The History of Christmas Movies

Christmas has always been profitable time for Hollywood. Studios roll out their holiday-themed movies along with their Oscar-worthy contentions. Hollywood has been producing Christmas-related films since it began, producing many classic films, from traditional, family-oriented fare to twisted retellings of classic themes. Regardless, Hollywood’s history of the Christmas film has been a tradition that many filmgoers look forward to as they celebrate the holidays.

Ever since Charles Dickens published his novella A Christmas Carol in 1843, his tale of a miserly old man who learns the meaning of Christmas through the nightly visits of three ghosts has been retold on stage and in movies. Hollywood has revisited this classic tale a number of times. The earliest screen version was released in 1913 under the title Scrooge, written by Seymour Hicks, who also played Scrooge on screen, a role he would repeat in the 1935 talkie under the same name. Three other versions appeared in the 1920s, suggesting that Dickens’ classic became a popular holiday favorite for film treatment early on. Another version, A Christmas Carol, was released in 1938 and starred Reginald Owen in the lead role. But the version most film lovers know is the 1951 version starring Alistair Sims. Considered the most faithful screen adaptation, Sims’ Scrooge hits all the right notes as a man whose miserliness was the result of his sister’s death, but who believably converted his thinking after his ghostly encounters on Christmas Eve. While critics say that this version is faithful to the book, it in fact adds some details that take liberty with the storytelling, namely that of the death of Scrooge’s sister, which is not depicted in Dickens’ original version. Still, this scene provides motivational depth to the character and helps the viewers see the humanity beneath his greed. Other large screen versions of the classic include a 1970 musical starring Albert Finney, the 1988 comedy Scrooged, starring Bill Murray, and a 2009 CGI-animated movie starring Jim Carrey.

The E.T.A. Hoffman story The Nutcracker has served as a wonderful source for holiday-themed films. Turned into a famous ballet in 1891 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker tells the story of a young girl named Clara who steps into a magical fantasy world on Christmas Eve. Hollywood has turned to this timeless classic many times over its history. Versions include the 1968 film starring Rudolf Nureyev as Drosselmeyer/Prince, and a 1993 screen version starring Macauley Culkin.

While most Christmas-themed movies tended to be watered-down ideas of faith and belief, Hollywood did churn out biblical-themed films, though they were not necessarily released in time for the holiday season. Movies like The Robe (1953), King of Kings (1961), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and others represented a time when Hollywood released biblical epics on a regular basis. They approached the theme with epic reverence, though they rarely delved into Christ’s actual teachings. In 1964, Marxist atheist Pier Paolo Passolini released The Gospel According to St. Matthew, a far grittier version of Christ’s birth and teachings than the glossy epics Hollywood released before it. By the 1960s, the genre became passé, though Hollywood would on occasion release one every once in a while over the years. One such example was The Nativity Story (2006), starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, which returned to the story of Christ’s birth, this time delving into Joseph and Mary’s story with more depth and realism.

For the most part, Christmas movies dealt with family and faith. Though not necessarily a Christmas film, the 1944 Vincente Minnelli musical Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien, features scenes that take place over the Christmas holidays. These scenes alone make this movie a holiday classic, especially for Garland’s original rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” The movie itself is about a family torn between moving to New York or staying behind in their beloved St. Louis. Like many holiday-themed movies, Meet Me in St. Louis is about family and unity in the face of social and economic change. Miracle of 34th Street (1947), starring Maureen O’Hara, Natalie Wood, and Edmund Gwenn, is about an old man who gets a job as Santa Claus at Macy’s Department store and insists he’s the real deal. After the man is institutionalized, a lawyer (John Payne) tries to prove in court that he really is Santa. Miracle of 34th Street deals with faith and belief as O’Hara’s character, the store manager, refuses to raise her daughter (Wood) to believe in fairy tales, but ends up believing in Gwenn. The notion of family and traditionalism plays heavily in the movie’s theme with a heartwarming touch. A remake of the movie was released in 1994, starring Mara Wilson in the Natalie Wood role. A contemporary example of this holiday-theme is the Chevy Chase-vehicle National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989). NationalLampoonsChristmasVacationPosterWritten by John Hughes, Christmas Vacation revisited the comical Griswolds as their plans for a big family Christmas dinner go awry. But the underlying themes in the film is similar to other movies as the Griswolds overlook family, work and neighborhood differences to create the kind of special Christmas memories Clark Griswold (Chase) remembers as a child.

But the one film which set the standard of family and faith during the holidays is the Frank Capra classic It’s A Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Ironically, when It’s A Wonderful Life was released in 1947, it bombed at the box office. It wasn’t until affiliate TV stations began airing the movie, often ad nauseum, that the movie became a classic to generations of film fans. It’s A Wonderful Life follows the story of George Bailey, the son of a small-town businessman who longs to leave his hometown and explore the world. But his dreams are constantly dashed by circumstances beyond his control and he is forced to remain in Bedford Falls to run his late father’s building and loan company. When Bailey’s uncle loses a bank deposit (actually the mean-spirited town miser Mr. Potter took the money), Bailey falls into a deep depression when he is threatened with imprisonment for fraud and contemplates suicide. During his darkest hour, he is visited by the angel Clarence who makes his wish to never have been born come true, helping him see what a blessing his life truly is with family and friends. It can rightly be argued that It’s A Wonderful Life is a screed against the big city and there is no doubt that the conservative Capra included his own biases in the film. Still, the movie’s message of family and friendship is a deeply touching one, and its willingness to explore the darker aspects of humanity gives it a depth that most Christmas movies lack. The scene where Bailey trashes his work station in his home after he learns about the missing deposit alone reveals Stewart’s range as an actor and is all the more effective because of his previous on- and off-screen reputation as a “nice guy.”

Christmas is the perfect vehicle for telling romantic love stories and Hollywood has supplied many classic films that followed in this vein. Ernst Lubistch’s A Shop Around the Corner, released in 1940, is about two Hungarian shop workers (Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan), who unknowingly fall in love through the letters they write one another. Unaware of the other’s identity, the two develop a hostile working relationship until they discover the truth and give in to their feelings. Though the film isn’t necessarily about the holidays, it does set a scene at Christmas as the shop prepares for the season. The holiday season gives the movie its romantic air as both Stewart and Sullivan slowly melt away from their hostility and begin to fall in love. A Shop Around the Corner was remade into the 1998 film You Got Mail, with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the lead roles. Christmas in Connecticut (1945), starring Barbara Stanwyck, is a comedy about a food writer who lies about her reputation as a brilliant cook. When the magazine owner which publishes her work decides that she’ll host a WWII naval hero on her farm, the unmarried New Yorker who can’t cook scrambles to find a way to keep up her charade. In the end, she and the sailor fall in love after the truth is revealed. Christmas in Connecticut is a clever movie that questions our ideas of the traditional roles women played in family and home. The 1947 movie The Bishop’s Wife, starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven, is another romantic holiday-themed movie, although one of a different feather; namely angel feathers. Grant plays Dudley, an angel who comes down to earth to help a bishop and his failing church, but winds up falling in love with the bishop’s wife (Young). The Bishop’s Wife is a tender love story about sacrifice and faith as Dudley sacrifices his feelings for the wife to complete his duties as an angel. Penny Marshall scored a hit with a 1996 remake 220px-ThePreachersWife-moviestarring Denzel Washington as Dudley and Whitney Houston as the wife in the aptly titled The Preacher’s Wife. Though the film follows the original, its setting within an African American community presents cultural differences that nonetheless are faithful to the movie’s themes. Other recent movies, such as the British entry Love Actually (2003), starring Bill Nighy, Colin Firth, Keira Knightly, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson and others, continues the tradition of romance and Christmas as a group of Londoners find, lose, then find love again during the holiday season.

Christmas is for kids. So Hollywood has released holidays films that were targeted to children. The 1934 film Babes In Toyland (aka March of the Wooden Soldiers), starred comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as characters in a Mother Goose rhyme come to life. In 1985, comedian Dudley Moore starred in Santa Claus: The Movie, which was a retelling of the classic Christmas character. Unfortunately, the movie was a critical and box office dud. In 1990, child star Macauley Culkin fared a better reception when he starred in the box office smash Home Alone. Also starring Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, Home Alone told the story of a young boy who is left home by his family over the holidays and is forced to fend for himself against a pair of burglars. The film was a comic take on holiday themes, especially the idea of how the Christmas holidays can inspire loneliness in the absence of family, a theme many Americans certainly can relate to. The Arnold Schwartzenegger and Sinbad-vehicle Jingle All the Way (1996) isn’t a movie that will become a holiday classic anytime soon, but does deal with the way consumerism and commercialism has taken over the holiday. In this movie, Schwartzenegger plays a dad who will go to any lengths to get his son the hottest toy. Though the movie addresses adult themes, it was marketed as a family film.

But one movie that is targeted to kids and has become a contemporary classic since its release in 1983 is AACSCDSDTRK Christmas Story. Based on writer Jean Shepherd’s stories and starring Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, and Darren McGavin, the film is about a little boy’s quest to get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. What makes A Christmas Story special is its simple and nostalgic tone. The movie presents children in a believable way; they’re not interested in brotherhood, love of mankind and all that other jazz; they just want that perfect Christmas present. Director Bob Clark (who also directed the twisted slasher Black Christmas) brings all the right touches to the movie, from the dialogue and wardrobe to even the setting in Cleveland, Ohio, giving it a homespun, Mid-western appeal. Another movie destined to become a classic with kid audiences is the 2004 CGI-animated film Polar Express. Based on the popular children’s book, Polar Express tells the fantastic story of a young boy’s journey to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus. The film, which also stars Tom Hanks, is filled with the kind of magic and awe that makes Christmas such a magical and charming time for children and adults alike.

Movies about Christmas haven’t always been about magic and charm. Some have taken a decidedly twisted and bizarre turn. In the 1964 oddball Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, martians come down to earth to kidnap jolly St. Nick to cheer up their own children back home. Featuring a very young Pia Zadora, this is one movie that is so bad Mystery Science Theater 3000 eviscerated it in a holiday-themed episode. In 1974, Bob Clark directed the horror slasher Black Christmas. Starring Olivia Hussey, Black Christmas tells the story of female coeds who become victims of a serial killer over the holiday break.

In 2003, two holiday-themed movies were released featuring actors and directors not otherwise associated Elf_moviewith the genre. In fact, both movies have a fun time satirizing the conventions of Christmas movies. Elf, directed by Jon Favreau and starring Will Farrell as an oversized elf, is a funny and twisted take on Christmas themes. After discovering his true origins, Buddy the Elf (Farrell) leaves the North Pole for New York to find his father (James Caan), a publishing exec who is going through the motions in his personal and professional life. Elf’s humor plays on the audience’s recognition of familiar holiday themes while contrasting them with a nice dose of irony and cynicism as New Yorkers react to Buddy’s annoyingly holiday cheer. The movie concludes with a cheerful message as New Yorkers help Santa get his sleigh off the ground with a touch of holiday faith. Farrell, a rare comic actor who isn’t afraid of being silly, does a great job of playing the character’s child-like awe of all things Christmas.

The Terry Zwigoff-directed Bad Santa likewise takes familiar themes in holiday movies and turns them on their heads. Starring Billy Bob Thornton as a criminal named Willie who gets a job as a Santa at a department store to steal the store’s cash registers, the movie tells the story of Willie’s friendship with a young, friendless boy who lets him hide out in his Florida home. What makes the movie so twisted is its unrelenting pursuit in showing just how unredeemable Willie is, even after he befriends the young Christmas-loving and lonely kid. When Willie does finally learn a little something about the holiday, it’s done in a way that doesn’t betray the movie’s unwillingness to settle down into mushy sentimentalism.

Regardless of whether the movies honor Christmas’s traditions or prefers a twisted take on the holiday, Hollywood has offered film fans a wonderful variety of films to help you get into the holiday spirit.

Other Christmas Movies

White Christmas (1954)

Gremlins (1984)

Die Hard (1988)

Prancer (1989)

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Batman Returns (1992)

Santa Clause (1994)

Eye Wide Shut (1999)

The Best Man Holiday (2013)

Black Nativity (2013)

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Syllabus: The Roman á Clef

The divide between between fact and fiction is thin. There is some truth, often inspired by childhood memories, dreams, anecdotes, eavesdropped conversations, or real life characters who are “too good to be true,” wafting through most novels and short stories. Writers disguise enough of these real life accents for their work to be appropriately categorized as fiction––though readers are rarely fooled, so convinced they are that all fictional stories have to be real. That divide however disappears with roman á clefs, those fictionalized memoirs that refuse to be categorized. Reading the roman á clefs on this list, one is never certain what parts are true and what are fictionalized, creating a disorienting mix that forces one to question memories and perceptions and the way they influence not only literature but how we live.

How Should A Person Be? – Sheila Teti

When Teti wrote her novel, she was less inspired by literature than by MTV’s reality TV series The Hills. Her characters, like characters in reality TV programs, are hyperbolic versions of real people. Composed of conversations between Teti and her artists friends, the dialogue taken directly from e-mail texts and recorded conversations, the novel poses several questions––Who am I and how should I be?––that reveal how much reality TV and roman á clefs share in common with the real world and the ways they blur distinctions between fact and fiction, perceptions and realities, and public and private personas.

The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien

In O’Brien’s short story collection about his experiences in Vietnam, he asks the pivotal question: what is the correct way to tell a true war story? He zeroes in on the fact that all war stories have at their core a morality that is ultimately false. Reality clashes with fiction and O’Brien, who uses his own experiences as a source for his tales, embraces rather than runs away from that fact. His stories push at the edges of plausibility––in “The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong,” the girlfriend of one of the soldiers is sneaked into a compound and goes deep undercover with the Green Berets––but yet ring with edgy truths that force us to recognize that true war stories, as he writes, are sometimes “just beyond telling.”

This is How You Lose Her – Junot Diaz

In This is How You Lose Her, Diaz returns to the narrator of his first short story collection, Drown. This time, Yunior, grown, college-educated, and embarking on a literary and academic career, deals with family history, the death of a sibling, and his infidelities. It goes without saying that Diaz mined his own life to create some of these tales––like Yunior, Diaz is from the Dominican Republic, emigrated to New Jersey with his family, is a writer and academic, and has hinted in interviews of his own romantic travails––so reading some of these stories is like witnessing someone purging his own demons. But his stories also pose the dangers of writing first-person/semi-autobiographical work: where do the distinctions between the author and his creation begin and end, especially when it comes to the narrator’s less than progressive attitudes? And where do readers draw the line to separate the two?

Say Her Name – Francisco Goldman

Say Her Name, based on Goldman’s own experiences after the unexpected death of his wife, is a barely disguised roman á clef. The names of characters and events are all real and documented. Yet distinctions between reality and fiction begin to blur when Goldman questions his own memories. He is the ultimate unreliable narrator and yet he proves how unreliable we all are: Can we trust our memories? How much are they based on fiction and not fact? When our loved ones die, are we remembering them realistically or have we created a fictionalized version of them and our lives with them? And if memories are so unreliable, how can we trust our own interpretation of reality?

2013 Christmas Gift Guide for Writers

Gift giving for us can’t be easy. There’s always the go-to ideas: a journal/diary, dictionary, etc. But that’s like giving your Dad a tie or aftershave lotion for Father’s Day. It’s obvious! But don’t worry! Here are some ideas that are cute, funny, fun, as well as practical for writers of all types.

(Hm, I could use some of these myself!)

Cafe Press Products

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Cafe Press has a great collection of writer-inspired T-shirts, tote bags, coffee mugs, and other products that’ll make great gifts or stocking stuffers. The prices are reasonable too.

LED Pen Lights

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This could make for a useful gift. It’s late at night, you’ve just woken up from a dream, and just have to write it down. Why bother turning on the lamp, when you’ve got a LED Pen light instead?

Lifestyle Eye Care Massager

UnknownI could really use something like this. The Lifestyle Eye Care Massager helps massages and relaxes strained eyes after spending hours staring at a computer screen.

GrammarRules Coffee Mugs

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More cute mugs with grammatical rules and definitions on them. Useful for any writer who could use a reminder or two on grammar.

Bird by Bird Anne Lamott

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No writer should have a library without this edition. Lamott’s short essays and writing exercises helped me learn my craft.

The Complete Handbook for Novel Writing

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If you know someone who gets excited over NaNoWriMo, then this book is for him/her. Thorough and informative, this book covers all the mechanics of writing a novel, from preparation to revision, in essays written by experienced and published authors.

Inspirationz Store Typography – Keep Calm and Blog On Gift Basket

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This is a perfect gift to spoil writers with. It includes 1 15 oz. mug, 4 soft coasters, gourmet coffee (French Vanilla, Kenya AA, Decaf Colombian Supremo, Chocolate, and Italian Roast Espresso), and 1 Biscotti cookie.

On Writing Well – William Zinzer

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Great book on crafting your writing style. Perfect for anyone, from freelancers to bloggers, who wants to improve his/her writing.

A Year Subscription to Poets & Writers Magazine

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Poets & Writers Magazine is invaluable to writers whether they are beginners or established. The magazine is chock full with interviews, writing advice, news, submission info, and writer’s contests. Will make a great stocking stuffer.

First Sentences: One Hundred Years of Solitude

Gabriel Garcia Marquez begins his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude with this line: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” What a marvelous way to begin a story, so alive with the world in its very clauses, just as William Blake suggests exist within a grain of sand. So much is going on here and yet Marquez presents his world, Macondo, the fictional community that figures predominantly in many of his stories, with the kind of fluidity that is pure music.

Notice how he begins this sentence: “Many years later.” There’s something wonderfully vague about this beginning. Not five years or twenty years or even the one hundred years in its title, but “many years” as though time is a flowing river blending effortlessly into the sea. Even this beginning suggests a media res, a middle of things, a violent disruption of order. Here is a history being suggested, whether the history of Colonel Buendía or a history of Macondo or a history of Latin America. The sentence sets the reader up for a tale that goes beyond the singular, and frankly violent moment of its beginning. Someone will die, but this death is but a moment in a far bigger canvas. Marquez pitches his novel backwards and forwards in time, beginning with the Colonel facing a firing squad, then moving further back to his childhood. We know in the sparsest sense what this childhood might entail. There is something magical about the idea of “discovering ice,” as though this memory not only encapsulates a “distant afternoon” of the colonel’s childhood but of history itself. Marquez further drives this impression home in the following sentences with “a bed of polished stones…like prehistoric eggs” or of a world “so recent that many things lacked names…” This is the way a child might see the world: huge and new and strange and wonderful. The first sentence sets up this magic and what will soon follow throughout the entire novel.

I mentioned before about a violent disruption, but the entire sentence is full of disruptions and contradictions. The clause “as he faced the firing squad” is as violent a disruption as any sentence can bear. It punches its way through brutally and unforgivingly, interrupting the rhythm of the sentence with a rhythm of its own, as all acts of violence must. Yet this violence is well into the future, a future that pushes further outward as the sentence continues. From there Marquez establishes another rhythm, one that is much more languorous, as though one falling into a daydream to escape the unpleasant or mundane, and indeed Colonel Buendía is facing the violent end of his life. Yet, as the old saying goes, his life flashes before his eyes, unfolding delicately like onionskin. Marquez fully builds his world with the complexities that it contains. There is the end of history and the beginning of it as well. There is death and birth, destruction and renewal. One can read this single line and have a sense of an entire story. We might not know who Colonel Buendia is or why he is being executed, but it is the very ambiguity of these questions that fuels the beauty of this first sentence and why it pulls me in as a reader.

The best stories are the ones that leave enough space for writers to enter. They reveal only what is necessary and allows the reader to fill in the white spaces with her own imagination. Marquez creates a first sentence that is balanced beautifully between what is there and what is imagined. We do not need a fully descriptive passage of what Buendía looks like or what his executioners look like. And yet there they are: as real as what could possibly have been written on page. This is the world Blake refers to. Within one sentence, with carefully selected words, Marquez is able to construct a world in which, as the novel soon unfolds, a world so fully realized, so fully contradictory and ambiguous and magical, that it leaps off the page.

President Kennedy: Reality and Myth in Popular Culture

Though it’s been fifty years since President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, that dreadful day still has a hold on the American imagination. It is so deeply embedded in our culture that it has taken on the note of mythology. In fact it is our modern-day myth––the bold, handsome president shot down in the prime of his virility, while his wife and throngs of Dallas well-wishers in Dealey Plaza look on in horror. There is something almost classical in its mythology, like a Greek tragedy played out in real life. In an age before 24/7 cable news networks, the actual assassination was recorded not by newsmen but a dressmaker named Abraham Zapruder, whose footage wasn’t released to the general public until a decade later. Under those circumstances, it makes sense that the event ballooned into mythic proportions in the American public. That day was like a blank canvas onto which people painted their own memories or contributed their answers to questions that still remain unresolved. The Warren Commission’s handling of the investigation only sparked more questions, creating a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists who insist that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the lone assassin in Kennedy’s murder.

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Source: channel.nationalgeographic.com

This mythic quality has likewise sparked artistic and literary fascination. Only recently NatGeo aired a bio-doc on Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald, based on Bill O’Reilly’s book Killing Kennedy, along with a slew of documentaries have aired on TV about the assassinations, Kennedy’s final hours, or bios on Kennedy himself. Stephen King published a novel, 11/22/63, taking liberties with a time travel tale which centers around the assassination. There’ve been other works in the past, including Don DeLillo’s Libra, and Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK, which looks at New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison’s prosecution of the president’s assassination. The assassination is also heavily referenced in pop culture, such as The Simpsons, Seinfeld, The X-Files, and music videos. The cable TV series Mad Men dramatized the assassination in its second season to heavy anticipation.

No where in recent American history has an event scarred a nation so deeply. In JFK, America had found a model onto which it could project all of its best attributes: youth, vigor, imagination, intelligence. Not since President Obama’s 2008 presidential run, did Americans find similar excitement and transcendence. Yet five years after that historic election, Obama is facing some of the most stringent opposition to his policies and criticisms from the left and the right. Kennedy likewise faced similar criticisms. He experienced a major foreign policy blunder with the Bay of Pigs and had to be pushed to be more proactive on Civil Rights legislation. Yet his untimely and tragic death has cemented not the criticisms nor the mistakes, but Camelot, the image his widow and former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy carefully cultivated after his death. We see only Camelot, not the real and very complicated man underneath. The myth lives on in our culture, in our literature, films, and TV, but we’d do well to separate the facts from the myth.

Confessions of a Former Aliterate, or Learning the Pleasures of Reading

H.P. Lovecraft turned me off from reading once. I wish I could say it was because of his well-documented racism, but I was a little girl when I read Lovecraft for the first and only time and hadn’t known he existed before much less known his attitudes toward black folks. The fact that he nearly destroyed my love of reading makes sense in the end.

I was around ten or eleven when I bought a collection of his short stories, one of the first books I ever bought for myself, at a school fundraiser for what I can’t recall. The book sale was held in a small class room in a separate building on campus with a single row of foldaway tables set up in the back of the room, onto of which were scores of mostly paperback books. Since this was the first time I was buying a book for my very own, I wanted to pick something special. The cover of Lovecraft’s collection of stories intrigued me. The shadowy figure of a strange and frightening beast lurked menacingly in the background on a dark, cobblestoned street lit by old-fashioned street lamps. My imagination was lit. I plucked it, along with The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, from the table, handed my five dollars to the woman manning the lock box filled with bills and coins, and walked proudly back into the sunlight with my classmates. I showed everyone my acquisition of the Narrative, and they nodded approvingly, but secretly I coveted the tales of Lovecraft. It seemed weird, and at that age I was developing an interest in the weird––tales of UFO abductions and Bigfoot sightings which were as popular on TV in those sun-lit days of the late 1970s as they are today.

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Source: filmfetish.com

I wanted to delve into this strange new world, but when I began reading the first story, I found myself continuously thrown back out of it. Reading through Lovecraft’s torturous lines was like trying to breathe with a plastic bag over my head. My stomach muscles clenched and my head grew dizzy. I couldn’t read more than a few paragraphs before I put the book down again. Diving into Lovecraft’s world was like plunging into a shadowy, labyrinthine nightmare filled with cobblestoned New England towns and odd beasts whose presence haunted the psyche and drove men mad. It was an appealing world, but trying to read through Lovecraft’s oblique language was very well driving me mad.

Like a masochist, I tried again, determined to finish what I started. I feared something was wrong with me, that perhaps I was suffering from some reading disorder that prevented me from finishing anything longer than a few paragraphs before I grew nauseous and threatened to vomit up all those lines. This was a terrible thing, more terrible than being diagnosed with cancer. What would I do if I couldn’t read? It never occurred to me that I just wasn’t going to enjoy every book that was written or that some books were poorly written. I believed with naive ardor that writers were never wrong. They belonged in that hallowed ground of gods whose powers set them apart from the rest of us ordinary folks. As a shy, friendless Black girl whose love for books was growing into a quiet passion toward writing, I was easily seduced by the romanticism.

And yet, as hard as I tried to finish that book, I never did. I wrestled with Lovecraft and lost. Like any child used and abused, I blamed myself. It was the last time I would read with any regularity. Occasionally I read whatever was lying about the house, Frank Herbert’s Dune or Theodore Sturgeon (one of my older brothers is a huge sci-fi fan), but years passed before I read anything for pleasure in between. My experience with Lovecraft had scarred me so thoroughly that reading was no longer a pleasure, but a chore. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school that I discovered I was indeed suffering from a malady. I was a functioning aliterate.

Mr. Weaver, my psychology teacher, helped me with that diagnosis. One day, during class, he began a lecture on the differences between illiterates and aliterates. An illiterate was someone who couldn’t read, but an aliterate was someone who did know how to read but chose not to. I never knew such distinctions existed. I rarely read myself outside of school assignments. An oppressive realization about myself crept up on me. He asked the class to write on a scrap of note paper the last book we read and when we read it. I struggled for a long time to come up with a title. The last book I remembered reading was Dune and that was three years before. After all the scraps of paper had been turned in, Mr. Weaver read them aloud to the class. It became apparent that my classmates read with far more regularity than I. Of course, looking back on it now, they could have listed off the names of books that were on their required reading lists, but to my seventeen-year-old self I was startled by the revelation that I was what Mr. Weaver described as an aliterate. I could read, but chose not to. I felt ill. I didn’t want to be aliterate. I wanted to write. And even then I knew that if I was going to be a writer, I had to be a reader as well.

That day I made a conscious decision. I was going to read. I went down to the campus library after school and browsed through the many rows of makeshift, metal bookshelves for that one inaugural tome that was going to reconcile me with the world of reading. I picked out the first book that seemed the most appealing. In this case, it was the book’s cover. Yes, I know. One must never judge a book by its cover, but there are times when breaking the rules are called for. I didn’t do too badly. The book cover, set against a dark blue backdrop, had grotesque Harlequin figures that looked like reflections in a Funhouse mirror. It was weird and intriguing. Something interesting had to lie between its covers. The book turned out to be The Stranger by Albert Camus.

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Source: Wikipedia.com

I had never heard of Camus before, nor knew of his legacy as an existentialist. For that matter, I knew next to nothing about existentialism. And yet when I read the simple, clean prose, I was swept away by the imagery. The clear descriptions of Algeria––the whitewashed, stucco homes, the sparkle of the blue Mediterranean, the whiteness of the beach on which Mersault, the main character, inexplicably kills an Arab man––pulled me into the story. I didn’t ponder on the philosophical meanings of the tale, but rather the images. It felt as though I had been transported to Algiers, smelled the clean, sea air, felt the stultifying heat, the grit and sand, and the claustrophobic world of Mersault’s inner mind. I had never read anything like it before––so complete in its sense of setting. I found again the pleasure of reading, its ability to transport and transcend time and place simply through the power of words.

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Source: Goodreads.com

After Camus, I read Stephen King’s dark imaginings in The Dead Zone. When I returned the book to the library, the librarian asked me if I liked it. I answered with a curt, shy nod. It would be years before I learned to dissect what I read and articulate what it meant. Over the years, I continued reading even when my writing habits slowed down (this is another story altogether). One Christmas, one of my brothers gifted me two Toni Morrison novels: The Bluest Eye and Beloved. I devoured The Bluest Eye, loving the clarity in her vision and language. Beloved proved to be far more intimidating. I had read reviews of the novel and knew what it was about. It was a journey I wasn’t sure I wanted to take. I stared long and hard at the paperback’s cover. A young Black woman was in period dress, her head lowered so that the brim of her hat concealed her eyes. The image was apropos. There were things Ms. Morrison was revealing in her work that no one should gaze at with the naked eye. There was too much shame in the past. Why bring out all that dirty laundry? Yet it was the very nakedness and rawness of her writing that nudged me beyond shame. She revealed the beauty lying beneath the ugly surface. She made me want to uncover my eyes and see.

beloved2

Source: The Luminarium.com

Novels can have that affect, that seductive ability to draw the reader into its world, smash all her preconceived notions, and leave her ravished and satiated. Not all novels have that power, though. Sometimes, they are just fun reads. During those years, I read voraciously. When I had run out of things to read, I reread the same books. I not only read novels, but newspapers and magazines, too. Anything with words I devoured. As I grew older, my library grew as well. It swelled in size to the point where it was running away from me, where it seemed there were more unread books on my shelves than read (and, honestly, what real reader can say she has read everything on her shelf?). Life gets in the way, and time too. But, like patient, well-behaved children, my books wait for me.

When I think about it, I am amazed I ever lost my love for reading at all. Sometimes when I come across a book that is boring or torturous to get through, I often question myself and my reading capabilities (I haven’t completely recovered from my encounter with Lovecraft). It took a while for me to learn how to explore the book itself, to ask it questions not only from the perspective of a reader, but of a writer as well. Why isn’t this book working for me? Is it the style? The tone? the language? Or perhaps it’s the story itself or the characters that aren’t grabbing me? By investigating the novel itself I am investigating my own choices as a writer. How would I have tackled a similar subject or character and in what style or choice of language? This might seem like backseat driving, but in essence it allows me to explore my own capabilities as a storyteller. Reading, for the writer, should always be an investigation. I close a keen eye on word choices, syntax, structure and form, dialogue, character development and any other elements that create strong and indelible stories. I believe this is the fate of all writers: We become observers of the world and of literature. When I read, I am writer, editor, and reader. I interrogate the text itself, instead of, like my childish self, interrogating and castigating myself.

Yet in the end reading is a deeply pleasurable experience. I don’t mean pleasurable in the sense that it is unchallenging or mere entertainment (though a good book can be very entertaining). Far from it. Rather I mean that the joy of reading should be derived in the very act itself, the immersion into a world made up entirely by the use of words. When we turn reading into a chore, something we have to slog through simply because it is good for us, then we destroy the natural inclination we all share in the pleasure of words. A good book delivers its reader into the moment, where the past and the future cease to exist and all that remains is the glorious now. To love reading is to love words, to see them spread across the page, to sound them in our heads or to read them aloud, to hear the music in the way vowels and consonants click and bang and clatter together. A well-written book ought to roll off the tongue like a beautiful piece of symphony. That is pleasure.

Authoritarianism and Rebellion in Popular Culture

Since World War II, Americans have been caught in a struggle between optimism and faith, fear and paranoia. Distrust toward institutions and authority became the norm during the 1960s as a younger generation began to reject the values and traditions of its elders. Popular culture symbolized this struggle. From Where the Boys Are and Gidget to Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild Ones; from the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” and the Temptation’s “My Girl” to Iggy Pop and the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy,” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” America was in a state of flux, uncertain of its future. Beneath the struggle was the underlying fear that things were not what they appeared to be, demonstrated by the social and political upheavals of the ‘50s, ’60s, and ’70s.

Hollywood addressed the underbelly of paranoid fantasies as early as 1962 with John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate. Based on the novel by Richard Condon and starring Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, and Frank Sinatra, the film laid the foundation for government conspiracies that would follow only a year later when President Kennedy was assassinated. During the late sixties, a new generation of filmmakers, many of whom were recent graduates of the nascent film school departments, went behind the camera to explore issues that preoccupied the baby boom generation. Countercultural films like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde thumbed their noses at the establishment. Anti-authoritarianism was well grounded among baby boomers, particularly through rock and roll, but films began taking the lead and soon a cinematic oeuvre was established, dominating theater screens and generating healthy box office revenues for a cash-strapped industry. Easy Rider of the 1960s and later Three Days of the Condor, Network, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The China Syndrome, and others reflected a distrust toward government and authoritative figures in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. Even seemingly disparate films like The Godfather Parts I and II, The Conversation, and Taxi Driver, by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese respectively, explored the corruptible nature of power and the gullibility of a public in search of quixotic anti-heroes striking a blow against the “system.”

Science fiction like Colossus: The Forbin Project and Soylent Green used the conventions of the genre to explore totalitarianism, secrecy, and conspiracy. In Colossus, the unity forged between two supercomputers from the United States and the Soviet Union mock the ideal of international cooperation and diplomacy when the very technology the two superpowers designed were used against them to create a totalitarian regime. Soylent Green was a nightmarish take on the mystery meat joke, preceding the concerns of biogenetic foods and engineering. Horror films like Rosemary’s Baby also questioned the same assumptions of our faith in medical expertise.

By the 1980s, due to the success of blockbuster films Jaws and Star Wars, and bloated by the excesses of the times, the auteur movement died. Yet there was an undercurrent of a backlash toward what the films of the 1970s represented––the rebellion, independence, cynicism, conspiracy, and anti-authoritarian attitudes that were the ramifications of the cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s. The ascendancy of Goldwater’s conservative movement reached its apotheosis in the election of former actor Ronald Reagan, who, during the 1960s as governor of California, was a vigilant opponent of the antiwar movement. Successful 1980s franchises like Rambo and Rocky, both starring Sylvester Stallone, the Max Max and Lethal Weapon sequels, as well as conservative-oriented films like Red Dawn, reflected this change. Action films, starring such muscle-bound actors as future California Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, future Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, and others, demonstrated the audience’s lust for hyper-masculinized entertainment featuring as many car chases, explosions, and daring stunt work as Hollywood was capable of churning out. These films had a decidedly conservative and authoritarian bent, though their protagonists were often mavericks who bucked the system. But bucking the system in these films meant breaking laws that were designed to protect civil liberties, all in the aim to “get the job done” and catch the bad guys. A willingness to use force as a means to solve problems or as a form of law enforcement mirrored the “get tough on crime” attitudes of the 1980s.

Unlike film and music, television stayed largely out of the fray. Few references about world events outside the evening news made their way to nightly television shows. Programs such as The Beverly Hillbillies or Gilligan’s Island were lighthearted fluff meant to mindlessly entertain audiences in between commercial breaks. Heavily restricted by commercial interests, television producers had to find subtler ways to address these issues. During the 1970s, iconoclastic figures like Columbo and Baretta bucked the system by fighting the bad guys their own way, but were nonetheless champions of the “system,” rarely questioning authority except as a means to establish an eccentricity of character. They allowed audiences to think they were cheering on characters who were attacking the system, but gave them the comfort of knowing that by episode’s end the moral code that separated the good guys from the bad were still in tact. The system wasn’t attacked because it’s very paradigmatic values were questionable, but because it was too bloated and inefficient to deliver the kind of justice that coddled audiences. Like the films of the 1980s, these shows adhered to authoritarianism, not against it.

It wasn’t until the debut of The X-Files that a television show would address the underlying cynicism and distrust toward our government. The X-Files came two years after Oliver Stone’s film JFK, which sparked more questions and suspicions about the government’s involvement in the president’s assassination. The X-Files followed roughly the same path, revealing in a series of mythological arcs about the government’s cover-up in its knowledge of extraterrestrials and its complicity in aiding a possible alien invasion. Its two heroes, FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) worked for the same government that was keeping secrets, but unlike TV heroes of the past, they truly did buck the system in their quest to find the truth. The fact that they were often thwarted from their goal was less a sign of their unwillingness to change the status quo, than from a powerful and untouchable foe that always kept two paces ahead of our heroes. Mulder and Scully’s willingness to seek the truth against all odds earned them the love and respect from audiences for whom such heroes were few and far between in the real world.

After 9/11, though, authoritarianism returned as more Americans began to trust the government in its war against terrorism. Americans were now asked not to question the government. Those who did so were met with outright punishment. After comedian Bill Maher contradicted conventional wisdom when he claimed that the nine Saudi nationals who hijacked planes and flew them into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center weren’t cowards, then White House spokesman Ari Fleischer warned that “Americans…need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that. There never is.” Maher’s long-running ABC television show Politically Incorrect was canceled shortly thereafter.

Debate and dissent were enemies of the state in this new era. When Natalie Maine of the Dixie Chicks spoke out against the president while overseas, stating that she wasn’t proud that Bush was from her home state, her comments set off a backlash against the band in the largely conservative country music community. The Dixie Chicks later released an album that addressed the backlash. Hip hop artists the Coup released an album not long after 9/11 that featured the bandmates on its cover setting off a bomb outside the WTC. The cover and the CD were created before the events of 9/11, but that didn’t mitigate the criticism the band had gotten over it. Hollywood, on the other hand, offered to lend its hand in creating work that validated this new authoritarianism. A slew of films released during this period replicated the sense of fear and paranoia in American society, not toward an authoritative government, but toward the unknown, using horror and comic books as a means of validation. Films like the Saw franchise, as well as remakes like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, were nicknamed “torture porn” for scenes that eroticized the torture of mostly female characters by the films’ villains. These films allowed audiences the chance to experience their worst fears about terrorism in the safe environment of a movie theater (though ironically, when news of the CIA’s use of waterboarding at black sites like Abu Graib became known, these movies took on an entirely different interpretation in hindsight). Comic book movies became a cash cow for Hollywood as Americans flocked to see their favorite superheroes vanquish evil and bring order back to the world. Like those TV iconoclastic renegades who fought evil while thumbing their noses at authority, comic book heroes, like Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, were vigilantes bucking a system that had grown too bloated to do the job right. Therefore, it isn’t a coincidence that three months after the U.S. invaded Iraq, President Bush landed a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier and announced “Mission Accomplished,” mimicking the comic book heroism of the big screen. Heroism and a faith in the authoritarian father figure found its ultimate representation in Jack Bauer in the Fox TV series 24. His willingness to use torture and to break the rule of law became a model among Republicans on how the War on Terrorism ought to be fought.

Another interpretation of authoritarianism––albeit a nobler and more liberal version––came in 1999 when NBC premiered its popular series The West Wing, the first primetime drama to directly explore the lives of the people who work in government, specifically the White House. Though the series was supposed to follow the men and women who work on the president’s staff, it quickly included its fictional president, Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen), among its regular cast. Aaron Sorkin’s drama presented a romanticized version of politics with the Bartlet administration representing the ideal rather than the reality of governance. The president was presented as a father figure, though a very flawed one. Its second season ended with a presidential scandal: Bartlet, his wife, and close political allies kept the president’s MS a secret from his staff and the national public. Unlike real life political scandals, The West Wing allowed viewers to see how an administration and its staff professionally, emotionally, and legally tackled theirs. As viewers, we emphasized with Barlet as he worked to restore his public standing, even though he lied about an issue that voters had the right to know about before entering the ballot box. President Bartlet validated the notion of a benign and enlightened authoritative figure, one who used government to positively affect American lives. In this way he was the polar opposite of George W. Bush and became a fantasy onto which many liberals latched following the disastrous 2000 presidential election.

Yet elsewhere on television, a different vision of government, authoritarianism, and rebellion was taking place. While The West Wing sought to romanticize institutions, cable television sought to demolish them. They also created indelible anti-heroes that not only bucked the system but often won. In the same year of The West Wing’s debut, HBO premiered its runaway hit The Sopranos. Starring the late James Gandolfini, The Sopranos redefined television and made anti-heroes a perfectly reasonable subject for series treatment. Each season, viewers were left with the question of whether Tony Soprano, the head of a New Jersey crime syndicate, was either going to get “whacked” or arrested by the Feds for his crimes. And each season, Tony got away. The series’ finale was the ultimate “fuck you” to audiences who wanted the moral order to be neatly put back in place. In an era where Americans were still awaiting news that Osama bin Laden had been captured or killed, Tony’s escape from karma was not only anti-authoritarian, but rebellious as well. The Sopranos proved that American society was the system that needed to be rebelled against, especially when it came to pop culture.

Another series that was the antithesis of The West Wing was also an HBO cultural milestone. The Wire, while not as popular as The Sopranos, likewise rebelled against cultural expectations in a number of ways. The series took place in Baltimore, featured a cast half of which was African American, and attacked issues that were rarely addressed in mainstream media: the war on drugs, poverty, racism. The series offered an unsentimental look at institutions and their indifference toward the people who worked within them and who were often subject to their care. Each of its five seasons tackled different aspects of these institutional divides, whether it be the police and drug trade, labor, politics, public schools, and the media. Where The West Wing sought to validate the role of institutions to positively affect people’s lives, The Wire revealed the ways in which institutions destroyed them. Yet unlike the rebels of the past who fought against the law or fought within the law to “get the job done,” The Wire offered no such palliatives, for even its own rebels––be it Det. Jimmy McNulty, Maj. Bunny Colvin, or Omar Little––became casualties of a system that treated individuals as mulch for its survival. In its way, The Wire was deeply anti-authoritarian.

Following the success of The Sopranos, HBO and other cable channels began churning out series with anti-heroes as their subjects. FX’s The Shield, AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad, Showtime’s Weed, and others featured anti-heroes as their protagonists. The popularity of these programs perhaps brought to bear the squeamishness many Americans were starting to feel in the post-9/11 era as the War on Terrorism gave rise to warrantless wiretapping and the infringement on civil liberties. Their characters fought against systems that forced them into boxes, often breaking the laws or committing extralegal actions in order to prevail. They provided a catharsis for audiences who wearied of the boxes they were being forced into.

Breaking Bad’s Walter Walter (Bryan Cranston) became an ersatz spokesman for workers who found themselves unemployed in a capitalist system that continued to flourish after bankrupting the American economy and receiving a bailout at the workers’ expense. Following the election of President Barack Obama, he also prefigured the tea party which, angered over a political and social system that was marginalizing them to a perceived victimhood, rose to prominence in reaction to Obama’s electoral win. White, both a victim of the private health insurance industry and the economy, fought against that perceived victimization by turning his natural talents as a chemist into cash gold in the meth industry. The series was a critique against white male privilege even as it allowed audiences to vicariously follow his exploits and quote him endlessly. When the series ended, White had gotten his just desserts, but not before beating the system that marginalized him and taking control of his own destiny. In that sense, Walter White ironically symbolized the American dream in all its connotations, revealing why anti-authoritarianism will always play an important role in American pop culture.