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Two Hundred Days of Christmas
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I will always hate film director Robert Zemeckis and not just because he attempted World Dummification by releasing Forrest Gump in 1994. His later sins — particularly the animation money-grabs he's produced this decade (The Polar Express, Beowulf, the current A Christmas Carol) — more than justify my black-hearted rancor. It's irrational to get so passionate about an artist's work, I know, but remember, one of my heroes is the late critic John Leonard, who once attacked a Lars Von Trier film in print and claimed that not only did he hate the film, but he wanted to kill anyone who liked it. Now, that's my kind of critic — furious, unambiguous, deranged. While my own rage at bad films rarely reaches such homicidal proportions, I'm a little leery of testing myself, which is why I've declined all chances to see New Moon this season.
Back to Zemeckis, though — once upon a time I had great affection for his films, especially the early, playful ones — I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), and Used Cars (1980) were charming throw-aways. But like a betrayed lover his subsequent actions turned me cold and made me bitterly regret the previous attraction. The Back to the Future movies, Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Cast Away, et al, turned Zemeckis into that dreaded Hollywood behemoth, the gazillionaire producer-director. Like Lucas, Spielberg, and James Cameron, Zemeckis has ascended to the stratosphere of film making, the place where blockbusters are born, and whatever charms he once had as a film maker have been replaced by demographic-determined, mass-marketed uber film events. His animated films this decade are particularly galling — like many techno-freaks with endless resources, Zemeckis likes to believe he's blazing into new territory with his animation process, and he's convinced that the last three films have revolutionized the medium. But they haven't. Whatever claims he's made about the believability of his new animation process, film goers all come to the same conclusion: it looks fake. The movies cost hundreds of millions of dollars, they employ state-of-the-art technology, and they look fake. It's a fate sure to befall James Cameron as well, no matter how fawning the press releases are for Avatar, no matter the $250 million budget, a brief glance at the trailer shows that for all the hyperbole and grand statements, the movie looks fake. The blue dragon or whatever it is looks like a Saturday-morning cartoon. There is an obvious "Emperor's New Clothes" parable to be made to James Cameron here, but frankly, I'm too weary to make it.
As for A Christmas Carol — is there anything the world needs less than another update of Dickens' story? With Jim Carrey? We've already got the Alastair Sim one, the Albert Finney musical, the Mickey Mouse, the Bill Murray, even the Mister Magoo edition (which is probably the best, by the way — ancient animation aside, it's got the scariest Ghost of Christmas Future, by a mile.) Zemeckis' movie is a calculated cash-grab, no more, no less, and no matter how savvy the play is, you can't help but be depressed that a once-talented, phenomenally wealthy director would bother with such a trifle merely to increase his portfolio. What is most distressing to me, though, about the film is its release date — November 6, barely a week past Halloween, nearly two months before Christmas actually arrives. It used to be that Thanksgiving was the unofficial starting date for holiday celebrations and holiday movies, but now the date keeps getting pushed back further and further into November. I know Christmas is the make-or-break time for many businesses, but do we have to be so crass and obvious about it?
I've been aware of two productions of A Christmas Carol in the Fort Wayne area that opened and closed before Thanksgiving. Doesn't that seem absurd? I know people like to rhapshodize about "getting into the Christmas spirit," but shouldn't we show a tiny bit of adult restraint? Shouldn't we wait until, you know, Christmas? And yes, I recognize the irony here--my "Bah Humbug" attitude probably reminds you of another famous misanthrope. But it's barely the start of December and I've already heard "Feliz Navidad" fifty times already. Whatever this undefinable "Christmas spirit" thing is, I'm certain it's impossible to attain if you want to shotgun your radio everytime you chance upon WMEE on the dial.
And the contradiction here is, I love Christmas Day. I do. I love the story, the ceremony, I love the hope and promise that the day brings. Not to go all Linus on you, but it's worth remembering that there is a difference between being a reverent celebrant and being a guilt-ridden, marketing target — a Christmas stooge.
Every December 24th, I spend Christmas Eve with a family that has a holiday tradition so antiquated that it's charming. That night, around six, they go out and get the tree--there's always one left, sometimes a monster, sometimes a tiny, beat-up thing. The children get out the heirloom decorations and carefully begin dressing the tree. They always swear they're going to stay up until midnight and see Santa but they never make it. The adults work deep into the night, wrapping presents, preparing the food for the Christmas dinner. A bleary-eyed breakfast is prepared, and against the protestations of the kids, presents aren't opened until after dinner, around 4pm. A general request to put down the cell phones is announced early in the day. Nobody leaves, there's no television. The tree stays up until New Year's Day, when, after a traditional dinner of Hoppin John, menudo, and glazed ham, the family takes the decoration down. The heirlooms are carefully wrapped and put into cardboard boxes, where they will stay until the following year.