christmas

Cultural itinerary: the holidays


It’s happening. Can you feel it? Whether or not you love this time of year (as I do), stretching from Halloween through Thanksgiving and the winter solstice holiday of your choice all the way until New Year’s, it is here. How to survive, or enjoy it even? My suggestions below.

Read it.

  1. Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections. Odds are you’re spending the holidays with your family – or perhaps avoiding them. Watch and cringe as the Lambert family tries to come together for Christmas. If you need a caustic, vibrant, intense dose of perspective regarding your own nearest and dearest, Jonathan Franzen’s epic 2001 novel is it.
  2. Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass. What will you do now that you are at your childhood home? Go through and revisit all your childhood literary favorites. At this point I could suggest Tolkien or L’Engle or Lewis or Rowling, but I am partial to Pullman’s fantastic Oxford epic about a girl named Lyra who gets in the middle of a metaphysical battle very powerful forces (that I won’t spoil here).
  3. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. There’s a reason that the Victorian design sensibility comes out during the holidays: the whole season becomes heavy with its own excess. Dickens’ 1843 novel does not disappoint, with figgy pudding and Noel balls and ghosts of Christmas past. And it’s also a true story of redemption, affording us to hate, pity and grow with one Ebenezer Scrooge (a contender for best-named character ever).

See it.

  1. The Nightmare before Christmas, Tim Burton (1993). Burton’s creepy claymation film nicely bridges the period from Halloween until Christmas. Jack Skellington rules over Halloweentown but cannot rest once he discovers the delights of Christmas Town. The songs (“This is Halloween”), the characters (Sandy Claws!), the Burtonesque world touches makes it a modern, if slightly offputting, holiday classic.
  2. When Harry Met Sally, Rob Reiner (1989). If any time of year excuses sentimentality, late October through early January would be it. So this classic romantic comedy verges on the schmaltzy side, but as you follow friends Harry and Sally (Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan shining as the unlikely duo) through their eras of friendship and eventual dating. There’s even a New Year’s Eve countdown! Impossible not to let your heart be tugged.
  3.  Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale), Arnaud Desplechin (2008). Sometimes the beauty of the holidays can get swept away by anger or sorrow or dispair. As I wrote about before, Desplechin’s French film is a gorgeously shot trainwreck of a family. Watch when you are feeling strong.

Hear it. 

  1. Vince Guaraldi Trio, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965). Classic. If you’ve heard the soundtrack to the 1965 tv special once, you’ve heard it one hundred times. And yet it still best captures the melancholy as well as the joy that springs up this time of year.
  2. Sufjan Steves, “Songs for Christmas” (2006). If you’re a fan of the singer-songwriter, you’ll love the melodic, sweet songs, including some classics and some original compositions (“That was the worst Christmas ever!”). And if you don’t know him, you’ll be charmed – and pleased you can listen to something without be reminded of the mall.
  3. Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour, “Thanksgiving.” Never checked out the great man’s radio show? You are in for a treat. Each show comes with a theme, full of old classics among anecdotes and history. The Thanksgiving show is perfect to play while you’re prepping – or even during the hallowed meal itself.

A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël)

Ever had a Netflix movie hang around your neck like an albatross? (Literary allusion explained here, for those who fell asleep in 10th grade English class).

In my defense, A Christmas Tale (in French Un conte de Noël) seemed to sneak up in my queue. It was meant to arrive around the holidays LAST YEAR, but instead got co-opted by repeated Party Down (RIP) viewings. The disc arrived around April, and I had been putting off watching it. So many excuses: it’s long, in French, and Christmas-themed.

The disc seemed destined to return unwatched, but a cold front in the Bay Area sometime in August inspired me to make some tea and watch it. (That’s right, this post is fraught with procrastination, from watching, to writing, to posting).

Now that it’s actually the holidays, I can justify a recommendation, for it’s a lovely, rich movie, if perhaps more melancholy than your typical Christmas cinema (although It’s a Wonderful Life is quite dark when you think about it).
Mid-way through watching, it struck me how much A Christmas Tale reminded me of The Royal Tenenbaums. There’s a sick parent, an elegant matriach (Catherine Deneuve, natch), a killer soundtrack, depressed grown-up siblings, a suicide attempt, a family hanger-on, even a play put on by children.

The two movies would make an interesting side-by-side viewing. Anderson’s films have such wonderful, tightly manicured art direction but the characters verge on being caricatures. Any sort of real emotion on their part creeps in on the edges. A Christmas Tale, directed by Arnaud Desplechin, has  similarly beautifully shot scenes in French hospitals and the wonderful, rambling family home, but the  characters in A Christmas Tale wear their childhood  traumas on their sleeve and always seem ready to erupt.  One especially harrowing scene has Deneuve and her grown son  joking about how much she didn’t love him after the childhood death of another son. Another example of Gallic cruelty: if a partner of mind slept with someone else under my nose, would I be able to wake up and breakfast with them both? Is this another of those Gallic things? Yes? OK.

In short.  It’s a rich and devastating movie. Recommended pre or post actual holiday interactions with family (i.e. good for some perspective).
Plus, it introduced me to this Otis Redding song, which I’ve listened to 8 times a day so far this month:[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBmPIQvovD0]