by Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times –
For 20 years now, the Sheraton Hotel on 6th Avenue and Pike has called on some of Seattle’s top architecture firms to create absurdly beautiful gingerbread houses as a charity attraction each holiday season. This year, the theme is Disney movies. The “Beauty and the Beast” display is downright lyrical with its rose petals, and the “Brothers Grimm” castle has moving pieces. The hardest part of the Sheraton gingerbread experience isn’t getting past the crushing irony of using vast bricks of sculpted sugar to raise money for a diabetes cure. Rather, the challenge is in choosing a side in the war between childlike wonder and hard cynicism. The beautiful opulence of candy spires and flying buttresses of cookie on display behind velvet ropes in a towering hotel may be antithetical to the traditional Christmas spirit, or essential to its decades of commercialization.
The truth is, the conflict between the pure and the commercial is fundamental to how Americans experience Christmas. It’s hardly a new battle. On the wall opposite the gingerbread castle display at the Sheraton, the 1947 classic “Miracle on 34th Street” plays in a loop. Like most Christmas movies, George Seaton’s treacly masterpiece ultimately chooses the most warm and fuzzy values associated with the holiday, but that’s only after 90 minutes of prevailing cynicism that literally puts Santa Claus on trial. Examining some of the most beloved, enduring Christmas movies puts us face to face with a surprising amount of darkness, and sometimes that darkness wins.
Consider the slate of Christmas favorites on the docket this year at Central Cinema. They’re kicking things off tonight with a stop on the AV Club New Cult Canon tour featuring the 2003 dark comedy “Bad Santa,” along with director Terry Zwigoff. In “Bad Santa,” Billy Bob Thornton plays an alcoholic criminal who takes mall Santa gigs every year just so he can rob department stores blind on Christmas Eve. It’s an hilarious, if sick, exercise that gets a lot of mileage out of how much more horrifying antisocial behavior is in the context of the holiday season. In the film, childhood hope and whimsy are to be pitied, reserving the biggest laughs for those in the audience who aren’t too put-off to appreciate the joke.
On Dec. 7, 8, and 9 Central Cinema is dusting off a bit of yuletide anarchy in “Gremlins.” This is another case of Christmas being used to amplify the destruction on-screen. A horror/comedy about insane mini-monsters tearing apart an idyllic town over the holidays, the film is probably the best thing B-movie auteur Joe Dante will ever do. The fun of “Gremlins” is in watching the titular creatures wreaking havoc on what amounts to a living Norman Rockwell painting. This premise would work at any time of the year, but setting the gremlins loose at Christmas makes every deadly prank that much sharper.
“Gremlins” is being paired with “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” Of all the classics on offer this year at Central Cinema, “Christmas Vacation” does the best job of striking a balance between cold/bitter and warm/fuzzy. It mines a lot of hard humor out of the season’s itinerant materialism and family stress, but remains sympathetic to the much-tarnished ideal that the holidays are supposed to be about love and unity. That doesn’t mean the film spares the sacrifice of many a Christmas icon. It does horrible things to trees both living and reanimated with ornaments, takes house-decorating competitions to their logical conclusion, and defiles Christmas dinner in every way imaginable.
Of course, it’s not all ironic distance this holiday season. On Dec. 17, the TV Dinner Holiday Specials collection at Central Cinema will run three kid-friendly pieces in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” and “Christmas at Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” These TV favorites also ask viewers to confront cynicism in the midst of the holidays, but they don’t create joy from destruction like more adult-focused Christmas fare. These cartoon (or in Pee Wee’s case, cartoon-like) entertainments ask us to not only think about the season from a kid’s perspective, they also suggest that kids are just as hip to the potential bitterness around Christmas as the grown-ups who assume they don’t understand.
Perhaps it’s vital to address and even indulge in cynicism every holiday season. After all, it’s doubtful anyone is going to clamor to preserve the Hallmark Channel’s latest lame attempt to overpower our nation’s taste for saccharine, “The Christmas Heart.” A paint-by-numbers story of a guiltless moppet in need of a heart transplant on Christmas Eve, it’s not likely to enter rotation at Central Cinema ten years from now as a beloved classic. Now, if the kid’s heart got torn out by a Santa Claus demon or his mom turned into a back-alley surgeon out of desperation…
…in other words, Happy Holidays, Hillizens. Embrace the contradictions of the season with the catharsis of tasteless jokes, monsters in red hats, and a complete lack of reverence. The alternative is a gray slog through a creative landscape starved for good ideas.