Friday, 17 December 2010

Christmas Films for the Disaffected

Father Frost

Here are some alternative seasonal suggestions for those who want to avoid the increasingly standardised staples of Christmas filmic fare.

Father Frost aka Morozko (1964) – A cat riding a literally pig-headed sled, a hero who checks his blue eyeshadow in a hand mirror, a very Pythonesque Baba Yaga crone who lives in her chicken-legged hut, and Father Frost himself, who possesses a magical staff which turns the landscape into a glittering white wonderland. A madcap Russian fairytale from director Aleksandr Rou, complete with balalaika propelled songs.

Dead of Night (1945) – The original British portmanteau horror film, this features a story in which a group of children have a Christmas party in an old dark house. A young girl finds the perfect place of concealment in a game of hide and seek: a ghost room with a long dead boy for company. You can hide here forever and ever…Michael Redgrave’s ventriloquist act would be a memorable booking for any children’s Christmas party, too.

Black Christmas – Bob Clark’s 1974 proto-slasher film, which is shot through with chill atmosphere and expertly-paced tension. Time is allowed for the development of rounded characters, so that you actually care about their fate. A good cast includes Margot Kidder, Olivia Hussey, and, returning from beyond the infinite and seemingly a little affected by the experience, Keir Dullea.

Ikiru (1952) – Tired of It’s A Wonderful Life? Then try Kurosawa’s Ikiru (Living) instead. Takashi Shimura’s loyal bureaucrat is a kind of anti-James Stewart, coming to the realisation, when faced with death, that his life has meant nothing at all, and made no impact on his surrounding environment. He decides to use the time remaining to him to change all that. The concluding scenes in which he sits alone on the child’s swing in the snowbound playground which he has single-handedly brought into existence, softly singing to himself, is the most quietly heartbreaking in all cinema.

Kwaidan (1964) – This beautiful collection of 4 Japanese ghost stories (or kwaidan) includes Yukionna, or the Woman of the Snow, a tale of a deathly spirit who visits two woodcutters in a hut as they shelter from a blizzard. Some gorgeous stage sets and Toru Takemitsu’s incredible score create a mesmerising atmosphere. A ghost story for Christmas Kabuki-style.

Christmas in July (1940) – An unseasonal burst of big-hearted consumer frenzy based on false credit as Dick Powell gives up the crooning for this affecting portrait of an ordinary Joe who believes he’s hit the jackpot with one of his lame entries to advertising slogan competitions. Preston Sturges orchestrates the ensuing chaos with a characteristically deft and occasionally pointed touch.

Quintet (1979) – Robert Altman goes all Euro existentialist, borrowing Bibi Andersson and Fernando Rey from Bergman and Bunuel for this bleak, snowbound post-apocalyptic tale. Paul Newman makes his way to a makeshift sheltered community huddled inside against the new ice age. They pass the time by playing a deadly game called quintet which echoes, on a smaller scale, the conflicts which have laid civilisation to waste in the first place. It may put that excruciatingly unending family game of Monopoly into perspective.

The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) – A complete bill of Christmas fare, with sleigh-rides, snowmen, warm inns with roaring fires, fairytale castles, pantomime blundering, elegant costumed balls, snow-capped vistas…oh, and vampires.

The Singing Ringing Tree (1957) – As wonderful as it is, the prospect of an enforced viewing of The Wizard of Oz at Christmas can induce groans. So why not watch The Singing Ringing Tree instead. It’s a colourful European fairy tale, in which an insufferable princess learns the value of hard work and humility, and her princely suitor learns how not to be an idiot, having spent some time transformed into a bear. The magic valley in which they find themselves stuck is presided over by a dwarf trickster, a Munchkin gone bad. When his spell is finally lifted, the valley becomes an oddly dull place, drained of its vivid colours. This suggests that the dwarf wasn’t such a bad sort after all, and really just wanted to be appreciated for his consummate artistry. I felt much the same about Alberich in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The brattish and self-absorbed Siegfried showed no gratitude for his efforts, and deserved all that was coming to him. The princess should have stuck with the green hair, too. It was a much better look than that same old Aryan golden-haired coiffure that princesses unfailingly go for.

Don't let Santa into the house
Tales From The Crypt (1972) – An Amicus anthology film based on EC comics stories. In the first tale, ‘And All Through the House’, Joan Collins is menaced on Christmas Eve by a psycho in a Santa suit who lurks outside her home seeking ingress. Perhaps he’s a shopping centre Father Christmas who has cracked after one too many insistent requests for overpriced franchise tie-in tat from sulking consumer moppets. It’s a situation which is complicated by the fact that Joanie has just cracked her husband’s skull open with a fireside poker, spilling bright red, haemoglobin rich blood on the nice white carpets. Meanwhile, her daughter waits upstairs for Santa to arrive. She so much wants him to deliver her presents, so when she sees him outside, of course she lets him in…

Have a great Christmas, everybody.

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