Time and Tide…and Cinema: Degree of Fantasy in TIDELAND and BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD

•13/01/2013 • 1 Comment

13 January 2013

In the fall of 2006 Terry Gilliam’s Tideland released in United States theatres to dismal reviews.  The film tells the story of Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland), a girl who recently lost her mother to a heroin overdose.  Her father, who is also a drug addict, takes her to a deserted farmhouse, whereupon he, too, overdoses.  Although alone in an abandoned house, Jeliza-Rose’s youth stops her from realizing just how precarious her situation is.  Instead, she easily amuses herself with her Barbie heads (yes, just the heads), her dress-up clothes, and her odd neighbors.  According to Gilliam, even though the film’s narrative is dark and unsettling, this film is meant to be “seen through the eyes of a child,” meaning the audience sees and experiencing everything as a cognitively undeveloped, curious, and blissfully ignorant child would, in bright colors, from dramatic angles, and, sometimes, in stunning pace—not what an audience watching a film dealing with child abuse and neglect might expect.  In consideration of its dark narrative juxtaposed with whimsical cinematography, Gilliam suspected Tideland would not be welcomed by critics and audiences alike.  In fact, in a personal introduction to the audience which precedes the film, Gilliam claims, “Most of you will hate this movie.”  Gilliam was right; most people hated Tideland.


Is it that the narrative follows an innocent girl mistreated and ignored, living in decay, unaware she is constantly in danger?  Or, is it that Gilliam’s wild cinematics frustrate adult viewers who must experience a heartbreaking and grave narrative as fantasy without the weight and seriousness the topics of child abuse and child endangerment are most typically handled with?  Or, is it some combination of the two?

This past year Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film with striking similarities to Tideland, was released and welcomed with mostly positive reviews. The two films have similar narratives, similar protagonists, and incorporate fantasy, but are cinematically divergent.  With Beasts of the Southern Wild currently one of the most celebrated films of 2012, a question becomes how could two different directors translate a common story so differently they would receive polar opposite responses from audiences and critics?


Beasts of the Southern Wild captures the story of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a child living in The Bathtub, a small isle in the Louisiana Bayou.  Hushpuppy’s mother ran off when she was a baby, so she is raised by her father, Wink (Dwight Henry).  Other residents of The Bathtub help raise Hushpuppy, including Bathsheba, the schoolteacher, who warns the children about Aurochs, mammoth-like creatures from the pre-historic days who will return to The Bathtub and eat all the people up.  The living conditions in The Bathtub are deplorable, and strong storms threaten the small isle’s annihilation; yet, Hushpuppy and her father refuse to compromise their way of life by evacuating.  Adding more tension, Hushpuppy’s father is gravely ill, and the two frequently fight.  When a massive storm finally comes many members of The Bathtub are killed, but Hushpuppy and her father persevere.  And, perhaps knowing he will not be with her much longer, Hushpuppy’s father attempts to teach her everything he knows about survival.  But, before he finishes, a mandatory evacuation forces all The Bathtub residents off their land and into medical care tents.  Unwilling to accept help, however, The Bathtub resident flee the sanctuary and return to their home.  Hushpuppy then embarks on her own journey to find her mother and to face the Aurochs, but knows she truly belongs in The Bathtub with her father.  With time running out for Hushpuppy’s father, and, likely, the people of The Bathtub, Hushpuppy returns, willing to accept her fate.


From a narrative perspective both Tideland and Beasts of the Southern Wild are stories of girls outcasted from the norm, abused, neglected, and endangered, but headstrong, imaginative, and resilient.  Although living in horror, each girl, respectively, emerges as a strong, independent survivor.  The only major narrative distinction between the two films is the ending, or the recuperation.   In Tideland, a terrible train wreck not far off from where Jeliza-Rose resides attracts her attention.  While wandering around, a female survivor mistakes Jeliza-Rose for a fellow survivor.  Thus, Tideland offers unexpected hope at the end because Jeliza-Rose is rescued from peril and will, likely, reenter society and be cared for.  In the conclusion of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hushpuppy returns to The Bathtub in time to take care of her father before he passes away.  Once he passes, Hushpuppy lays him to rest in traditional Bathtub style and rejoins her community, refusing to leave The Bathtub and its way of life.  Interestingly, from a narrative perspective, the film that saves the child in the end was not as successful with critics and audiences as the one that leaves the child in peril.  Therefore, the narrative, likely, has nothing to do with what audiences and critics resisted in Tideland.  Cinema is cinematics, and, in telling nearly the same story, this is the area where Gilliam displeased the masses and Zeitlin satisfied.


The cinematography Tideland could not be more different from the cinematography in Beast of the Southern Wild.  As mentioned, Tideland’s genre would have to be considered fantasy because it is from the point of view of a child, a girl whose parents were, likely, on drugs when she was conceived and has been around these unstable, volatile addicts her entire life.  She is the ultimate unreliable narrator because she does not have, and perhaps cannot have, any concept of reality.  Yet she is the only narrator, and the film is intentionally as wild, unpredictable, and confused as she is.  Conversely, Beasts of the Southern Wild shifts perspectives throughout the film, but mainly tells Hushpuppy’s story as an outsider looking in on her, and not how she would actually experience it herself.  Thus, Beasts of the Southern Wild may blend elements of fantasy, but is not a fantasy film.

For example, when Hushpuppy’s father disappears for the first time the film experiments with its own blend of realism and fantasy, primarily siding with realism.  Hushpuppy sits alone in her house and sees a jersey hanging on the wall that was once belonged to her mother. Hushpuppy pulls is down, places the jersey on a chair at her table, and proceeds to cook dinner.  The audience hears a woman’s voice talking to Hushpuppy, saying things like, “You bein’ a good girl like I taught you.”  Even though the woman is never shown, the audience understands it to be Hushpuppy’s mother.  Hushpuppy’s responds, “Yes, mamma.”  The voice is fantasy; the audience is experiencing something in Hushpuppy’s head.  However, what the audience sees is reality, and it is a grim, revolting reality.  To cook dinner, Hushpuppy puts a can of broth into a pot, and then adds canned cat food to the mix, licking her fingers after she uses them to scoop the cat food from its can.  She turns on the stove’s gas, puts on a football helmet, which she keeps in the freezer (because, without power, the freezer is more of a closet), pulls out a blowtorch, and lights the stove.  Hushpuppy then climbs up and stirs her dinner as it warms.  The camera cuts to a few shots of the bubbling concoction.  Aside from the voice, there is no fantasy; this scene of Hushpuppy cooking details her inhumane and repulsive reality, even though she herself does not see it that way.   In Beasts of the Southern Wild the audience is not required to confront unspeakably difficult topics from the innocent mind of a child; the shots of the bubbling food suggests the film itself is making a judgment about this child’s living conditions and the film wants to show the audience this horrifying reality.  This type of judgment is exactly what Gilliam avoids in Tideland, and why he chooses to stay in the fantasy mode and never shift to reality.

Even in the most fantasy-filled scene of Beast of the Southern Wild, when Hushpuppy confronts the Aurochs, the fantasy seems only to highlight reality, serving as a metaphor for Hushpuppy’s life and setting up the film’s conclusion.  Hushpuppy heard a story about the Aurochs from her teacher, Bathsheba, and created from it a monster she must confront.  This monster is born from global warming, as it only appears when the icecaps melt.  Global warming is one of the greatest threats to Hushpuppy and The Bathtub’s existence, and she must confront the threat, which she envisions as a mammoth-like monster, to survive.  In her fantasy, Hushpuppy valiantly walks toward the charging Aurochs, and, perhaps because of her bravery and strength, the beasts stop and gently bow down in front of Hushpuppy, signaling defeat. That fantasy sequence serves as a catalyst for the film’s final shot, which is of Hushpuppy surrounded by members of The Bathtub cheering and walking down a flooded road.  They are walking at the camera, looking directly at the audience, and the mounted camera is quickly retreating from the riled Bathtub mob, moving further away from Hushpuppy, leaving her exactly where she chooses to stay.  As with the Aurochs, Hushpuppy confronts all threats to her home and lifestyle.  In the film shot, Hushpuppy and her Bathtub family force the camera out, and by extension the audience, and reclaim their land.


Beasts of the Southern Wild - 6

It seems as though degree of fantasy is what separates Tideland from Beasts of the Southern Wild. Tideland is all fantasy, and has every camera trick in the book to prove it.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing because the cinematography is purposeful stylized to convey an unconventional perspective.  Nevertheless, adult audiences who do not have the energy or imaginative capabilities of a child, particularly a child of Jeliza-Rose’s upbringing, may not have the stamina to absorb Tideland.  Whereas with Zeitlin’s Beast of the Southern Wild the fantasy is minimized and used to buffer and sometimes escape reality, which seems more suited for the average audience.



It’s a Sign: Processing Inspiration in JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME

•06/01/2013 • Leave a Comment

6 January 2013

“Everyone and everything is interconnected in this universe. Stay pure of heart and you will see the signs. Follow the signs, and you will uncover your destiny”


This is the epigraph that starts the Duplass Brothers (Mark and Jay) latest film, Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012).  As suggested by the title, this independent dramedy primarily captures a day in the life of Jeff (Jason Segel), a 30-year-old man who lives at home.  As an adolescent Jeff’s father died, and since then depression stopped Jeff from moving forward, so he resides in the basement of his mother’s home.  However, Jeff admits he always thought his father’s death happened for a reason, albeit a reason he struggles to understand.  Connected to this is Jeff’s unshakably strong belief in Fate, which further connects to his adoration of M. Night Shyamalan’s film Signs.  According to Jeff, signs are all around us, even though they are almost impossible to understand most times, and Jeff follows these signs, trusting them blindly, because the signs lead to Fate.


So, on this ordinary day in Jeff’s life he receives a call from a wrong number.  The caller asks for Kevin, but no Kevin lives in Jeff’s home.  Jeff takes this as a sign.  Next, Jeff’s mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), calls requesting Jeff head to Home Depot for some wood glue because a shutter broke off the kitchen pantry.  When Jeff leaves the house, literary in pursuit of a resolution to a problem, he inadvertently embarks on a metaphorical journey toward a bigger resolution, one that tests his commitment to his beliefs and, eventually, leads him to his Fate.  Jeff sees another sign and follows a stranger, named Kevin, which coincidently—or perhaps not, as Jeff does not believe anything is a coincidence—causes Jeff to run into his brother, Pat (Ed Helms).  This same day Pat happens to find out his wife, Linda Greer), may be having an affair; therefore Pat relies in Jeff as advice giver, supporter, and even punching bag at various moments in the day.  Jeff’s journey continues because, in being there for his brother, he happens across the wreckage of a terrible automobile accident on bridge, an accident so bad that one vehicle was thrown off the bride and into the murky waters below.  A father and his two small children are trapped, drowning, in the car.  Perhaps remembering how in Signs it is the water that saves everyone, Jeff suddenly realizes his Fate.


The strength of Jeff, Who Lives at Home is the writing.  Written by the Duplass directors, Jeff, Who Lives At Home is inspirational and heartwarming.  In all, this is the story of a person who stays true to himself, despite the opposition he experiences from those around him.  Jeff keeps unremitting faith in signs, even though he does not always understand them.  Parallel to that, witnessing Jeff’s unfaltering security in his own belief system gives the audience faith in Jeff, even though viewers don’t always understand him.  Jeff perseveres with the signs, and the audience perseveres with Jeff.  Witnessing someone inspired is, in fact, inspiring.  Moreover, witnessing someone true to him or herself is heartwarming.

By the plot’s conclusion the film recuperates entirely, which symbolizes the long overdue recuperation of its characters.  The film begins with a broken shutter on a kitchen pantry, but it is more than the pantry shutter that fell apart; Linda, Pat, Sharon, and Jeff, have all fallen apart in their respective ways.  However, this one day changes all that.  Pat and Linda’s marriage had to completely break before they could begin fixing it.  Sharon needed to breakdown in her office’s bathroom before she could fix herself, along with Carol’s help.  And, of course, Jeff.  Jeff never knew how to fix himself after the loss of his father.  Yet, when the signs led him to the bridge he allowed out the (anti)hero hidden within.  The only remedy for his lost father was a found father, and Jeff said goodbye to one father by saving another.


Moreover, Sharon, Pat, and Jeff all have a rebirth symbolized by water in this film, again echoing Shyamalan’s Signs.  The sprinkles showering Sharon in her office offer her rebirth, and Pat’s jump into the water after his brother rebirths him as well.  And, most evident, Jeff’s near death in the water when saving the drowning family strongly symbolizes a rebirth, which allows him to part from his past, troubled self.


All of this recuperation completes in the film’s concluding shot when Jeff walks up to the pantry, with the glue his mother requested he buy, and fixes the broken shutter.  Like the pantry, the characters are repaired, and that is truly inspiriting and heartwarming.

In fact, the story’s strength is so solid it compensates for any minor cinematic instability.  The Duplass Brothers are still slightly stronger screenwriters than directors, and with Jeff, Who Lives at Home the handheld camerawork and quick zooms littering the film do not compliment the narrative and nearly muddy the film’s tone.  Remembering that cinematography is entirely for the audience, as characters in any film are traditionally oblivious to the audience, and always oblivious to how the audience sees them, cinematography should work in harmony with a script’s tone so what the plot details aligns with how the plot is visually detailed.  Shaky camera and quick zooms, like those in Jeff, Who Lives at Home typically signify a frantic moment, and almost always build anxiety for viewers.  This is not the intended effect in the Duplass Brother’s film; what the intentions behind these cinematic choices are remain unclear.  It seems the effect is used simply to defy convention stylistically.  Breaking convention can be successful, but not if the break is just for break’s sake.  It seems the Duplass Brothers put their cinematic stamp of Jeff, Who Lives at Home by challenging the norm and/or expectation of cinema, but, in this case, challenging the norm, such as with the zoom, did not compliment the story.

Luckily for Jeff, Who Lives at Home the story being told is so strong, so inspiring, and so heartwarming that any inconsistency in how the story is told falls to the wayside.  In the end, all the remains is the lasting echo of the epigraph that started it all, “stay pure of heart…follow the signs…uncover your destiny,” like Jeff, who lives at home.


It’s a White Christmas: Anti-Semitism and Racism in the Holiday Classic MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS

•30/12/2012 • 9 Comments

30 December 2012

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934), also titled Babes in Toyland, has gone down in American film history as a Christmas classic.  True, the film is not holiday-themed—even if Santa Claus makes a cameo—,but its original December release in the mid-1930s coupled with the fact that television networks have aired the film during the holidays for over 40 years solidified March of the Wooden Soldiers’ place as a holiday classic.  By now generations of people have adopted viewing this film as a Christmas tradition, and the film is widely regarded as a beloved gem from American cinema’s Golden Age.

Yet, contemporary audiences watching March of the Wooden Soldiers cannot help noticing some rather overt prejudice in the film, namely anti-Semitic statements made through the character of Silas Barnaby and racist views evident in the Bogey characters.  Consciously, the film is not directly saying Jews are manipulative weasels and minorities should be held down and kept out of white society, but these sentiments are clearly expressed in the film and reflect a dangerous ideology more popular in yesteryear.  Thus, in a 1930’s classic created to entertain the masses, what do contemporary audiences do with an accomplished film that unconsciously but explicitly offends modern principles?


Gus Meins and Charley RogersMarch of the Wooden Soldiers takes place in Toyland, a place where children’s favorite fairytale characters live in harmony, literary because they are frequently singing or moving though the land to song.  Stanley Dum (Stan Laurel) and Ollie Dee (Oliver Hardy) board with the Old Woman (Florence Roberts) who lives in a shoe; also living there is Little Bo Peep.  Bo Peep is in love with Tom-Tom Piper (Felix Knight), but the old, sinister Silas Barnaby (Henry Brandon), the wealthiest resident of Toyland, has his eyes on Bo Peep.  Barnaby holds the mortgage to the Old Woman’s shoe and tells her if Bo Peep marries Piper instead of him he will kick the Old Woman and her tenants out on the street.  Stanley and Ollie try tirelessly to stop Barnaby from his blackmail, but Barnaby fires back every time.  Eventually, Barnaby has Piper exiled to Bogeyland, an underground lair inhabited by Bogeys, violent and carnivorous creatures who eat people whole. When Piper escapes Barnaby unleashes the Bogeys on all of Toyland, and the people of this fairytale community must use their 6-foot toy soldiers, created by Ollie and Stanley, to fight the Bogeys if they want to save Toyland.


Sound like the fairytale of all fairytales?  Well, maybe not.  To begin, Silas Barnaby stereotypically represents a Jewish man.  Physically he has classic Jewish features; he is also wealthy but tight with his money, corrupt, and manipulative.  Characterized as a Jew, March of the Wooden Soldiers makes some rather anti-Semitic claims through Barnaby.  One of these claims is Jews should be isolated and ignored; Barnaby is isolated in several ways: he lives alone and cannot get a wife without underhanded blackmail, he has no friends or kin, he wears all black clothes against the colorful people and places in Toyland, and he has a sinister, unmistakable musical score that accompanies his appearances in the film.  Although a resident of Toyland, Barnaby is an outsider, but it is not only his wickedness that outs him but also the community’s repulsion of him that keeps Barnaby an outcast.


Moreover, Barnaby is the villain and villains are dangerous; the dangers related to Barnaby fuel anti-Semitic ideology unconsciously festering in the film.  For example, Barnaby narrows in on Bo Peep, the beautiful, young, blonde-haired girl.  Although she kindly tries to give Barnaby the cold shoulder, he poses a threat to her because he has financial power over her, which he uses to manipulate the situation and serve his own, selfish desires.  Not far under the surface of the film is the suggestion Jews have money, hold on tightly to it, and this financial power can be used to devastate others.  Another danger surrounding Barnaby that fuels anti-Semitic mentality is this depraved character is also well connected to other vile characters, and these connections can lead to an uprising and revolt that jeopardizes innocent people.  The audience never learns how Barnaby gets so friendly with the Bogeys, but in the film’s dramatic climax Barnaby summons the Bogeys up from their underground home to attack the unsuspecting people of Toyland.  Clearly, there is a strong suggestion that Jews are dangerous not only because they have money, but also because they are secretive, manipulative, and align with the underbelly if it serves their needs.


Anti-Semitism is not the only prejudice mentality in March of the Wooden Soldiers; the film also communicates racist beliefs through the Bogeys of Bogeyland.  The Bogeys are brown creatures with black wiry hair who live underground; they hunt, terrorize, and devour people who cross their paths.  When they rise up from Bogeyland and invade Toyland they are eventually met by the wooden soldiers, who, like every member of Toyland, happens to be white.  The heroic soldiers are draped in traditional garb and sacrifice themselves for the good of the people, vanquishing those creatures who harm the white—or, perhaps, right—way of life.  Conversely, the Bogeys run around wildly, climb all over the town like animals, destroy homes, and rip innocent children from their mothers’ arms, grunting because they are not able to speak.  The clash between the Bogeys and the soldiers instantly signals racial conflict.  If the soldiers and all residents of Toyland are white, then the Bogeys represent not only blacks but all minorities.  The Bogeys are barbaric, illiterate, cave creatures, and—under antagonist Barnaby’s direction—they are the monsters of the film.  March of the Wooden Soldiers communicates a hate-filled message against non-whites which suggests minorities, like the Bogeys, are dangerous; additionally, they should be kept out and forced down for the safety of whites and their way of life.


March of the Wooden Soldiers attempts to sell itself as “A delight for youngsters!” and “A treat for adults.”  Yet, in looking at this film from a contemporary vantage point, it is difficult to find much delight or anything light at all; from this viewpoint this is a heavy-hitting film.  And, it is almost certainly more a trick than treat.

With 21st century eyes it is not hard to find hatred, ignorance, and fear primarily regarding religion and race in March of the Wooden Soldiers.  In fairness, the same can be said about most of March of the Wooden Soldiers cinematic contemporaries. Anyone remember when the Ku Klux Klan rescues Elsie and sets the ape-like black characters on fire in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915)?  (A film alternatively titled The Clansman.)  Prejudice and hatred will all be there because film unconsciously reflects the common ideology of the people and place of its creation.  But with time ideologies change, hence contemporary viewers quickly notice offensive comments, innuendos, and ideas in films of yesteryear based on their newer beliefs.

But, the big question is what do we do with what we notice?  We cannot ignore it because then we cannot learn from it.  We cannot condemn films like March of the Wooden Soldiers because they are artistic accomplishments for early cinema.  Moreover, a film like March of the Wooden Soldier is historically significant as artifact, or evidence for a former way of thinking; the film is a resource for understanding the past.

So do we simply accept it and perpetuate its reputation as a beloved American holiday classic? Must be, since that is what we are doing.  But, what about today’s children who watch this film?  With developing cognitive skills, could young viewers still unconsciously ingest the harmful racial and anti-Semitic messages in the film?  Does that matter?  Or, more directly, does that matter enough?

What happens to films that have withstood the test of time, but, within that ever-evolving span of time, have ceased to entertain appropriately?


Bah, Humbug: Pondering a Poor Cinematic Adaptation of A CHRISTMAS CAROL

•23/12/2012 • 1 Comment

23 December 2012

Successfully adapting a piece of literature for cinema is deceptively complex, particularly when celebrated, well-written pieces of classic literature are adapted.  Take, for example, Charles DickensA Christmas Carol, written in 1843.  Cinema latched on to this holiday-themed allegory as soon as it could, and since 1901 countless versions of the story have been scripted for the silver screen (and small screen); currently, cinema has had its teeth in A Christmas Carol for over 100 years.

Yet, no two cinematic version of Dickens’ novella are the same; every adaptation of the classic tale spins the story its own way, refining the details of Ebenezer Scrooge life-changing Christmas to suit the historical moment, place, and society the adaptation is created for.  For example, in 1938, the ninth time A Christmas Carol was adapted to film, filmmakers felt audiences needed a family friendly movie for the holiday season.  That said, the Edwin L. Marin’s 1938 film of A Christmas Carol stays upbeat, consistently skirting as many of Dickens’ grim details as possible. One of the ways Hugo Butler, the screenwriter for the 1938 version, accomplished this was to simply omit many of the darkest parts of Dickens’ tale.  Yet, and very unfortunately for the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, cutting out these dark moments in the narrative damages the film as a whole because some of these dark moments reveal details about Scrooge essential to his character development, and therefore the audience’s connection to the film’s evolving anti-hero is interrupted.


But, to begin, A Christmas Carol tells of one fateful Christmas when Ebenezer Scrooge (Reginald Owen) learns the true meaning of Christmas and gains an overall appreciation for life and love.  Ebenezer Scrooge is an elderly business person who only responds with “humbug” at the mere mention of Christmas.  However, very early one Christmas morning, when Scrooge’s heart is at the peak of its frigidity, the spirit of his former business partner, Jacob Marley (Leo G. Carroll), visits him.  Marley warns Scrooge if he does not change his ways and learn to treat people kindly Scrooge will be doomed, in death, to walk the Earth as a spirit, wearing heavy chains, just like Marley.  Marley also tells Scrooge he will be visited by three spirits, and the spirits will help stubborn Scrooge learn his lesson before it is too late.  At the stroke of one the Spirit of Christmas Past (Ann Rutherford) visits Scrooge.  The spirit appears as a beautiful woman who whisks Scrooge of his bedroom window and into the Christmases of his past. There Scrooge sees his childhood, his sister, and a former boss, and witnessing these memories begins to remind Scrooge of the love he once held in his heart.  In a flash Scrooge is once again alone in his room and the clock chimes two.  This time Scrooge steps out of bed and sees the Spirit of Christmas Present (Lionel Braham), a large, burly, bearded man in a robe and crown of holly.  The Spirit of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to current Christmas celebrations; first to Scrooge’s nephew, Fred’s (Barry McKay), home, and then to the home of Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart), an employee of Scrooge’s whom the miser recently fired.  At Fred’s, Scrooge sees that his nephew and Bess (Lynne Carver), Fred’s fiancée, love Scrooge, despite Scrooge’s “humbug” mentality.  At the Cratchit’s Scrooge sees Bob Cratchit has several children, including a boy, Tim (Terry Kilburn), who is sickly.  Even though they are poor and struggling through Tim’s illness, the Cratchits are happy people and full of good cheer on this Christmas holiday.  This too helps warm the heart of Scrooge, but just as he vows to change his ways, Scrooge the third spirit, the one of Christmases yet to come, visits Scrooge.  The black-cloaked figure shows Scrooge his own death, and how little people actually care for him in the future because of his relentless “humbug” philosophy.  Also, the Spirit of Christmases Yet to Come reveals Tim Cratchit dies because his father lost his job and henceforth was unable to pay for Tim’s medical expenses.  Struck by the tragedy of it all, Scrooge vows to change so Christmases yet to come will be different than what the third spirit showed.  Scrooge wakes up again in his own bed, this time on present-day Christmas morning.  He springs out of bed a new man, buying food and presents for the Cratchits, and embracing Fred and Bess.  The films ends with everyone at the Cratchit home as Scrooge and Tim celebrate the holiday with a Christmas toast.


Even though Dickens’ novella seems to end happily, with all tragedy and sorrow averted, the text’s exploration into dark subject matter must have seemed too depressing to 1930s filmmakers, which is why Hugo Butler infused his A Christmas Carol screenplay with upbeat lighthearted moments.  For example, the film’s exposition starts off quite optimistic.  First, when Fred visits his Uncle Scrooge at the office Scrooge is nasty, biting, and outright offensive to his nephew.  Yet, this does not affect Fred at all; Fred even tells Scrooge, no matter how bleak Scrooge chooses to be, nothing will ruin his Christmas spirit (a pun, as it foreshadows the spirits who will later visit Scrooge).  With that Fred wishes Scrooge the merriest of all Christmases and departs with a smile on his face and his cheerful Christmas spirit intact.  Although Scrooge is already rather snarly, his grumpiness is obviously not contagious, and so the film begins rather upbeat.


Next, just after Cratchit accidentally ruins Scrooges hat in a snowball fight gone wrong, Scrooge fires Cratchit and refuses to pay him any more wages because of the damage to his hat.  One might think a man fired on Christmas Eve, particularly one with a large family that includes a sick child, would get depressed, but that is not the case with Bob Cratchit.  Initially feeling rather somber, Cratchit begins walking home; he walks behind a man carrying a dead goose.  Suddenly the swinging head of the long-necked goose cracks Cratchit up and he become hysterical with laughter in the street.  Instead of remaining in his depression, Cratchit spends all his pocket-money on food and trimmings for his family’s Christmas celebration.  Cratchit’s unforeseen shift from sorrow to celebration echoes Fred’s lively and hopeful Christmas spirit, and further suggests the upbeat tone set by Bulter.  This is the second time within the opening scenes of the film that A Christmas Carol skirts sadness and loss, instead choosing to look at the bright side and remain optimistic in the spirit of Christmas.


While it is uplifting that the film emphasizes the positive, this emphasis has a negative effect on Scrooge’s ethical and emotional metamorphosis.  Somehow the journey Scrooge embarks on that fateful Christmas seems less pertinent if the people in his life are not affected by him.  Fred seems like a confident, upstanding man whose life is full of friends and joy; he is not devastated by his uncle’s rejection and “humbug.” Moreover, Cratchit is in a tight spot when Scrooge fires him, but his obviously strong character is resilient and unfazed by the miserable Ebenezer Scrooge.  Again, positivity is always pleasant for audiences, but the film’s stress on optimism undercuts Scrooge’s negativity and therefore undercuts the necessity for Scrooge’s change that Christmas.

Additionally, significant plot details from Dickens’ novella are cut out of the 1938 version, and the most damaging are the omissions made when Scrooge is with the Spirit of Christmas Past.  This beautiful spirit shows Scrooge his childhood, which is full of warm memories, most notably with his sister, Fan (Elvira Stevens), and his former boss, Old Fezzwig (Forrester Harvey).  However, in Dickens’ novella Scrooge also sees sorrowful Christmases when grief and misfortune occurred in his young life.  These details help explain why Scrooge became a miserable miser; true, these details are difficult to see and hear, but they are key to understanding who Ebenezer Scrooge is.  Omitting these details confuses the narrative.  The audience watches Scrooge’s wonderful childhood Christmases and then dramatically jumps to his miserable Christmas present.  It doesn’t make any sense.  The only explanation offered is when the Spirit of Christmas Past hastily reveals she has not even shown Scrooge his terrible Christmases.  That one-off line is not enough for audiences to understand Scrooge and how he transformed from happy boy to a nasty old man.


Plainly, omitting plot details can damage an overall narrative, and, in the case of A Christmas Carol, missing plot details create an unstable script full of gaps.  Yes, this 1938 version of A Christmas Carol is very upbeat, so the filmmakers’ objective was achieved; however, the film would have had a more satisfying, heartwarming resolution for audiences if Fred and Cratchit did not begin as such optimistic characters, and if the audience understood more of Scrooge’s past, and therefore more of what he needed to overcome during his Christmas transformation.  Adaptations of literature do not need to follow the literature exactly, in fact, they should not; literature and film are two very different mediums of storytelling, with different tools, audiences, and expectations.  However, changing details of a story when it is adapted from one medium to another does require a close examination of the details to be sure changes and omissions are not damaging to the story in its new medium.  In the case of Marin’s 1938 version of A Christmas Carol the adaptation was botched, therefore leaving the film unimpressive.


A Killer Christmas: Elements of Black Comedy in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER

•16/12/2012 • Leave a Comment

16 December 2012

Over twenty years before one of the darkest and funniest of them all, Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, debuted, a comedy with subtler dark references emerged in American cinema.  Although this earlier effort straddles the line between dark and slapstick, its darker moments are even darker because this classic film is holiday themed.  Without question, the film’s repeated references to murderers and murder, which are all designed for comedic effect, give The Man Who Came to Dinner elements of a black comedy, perhaps making it the first holiday film comedy to use dark humor.


The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), directed by  William Keighley, is an adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1939 play of the same title.  Briefly, the film’s setting is a small town in Ohio during the week leading up to Christmas.  Famous but highly disagreeable critic, Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) slips and falls on the steps of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley’s home.  The fall lands him in a wheelchair and makes it impossible for him to leave Ohio before the Christmas holiday.  Whiteside and his secretary, Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis), stay in the Stanley’s home, where Whiteside consistently inconveniences the Stanley family.  Meanwhile, Maggie meets a local newspaper man and aspiring playwright, Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis), and the two quickly develop feelings for one another.  Fearing Maggie will leave him for Bert, Whiteside call in Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan), a famous actress, to lure Bert away from Maggie, therefore keeping Maggie and her secretarial skills all to himself.  Fighting back, Maggie devises her own plan to get rid of Lorraine.  As the two battle through hilarious antics back and forth, secondary characters, all played by top-rate character actors of the time, hilariously traipse in and out of scenes.  Despite all the trickery and shenanigans, the spirit of the season wins out and all the characters receive exactly what they deserve in the end.


Typically, black comedies use serious and heavy subject matter for comedic purposes, which is a bold and rather difficult thing to pull off with audiences.  Interestingly, aide from the Christmas tree, presents, and holiday cheer, violent death and murder are recursive topics in The Man Who Came to Dinner, and these topics are used for comedic effect.  There is not enough emphasis on these topics to say the film is a black comedy, but it is clear the film experimented with dark humor to entertain it audiences with a different approach than the conventional holiday film of its time.

First, rather early on in the film, Whiteside hosts a luncheon with convicted murders from the state penitentiary, and this is one of the film’s most overt approaches to dark humor.  Whiteside learns of his guests’ arrival with the sound of sirens, and his four guests, handcuffed to one another, enter the Stanley home escorted by two officers holding large rifles.  According to Maggie, Whiteside is the foremost authority on murderers and murder trials, which is apparent when Whiteside greets his guest by murder, noting one as the “Drainpipe Murderer” and another as Haggerty, the hatchet fiend who chopped up all his victims and put them in salad bowls.  Overjoyed by his guests, Whiteside rattles off the lunch menu, which consists of chicken livers and cherries jubilee (there’s an image), and the host tacks on how he hopes “every little tummy is aflutter with gastric juices” (another terrifically disgusting image).  Clearly the brief scene evokes repulsion, as well as violent crime and gore.  Yet, the scene is highly comical and offers the film’s audience a dark laugh.

Moreover, the film is full of one-liners alluding to murder.  In the film’s conclusion, Banjo (Jimmy Durante), the comic relief and a character based on the comedic genius of Harpo Marx, grimly tells Whiteside, “We’ll get Lorraine out if here if I have to do it one piece at a time.”  Moreover, Whiteside and Banjo actually get Lorraine out of Ohio on Christmas by mummifying her, literally.  With a large sarcophagus, Whiteside and Banjo convince Lorraine to play the role of a mummy and step into the ancient resting place.  When she does they lock her in and ship her out of the house.  This is slapstick humor, but it is also very dark, as Lorraine entombs herself in an actual sarcophagus and becomes a living mummy.  It’s morbidly hilarious, and it’s happening on Christmas Day.


Different from how American holiday films of the 1940s typically celebrate the spirit of the season, The Man Who Came to Dinner fixates on killers.  Beyond the convicts from the lunch party the film also includes a Lizzie Borden character.  Harriet Stanley, sister of Mr. Stanley, falls in love with Whiteside, her handicapped houseguest.  Curiously, she only approaches him when there is no one else around, as though she is always lurking around in dark corners waiting for opportunities.  She is an old spinster, but Whiteside eventually recognizes her as an axe murderess who hacked her parents some years back.  The film even goes so far as to include the Lizzie Borden rhyme, replacing Borden’s name with the character’s: “Harriet Stanley took and axe and gave her mother 40 whacks…”  Although Harriet only appears in the film a few brief times, she is a memorable character because her bizarre behavior is hauntingly funny. She speaks lovingly and sweetly, but her phantom-like walk and obsession with Whiteside are outright strange.  Then, when her true identity is revealed in the conclusion her oddities are brought into the foreground as wickedly and insanely hilarious.



Lastly, the continuous one-liners also hit on murderers.  When Miss Preen (Mary Wickes), Whiteside’s nurse finally decides she must quite her job, she tells Whiteside, “If Florence Nightingale had nursed you she would have married Jack the Ripper instead of joining the Red Cross.”  Referencing a famous serial killer, who, like Borden was never convicted for the crime (or even identified publicly), The Man Who Came to Dinner uses a psychopath’s murder spree so Wickes’ character can get a last laugh in with the audience.


To be fair, this film is not the type of black comedy audiences are used to seeing today; this film has elements of black comedy, but does not entirely fit the genre.  The aforementioned Dr. Strangelove and the Coens Fargo are better examples of what audiences contemporarily recognize as a cinematic black comedy.  The focus of The Man Who Came to Dinner is not on death, murder, or murderers, but those topics are repeated unyieldingly throughout the film.  However, for 1942, even elements of dark humor brought to the silver screen is a change of pace, and using and undertone of murder and murderers in a Christmas film was completely original for the 1940s silver screen, and an approach to holiday filmmaking still unmatched today.

Broken Ornaments, Stolen Babies, and Lies: A Not So Traditional CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT

•09/12/2012 • Leave a Comment

9 December 2012

While all holidays are steeped in tradition, no holiday has as many customary practices and rituals as Christmas, at least here in America.  Perhaps the most popular holiday on the calendar, Christmas’ ceremonial rites generally begin on Thanksgiving and run a full four weeks leading up to December 25th.  Of course there are typical traditions, like decorating a Christmas tree, giving and receiving presents, and celebrating the holiday with friends, family, and a gluttonous amount of food; however, people also have unique traditions they have created or have carried through their heritage, and these are as wide-ranging as the millions of individuals who celebrate the holiday all over the world.  But, even these self-made, atypical Christmas traditions are still habitual rituals put in place to celebrate in a customary way because, whatever the holiday tradition, the ritual is what makes the holiday familiar, comfortable, and reflective…right?

Moreover, the plots of most Christmas films spotlight holiday traditions.  For example, if one sits down to watch a Christmas movie for the first time, that person knows they will likely see Christmas presents exchanged, a Christmas tree decorated and/or displayed, and, without a doubt, the main plot of the film will focus on developing relationships, likely familial, in the spirit of the season.

Most audiences look for this heart-warming type of Christmas movie during the holiday season.  Watching the film itself perpetuates the Christmas movie tradition, but also, through its plot and subplots, reinforces the significance of traditions at this celebrated time of year.

But what about times in life when Christmas traditions are infringed upon by tragedy?  What happens to the happy rituals of yesteryear when pain, fear, and sadness find their way into the Christmas season?

These questions are timeless, and it seems possible responses to these questions delicately and unexpectedly emerge in an American holiday classic written and released during WWII.  In a time of global unrest, the American way of life changed and traditions, be them holiday or every day, were compromised; sadly, the war’s draft separated families, sent men overseas, and forced women to leave their children so they could work.  Released in 1945 and set during a holiday season in World War II, Peter Godfrey’s Christmas in Connecticut, written by Aileen Hamilton, Adele Comandini, and Lionel Houser, is a romantic comedy which light-heartedly suggests how WWII-ridden American society reacted to Christmas during a distressing time in the nation’s history.  The film’s plot captures a group of outsiders as they attempt to fake their way through a merry Christmas, similar to the way America, during WWII, forced its way through the traditions of difficult Christmases in the early to mid 1940s.


Briefly, Christmas in Connecticut is the story of Liz (Barbara Stanwyck), better known by her pseudonym, Elizabeth Lane.  She is a columnist for a major American periodical.  Elizabeth Lane, the image, is a well-off, fabulous, wife, mother, and homemaker living on a large farm in Connecticut.  She shares her recipes, decorating suggestions, and advice with the country through her writing; however, the real Liz is single, childless, living in a small New York City apartment, and has no clue how to cook or desire to decorate.  Her boss, Mr. Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), who believes Elizabeth Lane actually exists, decides the magazine should send a returning war veteran, Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), to Elizabeth’s farm in Connecticut for Christmas, offering the soldier a traditional, wholesome holiday in thanks for his bravery during war.  Of course, this is Liz’s worst nightmare, and she must quickly come up with a farm in Connecticut so she can satisfy her boss’ assignment without revealing her actual identity.  Her fiancé, John Sloane (Reginald Gardiner), helps her secure a farm and pushes to marry her quickly so he will legitimately be her husband when the veteran arrives, and her good friend, Felix (S. Z. Sakall), a chef, agrees to play her uncle so he can cook the meals.  John’s housekeeper Norah (Una O’Connor), who babysits children while their mothers are at work, completes the plan by getting a baby who Liz pretends is hers.  Unfortunately, Jefferson arrives early, before Liz and John can marry.  Yet, that turns out to be rather good luck when sparks immediately fly between Liz and Jefferson.  The next few days are a series of close calls and shenanigans, especially when Mr. Yardley himself arrives to spend the holiday in Connecticut with Elizabeth, her family, and Jefferson.  Amidst the charade, Liz and Jefferson grow closer, and by the film’s comically calamitous conclusion all secrets are revealed and love conquerors all.


Overall critics liked Christmas in Connecticut, however the film met resistance and has its share of naysayers. Theoretically, Christmas in Connecticut is not as embraced as its holiday-themed cinematic contemporaries because it does not drip with Christmas tradition; in fact, the film is all about faking tradition, and therefore it mocks yuletide rituals.  But that is, perhaps, the film’s strength; it is authentic to the nontraditional time it was made.  Within the turmoil of war, Christmas in Connecticut is a refreshingly honest, albeit somewhat silly, portrait of people who know exactly what a traditional Christmas should be, but find it impossible to pull off in their present circumstance.

First, Liz is forced to play Elizabeth Lane, the image, on Christmas.  Never once does she mention having to miss a traditional Christmas gathering or family celebration to pull off this charade.  Seemingly, Liz would have spent Christmas at home, perhaps alone.  She obviously knows what the traditional Christmas “should” be; she writes about it successfully in a magazine, but she does not conform to the tradition she pens.


Why? Perhaps because when she tries, when she is Elizabeth Lane in Connecticut, Liz is a disaster.  Circles don’t fit into squares, and Liz, symbolizing American Christmases during WWII, is too nontraditional to pull off the holiday rituals.  Take, for example, decorating the Christmas tree.  The film attempts to capture a picturesque holiday tradition: Liz decorating as Jefferson plays the piano and sings.  However, Liz breaks an ornament and the moment is spoiled; the tradition is broken.  Also, just after breaking the ornament, Liz holds a present it seems she wants to give Jefferson; however, she puts the present back, unopened, under the tree before he sees what she is holding.  This is as close as the film comes to covering the holiday tradition of gift-giving and receiving.  Somehow that tradition, like the tree decorating, fails in Christmas in Connecticut.  As for other traditions, there is no Santa and no Christmas cookies, but there is a dance to celebrate the holiday.  Yet, after a short time (just long enough for the director to shoot a large “Buy War Bonds” banner), Liz and Jefferson leave the dance, disinterested in the communal celebration of the holiday, and identifying once more how nontraditional a Christmas there is in Christmas in Connecticut, and, by extension, how nontraditional Christmases likely were for so many in America when the film was made.






Often, films made during WWII went out of their way and over the top to preserve American values and tradition in the face of war, suggesting the war would end and the American way would restore itself.  In wartime, traditions become even more important because they represent a way of life threatened that must be defended.  Because Christmas is largely about tradition, holiday films often become a foreground for spotlighting the value of tradition in American society.  Christmas in Connecticut, ever so slightly, resists that.  Godfrey’s film is not afraid to fumble or refuse many Christmas traditions, therefore honestly reflecting the tumultuous time in America during WWII.  Instead of faking through Christmas, Christmas in Connecticut finds comedy in the artifice of it all.  Thus, Christmas in Connecticut reflects its time, wittily and unpretentiously.

In all, Christmas in Connecticut is a nontraditional holiday classic. The film, true to the historical moment of its creation and release, embraces a difficult moment in American history.  It may not be the prescriptive holiday classic so many films are, and it may be silly at times, but, when looked at thorough a certain lens, makes strong statements about its time and traditions during conflict, and for that it must be respected.


It’s Hard to Believe, but…

•05/12/2012 • Leave a Comment


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