Happy holidays, Hollywood

December 6, 2010

Originally published in The Michigan Daily

Condemned to consistently late nights in the weeks leading up to December exams, I was awarded a small but valuable gift for my efforts last Wednesday. At 6:15 in the morning, finally set to sleep, I looked out the window to see what I’d been waiting for: snow.

Light, floating snow was slowly falling outside the window. As I watched it descend below the lights on Packard Street, I suddenly remembered why I chose to endure the constant street noise of a front-facing room in my house. I had once again discovered the upside of an Ann Arbor winter. If it’s going to be cold, it better be snowing.

Despite my fatigue and inevitable sleep deprivation, the snow got me jumping up and down, celebrating the moment like a kid on Christmas morning. With the visual cue of a snowfall, my internal calendar turned to the holiday season.

My love of snow and the holiday season is largely based on movie depictions — that kid rejoicing last Wednesday wasn’t actually me, it was Fuller (Kieran Culkin) in “Home Alone 2.” Film has historically exploited the season to the fullest extent, and yet has perpetuated holiday family values in direct, easily understood fashion.

Christmas sells big, and film studios are acutely aware of it. Kids come home from break, adults get work off. The peak of Oscar season is one of the best times for the blockbuster, as shown by the mid-December releases of all three “Lord of the Rings” films and the box-office Toruk Makto “Avatar.” With such a huge audience at its disposal, the film industry wastes no opportunity to cash in on Christmas.

November and December are perennially characterized by films like “Christmas with the Kranks” or “Elf.” Yes, most of these films are pretty terrible. But a terrible Christmas film is seldom terribly received. Christmas mitigates the risk of bombing by making your enjoyment directly related to your holiday season. If you love Christmas, you might not love “The Santa Clause,” but you’ll probably enjoy it anyway.

At the same time, there are a number of films which are similarly released, similarly set and yet tell non-holiday stories. Most of these fabricate Christmas as a narrative tool to support the tension of the A story.

Steven Spielberg’s based-on-a-true-story caper “Catch Me If You Can” shows Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) parading around the world on a spree of check fraud and false identities, somehow coming into contact with an FBI agent (Tom Hanks) every year on Christmas. Released in December 2002, the film fit within the Christmas market but its narrative holiday setting was more than purely economic — it highlighted Abagnale’s isolation and disconnection from his family by positioning him in contrast with the spirit of the season.

“Edward Scissorhands” does something similar, and it’s effective enough to make me obsess. When Edward (Johnny Depp) carves ice sculptures and Kim (Winona Ryder) does her ice dance under Danny Elfman’s score, it’s the most beautiful thing in the world. And when suburbia expels Mr. Scissorhands, it’s all the more tragic for it being on Christmas that the neighborhood pushes him away.

“Home Alone” and “Home Alone 2” take Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) away from his family, emphasizing his isolation by placing him in the holiday season.

Those who saw the recent “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” may recall a scene in which Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Hermione (Emma Watson) visit Godric’s Hollow, Harry’s birthplace, on Christmas Eve. Harry has no family and is for all intents and purposes quite alone in his responsibilities. In that moment, what more painful time is there to visit the place your parents died?

The point is that the holiday season is prevalent outside of “Christmas films.” It is a creative signifier beyond the holidays themselves.

So, when I saw snow, it wasn’t so much that I celebrated snow itself, but the feeling of family, warmth and togetherness it signifies to me.

I looked at the sidewalk and imagined a dancing girl in a white dress more than I worried about the next day’s cold.

For secular and/or fun-loving holiday celebrators like me, films inform — and can themselves become — holiday tradition. My brother, for example, looks forward every year to the almost daily TV presentation of “Home Alone” in December. On the other hand, as I walk down a snowy State Street, I’ll hear John Williams’s “Somewhere in My Memory” playing in my mind. The romance of the holiday season, and thus the weather associated with it, has become a part of my perspective.

That’s not to say that when I took the twice-weekly 20-minute walk from South Quad to the Argus Building last year, I enjoyed the persistent barrage of cold. But there’s a big difference between perception and reality, and watching from my window on a Wednesday night, only one of those mattered. While the actuality of living on a snow-covered college campus brings us brown, slushy streets and uncomfortable walks to class, film can create a world in which the dream of a white Christmas always comes true.

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