Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Rating Game Redux (19): Nice List

This time around, the Register-Mail asked for Best Animated Christmas Specials. As always, three is a cruel number, and much had to be discarded--such as the '70s Rudolph (hovering at mid-camp for the past decade or so) and the indie-'90s pleasure of (here comes a great pun) Olive, the Other Reindeer/1999 (check out those too-cool-for-school voice characterizations here). But I have committed to two masterpieces, and one cruel doodle for the kiddies.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
This captures the spirit of not only Peanuts but Christmas itself, bending low to prop up all of us, like the droopy little trees we are.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)
Dr. Seuss, Chuck Jones, and Boris Karloff make perfect sense together: part whimsy, part slapstick, part Gothic benevolence, all dedicated to making our hearts grow three sizes.

“A Tale of Two Santas” (Futurama episode)
In the year 3000, Santa (voiced by John Goodman as the anti-Burl Ives) is a homicidal robot convinced that everyone is on the “naughty” list, insuring that “X-mas” continues to be a time for all to gather together—in abject terror.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Home Viewer (2): 'Tis the Season

(Note: This is the latest column I've written for our local paper. But you can read it here first!)

What’s that small light shining from movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story? And why does the theme from A Charlie Brown Christmas run so pleasantly through one’s head? Inside that light and beneath that melody lies an impulse, generous and optimistic: to stand like Whos in Whoville, “heart to heart and hand in hand,” despite the Grinch’s worst efforts. This year let’s consider movies—“Holiday” and otherwise—that ask us to stand together, despite all differences and distractions, in faith, hope and love.


In Shadowlands (1993), Anthony Hopkins plays C.S. Lewis, whose level eyes may be fixed on God, but which fill with blinding tears when his new wife, Joy (Debra Winger), dies of cancer. Lewis has insisted that “pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” but the call stuns him. It takes a heartbreaking effort for him to learn that “the pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal."

Halfway around the world, Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997), a meditative-ecstatic biopic of the young Dalai Lama, unfolds in beauty and distress. This is a genuinely transcendent movie that first painstakingly builds then sweeps away its sand-painted mandalas, infinite sanctity and human impermanence finally reconciled.

With both Tender Mercies (1983) and, more overtly, The Apostle (1997), Robert Duvall listens carefully to Texas flatland wind and Southern peepers, his lonely men sand-blasted and baptized, slowly, quietly, until they surrender—not without a struggle, but still with trust in their allotted places.


Well, I’m trying to avoid the standards, but to understand hope we have to face despair. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) recognizes this more thoroughly than we’d like it to. George Bailey does not wish simply not to be, but never to have been at all. However, he has lives to save, including his own, so he must go on. The evidence of his necessity is too overwhelming, almost as shocking as his earlier urge to tear it all apart. And in living both the hysterical despair of his life—the loss of that small sum of money an agony—and the helpless misery of his never-having-been, George plunges back to himself, careening down Main Street like Job reconstituted in the nick of time.

While Frank Capra’s film is assertive in its mercies, David Lynch simply grins sheepishly as he reveals his kind heart with The Straight Story (1999), the true tale of an elderly man who drives his riding lawnmower hundreds of miles to see his estranged brother. Visually, a paean to Midwestern landscapes; spiritually, a slow-and-steady affirmation that, because we are all neighbors, we really can go on, no matter how steep the way.

—Even if it leads to the limitless Gobi Desert, in The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003), a “semi-documentary” about a family of nomadic herders and the new-born camel who refuses to nurse, causing monumental concern. The animal is a valuable commodity, to be sure; but it also is one of the family, and the anxiety caused by its refusal and the efforts to coax it to nurse—ultimately, through song—form the movie’s fable-like narrative arc. Like Frank Capra’s film, disaster seems always imminent, but so are the bonds that drive us together, even the camels. It is the suspense of love, breathless until accepted.


It’s Christmas Eve in Joyeux Noel (2005)—based on actual incidents—and a German tenor emerges from his World War I foxhole, small Christmas tree in hand, singing “Adeste Fedeles,” and all combat ceases. Despite the penalties suffered by the German, Scottish, and French soldiers who met to Keep the Day and bury their dead, their carols ring true with clear and melancholy joy.

Seven-year-old Damian (Alex Atel) of Danny Boyle’s Millions (2004) sees saints; he’s also come into some cash: a giant bagful of “jolly old Pounds” destined for disposal before Britain switches to Euros. Damian assumes it’s from God; as he says to his older brother, Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), “who else would have that kind of money?” This remarkable glimpse into childhood faith comes without sentimentality, just the delight of the shining irrationality of love.

Kanji Watanabe, a bureaucrat (played by Takashi Shimura with excruciating, blank-eyed despair) who has wasted his life, learns in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) that he is dying of stomach cancer. Constantly pained, Watanabe follows a circuit, from fear to mercy to death to victory, that not only rescues him from hopelessness but also ennobles those around him. A heroic triumph expressed in small gestures.

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