Friday Face/Off: Christmas Films

 “It is better,” said the essayist and moralist Joseph Joubert, “to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” In the spirit of such a great man that we just found out about on Wikipedia, we present you, gentle reader, with the next in our series of debates on the state of modern film.

One of our crack team of writers will present an argument on a subject of their choosing, using their guile, wit and powers of persuasion. Another will then step up to the plate and present a rebuttal, principally consisting of facile name-calling, “yo mama” jokes, pedantry and playground-level sarcasm.

This week, we turn our attention to Christmas films. Classic feelgood fare or cynical attempt to convert a religious holiday into sweet sweet cash? We present the argument here…

For the Prosecution:


For every ground-breaking, visionary artistic work that the medium of film gives us, there will unfortunately always be 10 shameless Hollywood cash-ins. Why bother finding a sharp new talent to pen an envelope-pushing comedy when you can stick in a few fart jokes and some boobs and it’ll sell just as well? Why tell an interesting, realistic romantic story when any old formulaic tat with Hugh Grant in it gets bums on seats? And why bother keeping the creative juices flowing over the festive season in Hollywood when you can just stick the words ‘Christmas’, ‘Santa’ or ‘elves’ anywhere in a film title and be guaranteed box-office gold?

Take the current, 478th or so film remake of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It was generally panned by the critics for being too scary for kids, too stupid for adults and (surprise!) nothing we haven’t seen before, and done better, in the Christmas film genre. Yet guess what film is number one in the UK film charts this week? That’s right, A Christmas Carol. It seems regardless of critical acclaim or lack thereof, we can’t help but be whipped into a tinsely, twinkly-light frenzy and drawn into the cinema against our will to see anything with a yuletide theme in order to satisfy our Christmas cravings. Studio head honchos know this, and prey on it they will, year after year.

We’re not denying that a classic Christmas film has ever been made. It’s A Wonderful Life stands up against the best of Hollywood’s black and white catalogue. And yes, we’ll admit it, A Muppet Christmas Carol has just the right mix of clever comedy and reasonable performances from the real-person actors to get us feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, despite the fact it’s relentlessly replayed every Christmas night. But how many others can you think of that are standouts, amongst the thousands of cheesy, forgettable turkeys that are churned out year after year? And sorry, no, The Great Escape doesn’t count.

The fact is, the majority of films in the Christmas genre (if you can even call it a genre) are idiotic, poorly produced and even more poorly acted. Sticking a washed out B-grader with a beer gut in a Santa suit or making another poor schmuck utter the eternally overused words “bah humbug” does not quality entertainment make. We don’t care how many bloody Christmas lights you stick up in Oxford Street plugging it.

For The Defence:

wonderful life
So you’ve just had a row with your sister over who nicked the last green triangle, Mom’s pie-eyed on dry sherry and has burnt the parsnips and if Gran snores any louder the dead are gonna wake and complain. There’s one thing – and one thing alone – that can save you. And that, friends, is the watching of some classic cinematic tinsel.

Nothing binds us all together like the communal experience of a warming, funny, festive film. Picture the scene: It’s nigh-on Baltic outside and you’re so stuffed with turkey meat and sprouts that you’re in danger of rupturing your small intestine. That sofa there ain’t just for hiding behind when the Doctor Who Christmas special comes on, oh nosiree Bob. It’s also for parking your overfed ass onto, curling up, and giving yourself a top-up of the festive spirit. Also: a top-up of the spirit known as “brandy”.

Conspicuous by their absence are the following: Easter films, Harvest Festival films, pancake day films. That’s because Christmas – a time of joy, hope and conspicuous consumption of material goods (and brandy) – is quite unlike any other seasonal celebration. We want to be warm, entertained, and have our faith in humanity restored as people give each other lovely gifts and all get along swimmingly in a non-creepy, non-United Colours of Bennetton type way. And as shared experiences go, the Christmas movie gives us it all. Except for the brandy, which is why you bought your little brother that sommelier costume.

Some Christmas films aren’t just classics for the festive season, they’re bona fide classics in their own right. How about perennial favourite – and one of the only films that can bring a tear to the jaded eyes of BestForFilm writers – It’s A Wonderful Life? It’s a story about a guy who’s going to kill himself, and through a clever script, fantastic performances and the rinkle-tinkle of a bell, it’s one of the most life-affirming pieces of cinema ever produced. How can you not love The Snowman (provided it hasn’t got that freaky-deaky intro by David Bowie that was endemic in the 80s)? Even its bittersweet ending is magical and moving. And then there’s the other side of the coin – not the moving, emotional and weepy Christmas films that are awesome – the downright stupid go down just as well when that sixteenth brandy kicks in. Elf, Scrooged, Santa Claus: The Movie – they’re fluffy and dumb, and we love them all the more for that.

And goddammit, The Great Escape counts. If Donald Pleasence doesn’t get shot, it ain’t Christmas.

So, is festive cinema a magical part of the season or a not-so-magical way to wrangle our hard-earned moolah from our pockets? Tell us what you think…

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