace.

Young At Heart (U)
The film where despairing Frank Sinatra turns off his windscreen wiper in a snowstorm but keeps driving.  This 1954 remake of Four Daughters (1938), feels like a Christmas film simply because so much of significance occurs during the festival. Unbeknownst to Sinatra's dour musician Barney Sloan, the yuletide gathering of the clan of sunny wife, Laurie (Doris Day in a surprisingly successful star-coupling) sets the scene for wrongs to be righted.

Untamed Heart (15)
Framed by Nat King Cole's Nature Boy, this is a rather sweet 1993 love story between shy, almost mute but protective diner busboy Adam (a leonine Christian Slater) and worldly unlucky-in-love waitress Caroline (Marisa Tomei).  What gives the film edge - and its 15 certificate - is the shocking level of threat and violence both characters sustain, and the dodgy-from-birth tickered Adam having 'DOOMED' stamped across his forehead.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (U)
There have been many attempts at film adaptations of Dickens' yuletide ghost story. But it took a gaggle of fabric critters - plus one noble human - to nail it in 1992.  Michael Caine wisely chooses to play it absolutely straight as Ebeneezer Scrooge, and the Muppets stick faithfully to the book too.  It makes sense as well: Tiny Tim is the statistical genetic inevitability produced by a liaison between a frog and a pig.

Elf (PG)
Director Jon Favreau wanted to create an old-fashioned Christmas movie: Elf (2003) is already a seasonal favourite. The whole cast, notably Will Ferrell as the fish-out-of-water human elf, Buddy are superb, Amid the fun, there is a thin thread of a tale of a young man out to discover himself and his father (James Caan) who never knew he had a son, and doesn't  really  know the boy he does have.

Eyes Wide Shut (18)
In Stanley Kubrick's final 1999 film, the New York Christmas which the wealthy doctor, William (Tom Cruise) and Alice, his wife (Nicole Kidman) experience is lavish and idyllic. Yet for William embarking on a journey of dangerous sexual exploration including a secret world of masked orgies after his wife admitted an adulterous fantasy, the Christmas tree at almost every entrance he walks through is like an anchor in a lost world.  Is it all a dream?

LA Confidential
Curtis Hanson's Academy Award-winning 1997 noir thriller based on James Ellroy's novel begins on Christmas Eve.  Amid the trees, lights, and celebration, three very different cops - a bulldog, a stickler for the rulebook, and one who's more interested in celebrity - are about to wade into a battle against crime and corruption they've not yet seen - and come out better men.

Gremlins (15)
This is the ultimate Christmas monster movie. Inventor Peltzer buys a cute Mogwai from a Chinatown shop but is warned owners must stick to three rules.  Overnight those rules are broken with dire consequences.  There is a strong ecological message to Gremlins (1984) but not before you'll have seen the horrors dispatched in some gruesomely violent ways.  It is as if Hallowe'en, Mischief  and Fright Night have all invaded Christmas.

Meet Me In St Louis (U)
The Christmas 1903 sequence of Vincent Minnelli's classic Hollywood musical is memorable for Judy Garland never looking lovelier as, as Esther, she sings 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas' to her five-year-old sister.  Followed by a snowman massacre by a little girl who doesn't want to leave for New York, a scene that is quite devastating.  One of the great family films.

Will It Snow For Christmas? (12)
The title is the crux of Sandrine Veysset's remarkable 1997 French debut. Dominique Reymond is the resilient mother making ends meet for her seven illegitimate children of a farmer who works them all hard through the year but pays a pittance.  Yet it is the children's eye view, their play, and love for their mother that feed her weary soul.  The ending is magical.

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