' ' Cinema Romantico: A Christmas Blog

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

A Christmas Blog



Home for the holidays here in 2020 means, well, staying home – you know, the same damn place we’ve been since March. That’s why I was compelled to seek out “A Muppet Family Christmas” (1987). Though not one of the vintage Christmas television programs, a la “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, that re-airs every year, in our streaming age it’s out there and readily available on YouTube where, in lieu of being able to go home and hug my people, I watched it for the first time since I was ten. Indeed, it is not just The Muppets of the title present at the country home of Fozzie Bear’s mother but the Sesame Street gang and the denizens of Fraggle Rock too; it’s a Jim Henson Family Christmas. The familial mood is so jovial that by the end, Statler and Waldorf, the two most disagreeable hecklers alive, are singing “peace on earth, good will to men.” 

‘Round about then I realized that trying to elevate my mood with “A Muppet Family Christmas” just felt disingenuous, akin to piping in fake crowd noise at pandemic sporting events that probably should not be played in the first place; accept our miserable reality, you cowards. This, after all, is ostensibly the time of year to emphasize the unfortunate, food drives and the festive din of Salvation Army bells, except a great deal of people in positions to make a difference have played out A Christmas Carol Christopher Nolan-style, in reverse. Their tight-fisted hands at the grindstone despite the prospect for so many of a grim holiday without underlined the American divide between top and bottom that 2020 had already rendered so starkly, and that is to say nothing of the broader Scrooge-ish selfishness that still, even now, is being misconstrued for personal liberty. I identified more with the snowman who briefly becomes part of Fozzie’s act but, inevitably, upon starting to melt when brought indoors to tell jokes, gets left out in the cold.

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Growing up, my family was not a go-to-the-movies-on-Christmas kind, save for one Christmas, that is, December 25, 1986. For reasons I do not exactly recall, perhaps because it was the rare holiday in which none of our relatives visited, my mother and father decided we would be attending a screening of “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.” At that age, interested in college football to the exclusion of all else, I was incensed, what with being taken away from the Sun Bowl. But that Sun Bowl turned out to be a boring game and, anyway, “Star Trek IV” blew my mind. To this decided non-Trekkie, “The Voyage Home” is not just the high point of the series but a classic screwball comedy that just happens to involve time travel (with a green message thrown in). Still, when I think of “Star Trek IV”, I can’t help but think of that Christmas Day screening, a full theater full of laughter, evoking how the season’s oft-mentioned mirth can just as ably be conjured by cinema as caroling or trimming the tree. 

In the late 90s, I worked at a movie theater, meaning I spent some Christmases flinging concessions and threading projectors. A virtually empty lobby in the afternoon would give way to a crowded one at night. It wasn’t joyous, per se, for what job is truly joyous, but I always remember feeling less infuriated than festive. Everyone there was a family that desperately needed to get out of the house and had gathered around the sliver screen for silent solace. Marc Acito described this Christmas Day moviegoing tradition in his lovely 2008 NPR commentary, comparing the flickering myths of the big screen to the fires burned ages ago on December 21st to urge the sun’s return. It’s funny, in a normal year, home for the holidays, I wouldn’t even think of going to the movies. But in 2020, unable to go home, it’s all I can think about, sitting in the dark of a theater, appealing to the flickering lights for rebirth.

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There was a significant astronomical event this week. The two biggest planets in our solar system, Jupiter and Saturn, aligned in the sky for the first time since 1226. It elicited comparisons to another conjunction, the Star of Bethlehem, the one that came to settle over where Jesus was born, luring the three wisemen, as told in the Gospel of Matthew. This Christmas Star, at least according to German astronomer Johannes Kepler, was not mythical but a factual supernova, Mars aligning with Jupiter and Saturn, in 7 B.C. Of course, the validity of Kepler’s theory has been questioned, if not shredded, just as you can question the logic of so many other purported Star of Bethlehem explanations. But that comes across like questioning the validity or logic of a monster lurking in the depths of Loch Ness. What interests me is not whether the Christmas Star was real but what that story in The Gospel of Matthew was meant to represent; namely, rebirth. 

The 2020 star would seem a great metaphor for our own time, not merely coinciding with the Winter Solstice but the release of COVID-19 vaccines that may finally stem our ongoing plague. But it is not lost on me that America’s ostensible leader, King Big Brain I, perhaps a spiritual descendant to Herod, spent much of 2020 twisting that metaphor of radiant renewal, citing a light at the end of the tunnel over and over in his patented mixture of imbecility, irresponsibility and magical thinking. And it is not lost on me that so many took his magical thinking as gospel. And it is not lost on me that so many people in positions of power to call out his magical thinking not only cowardly and cravenly fell in line but now are cutting to the front of the line for scientific relief, enacting another metaphor, the one about lifeboats and the S.S. Titanic. That ship sinking symbolized the end of the Gilded Age, or so you can extract, but the idea of our Biblical Plague symbolizing the end of Gilded Age II, which sounds neat, seems less and less capable of coming true, our Christmas Star a bright light yielding nothing but a New Normal (all over again).

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It’s weird to say but no less true, that in a year when my three favorite musical artists – Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga and Kylie Minogue – all released albums, the album release I most looked forward to was Kathleen Edwards’s “Total Freedom.” Every review and personal profile was obligated to recite its backstory, so we will try to keep it short: burned out on music and the music industry, the Canadian singer/songwriter quit in 2012 to open a coffee shop in her native Ontario called, aptly, Quitters. Even if at certain points in the last four years I listened to Edwards obsessively because I hungered for her commentary amid All This, I honestly thought she would never return. As much as I needed her then, though, who knew she’d come back when I needed her most? 

Music was my solace in The Year of the Pandemic more than movies. Not because the movies were bad, and not because of some undefinable but seemingly imminent wholesale shift in the industry itself, but because I discovered that my long-standing joke about the movie theater being a sanctuary proved to be true. The cinema, it turns out, is where I go to clear my mind and avoiding the cinema in 2020 meant my mind was, to quote Elaine Benes, not good. I survived weeks at a time on the strength of single songs and continually consulted certain albums when times got tough(est). My favorite album in 2020, though, was from 2019, Sturgill Simpson’s “Sound and Fury”, its noise and vitriol embodying everything I felt about being cooped up, overworked and living in a nation that struggled to deal with the pandemic not least because it would not deal with the pandemic in the first place, music as a middle finger. Kylie Minogue’s “Disco”, on the other hand, was the antidote to Everything, letting us lose it, to quote Kylie from a different album, in the music. “Where Does the D.J. Go?” was essentially her version of Springsteen’s “Out on the Street”; “the world’s trying to break me / I need you to save me.” In her accompanying livestream concert, she epitomized the album’s spirit, a dance party at home for one, the accompanying backup dancers more like figments of her imagination. .

On her new record’s autobiographical opening cut, “Glenfern”, Kathleen Edwards, as she will, met these ideas in the middle. The song is pure Kathleen, free of inspirational poster wisdom and castles in the sky, seeing things not through a silvery gauze but utterly clear-eyed, honest, unsentimental and profane. She takes stock of everything and decides that it was, simply, shit. Then, she gives thanks anyway. 

2 comments:

Unknown said...

Nice post, Nick! I enjoyed your story about going to see Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

"King Big Brain I, perhaps a spiritual descendant to Herod" - like it! :)

Claire @ Cinematic Delights

Nick Prigge said...

It does seem like the proper comparison, doesn't it?