Welcome to Alt-Christmas, our week of articles dedicated to movies that we like to watch this time of year, especially if we’re not entirely in the spirit of the season.
Why not define Christmas in the terms that we celebrate it?
Christmas was invented in 1939 when a copywriter named Robert L. May dreamt up Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer in the midst of his work for Montgomery Ward, a popular department store. The connection between the snowy side of the year and buying crap stuck and Christmas culture, as it were, was, itself, perpetually stuck between awkwardly navigating the familial sprit and generous cheer of the holiday season (that, itself was invented the previous century by the short story writer Washington Irving…or Charles Dickens a few decades later, as some British accents would have you believe) with the crassness of what is marketed as the most important shopping season of the year.
Christmas movies, like the culture itself, navigate this balance. In A Charlie Brown Christmas, the navigation is literal, a quest between a synecdochic system of commercialized Christmas signifiers. In Elf, the secular Christmas mythology is literalized in the form of Buddy (Will Ferrell) who is raised on the North Pole by Santa, etc.. Coming into “our world,” he is immediately confused for a department store employee and then, swifter still, becomes one. This is a difficult balance and most of these movies suffer practically unwatchable third acts where plots and characters join together to clumsily glue these idealistic strands together over a burning fire of wrapped plastic disposables. It is a balance that is, strangely, more of a metonym for the American experience in way than most other holidays whose values (gluttony, jingoistic patriotism, jingoistic patriotism,) do not demand we become different people than we are ordinarily told to be. Think of the Neediest, the paper of record inserts into margins shortly after Halloween.
But instead of presenting this as a radical juxtaposition, why not define Christmas in the terms that we celebrate it? The Hudsucker Proxy, the Coen Brothers thunderous ode to capitalism as state myth, takes place during Christmastime and in New York, no less, but is oblivious to the Santa Claus or Jesus or the juxtaposition of red and green and what they symbolize about the brotherhood of man. Instead of an attaché to the North Pole, the Coens’ version of an elf wanders into New York from Muncie, Indiana. Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) is looking for a job and, like Buddy, takes the first he finds, at a company whose CEO auspiciously kills himself the day he starts. Norville is, then, ensnared in a nefarious scheme to defraud the company’s shareholders concocted by the Coen’s version of a Grinch, Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman). Innocently, and unknowingly, Norville defeats this scheme by designing something that the holiday movie nominally gets squeamish about: a mass-produced toy.
Christmas is saved by Christmas itself, the influx of cash that Charlie Brown sees as dirty money is the saving grace of corporate dignity, which in Norville’s mind, is akin to moral goodness. The Hudsucker Proxy is also shot fabulously, the most luxuriant movie the Coen’s ever made (Sam Raimi, in particular, shot the movie’s suicidal leaps, giving them an almost Spiderman-like dexterity), the opulence of the post-war era was always something the Coens would be interested in (hence why one of this year’s fake Coens is called Suburbicon) but Huducker was the only Coen to embrace that absurd opulence as an essential element of the movie itself. Elements of the film, from the flapping job board that greets Norville in the city to the manner in which a Hudsucker employee, named Moses (Bill Cobbs) of course, literally halts time so Norville can have a conversation with a ghost and also not kill himself, nods at the luxuriant magical realism of the middlebrow “raison d’être dramedies” of the earlier decade (Field of Dreams, L.A. Story, Mr. Destiny and closing finally with Groundhog Day), which themselves nodded at an even older version of cinematic American exceptionalism, the propaganda films of Second World War, that posited American goodness as something almost blindly bright.
The appeal of making such a movie for the Coens was, by their own admission, because they thought that kind of thing looked fun and their return to the era in last year’s Hail, Caesar! suggests an interest in the ideological power its gigantic visuals had over audiences collectively recovering from the military iconography of the Second World War. But in the sense that The Hudsucker Proxy is a Christmas movie, a movie about reconciling dueling American values before the year is out, it nods explicitly at Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, the godfather of all vaguely magical crisis movies, where the very stars in the sky set things off by conspiring to come to the aid of a pleasant looking white guy, as literal a definition of post-war American experientialism as you can find, perhaps, anywhere.
It’s A Wonderful Life was always a strangely canny movie, rewritten ceaselessly by an army of Hollywood screenwriters during the Second World War, it translated into a masterpiece of post-war propaganda that seemed to understand what post-war American suburbia was going to be and, like The Hudsucker Proxy, made no bones about connecting it to larger and poorly defined spiritual values from the very start. Cappa’s villain, in kind, is somebody who threatens to unravel the system whole: Lionel Barrymore’s Potter wants to do away with the farce of home ownership much like Paul Newman’s Mussburger wants to do away with the farcical democracy of stock ownership. There is a tediousness to both heroisms, the same number of movies probably elevate a mortgage broker to status of populist hero as CEOs of industrial empires but where Capra’s world retains the dark seriousness of the wartime propaganda style, the Coen’s find it very hard to take any of this seriously. This is a surface level adjustment: Baily’s melodramatic suicide is given a fake out, his angel spends most of his time lambasting Norville’s stupidity, but it also changes the very core of the movie itself. Capitalism may be church of state and the end of the year is the time to reverentially double down, sure, but the Coens sketch that out as a game of luck and insipidity as opposed to a reverential totem of small businesses passed along by dying fathers. The gifts are small and aren’t meant to last. After all, what would you buy next year?