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It's Christmas, Carol!
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
One of the things I've discovered I need to do this Christmas is to reassess my sense of irony, for I'm aware that I spend an inordinate amount of time watching the Hallmark/Lifetime Channel holiday romance movies every December. It's been a perverse tradition in my family for a couple of years now, to watch the damned things; the prodigals return and we stay up all night, screening as many of these tacky, schmaltzy, derivative TV movies as we can stomach.
Most of the fun comes from the catcalls and brickbats from the assembled gallery while watching, as we each try to top each other with the funniest responses to the hackneyed narratives and groaning one-liners. Obviously, there's a lot of food and drink on hand to help celebrate the night, but the focus is always squarely on the movies, from Eve's Christmas to It's Christmas, Carol! to Holidaze to Fir Crazy. And yes, those are actual titles to Hallmark/Lifetime holiday romance movies. Of course they are.
What's started to happen to me, though, as the years go by, is that my "ironic" pleasure in these terrible movies has been overtaken by a very distressing "authentic" pleasure in these terrible movies. I can no longer pretend that I'm enjoying them just to make fun of them; something happened where now I'm sort of pathetically connected to the infernal things. I find myself actively rooting for the main characters when I watch them, wondering if true love will win out in the end (Guess, just guess). I've trained myself to look past the obvious manipulations from the director and the terrible acting and I ignore the ridiculous plot contrivances that crop up every fifteen minutes or so. It's like all my discerning, critical judgments have been bludgeoned out of my head by these movies and I've become just another sap, willingly take it all in.
I'd like to think that there's some other reason for this disturbing evolution in me besides the obvious — i.e., my head has turned to mush as I've grown older. I’d like to believe that maybe there's something inherently valuable in these movies that I previously missed. But I know that's not true. The movies are awful, from conception to execution to final product. Of the 50 or so holiday romances that I've watched this past decade (and yes, I know what a galling number that is), there is exactly one that I think has any aesthetic value whatsoever — a clever rewrite of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women that premiered last year (The March Sisters at Christmas). But that's it. 1 for 50.
Of course, being an unremitting jerk means that I can't in good conscience justify my own terrible lapse in taste, and so I recognize that my enthusiasm for these movies renders me wholly unreliable as a critic, now and forever. In my defense, however, let me point out that there's something to be said about the way holiday rituals — any rituals — can exert a surprising and comforting force on the people performing them. I've never understood the whole "Black Friday" thing, for instance, where people queue up for hours in the cold to get first dibs on new technology crap, but I recognize that it's a tradition for a lot of people, and I think there has to be some value in that. Not everybody has the Grandfather-sawing-down-the-tree/Midnight Mass/sleigh-ride Norman Rockwell Christmases, after all — some folks have to make do with less exalted practices, like hitting the Best Buy at 5 in the morning. And as for the Black Friday shoppers, well, at least they're enthusiastic and engaged in their pursuits, and I'm all for people actively engaged in their own lives. Until they start shooting each other, of course.
But if you haven't established a true holiday tradition in your house, if you're still looking for some activity to bring the family together for a truly memorable holiday evening, you might want to look into becoming a Hallmark/Lifetime Christmas movie aficionado. And as a dutiful public servant, allow me to give you a few quick pointers on what to expect when you start watching the movies:
1) Family Man (2000) with Nicolas Cage, is the greatest and most influential movie of all time.
When it comes to holiday romance movies, Family Man is like The Odyssey — it's the originator for everything that follows. It's like what Halloween was to the slasher movies of the 70s and 80s. It's the "Ur"-Hallmark movie. The "alternate universe" storyline is, hands down, the most popular storyline in the genre--in short, workaholic single businessman wakes up in another dimension with, surprise, wife and kids. Will he discover that his previous life was empty and loveless? Hmmm. Since the new batch of "FM" retreads are on Lifetime/Hallmark, the main character is of course a woman, a high-powered career girl who, surprise! never had time for children and a husband.
2) There are tragedies in Hallmark Christmas movies, like orphaned kids and widows and widowers, but by far the greatest tragedy is the single girl nearing 30 who has yet to marry.
One of the things you'll start to notice about the Hallmark Christmas movies is that there's not a lot of "Christmas" in them — most use the holiday merely as a backdrop for the climactic wedding which--thank God! — saves the main character/lonely career spinster from a wholly unfulfilled, unhusbanded life. As soon as she learned to stop worrying about THAT MERGER, suddenly Mr. Wonderful appears right before her eyes. At Christmas.
3) Nothing leads to romance as quickly as doing the old, "Let's pretend we're an engaged couple for our uptight parents this holiday."
This one isn't as popular as the "alternate universe" storyline, but it's still good for one movie every year. Because, like, who hasn't had this problem? Parents want those grandkids, pronto!
4) Wait, who the hell was that?
Watching Hallmark movies can be a depressing experience, for you'll start seeing former, once-upon-a-time big deal actors and actresses popping up in bit roles. Faye Dunaway? Jacqueline Bissett? SCARY SPICE? Man, times can get hard real fast in this profession.
5) Like Disney movies have taught us, you can't have a kid with two parents.
Lots of widows and widowers here at Hallmark Christmas Land, with a spunky, lively, precocious child (read:brat) in tow. Is it possible that the kid who always wanted a mommy for Christmas might score one for Dad? Usually there's a romantic triangle in these movies, with the widow/widower falling for the wrong sort (the scummy lawyer, the gold-digging hellbitch) before discovering their true love, i.e., the career girl with the heart of gold or the decent guy who sells Christmas trees and wears flannel shirts.