Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Yule be watching... Xmas movie traditions in the digital age

Any comments/suggestions (including links)? Add a comment and I'll look out for further links/clips to embed at the bottom of this post
In this article I'll look at some of the movies we most associate with Xmas; why TV channels seem to keep the biggest turkeys for Xmas Day; and Xmas movie traditions around the world. We start with Love Actually and Elf and bad news for C4...

It's something I've become fairly oblivious to - when I do get back home for a family Xmas gathering, music shows tend to be the compromise viewing - but there are many well established Yuletide movies, screened and keenly viewed year after year. An email from Mrs Morgan alerting me to this article reminded me of this curious tradition; it has become newsworthy that Elf won't be on free-to-air terrestrial TV this year, but rather Sky Movies, who have taken up the UK TV rights from under the nose of C4.

I've blogged on Mr Curtis' questionable output on many previous occasions, eg here; however, there is no doubting the phenomenal commercial success of Curtis, regardless of the representation issues raised

My childhood memories of Xmas TV are dominated by the Bond movie reruns (and the Top of the Pops Xmas specials!) ... but also, when I was really young, of this very, very dated kids movie being shown every year (and I always insisted on watching it!): Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World (1973)

I also remember the incessant moaning about all the best movies being shown before Xmas Day ... and that actually is accurate! Nowadays, I grasp the reason why: for all the primarily ad-funded channels, advertisers are prepared to pay much more before then - on Xmas Day itself, the spending has largely been done! It makes commercial sense to put on the big blockbuster hits, the most expensive to acquire rights to, in the lead-up to Xmas rather than the day itself. As its license-funded, the BBC is often an exception to this rule.

I'll add some further points on Xmas film traditions over the years, and in different countries (the US laps up a movie by Bob Clark, best known for a slasher movie and a sleazy teen comedy), below, but first, are either of these two movies what YOU consider the quintessential, must-see Xmas movie?
Though the film is only a decade old, Channel 4's Elf day has become entrenched in tradition surprisingly quickly. Usually shown on a Sunday afternoon around the second weekend of December, Elf was the sign that Christmas had well and truly arrived. [Stuart Heritage, 2013]

or this horrifying Richard Curtis effort...

Elf and Love Actually are exactly the Christmas movie success stories that studios hope for each year-- well-liked when they open, but beloved more and more each season, until there are millions of families who can't imagine the season going by without putting either in the DVD player. The slow-roll success of Love, Actually isn't especially surprising-- the movie has a massive cast and a wealth of stories, so that there's always a new favorite moment to pick, and a good chance that, even if you don't fall for one romance, another will catch your eye. It was the first film directed by Richard Curtis, but he had written the screenplays for Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, and still knows his way around perfectly calibrated sentiment better than nearly anyone (see: About Time). [Katy Rich, 2013]
Not everyone agrees that these two are today's archetypal, annual rerun Xmas movies:
In cinemas across the UK, familiar staples of Christmas programming are sprinkled around the schedules, with old chestnuts (such as White Christmas and Miracle On 34th Street) and newer classics (Gremlins and The Muppet Christmas Carol). But it's Bruce Willis's incidentally Christmassy Die Hard that's emerging as the new seasonal favourite. [Steve Rose, 2012]
Nobody so far has mentioned The Muppets, a show with many movie spin-offs that have fared reasonably well, and generally crop up in the Crimbo listings, not least this one:

There are alternatives to the family-friendly fare, such as the classic 1984 Joe Dante (cute) creature feature (a prime example of a 15-rating having minimal effect on limiting under-15 viewers), Gremlins, a clever/cynical twist on the family-at-Xmas movie.

I work at a movie theater, and unless there's a big tentpole movie out, the biggest movie on Christmas for us is usually the most violent or least Christmassy movie we have. I think that Christmas Day was the only good day that "Alien vs. Predator: Requiem" ever had. I remember "Wolf Creek" also doing well on Christmas. [PlanBFromOuterSpace, commenting on the Film Junk website article, 2010]
It would be remiss me of as a Media educator not to point out that most Xmas movies operate to reinforce the hegemony of the family as the key, positive construct in our culture, with 'traditional' gender roles very often to the fore! I've not specifically considered how many/few of these would pass the Bechdel test (presumably Swedish cinemas have...), but you could!

Xmas Elsewhere...
Just a few quick examples - if you know of any more, let me know!
USA: a few years back I was invited to pick and present a movie for a University of Ulster Film Club; naturally, I went for Withnail and I ... on another occasion an American lecturer went for this seasonal sack of sugar...

It wasn't for me, than or now, and what I remember as much is wondering throughout the screening if the director could really be the same guy behind prototype slasher Black Christmas (1974) plus the notoriously raunchy (for its time, 1982) Porky's. That was back when phones had physical buttons and weren't generally so 'smart', so I had to wait to check him out on IMDB to confirm my suspicions!
I'm told that this is played on so many channels that at virtually any time of the day American viewers can switch over and find this playing. It is easy to think that such schmultz could never have the same impact on this side of the pond ... but then, Black Beauty, as soppy as it gets, was an Xmas staple for many years over here!
INDONESIA - Xmas movies aren't just for Christian countries... According to Yusuf Mas, The Nativity Story is the must-see rerun there:
The Nativity Story, The Santa Clause, Miracle on 34th Street, and Home Alone were favorite movies screened on Indonesian TV during the Christmas holidays. Although Indonesia is predominantly Muslim and is the world’s largest Muslim country, Christmas was a special day in this country anyway
POLAND - Home Alone: From the same Utropia article as above, Barbara Lesz writes:
The movie that is shown during the Christmas period in Poland is Home Alone. At some point in the early 2000’s people started complaining about the television channels repeating it over and over again and one Christmas it wasn’t shown. You cannot imagine the havoc that arose. The people stated that they couldn’t imagine Christmas time without peeking at Kevin’s adventures for the nth time. After all the Christmas Spirit is a bit about repetition: the same food, the same songs, the same people you celebrate with, year after year…

There are many variations out there of Dickens' classic novel (such as The Muppets' effort, above); having Bill Murray as a main ingredient makes this 1998 version mint...

48 years previously, James Stewart starred in another adaptation that remains a firm Xmas fave, It's a Wonderful Life:

Tim Burton added his unique take with The Nightmare Before Christmas:

For British viewers at least, there is a movie which conjures up the spectre of a Radio 3/Classic FM-friendly hit single that has become a byword for naff, but also contains one of the most upsetting endings ever seen in a kids movie, the simply superb Snowman:

Based on Charlie Briggs' book, there were rumblings at the time about this being unsuitable for kids; in retrospect, it may never have made it onto TV if it wasn't for the recent launch of C4. Over time, it ended up significantly boosting the image of the channel itself:
a show that has the probably unique distinction of having been repeated every year since the original transmission: John Coates' animation of Raymond Briggs' story, The Snowman. First broadcast at Christmas 1982, it became the channel's first popular hit and began the process of persuading the mainstream press and audience that Britain's fourth terrestrial broadcaster was not – as was a common perception at the time – merely a conduit for obscene drama and obscure Norwegian cartoons. [Mark Lawson, 2012]
 Anything else I should add? Write it in as a comment!

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