' ' Cinema Romantico: Forgotten Great Moments in Movie History

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Forgotten Great Moments in Movie History

Willie Dixon, the eponymous foul-mouthed St. Nick of ill repute in Terry Zwigoff’s 2004 cult classic “Bad Santa”, is, as it no doubt goes without saying, a non-believer. He didn’t celebrate Christmas, he explains in voiceover, not because he was Jewish but because his old man’s idea of a present was a daily punch to the back of the head. It is no wonder, then, that Willie uses his omnipresent Santa costume merely as a ruse to rob shopping malls blind, inverting the reason for the season. Willie’s eventual lady friend (Lauren Graham), meanwhile, is Jewish, or at least her father was, and her love of Christmas stems directly from the holiday being verboten, a perversion of seasonal joy given rise in her Santa Claus fetish.

It is only natural, then, that Willie’s non-beliefs will be juxtaposed against those who do believe, like the immortal Thurman Merman, a woefully uncool teenager of whom Willie, for reasons too convoluted to explain, will become a caretaker of sorts. Thurman’s dad might be in jail, and his grandmother might be constantly passed out in an easy chair, and he might have no friends, but he still believes, joyfully opening windows in an Advent calendar and babbling about his own unique faith system involving a talking walnut. Heck, there’s even Bob Chupeska, mall manager, who might have to endure Willie but nevertheless, in the air of Ritter, is the kind of guy you just know strings too many lights on his house and says thing like “How can anyone not enjoy Christmas?”

In their company, gradually, against all odds, Willie culturally assimilates in his own warped way. He might not want to participate in Thurman Merman’s neighborhood Christmas Eve lumanaria program but he finds himself out in the driveway lighting candles in sacks of sand anyway. And just as Marcus, Willie’s partner, assimilates in so much as the consumerism of Christmas gets a stranglehold him, so does it Willie, as his last act before the cops’ bullets cut him down is valiantly getting the present Thurman Merman wants back to the kid’s house. The epilogue may or may not be “Bad Santa’s” ode to Travis Bickle’s concluding “Taxi Driver” dream state, but Willie’s conversion is real.

There is one character we have not mentioned. He is Gin Slagel (Bernie Mac), security chief at the mall who is enlisted to try and force out Willie and Marcus only to, sort of, go partners with them. If, as the latter suggests, his character occasionally takes the initiative, he is more often presented as hanging back, reacting, sitting at his work desk, listening, chewing orange slices, taking in the world around him. He, unlike the surrounding characters, seems uninterested in and unaffected by Christmas. If initially this suggests Gin is merely a hardass given Mac’s general air, there is a single scene that concisely, comically reveals not so much his motivation as his nature. It happens when he ferrets out a teenager attempting to shoplift, not just taking back what the kid has sought to steal but also absconding with the kid’s own possessions, and bidding the would-be thief a ferocious goodbye by intoning: “Happy Kwanzaa.”

It’s a punchline as peek behind the curtain. Here’s a man who spends the entire movie enveloped in Santa and elves, reindeer and candy canes, Christmas carols as mall muzak, all this secular dogma imposing itself on him, and he has no recourse but to sit there and take it. Finally, however, in the presence of this kid, one no doubt about to get so much under the tree only to still want so much more anyway that he’s willing to steal it, Gin snaps back, spreading his own gospel, even if the late Mac gives it the already defeated ring of a man who knows, contrary to certain carnival barkers, that the war on Christmas ended a long time ago.

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