Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Best Christmas Movie

Think of all the things that Christmas means or should mean to people. Let’s list them together:

Goodwill towards men.

That’s probably good enough for starters. Ponder those for a second, and then ask yourself: What is the likelihood that a movie about an abusive alcoholic thieving Santa would embody those qualities? If you haven’t seen the movie Bad Santa, you’re probably saying “There’s no likelihood of that,” but you’re wrong.

Bad Santa
is The Best Christmas Movie because it not only embodies all of the good things about Christmas, but it does that in a way that does not leave you gagging or grumbling or wondering why it is that when people fall off the roof of the house, the lights always wrap around their ankle and stop them just short of landing on the ground.

The problem with most Christmas movies is that Christmas is so good that people hesitate to have any fun with it or tamper with the usual formulas. Whether or not you’re a Christian, Christmas has come to mean more than just big business; it means all those qualities I began with, and it means cozy scenes of couples curled up in front of a fireplace drinking eggnog, or kids opening presents, or carolers with red scarves and red noses. It’s chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Parson Brown doing the job while he’s in town, boughs of holly, and lords-a-leaping. Filmmakers tamper with that at their peril, or, more often, simply don’t tamper with it.

That led us to the point, just before Bad Santa came out, where Christmas movies would be entirely predictable and entirely sucky. There would be snow. And small towns with main streets. And a scene where the family decorates the tree. And a grumbling boss. And slight – very slight – commentary to the effect of gosh, look how many presents we bought, we should really remember what this season is all about and then a snowball fight and Santa tucking in a little kid.

I blame Charles Dickens and The Grinch. Dickens gave us an idealized version of Christmas that places all Christmas celebrations in Victorian England. If your Christmas doesn’t have a goose, a lad in a newsboy cap, and hot toddies, it probably feels lacking. And The Grinch gave us the Christmas Feast (complete with Roast Beast), the stockings, the trees, and the singing. (Some blame, too, goes to “’Twas The Night Before Christmas.")

From those sources, we created “Christmas, The Holiday.” We dream of white Christmases where the snow begins falling in flakes as large as your head on Christmas Eve, and we watch movies where all those things happen and where everything is so sweet and so predictable and so boring that you can’t watch them anymore. By now we know that the grumpy account executive will see the error of her ways and we know that grandma won’t be left sitting alone all night.

I had had enough, and so, apparently had a lot of people. We just didn’t know we’d had enough, and didn’t know what we’d had enough of until about 1/3 of the way through Bad Santa when Billy Bob Thornton staggers across a parking lot in his department-store-santa outfit. Only the parking lot is in Arizona, and the heat is causing distortion in what we see, and Santa is staggeringly drunk and not even trying to keep his beard on.

At that point, Christmas movies of the past exploded and a whole new era was born. I hope. But I think it was.

Bad Santa is rude and mean and obnoxious and gross and times and rated R and it is both astoundingly funny and still somehow nice enough to qualify as a genuine Christmas movie. The story of an alcoholic safecracker who works as Santa to get access to mall safes just after the big Christmas sales is 99.9% raunchy hilarity and 0.1% sweetness, and even the sweetness is curdled with some tart, the way some candies work both sides of the tongue. Here’s an example: after Billy Bob convinces a kid who lives with a senile grandma that he, Billy Bob, is Santa, so that he can stay there while biding his time until the big heist – which will be Christmas Eve – we expect, from past Christmas movies, that the bad guy will find his heart softening. What we don’t expect is how that softening will be shown. Billy Bob does not change his heart and go out caroling with Thurman Merman. He decorates the house only because not doing so will attract attention he doesn’t want. But he does cook the kid dinner – bologna and salsa fried on white bread. And he tries to make amends by fixing the kid’s Advent calendar after ruining it while on a bender. But he fixes it with whatever’s handy, and hasn’t completely changed, so when Thurman gets an aspirin instead of a candy, all Billy Bob can say is “They can’t all be winners, kid.”

There are, also, no scenes of heartwarming tenderness explaining why Billy Bob might change his attitude. There is no picture from Thurman showing his missing dad being replaced by Santa. We learn that Thurman knows Billy Bob really isn’t Santa at all. And the touching moment when Thurman gives Billy Bob a gift happens when Billy Bob is making out with Lauren Graham and is interrupted by Thurman giving him a hand-carved wooden pickle. That’s sticky with Thurman’s blood.

It all sounds terrible, and sounds even worse when you consider that it’s full of cursing and replete with sexual references, but it works somehow, and I think it works because it takes all of the clichés that have sprung up around Christmas and turns them inside out, allowing them to seem new and okay – like when you’d turn a sweatshirt inside out to wear it a second day. It messes with everything “regular” Christmas movies hold dear – the big bonding scenes between the bad guy and the kid involves the bad guy beating up a bunch of teenagers and then supervising a boxing match, while at other times Billy Bob explains that his beard is fake because he slept with a woman who wasn’t clean – Mrs. Santa’s Sister – and that he and Mrs. Claus are getting divorced because of it (but Mrs. Claus gets the elves.)

I didn’t think, when I first saw the movie, that it would hold such an esteemed place in my mind someday – I just thought it was a breath of fresh air and hilarious. But as it sunk in, I saw that it had achieved something really hard – it had made Christmas movies seem fresh and unique again. And it had achieved something even harder – it had made Christmas seem real again.

That’s the larger point of this. Let’s face it: For all the great parts of Christmas, there are the parts we don’t like to think about or talk about because they take away from the magic a little. If you want a brightly lit tree, you’ve got to spend some time putting the lights on (and ultimately taking them off). A heavy snowfall is magical on Christmas Eve, but it keeps you from visiting relatives and makes you shovel your car out on Christmas Day. We all love shopping for presents, except for the lines and the crowds and the slush and the expense. The table full of Christmas cookies was preceded by a day or two spent in the kitchen and there’s a sink full of dishes.

Yes, Christmas is magical and it’s a celebration of all the good things about people. But it gets that way not in spite of or without all the trouble and stress and worries, but because of it. Christmas takes all the ordinary stresses of life and multiplies them: we have to cook everyday, but it’s not everyday that the whole family is going to eat it. We have money worries all the time, but we don’t spend all of our time hoping to find that perfect gift for the kids to show them how much they mean to us even though sometimes we’re crabby with them. We’re surrounded by music and movies and books, but it’s only about one month per year that those movies and music and books stop being about how hot people’s girlfriends are and start being about Angels From The Realms Of Glory.

So at Christmas, we amp up the stresses, but we amp up the good feelings, too, and if we do it right, the Giving, the Love, the Peace, the Togetherness, the Goodwill towards men, and the Salvation drown out the worries and stress and bad feelings, and we can appreciate, for a brief time, just how beautiful life really is.

Bad Santa taught me that. It made me laugh, and I enjoyed it, but it also made me appreciate how the bad things can make the good things so much better. And that’s why it’s The Best Christmas Movie.

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