Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, December 9, 2013

Christmas 2013: December 9th

For years now, I’ve been wanting to do a Christmas movie month-long marathon, much like what I do for Halloween during September and October. I don’t love Christmas as much as I love Halloween. Truthfully, there aren’t many things I love more then Halloween. However, much like everyone else, there are certain films, holiday specials, and TV episodes I try to watch around December. I do this because I’m brutally committed to holiday traditions but also because it helps me get in the Christmas spirit. Like just about every adult, I imagine, Christmas is a holiday fraught with regrets. Over not enjoying the holiday as much as I did as a child, over the end of the year coming and not accomplishing many of the things I had hoped to. There’s not a lot I can do to change this but I try to get in the festive mood, some years more then others.

Halloween is mainly an excuse for me to indulge my love of horror movies even more then I normally do. I watch a lot of different things. Christmas, on the other hand, is a month for revisiting perennial classics. The holiday isn’t complete without seeing certain films. Because of this, my little marathon is unlikely to be reoccurring. It's also going to be nowhere near as planned out as my Halloween marathon. Don't expect daily updates. (Though I'll try.) Still, it’ll be a way for me to observe why Christmas means as much to me as it does and to write about and expound on some classic and not-so-classic yuletide entertainment.

The Snowman (1982)

There are a few Christmas holiday specials I love unconditionally and have for years. I’ll be talking about a lot of them this December. Maybe more then any other, at the top of my list of beloved Christmas classics, is “The Snowman.” Let me pause for some tedious autobiographical information. As a very young child, at some point, I acquired a tape of Christmas specials recorded off of television. Even though this was technically seasonal watching, I would watch the tape incessantly all throughout the year. Featured on this tape was “The Snowman.” How a program produced for British television wound up on the same VHS as the “Garfield” Christmas special or “Ziggy’s Gift,” I couldn’t tell you. What I can tell you is that, according to both parents, I would sit and watch the short in total rapt silence, mesmerized for twenty minutes.

It’s no wonder why. “The Snowman” is incredibly beautiful. The film is completely without dialogue, instead relying on music and images. The film begins with Raymond Briggs, the author of the original comic that is faithfully adapted here, walking across a field, talking about a magical winter of his childhood. From there, the picture transfer to animation. The film’s animation is elegant and fluid, like a painting moving to life. The colors are subdued, the scope wide and sweeping. The characters are minimalistic and simple, marking the story as an archetypal one that could happen to any little boy. Visually, it’s still a spellbinding experience.

The opening narration, the only spoken dialogue in the film, refers to the winter as dream-like in its stillness. Similarly, the story operates on a dream-like logic. There’s no explanation for why the snowman the boy built during the day springs to life at night. The boy accepts it at face value and so should the audience. Smiling and curious, the Snowman explores the home. Favorite moments, ones that have stuck with since I was little, include the Snowman replacing his nose with other fruit in the kitchen, having a relaxing sit in the large chest freezer, and dancing around the boy’s bedroom with his favorite teddy bear. The only scenes that might have you questioning the reality of the situation is how the parents are awoken by the commotion, especially when the boy and the Snowman sneak into their bedroom, the Snowman trying on the father’s suspenders and bifocals.

A midnight motorcycle ride across the snowy forest might raise some questions too, if it weren’t so beautiful to look at. The point-of-view shots of snow-covered trees rolling by are tranquil and haunting, as is a sudden appearance by a fox. This sequence is build-up for the film’s most notable moment. Looking to the sky, his smile turning into a calm realization, the Snowman grabs the boy’s hand. They make a running start before leaping into the air. The two fly across the night sky, joined momentarily by other magical snowmen, flying above a Christmas party, sleeping children, confused penguins, and an enormous whale. The sequence plays out against the song, “Walking in the Air.” The combination of haunting melody and flowing, gorgeous visuals had a profound effect on me as a child. It continues to be impressive. I always remember the film ending with this sequence. It’s not that the visit with Santa Claus that follows is forgettable. It’s actually quite charming, especially when the boy and his Snowman join a dance of snowmen from all over the world, representing other cultures. It’s just that the flying scene is so memorable, so outstanding, it obscures the rest of the film.

“The Snowman” is more then just a Christmas special. Unlike most seasonal programs, it acknowledges the bitter sweetness of the holiday. The ending recognizes the joys of childhood as short-lived ones. The sun comes up the next morning, the boy discovering the Snowman’s melted remains. However, just before the credits roll, he removes the scarf he received from Santa the night before, confirming the events as actual. The playfulness of childhood might be temporary but we can always revisit it in our memories. The credits are preceded by a title card saying “The Snowman Was.” Obviously, this is simply setting up the directorial and creative credits. However, it always spoke of something else to me. “Was,” past-tense. It’s gone now. “The Snowman” was nominated for a short film Oscar the year it was released. I don’t know what it lost against but I can’t imagine that film is anywhere near as good. “The Snowman” is essential Christmas viewing for me. The season can’t really start without it. [9/10]

TV Funhouse: "Christmas Day"

Completely shifting gears, here’s an episode of an obscure, short-lived, gleefully offensive TV series that frequently engaged in bad-taste-for-bad-taste’s-sake humor. Ostensibly a demented parody of ancient children’s programming, the series followed clueless kid show host Doug and his band of badly behaved quasi-realistic animal puppets, peppered with pop culture-parodying cartoons and unrelated comedy sketches. Bestiality, religion, sex, drugs, cannibalism, masturbation and coprophagia were common subjects. Sometimes, I wonder if series creator Robert Smigel didn’t have a glance into my brain. I felt that way as a twelve year old in 2000 and I feel that way now. The show’s mean-spirited mixture of debauchery, absurdity, puppets, and loose pop culture skewering is such a unique style, and one so much like my own, that I can’t help but wonder if Smigel is a time-traveled displaced version of myself or something.

“Christmas Day” is one of the best episodes of the series, a consistently hilarious bit of irrelevant holiday awfulness. The story revolves around host Doug coming home to the clubhouse full of holiday cheer. The AniPals, always sensing an opportunity to make some cash, strap the all-too-willing Doug down and (painfully) extract the “Cheer” from his spine, paralyzing the guy. After getting incredibly high on the cocaine-like Cheer, they turn around and sell the substance, leading to a debauched sex party. The lasting effects of the drug interrupt their traditional Christmas day activities rather horrifically. You probably figured out if this show was for you halfway through the third sentence of this paragraph.

What’s the most hilarious moment in “Christmas Day?” There are so many. The show-within-the-show short segments are well remembered and this episode’s “Tingles, the Christmas Tension” is a brilliant parody of vintage Christmas programming as well as, all too accurately, illustrating the anxieties of the holiday. I also love the brief bit, “Places to Look for Your Christmas Present,” which is a good example of this show’s particular strain of absurd humor. However, my heart belongs to the AniPals and their antics. The puppets, hopped up on holiday cheer, go around New York, badgering what I can only hope were real people with the most belligerent, unhinged versions of Christmas carols imaginable. The reaction from these normal folks to a bunch of animal puppets screaming in their faces is divergent and hysterical. One man smiles, bemused, standing and taking it. One Asian couple walks away, smiling in awkward confusion. Another man tries to turn the moment into a religious sermon but is shouted down. Some simply turn and walk away, the AniPals screaming at the cowards in rage. All of this is cut with the animals performing a rendition of the Bangles’ “Hazy Shade of Winter.” It is, in as few words as possible, art.

There’s more too. The clearly artificial AniPals frequently interact with very confused seeming real animals. Because a puppet lamb shitting on someone is much less funny then a real life lamb shitting on someone, completely unannounced. The drug-fueled sex binge that follows is fairly amusing but the next day is even better. Still tripping balls on Cheer, a sheep puppet goes to his gig as a mall Santa, which ends with him mistaking a (real life) kitten for a delicious sprout of grass. Or how about goose Jeffy going to his kid’s Christmas pageant, screaming obscenities in the church? Or his brief encounter with a bearded version of his future self, a hilarious bit that has to be seen to appreciate? Or Xabu the Dog, always on a manic quest to capture his own tail, lulling the tail into a false sense of security by watching the most traumatizing part of “It’s a Wonderful Life” together? Or Doug’s attempts to decorate the clubhouse, despite his sudden inability to feel his legs? I could go on and on. “TV Funhouse” was a special, uniquely deranged television series, too good for this fair Earth. There might not be a more demented episode then “Christmas Day.” I will never stop loving it. [9/10]

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