Culture Warrior

Culture WarriorEvery Tuesday, Landon Palmer brings you Culture Warrior: an analysis of film as an art form and an examination of its role within larger trends in culture and society. Integrating media scholarship and film history with a critical eye on popular and contemporary cinema, Culture Warrior combines ongoing conversations in the worlds of academia and online film criticism. Whether looking at big studio franchises or arthouse indies, changing industry practices or new distribution models, every week Culture Warrior brings what you’re seeing in the theater or at home into a whole new light.

Updates Every: Tuesday

Come With Me Godzilla

The ‘90s were a special time for the Hollywood movie soundtrack. From Prince’s “Batdance” for 1989’s Batman to LL Cool J’s shark dance for 1999’s Deep Blue Sea, pop soundtracks became no longer a direct record of the songs featured in a film, but an eclectic hit parade of contemporary popular artists whose relationship of the film in question was often tenuous at best. Movie soundtracks, especially those for summer tentpole entertainment, served a function similar to the ‘90s NOW! series: as a means of assembling tested and would-be radio and MTV hits in one accessible package. Except this package was meant also to promote a movie. Such promotion followed a routine formula. Turn the music video into a four-minute commercial for the film. Turn the film into a promotional device for the soundtrack by placing the big single over the end credits like an earworm. None of the other songs on the soundtrack needed to be in the film. But the 1998 soundtrack to Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla was different. Like its title character, the soundtrack was big, brash, noisy, not-at-all subtle, and lucrative, yet it destroyed everything in its path. There are several reasons why Hollywood movies don’t produce pop soundtracks like this anymore, but the Godzilla soundtrack (if not the movie itself) deserves appreciation for its dumb, audacious weirdness.

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Scarlett Johansson Movies

Last year, Steven Spielberg postulated that sometime within the next few years, a series of subsequent major flops will, in effect, dismantle the blockbuster mentality that has dominated Hollywood since Spielberg himself became a well-known director. While this doesn’t look like it will occur anytime soon – certainly not in 2015 – it’s not hard to imagine that the culture industry of remakes, sequels, adaptations, umpteenth reboots and general unoriginality will one day go the way of the September 2008 stock market. It’s happened before. When Hollywood attempted to compete with the rise of television, studios produced an onslaught of lengthy widescreen Technicolor historical pictures, all with massive star power and even bigger budgets. But this model of putting so much money into fewer individual films proved unsustainable, and now even massive hits like Cleopatra are remembered as flops in part because the stakes were so high and their productions were so troubled. It’s hard to believe, but the series of epics that Hollywood produced during the 1950s and 1960s are a blip on the radar of Hollywood’s history compared to the exponential bloating of budgets and expanding of franchises now. We’ve been swimming in the Blockbuster Mentality since 1980 and it’s only intensified since. Hollywood has dug its heels in, only to continue reproducing the same existing properties – thus limiting both the imaginations of audiences and filmmakers – in a way that’s unstoppable unless a West coast economic catastrophe happens. Well, at least, that’s the conventional wisdom.

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the Empire Strikes Back

The story typically goes something like this. In the 1960s, Hollywood had weathered an economic crisis but was losing an ongoing battle with television, so it turned to youth-oriented, smaller projects and gave unprecedented freedom to envelope-pushing directors who worshipped in the churches of Bergman, Kurosawa, Hawkes. Then Jaws (huge) and Star Wars (way huge) came along in the mid-late 70s, imbuing Hollywood with a renewed focus on entertainment spectacle that has, for the most part, dominated its practice since. George Lucas’s original Star Wars without doubt had a significant role in shifting the industrial history of Hollywood toward what we recognize today. It illustrated the lucrative possibilities of mass merchandising, helped elevate B-movie genre fare to A-movie status, and contributed to the now-entrenched thinking that informs our annual movie calendars: the notion that big, expensive fun belongs on our summer movie screens. Yet despite its arguably peerless impact on popular culture in 1977, Star Wars alone resides far more comfortably alongside the film school generation of New Hollywood than the blockbuster mentality it allegedly produced. Rather, it was the film’s 1980 sequel The Empire Strikes Back that made good the changes that have since come to dominate the logic of today’s Hollywood.

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Corman

In Alex Stapleton’s documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, prolific filmmaking legend Roger Corman discusses a philosophy of entertainment that he developed about a decade into his career. Corman had just made his first serious drama, the 1962 integration-themed The Intruder. The film, which he and his brother self-financed because studios wouldn’t touch it, was Corman’s first work that he felt to be truly important, and it stands today as a film without equal in its timely diagnosis of American race relations. The film also turned out to be Corman’s first indisputable box office failure. So after The Intruder, Corman changed course: he decided to continue pursuing relevant themes in his work, but maintain his dominance of American B-cinema. The text of his films would entertain audiences, but the subtext would resonate with an eye on timely social, cultural, and political issues. Corman saw his 1967 film The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, for instance, as both an entertaining gangster picture and a comment about the underground economy that develops when immigrant groups are sidelined from legitimate social mobility in a xenophobic America. The message, Corman admitted at a local Q&A this weekend, would not be apparent to all audiences. But at least it would be there. Corman was hardly the first to recognize the political power of entertainment, but the fact that one of the most prolific B-movie producers in history understood this unique potential is significant: what are supposedly the most lowbrow or expendable of movies can actually be the most […]

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Nic Cage in The Trouble in Louisiana Trilogy

Every few years, Nicolas Cage reminds us what a compelling screen performer he is and can be. While such reminders seem fewer and further between, the utter expendability of much of his recent filmography make strong performances like his brooding lead in David Gordon Green’s Joe all the more powerful – not because we forgot about Cage’s talents, but because we’re afraid that he might have. Joe has been deemed (by this site and others) to be a “return to form” for Cage. It’s easy to declare with a handful of titles what form Cage is returning to. In celebrated roles like Adaptation, Leaving Las Vegas, and Bringing Out the Dead Cage has displayed an uncanny ability to balance pathological self-destruction with varying undertones of dark comedy. He is the actor of choice for men who struggle outside the norms of society, yet wouldn’t feel comfortable anywhere else. But outside of The Wicker Man, mesmerizing mash-ups, and whatever he was doing in Face-Off, it’s perhaps harder to concisely define the form that Cage is returning from when making films like Joe, despite the fact that it’s Cage’s more forgettable (and sometimes more batshit) work that creates the rule which highlights welcome exceptions. A recent, unofficial trilogy of particularly Cagean works speaks volumes to the one-of-a-kind spot that Cage’s stardom finds itself in now. While these films do not share a producer, a studio, or any other factor that justifies their making beyond their existence as Nicolas Cage vehicles, Trespass, Stolen, and […]

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Three Days of the Condor

The glut of American superhero films that continue to dominate the US box office have proven time and again to provide a rich and repeated diagnoses of post-9/11 American power. Whether showing an empowered Spider-Man triumphantly swinging between NYC buildings, depicting Bruce Wayne going all Patriot Act to save Gotham from being subsumed in terror, witnessing Iron Man privatize the defense industry, or simply blowing up iconic buildings ad nauseum, these films have served – sometimes with surprising depth – as startling funhouse mirrors for 21st century values, sentiment, and fears as they bear upon the politics and iconography of armed defense and homeland security. But no other film in this endless cycle of cinematic behemoths has explored with such clarity and precision the larger paranoia-industrial complex as Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

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Le Week-End Movie

Roger Michell’s Le Week-End is a far darker and less conventional film than its twee, Notting Hill name-dropping advertisements suggest. Its depiction of a bickering older couple stuck together on a perfunctory second honeymoon is hardly another indie grab for the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel crowd to once again sightsee vicariously through British screen veterans. Rather, the couple’s failure to connect is presented as an existential crisis borne by their inability to overcome one another’s revisited insecurities and tics. Their disconnection is a reluctantly accepted marker of dwindling self worth in the face of a life run embarrassingly short of its rich potential. Jim Broadbent‘s Nick at one point dances alone to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” around the lavish Parisian suite he can’t afford, earbud cords bopping atop his undershirt while he sips on minibar whiskey. Abruptly, he stops. A former ‘60s radical, Nick has seen his dreams of revolution give way to practical compromise (including, apparently, marriage itself), professional disappointment, and aging out of hipness, until the very sounds of social change fit neatly into a library of songs for a portable Apple product. Le Week-End never fully paints a scope of the couple’s past, but instead lets their history emerge as infectious burdens upon the present. A glut of other indies have similarly tackled the topic of longterm relationship difficulties, offering depictions of complex couplehoods that serve as a corrective Hollywood’s convention of seeing marriage as love’s definitive triumph over conflict. While many of these “relationshit movies,” […]

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel hinges on three tiers of nostalgia that match its division of time periods and aspect ratios. On one tier is The Author (Tom Wilkinson and Jude Law), who in 1985 publishes his memories of staying at the dwindling (yet grand) Budapest and meeting its enigmatic owner. On that second tier is said owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham and Tony Revolori), who in 1968 reminisces on his bittersweet years at the hotel between the wars, during his tutelage under M. Gustave H. (Ralph Feinnes). The final tier of nostalgia is Gustave’s, who carefully maintains the hotel strictly in line with a vision of an old Europe that is starting to crumble at the promise of yet another brutal global conflict. Unlike these prior two tiers, Gustave’s nostalgia is never granted the concrete benefit of its own flashback. His desperate hold on the facade is only alluded to, and finally acknowledged in one brief part of a voiceover during the film’s final moments. Gustave, has, in a way, made the Grand Budapest into a fantasy that hardly corresponds to (and is frequently threatened by) the dark and foreboding reality existing outside its walls. Useful comparisons have been made alleging that Gustave is a stand-in for Anderson himself, who similarly constructs intricately detailed, strictly realized, and intoxicating worlds that are also palpably anachronistic. Yet if we look at Anderson’s filmography more broadly, we can see that Grand Budapest is yet another shift in Anderson’s ongoing obsession not […]

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Husbands Movie

This moment has proven opportune for a reflection of what the auteur theory means and has meant for film criticism. La politiques des auteurs, which originated in Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s and traveled, distilled but ready, to 1960s popular American film criticism, has irrevocably shaped how we’ve thought about and assessed movies to the point that it’s impossible to talk about cinema outside the claims of auteurism. Not only did the work of André Bazin, Andrew Sarris and their contemporaries, combatants, and students allow for the serious study of film as an art form, but auteurism’s legacy has even entered the film industry itself (film authors are now brands to be advertised) and solidified conventional readings of film history as the story of talented, uncompromising visionaries behind the camera (collect them all!). As Kent Jones’s excellent Film Comment essay points out, our means of loving the cinema owes a great deal to auteurism’s transformative power, particularly its now-common sense claim that “movies are primarily the creation of one governing author behind the camera who thinks in images and sounds rather than words and sentences.” Yet we must also recognize auteurism’s structuring power – its ability to create a framework of recognized artists through which it becomes impossible to see filmmaking, film history, and film themselves otherwise. It is nothing new to challenge the assumptions and associations of auteurism (or whatever fragmented versions of its politic – not theory – we’ve inherited), but it has proven incredibly difficult to ascertain what could […]

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True Detective

There were two McConaugheys broadcast on Sunday night. One was the McConaughey honored for his portrayal of a real-life AIDS victim turned treatment advocate, for which he shed fifty pounds and (symbolically) years of critical bad will. It was a comeback story as predictable as any Hollywood ending. The other, far more interesting and less predictable McConaughey was tucked into the premium world of HBO in the form of True Detective’s Rust Cohle, where each week he delivers free-form philosophical jargon at just above a whisper and performs oh-so-calculated-yet-mesmerizing actorly business with only the end of a cigarette and a six pack of beer. The hive mind has credited True Detective for making an invisible supporting push toward McConaughey’s win in the form of a “reverse Norbit effect,” legitimizing him as a strong performer outside the clichéd obviousness of a recognition like this. But as critical and fan communities show a much stronger collective love for True Detective than they did for the supposed apex of McConaughey’s well-heeled comeback, I’m not convinced that True Detective and work like it is simply another gear in the machine of an industry’s collective good will for a once-dismissed actor. Even with a forecast of movies that promise inventiveness and risk, serial television looks to dominate the efforts and imagination of filmmakers for the near future.

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RoboCop

Few years in the history of recent Hollywood have gone by without a sizable pile of ‘80s remakes. Typically, those remakes are at least somewhat spread out. But this Valentine’s Day weekend greeted us with a grand total of three remakes, all bearing (with the exception of a conspicuously absent ellipsis) the titles of their predecessors: RoboCop (original: 1987), About Last Night (original: 1986), and Endless Love (original: 1981). So many ‘80s clones haven’t opened wide the same weekend in two and a half years, when Footloose 2.0 battled the prequel to re-re-make of The Thing. Recycling the ‘80s is hardly exclusive to cinema. Indie and mainstream pop have been revisiting the era of New Wave and post-punk for years. Sometimes this results in uncanny synergy, like two singles from the past few months referencing the opening sequence of The Hunger. And, of course, in the political sphere the ‘80s are ever present, as the exponential concentration of wealth to the very rich have forced a public conversation rethinking Reaganism and neoliberal economics. Few films used popular culture as a platform for exploring this political climate quite like RoboCop and About Last Night. So rather than taking to task whether these remakes are “worthy” or “necessary” or not (is any?), I’d rather mine how the subtle differences between these revisitations and their originals betray our complicated relationship to the era of “Just Say No” and “Where’s the Beef?”. Perhaps we keep recycling the ‘80s because that decade in particular, invited […]

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28 Days Later

When grassroots production company InDigEnt (Independent Digital Entertainment) quietly shut down in 2006, it marked the end of an era that never really got going. There was a lot of talk about digital filmmaking around the turn of the last century, but this was more from the point of skepticism directed at a burgeoning new means of shooting, not an embrace of new cinematic possibilities. Inexpensive and boundary-pushing indies, then, were the only projects decisively making use of the new portable technologies out of a mix of economic necessity and aesthetic choice. As a result, for a few years at the end of the ‘90s and the very beginning of the 2000s, a few movies were made that truly look like nothing we’ve seen before or since. InDigEnt was founded in 1999 under the inspiration of the Dogme 95 and the guerrilla, no-budget pioneering of John Cassavetes. That the name of the company’s pseudo-acronym also means “poor” seems self-deprecatingly apt, and not without some frank truth knowing the company’s fate. But they produced several films (e.g., Tadpole, Pieces of April, Starting Out in the Evening) that flirted with the boundary between indie and mainstream, perhaps suggesting some potential accessibility of this nascent shooting format. Yet early digital filmmaking was conspicuously marked as something other than what our eyes were used to when entering the movie theater, and therein lied both its promise and its problems.

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Capote

There’s a unique double-take aspect to Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s magnetism that defined many of the diverse roles he inhabited. Hoffman was a chameleon, able to lend even the smallest part a distinct impression that he knew the character’s entire history. But Hoffman’s chameleonic skills were internal, not external; he “looked” relatively the same across much of his work. More specifically, Hoffman looked like a man we could pass by on a crowded city street without ever noticing, and that’s partly why his roles could take us by surprise. As Hoffman carefully unfolded his characters, we began to realize he was rarely as “normal” as first impressions made it seem; his characters were often weighed down by some burdensome personal history, a phantom force that they continue to reckon with daily. Hoffman’s charisma was subtle and patient, captivating an audience that eventually began to associate him with the best of late ‘90s and early 21st century American movies. Hoffman, in effect, became a signature of quality, a sign that legitimated a project as thoughtful, worthwhile filmmaking. By the time he won the award for Best Actor for 2005’s Capote, it was for fans of P.T. Anderson and Todd Solondz a belated recognition of a committed and unorthodox talent; for the rest of Hollywood and those who had not yet fallen under his spell, this was an introduction an unlikely leading man.

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Brad Pitt 12 Years a Slave

After the first Sunday of March, movie star Brad Pitt might be an Academy Award winner — not for his acting, but for his role as producer. His production company, Plan B, has been deployed since 2006 as a platform for making films (many that star or co-star Pitt, and a few that don’t) largely outside of the franchise and sequel mentality that a name brand like Pitt would otherwise be subject to. Pitt is hardly the first example of an actor who exchanges celebrity capital for some industrial and artistic autonomy – examples of powerful actors who have used the capacity of producer to buck the studio system go as far back as Humphrey Bogart – but Plan B is unique particularly because it’s been utilized as a means for Pitt to rather self-consciously define himself against any conventional understanding of his movie star image. Rather than use the production arm as a means for gritty, challenging, Hollywood-unfriendly lead roles (as Bogart did with In a Lonely Place), Pitt is casting himself conspicuously on the margins of his own work, often in supporting roles that have in common characters who somehow omnisciently perceive a bigger picture than what’s available to the foregrounded characters around him. These are characters that exist inside and outside the narratives of their films simultaneously.

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mcconaugheytampa

As I’m sure you’re aware, Matthew McConaughey is currently experiencing His Moment. Seemingly resurrected from the depths of bankable but critically ill-regarded romantic comedies, McConaughey is now headlining a gritty new HBO series, briefly stealing a scene in a Scorsese movie from fellow Best Actor nominee Leo DiCaprio, taking the lead in a characteristically ambitious and mysterious new Christopher Nolan movie, and, of course, cementing it all with an Oscar nomination and plenty of momentum to take home the statue in March. The fascinating turn of events that have occurred in the former Sahara star’s career since 2011, aka “The McConaissance,” is catnip for people who enjoy treating Hollywood seriously: it represents a tacit recognition by the star of the inherent limitations of Hollywood, and an attempt to transcend them; it evinces a star aware of his own public persona, who is seeking out roles that play with, and even subvert, that persona; and this particular star’s devotion to truly off-beat roles has made for something far more interesting than conventional career “comebacks” a la your Travolta, Rourke, or Downey, Jr. An Oscar for McConaughey would likely represent the apotheosis of the actor’s decisive shift in creative effort, a reward for his calculated and compelling career “redemption.” But McConaughey’s recognition for Dallas Buyers Club shows how even the most surprising of career moves are recognized for their most conventional and least surprising moments.

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A repeated critique leveled at Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is that it doesn’t show the consequences of Jordan Belfort’s actions – we don’t see, in other words, the direct repercussions of Belfort’s lies to and manipulations of ordinary people. In contrast to the director’s otherwise very similar Goodfellas and Casino, it’s easier (cinematically speaking) to show somebody getting beaten to a pulp than panicking about their house payments. However, Wolf does have one interesting moment in its final minutes that stands distinctly from the miasma of excess coating its other three hours – when Kyle Chandler’s Agent Denham takes a subway ride home, surrounded by an anonymous underclass whose lives and identities never breach Belfort’s bubble of expensive distractions. Had The Wolf of Wall Street spent significant time representing those directly affected by Belfort’s actions beyond the class seclusion suggested by this brief moment, it would have illustrated a type of everyday financial struggle rarely addressed in detail in American cinema. Class differences and conflicts have been an ever-present topic in American movies, especially in Romeo and Juliet renditions like Titanic and Love Story, but there are have existed few narrative traditions for representing in detail particular class struggles, specifically those pertaining to poverty.

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Sherlock

The beginning of a calendar year is an active time for the serious movie-watcher. Besides providing the most accelerated moment of awards pre-season and a profusion of top 10 lists, the new year also portends surprises from the influx of films annually chosen for preservation by the NFPB and the new streaming contracts that motivate some heavy updates on your Netflix queue. But the Duke School of Law has also annually contributed another litany of films to these annual aggregations: films (and other creative works) that, as of January 1st of each year, they argue should be, but aren’t, added to the public domain. According to the Center for the Study of the Public Domain, if the Copyright Act of 1976 (which went into effect in 1978) had never been passed, as of last week many works from 1957 would go into public domain in the United States, including classic films like David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai, Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, the great Elvis flick Jailhouse Rock, the original 3:10 to Yuma, Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, and so on. Some of these works have gone into public domain in Canada and Western Europe as a result of more lax copyright laws abroad.

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2013review_culture

When Roger Ebert passed away in April of this year, one quote that made significant rounds was his assertion that, “I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.” It would be easy to extract this quote as a solitary, general observation on the value of empathy, bereft of its cinematically specific context. Some liked to see Ebert’s overt progressive politics as separate from his evaluation of films, but in fact the two were inextricably linked. The source of this quote, in fact, came from Ebert’s overview of Cannes in 2010, in which he discussed what a diverse array of art films like Lee-Chang Dong’s Poetry and Mike Leigh’s Another Year collectively offered despite their evident differences. The full quote reads as follows: These aren’t all masterpieces, although some are, but they’re all Real Movies. None follows a familiar story arc. All involve intense involvement with their characters. All do something that is perhaps the most important thing a movie can do: They take us outside our personal box of time and space, and invite us to empathize with those of other times, places, races, creeds, classes and prospects. I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization. If empathy is the most essential quality of a civilization, as Ebert makes the case for, then movies which invite the viewer to have an empathetic experience become far more than “just movies,” but “Real Movies” – that is, devices that shape a compassionate worldview which acknowledges the unique experience […]

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Mary Poppins author DL Travers with Walt Disney and Julie Andrews

There’s a scene late in John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks in which author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) barges into Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) office, livid about the fact that the company’s proposed adaptation of her intellectual property “Mary Poppins” may contain a moment of animation integrated into live action, which Disney promised her would not occur. Travers catches Disney putting a cigarette out into an ashtray, blindsided that she caught him in this uncouth moment. Disney says something out loud about not wanting to be seen with a cigarette in his hand, and the scene moves on. We never see the cigarette touch Disney’s lips. There is no still image that exists of Hanks-as-Disney smoking. Yet the Disney-produced film acknowledges that Disney himself smoked and hid that fact from the public eye during the 1960s. Saving Mr. Banks admits openly that there is a distance between the man and the myth, the everyday Walt Disney and his heavily regulated public image. The film makes a gesture of transparency in this direction, yet not enough to actually show the contradiction between the myth and the man. We never see that cigarette hit his mouth. This moment isn’t really all that important on its own, but it is in terms of what it represents: that Saving Mr. Banks is a film which acknowledges the negotiations and compromises that go into making and reinforcing the image of “Disney,” while also exercising careful maintenance of the identity of the Disney brand.

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weeniewhistle

For many, finding out the truth about Santa Claus is an important first step of a ritual entry into adulthood. The experience differs from person to person, but for me it happened gradually and without incident. Around 7 years old, I reasoned that it was impossible for a character as absurd as the Easter Bunny to exist. A year later, I came to the same conclusion about the big jolly guy. I didn’t see my parents as deceptive, or myself as naïve – this exit from childhood fantasy was more like an induction, or the first of many doors opened into rational adult living. I preserved the fantasy as best as I could for my younger brother, and played along with my parents whenever Kris Kringle’s name came up. My experience must not be unusual, as many children’s Christmas films deal directly with a similarly gradual onset of Santa skepticism – that moment where one’s imagination is put in conflict with the dawning truth that the world operates on particular rules that are impossible to break. Gravity, time, matter. In this way, such films imbue an adult and a child’s view of Christmas simultaneously by investing in the illusion while also showing its manufacture. But these films (as children’s Christmas films will unsurprisingly do) ultimately demonstrate the impossible fantasy to be undeniably true, to the dismay and shock of enlightened skeptics like James Caan’s Walter Hobbs in Elf or Judge Reinhold’s Dr. Neal Miller in The Santa Clause. And Reinhold’s […]

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