While I had a really busy November and December in 2021, I found a few islands of escape with my headphones and the podcasts of my friends. Our friend, Ryan (FKA “The League”), has been running The Signal Watch podcast where he hosts a “cadre of co-contributors” commenting carefully on cinematic capers. This November and December, Ryan hosted outstanding episodes that I wish I could have commented upon in a timelier fashion.
I really “got” some of the subtler nuances of the November/December arc at The Signal Watch. Its tenor and resonance seemed just right for a second pandemic / resurgent omicron variant Christmas. I’ll admit I was a little bit blue between the stress of home, the holiday expectation of positivity, and the nagging feeling that what I wanted most of all was my loved ones to be near — or, heck, to even conceivably have the possibility of being near.
The Signal Watch
While not really in the whole “Christmas and holidays” spirit, the coverage was outstanding. The quality of dialogue and the considerations of what was not going right on the AppleTV show “Foundation” were spot on. Ryan’s guest, Juan, was patient, reasonable, and utterly eviscerating in what was going wrong in a show that would have seemed to have a simple, clear, and deliverable mandate.
Juan does a particular cogent and fair-minded explanation of what the series is, what is special about it, and what defines its specialness for fans. He then explains with only the barest hint of frustration leaking through in his voice, how the show pretty much fails to capture any of that. As someone who has loved the Dune books since 1992 and has had to apologize for the film (kinda) ever since (until Denis Villeneuve showed how it should be done), I could definitely felt for Juan.
Jingle All the Way
I have never seen this movie. I have no urge to see this movie, ever. But I really enjoyed Ryan discussing this movie with Stuart. The discussion was really excellent, with Ryan reminding us that this was the beginning of “the star system” over “the studio system” and that stars were staring to look at films more as vehicles for their brand than vice versa.
The episode brings up that most movies in the wake of the Jim Carrey effect (“Ace Ventura (1994),” “The Mask (1994)”) treat the audience like morons by allowing (ostensible) protagonists to do awful, awful things and face no legal repercussion despite the fact that the awful, awful things are also illegal, illegal things.1
The episode hit a particular level of depth when Stuart discussed how the movie, fairly unrepentantly, seems to take the perspective that the worst thing is for an upper-middle class, white, man to be inconvenienced by the souls and lives that are involved in creating the social safety net around him. There’s some simmering class and racial tension that the movie integrates as part of the grounds for, uh, laughter, I guess. That discussion was keen-eyed and hard, and I am glad neither Ryan nor his guest shied away from examining it. Their discussion also points out that the down-class “villain?” of the movie seems to, in part, earn his mala fides by virtue of working for the US Postal System. It’s a weird sort of class side-eye trope that, in many ways, foreshadows the “I hate the (Hollywood, New York, Washington) elites and they hate me” belief that sours our current political discourse. Listening to Ryan and Stuart point this out and how its framed seems to make this complaint more compelling!
There was also a really profound reflection on what kinds of gifts mature, functioning adults want for Christmas and, even more importantly, what they don’t want. I’ll recap a bit:
Said guest Stuart of what he tells his son he wants:
I just want you, and your sister, and your mom to be healthy and happy …is just such a source of stress for me…I want to…deliver a happy Christmas to the family and if I can do that then I have succeeded…and that is all it means to me…nothing I am looking forward to for myself…have I fulfilled my duty or not….It’s true, I don’t want anything for Christmas….[other than that] I want everyone else to be happy.
This one hit home for me because, as I said, with omicron raging and people still, even if it’s inconvenient to admit, dying in COVID wards, I couldn’t have my family nearby. I didn’t want a sleigh full of goodies, I just wanted to know that I could see my loved ones again.
Ryan also brought up the counter-side of being that person who wants for others more than for themselves in the holiday season:
[in home videos] …my Mom: she looks so exhausted. That was my mom trying to hit all the marks for everyone else… Christmas is stressful and that’s what I think a lot of these movies are trying to reflect
Also, a brief word about our “testament[s] to our own self delusion.”
And the weird over-sexualization of family movies in 90’s films like Hocus Pocus.
One of the closing questions of this episode segues perfectly into the next discussion that stood out:
What happened to you, Hollywood, that you’re so angry with Christmas?
Ryan, at 50:38
This was a great question and I couldn’t help but feel that it leads perfectly into the next film, 1989’s Scrooged.
I remember seeing this movie when it was released in 1989 and hating it. As the episode recalls, it was excoriated and hated by Roger Ebert.
What’s weird is that I’m sure that I got the humor. I got that it was a send up of the hyper-commercialism of an egotistical network president who would put any shit that would capture the rubes’ eyeballs on so long as it improved his ratings. The episode reminds us that this was released after Robocop (1987) and The Running Man (1987) so the network as the home of back-stabbing and stabbing in order to capture the most punters’ eyeballs was not entirely new. Nevertheless, director Richard Donner delighted in sparing no cent to imagine the most craven world possible. I remember thinking that was funny. I’ve always loved media satire.
But I couldn’t understand why they needed to make a 90-minute gag out of extended physical violence. The extended violence of the scenes of Carol Kane beating the crap out of Bill Murray felt…icky. Somehow our brains will let an action movie star beat anyone up with not much of a shrug, but extended, visceral, violence really starts to churn the stomach. I remember feeling sad and a little bit scared that so many people were laughing.
Nevertheless, hearing how much both Ryan and Marshall liked it made me think twice. Instead of seeing Carol Kane as an excuse for a bunch of stupid, violent jokes, I saw her as a sadhu, smacking the young novice out of a certain karmic rut so that he could open to a true spiritual transformation. While I can’t forget my visceral dislike, I suspect that’s what director Donner was after, and Marshall’s insight has helped salve a very old disgust.
Ryan’s insights about how Christmas Eves were formerly a time of fear and ghost stories (surely related to the early sunsets and cold stillness of the season) reframed Christmas into its natural seasonal understanding as an outgrowth of Yule (the Nordic time of year when it’s cold and the forests are especially scary and we have only a few candles for protection) versus being the season of a Semitic sun-god myth. This makes the original novella of “A Christmas Carol” feel like something deeper and more robust and helped anchor what the encounter with the macabre during Christmas was supposed to mean.
One of the most outstanding discussion was around “Who gets to be charitable?” and “Upon whom does the expectation for making Christmas lie?” I thought that was a particular high point in the episode.
There was a really interesting tie-in back to “Jingle All the Way” here. IF one were to accept the commercial ideal of Jingle All the Way, one were likely to buy into the bullshit cynicism of Frank in “Scrooged” and they are both soul-sucking worlds. These worlds and their realization really dog some of us through the holidays. While they’re billed as a time of year for celebrating the good and the triumph of the human spirit, some of us do some stock-taking of our world in this season and it’s not always the most pleasant of tasks. For those who have a more nuanced relationship with the holidays and our “fellow men” to whom we’re supposed to have a rekindled spirit of goodwill, Billy Wilder gives us “The Apartment” where the banality, venality, cruelty and cynicism around “the happiest time of the year” leads Shirley MacLaine to attempt suicide in Jack Lemmon’s apartment.
In Ryans’ blurb he writes:
It may not have much to do with Santa, but it’s a reflection of the holiday season from a certain POV!
Lauren and I saw this a few years ago and knew nothing about it before watching it. I had expected a “Secret of My Success” or “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” kind of office farce. This was so much gritter, darker, and intense than all that — despite featuring one of the greatest comedic actors ever. Of course, I refer to Mr. Jack Lemmon. On top of that, we see in one of her earliest performances that Shirley MacLaine is a star through and through.
Watching it, we loved the New York life verité where a tennis racket, in a jam, works as a spaghetti strainer. Neighbors are usually noise sources and nuisances until you absolutely need help and somehow we drop the bygones and rush to mutual aid. But the movie says a lot about how the secular world tracks the holiday and the discussion between Maxwell and Ryan is thoughtful and respectful of the roughness of the topics (suicide, a poisonous man-box culture that leads men to push a modern girl to said suicide attempt) that make this such a remarkable film. Great discussion that you can catch here.
I think these were some really outstanding episodes that helped reflect on the complexity and emotional turmoil that defines the holiday season.