‘Twas the Blight Before Christmas…

By Dan Sallitt

This article appeared in the Los Angeles Reader on December 14, 1984.

You can run, bur you can't hide. The evasive film critic can take refuge in articles about B movies or Yugoslav auteurs, but sooner or later the dreaded Christmas crop of releases demands attention, even if it doesn't deserve any.

Is there such a thing as a Christmas movie anymore? Traditionally, the Christmas season sees both an increase in the number of releases and a movement toward comedies and spectaculars to capitalize on the larger holiday audiences. But, since 1981 at least, the Christmas crop has been heavier on prestige projects than on noisy entertainment, which still dominates the summer season. Box-office reports on recent Christmases have tended to be grim, but an undeterred Hollywood seems intent on putting its Oscar bait on the market as late in the year as possible, in order not to tax the presumably poor memories of Academy voters. Even the bulge in the quantity of releases isn't as conspicuous as it used to be, especially after this fall's relentless oversupply.

So Christmas has become a microcosm of the Hollywood output, with films of every major type—or stereotype—jockeying for theaters. As such, it makes for interesting comparisons. The Christmas film season raises doubts about the standard assumption that Hollywood's chief problem is its pandering to teenage audiences. Not only is the average adult-oriented American film as bad as its teenage-oriented counterpart, but it suffers from the same diseases. The real problem must lie elsewhere.

If we sacrifice both precision and comprehensiveness, we can divide this year's Christmas releases into three rough categories. The first is old-fashioned blockbuster entertainment, aimed primarily (though not exclusively) at younger audiences and deprived from birth of a shot at Oscar. Beverly Hills Cop, City Heat, Starman, and Runaway fit comfortably in this category, and the upcoming Micki & Maude and Johnny Dangerously will probably also land here. The second category is the middlebrow Hollywood prestige film, which includes the pre-Thanksgiving releases The Killing Fields and Falling in Love, The River, 2010 (despite director Peter Hyams's strenuous attempts to negate the project's prestige), and, no doubt, The Cotton Club, which was still under wraps at the time of writing. Category three, the highbrow literary adaptation, emanates primarily from foreign countries nowadays. A Passage to India and the upcoming Birdy are distributed by major studios: The Bostonians and Nineteen Eighty-Four, independent productions picked up for distribution by smaller companies, opened in December for week-long Academy qualifying runs.

This ad-hoc pigeonholing is not to be taken too seriously. The upcoming The Flamingo Kid, the best of the major studio releases that I've seen, doesn't fit into any of the three categories—it's too grownup for the first group and too unassuming or the second. Dune, unscreened at press time, is one of those rare projects that could emerge as anything from a special-effects kiddie show to an inscrutable art film, and its unpredictability has certainly bolstered its status as a media event. But, exceptions and borderline cases noted, Hollywood takes this system of class distinctions seriously, especially the distinction between the first two categories. The number of Academy members who enjoyed Beverly Hills Cop more than they did The Killing Fields will never be tabulated by Price Waterhouse.

Today's blockbuster entertainment film generally uses genre as nothing more than a backdrop. In Beverly Hills Cop the ostensible motive for the hero's illegal pursuit of a Los Angeles crime king is revenge for the murder of a lifelong friend. In fact, the Eddie Murphy character clearly couldn't care less about his friend's demise, which is a mere plot trigger. City Heat is even more flagrant in its disregard for emotional verisimilitude, and the death of detective Burt Reynolds's partner, again the excuse for the feeble plot, never slows the flow of wisecracks. The underlying principle here is a little frightening when you grasp all its implications: the filmmakers don't want the characters to feel anything more than the audience feels. If a major character dies, the film can dip into melancholy; a supporting character's death will justify a few sniffles from the protagonist; bit players must die unmourned, whatever their significance to the other characters. The name of the game is pure identification, and heroes must reflect the casual callousness of audiences. (If you think that aesthetic detachment accounts for our relaxed attitude toward on-screen death, consider the violent reactions that greet the death of fictional children and dogs.)

The choice for entertainment filmmakers is simple: create characters that share the audience's outlook, or don't bother with characterization. Murphy, Reynolds, and Eastwood in the above films play distinctive characters, but none of these characters connect to the inner workings of the films. All, on the other hand, connect directly to our fantasies: the first two express our sense of superiority to the fools that we imagine all around us, and the last expresses our anger and our desire for omnipotence. The second alternative, dispensing with characterization, goes over rather better than one would expect. If characters don't exist, they can't do anything that we wouldn't identify with. Starman is built around the concept of love between an earthling and an alien, and the filmmakers decided that that concept worked better without people to get in the way. Karen Alien's performance expresses not the reactions of an average person kidnapped by an alien clone of her dead husband, but the reactions of an ideal audience member fascinated by an unfamiliar story gimmick. Runaway, behind the camouflage of Tom Selleck’s appealingly unassertive persona, also depends on the essential nonexistence of its leads.

The insubstantiality of entertainment films might be tolerable in an industry with a thriving artistic tradition. But a typical prestige film today consists of an entertainment film plus a culturally validated cover. With The Killing Fields, the cover is Cambodia; with The River, it's the plight of the small farmer , and the grand gesture of an unsensational subject; with Falling in Love, it's Acting; with 2010, it's the promise of inherited profundity. And beyond that? Read 'em and weep: the protagonist of The Killing Fields alternates exclusively between the two emotions that the filmmakers hope to evoke in the audience, self-righteous anger and teary sentimentality. The River's two leads are stripped down to elementary identification figures and pitted against hissable villains. The love affair in Falling in Love is even more formulaic than the undisguised cliche at the center of Starman; De Niro and Streep haven't a single identifiable personality trait between them. 2010 relies on the same bogus character motivations as City Heat and Beverly Hills Cop: scientist Roy Scheider is supposedly obsessed with his responsibility for the failure of the Discovery mission, but he moves through the suspense story as blithely as any stock identification figure, and his "obsession" never deflects the plot an iota.

One Christmas film that I haven't mentioned casts an interesting light on the rest of the Christmas crop. Mass Appeal seems to belong in the prestige category: it boasts Oscar-style acting, a certain social relevance, and an uplifting story line. It hasn't anything going for it in terms of style, and it's as baldly manipulative as a film can get. But it stands apart from the other prestige films in one conspicuous way: it contains people. Each of its two leads is a distinct and clearly presented personality type—short on nuance, to be sure, but a type nevertheless. Not coincidentally, the film is based on a play, by Bill C. Davis. Does anyone else find it alarming that the mere presence of characterization in a major American film marks it as a refugee from another art form?

The key to the problem with contemporary American film can be found in its insistence on blank-slate characters, as if filmmakers can't afford to lose the identification of the smallest part of their potential audience by making their characters recognizably different from anyone else. The realities of the market and the expenses of production make it necessary for the studios to aim their output at the broadest possible audience; the idea of catering to a select group of viewers seems radical in today's marketing climate. This is why our "controversial" films are so easy to embrace, and why sex in films is weirdly neutered so as not to offend either half of the dating audience.

I wonder if the problem has a solution. A few years ago, cable and the other ancillary markets were trumpeted as the up-and-coming way to reach small, isolated audiences. The ancillary markets have arrived, in at least a rudimentary form, but the studio product has not changed perceptibly.  At any rate, Christmas is perhaps not the best time to prospect for the modest, personal films that the technology of the future is supposed to bring us.