Thoughts on Christmas Stories

A confession – I’ve never seen Die Hard. I’m not really an action movie guy, so it’s not really in my wheelhouse. I was kind of surprised when it started popping up described as a “Christmas movie,” but I suppose it takes place during the holiday, so why not? Then early this week I saw an interesting push back against that argument – basically that while the movie takes place at Christmas it doesn’t actually have anything to do with Christmas or what it means. That got me thinking about what makes a Christmas story and whether you can have a Christmas story that doesn’t even have Christmas in it.

I’m kind of into the “if it takes place at Christmas it’s a Christmas story” argument, because then I could force my wife to watch one my favorite movies, Brazil, under that rubric.

Make no mistake, Brazil is not at all what anyone would call a “Christmas movie.” It takes place at Christmas time, but aside from satirical asides on the consumer side of the holiday – one little girl asks Santa for a credit card, while there’s a running joke of people repeatedly gifting the kind of meaningless doodad gift you do when you’re forced to (everyone refers to it as “a gift for an executive,” so it says something about those folks, too) – the holiday doesn’t really enter into it. There’s certainly no “Christmas message” in it, given that it’s a dystopian nightmare in which the “happy ending” is the main character going insane.

That’s not a really good metric. Don’t you need some tie-in to actual Christmas and the holiday? Think of something like Gremlins, which, again, is more set at Christmastime than a “Christmas movie,” but at least you’ve got the horrible back story of Kate’s father, who died trying to pull a Santa to surprise the family. Still, there’s not really much of a message to that movie (aside from “don’t feed them after midnight,” of course). Let’s concluded, then, that we need at least “Christmas plus . . .” something, although I’m not sure what. That eliminates Brazil, but I can’t say if the same is true for Die Hard (this article makes a pretty good argument that the movie works as well as it does precisely because it’s merely “Christmas-adjacent”).

The “plus” is mostly going to be some kind of message, right? Lots of classic Christmas stories have some moral component, from A Christmas Carol (don’t be a dick to the poor at Christmas or the rest of the year) to The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (don’t be a dick to people celebrating Christmas). I like those. I’m particularly a sucker for variations on Carol, my favorite being Scrooged.

Any movie that puts Miles Davis and other jazz greats in a band of street musicians for a throwaway joke is OK by me. Of course there’s also the religious angle, probably pulled off best by A Charlie Brown Christmas, which I love even though I don’t buy into the theology. I suppose we can also ditch the messages altogether and just focus on nostalgia, as in A Christmas Story, which manages the impressive task of selling that nostalgia to an audience who largely are too young to wallow in it.

I feel much less favorable toward what I call “you’re doing Christmas wrong” movies, wherein somebody dares to celebrate the holiday in their own way, only to have their individualism squashed by some kind of hive-mind celebratory conformity. Seriously, is there any reason to look at how somebody else does (or does not!) celebrate a holiday and decide you need to fix them? Drive me up the fucking wall.

So if we agree that a real Christmas story is “Christmas plus” something else, what if we don’t have the Christmas part, at least technically?

My only real routine for the holiday season is to reread (relisten, in actuality) Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett.

The Hogfather is the Discworld’s equivalent of Santa Claus, basically. His holiday, Hogswatch, is a combination of Christmas and New Year’s Eve, combining the gift giving aspect with the midnight revelry.

I love Hogfather in a way I don’t with many things. It’s brilliantly funny throughout. Lots of characters from the other Discworld books show up to play their part in a really clever plot – someone hires the Guild of Assassins to kill (or “inhume,” as the head assassin prefers) the Hogfather as means of bringing some order to the universe. Turns out the human imagination is both a destabilizing thing – it makes folks to wacky things – but it also inspires us to grander things. Thus we have this truth from none other than Death himself (hence the all caps – he talks that way): “HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.”*

Death shows up in Hogfather to do the fat man’s job while he’s disposed, thus shoring up the role of belief in the universe. This allows Pratchett to do a lot of commentary on the holiday and what it means to different people. He shows up at a mall to give kids exactly what they want, even if they really can’t have them (he tries to give one kid a real sword, then announces to a little girl that there’s a pony in her kitchen). He butts in as a king tries to pass of his leftovers as an act of benevolent charity. He actually forgoes collecting the soul of the “little match girl,” concluding that it’s unfair for someone to die alone and cold on Hogswatch, even as his pixie henchman Albert (a fabulous character in his own right) explains that touching stories of that kind of death make other people feel better at Hogswatch. It’s through this relationship that Pratchett deals with the economic inequality of the world, which shines through during the holidays just as it does all year ‘round.

None of this message, commentary on what it means to knowingly celebrate a story you know not to be true, would land if the rest of the book wasn’t so funny, if the characters weren’t so sharp and memorable. But the Hogfather (much less Death!) isn’t Santa and Hogswatch isn’t Christmas, so does it count?

Here’s where I’ve come down on all this – if something’s a Christmas story to you, then that’s all that matters. We all find meaning in different places and different days. At no time is that more true than when all these competing winter celebrations are underway. However you celebrate, whether it’s with Die Hard or not – Happy Holidays (whatever your holiday may be)! See ya’ in the new year.

* The book’s loaded with great lines. Here’s another, from Death’s granddaughter, Susan, who’s the heroine of the story: “Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on.”

Weekly Read: The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled In Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime

Plus ca change
Plus c’est la meme chose
The more that things change
The more they stay the same
– Neal Peart, “Circumstances” from Hemispheres

Much has been written about how we’re living in an era obsessed with stories about crime. True crime podcasts and documentaries are everywhere. There’s something compelling about digging into an extended investigation of crimes and the people who commit them (the people against whom they’re committed usually get less attention). That’s true even for somebody who is knee deep in criminal law every workday. I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of more than a few of these cases.

Along with the rise in true crime media has been concerns about what it says about society or how it may shape perceptions of crime. While those are legitimate things to worry about, if you get nothing else out of The Invention of Murder  it should be that our societal obsession with crime, and qualms about it, are nothing new.

Victorians didn’t actually invent murder, of course, but Judith Flanders presents some evidence that it wasn’t very prevalent before the 19th Century (or at least widely reported). What occurs in that period is a convergence of emerging mass media, organized police forces, and growing cities that created a kind of perfect storm of crime and reflection upon it.

For the most part, Flanders works through the century by covering the details of a specific case, then showing how it was discussed in the press and, eventually, popular entertainments (Charles Dickens shows up in these an awful lot). Along the way we see the shift from public to private executions – public ones could attract thousands of people. We also see that the public interest in the stories of murders – which are often different from the facts – became insatiable.

This format gets a little redundant at times, but it allows Flanders to show that whatever the details of any particular petty atrocity, the press and popular entertainment could always make it worse, more salacious, more interesting. These includes not just novels, but stage plays (lots of stage plays – copyright wasn’t much of a thing in that era) and even marionette shows. Famous murders became quick reference points for certain kinds of maliciousness. Cases crept into popular culture so much that famous killers lent their names to ships and racehorses.

That the facts of particular cases didn’t always match the public’s perception mirrors our world today. I was struck when Flanders described the mid-century panic over murder by poisoning, even though they were so uncommon as to be nearly non-existent. A better example of a moral panic it would be hard to find.

Other threads running through these cases would feel familiar to a 21st Century reader. The modern police force was formed in the early part of the century and, almost as quickly, the police were criticized not as protectors of the general public but as enforcers of social order. Almost immediately after the Metropolitan Police Force was organized in London one newspaper listed among the “Necessary Qualifications” to be a cop the ability “to perjure himself with a clear conscience,” which could lead to “speedy promotion.” Then there are the repeated instances where a murder defendant is othered in some way (as a Catholic or Jew or Eastern European – I think there was one where all three were used!), set apart from the wider society that was reading about them.

One of the ongoing dialogs in the press that Flanders recounts is the requisite navel gazing as to whether the press coverage and popular media fascination with murder actually leads to the commission of crime. Throw in “video games” or “social media” and you have the same dialog going on today. What’s interesting is where this leads – Jack the Ripper. Flanders doesn’t argue that Jack’s crimes were caused by the Victorian obsession with murder, but does suggest that it’s kind of the final step in that evolution. What Jack the Ripper became in the public imagination couldn’t have happened a century earlier. If you’ve read Alan Moore’s From Hell this is a kind of reverse of the theory that animates (so to speak) that book, that Jack’s crimes were actually the birth of the 20th Century and all the mayhem that would occur during it.The Invention of Murder isn’t a quick read. It’s fairly dense and comes with pages of notes and source citations in the back, so it’s a serious historical work. But it’s also really entertaining, if you have any interest in how societies process crime. Flanders brings just enough snark to proceedings the lighten things up here and there. Definitely recommended.

Weekly Watch: The Beatles: Get Back

I am not the biggest fan of The Beatles in the world. Sure, I have every album from Rubber Soul on, but if push came to shove and was forced to save my favorite albums from a fire or something I doubt they’d make the cut. Still, when it was announced that Peter Jackson had cobbled together a multi-part documentary from the infamous Let It Be sessions, I was excited. With a long Thanksgiving weekend, it only made sense to dive in whole hog (or turkey, as it were). I’m glad I did, but I can see where other folks might not be able to push through it all.

It’s a Lot

“Multi-part” doesn’t quite do justice to just how much there is to digest in TB:GB. Each of the three parts is feature-length in its own right and they clock in at almost eight hours altogether. There are reasons for that – there was nearly 50 hours of footage to work with (and three times the amount of audio). In addition, I’ve read that Jackson added some footage once Disney decided the Blu-Ray release wouldn’t have any bonus features and he didn’t want the footage to disappear back into a vault for another few decades. All fine and good, but is it worth it?

It depends on whether you one of two kinds of people – or a third kind with a foot in both camps. The first is diehard fans of The Beatles who will absolutely want to spend all the time picking up on the minutiae of proceedings. The second are people who are interested in the creative process and seeing how the musical sausage gets made. I’m in the third group – I’m most interested in the sausage making and like The Beatles enough to wade through all the music they make in the process (I’d watch a similar, but much more brief, doc on, say Taylor Swift, even though I don’t really like her stuff).

If you’re not in one of those groups, you’ve probably got a better way to spend eight hours. That’s partly because given the fly-on-the-wall approach of this you really have to pay attention to what’s going on. Occasionally there’s text on screen to transition between scenes, but there’s no narration, no talking heads to guide you through what’s going on. You either jump in with both feet or don’t, in other words.

George On an Island

The dynamics of the band as they work are the most fascinating part of TB:GB. For all their troubles at this point, Paul and John and still a unit and tend to drive things (Paul, in particular). They’re not really the songwriting team they once were, but they help shape each other’s material in any case. The other two, well, they’re kind of odd men out. Ringo copes with all this by being Ringo, the most laid back man on the planet. It’s not for nothing that initially at the movie studio in Twickenham he’s on a riser, up and apart from the other three, and then at Apple studios he’s behind a sound barrier with his drums. His ability to let the bullshit pass him by while doing his job really well definitely says something.

George, sadly, doesn’t have the same personality make up, or whatever, that allows Ringo to go along and get along. He seems to be having a serious crisis of confidence through most of the sessions. Early on he brings up Eric Clapton and admiringly talks of his work with Cream, clearly feeling insufficient as a player by comparison (almost anybody would, right?). Later on he has trouble generating enthusiasm from the others for some of his songs, including “All Things Must Pass,” which would wind up as the title track on his first solo album.

It may have ever been thus, but by the time these sessions start the various stresses of the band clearly leave George out on his own most of the time. Which leads to . . .

George Quits

As I said, I’m not the biggest fan, but I did know that Ringo quit for a bit during the making of The White Album. I had no idea George did the same during these sessions. I can’t say I blame him, but two things really stood out about that.

First, it happened without any of the kind of drama or hysterics you might expect. He did not fling his guitar down. He didn’t kick over an amp. He didn’t curse anybody out, yell, scream, or otherwise make an ass of himself. George simply announced that he was leaving and then did. If you were writing drama I don’t know that you’d have a character do it that way, but it almost hits harder for being so low key.

Second, what happens next is, dare I say it, very Spinal Tappish? In that classic mockumentary, lead guitarist and founding member Nigel Tufnel storms off stage and quits the band. Asked the next day about his leaving, co-founder David St. Hubbins downplays it, noting just how many people have been in the band over the years (all those hapless drummers!). When confronted that surely Nigel leaving is different, David eventually admits that he might feel different if he wasn’t sedated.

Part two of TB:GB begins with the band dealing with George’s absence and, at least initially, it’s no big deal. There’s no talk of the band being over. There’s no real talk, even, of stopping the sessions. Things are paused, somewhat, while George is talked back into the fold, but that’s about it. There’s talk of potential replacements, even! No wonder George walked out.

Sparks of Genius

One thing that really comes out of TB:GB is that, even for some of the most lauded songwriters of their generation, writing songs is hard work. There’s slog, there’s false starts, there’s struggle (as a recently departed genius wrote, “art isn’t easy”). As a creative person who often struggles with writing (and music making) it’s encouraging to see that even these guys have a hard time with it.

That said, there are some amazing moments where sparks of genius emerge from almost nothing. Most notably is the genesis of “Get Back” itself. A recurring theme of the Twickenham sessions is that John (with Yoko in tow) is almost always late, leaving the others to fart around waiting. On one of those mornings Paul is absent-mindedly strumming his bass when all of a sudden the opening riff of “Get Back” emerges. It takes hours of work (in documentary time) to actually get the final song out (at one point it takes a diversion into being a protest song about racism and xenophobia in the UK), but the nugget of it comes out of nowhere. It’s very cool to see those things happen.

The Life, Death, and Rebirth of the Live Show

The original plan for what became Let It Be was for the band to get together to write and rehearse new material (while being filmed for a documentary) which would be the basis for a new album and a live concert. The band hadn’t played live in a few years, so anticipation was high for that, at least outside the band. The band never seemed on board and one of the more amusing themes of TB:GB is how the live concert element continues to morph until it winds up with the famous concert on top of the Apple Corps building.

The plan that made the most sense was to build a set at the film studio and bring a live audience in, but nobody is really that interested in that (they’d done it before). One of the band’s handlers suggests doing the concert in an ancient amphitheater in Libya, but it would take a few more years for Pink Floyd to get there (basically). A sub idea of that was to bring the audience with them on cruise ships to that venue, which nobody in the band is up for. Apparently the only thing worse than being cooped up with their fellow Beatles would be being stuck on a boat with loads of fans. Given that various music cruises are a thing these days (or were, before COVID) I wonder what the artists involve really think of those.

What a Live Show!

Of course they did wind up putting on a show, on the roof of the Apple Corps building in downtown London. If I remember correctly, Paul actual floats this idea early on, but it’s waved away while they consider more traditional alternatives (Paul, in general, is the driving force to have all this wind up being something other than just an another album). We get all of it, which is both great and a little bit of a grind – they only do a few tracks and take multiple takes of most. That said, several of those takes are what make it onto Let It Be in the end, so it’s cool to get them in all their glory.

The dynamic of the band through the sessions really comes into sharp relief up on the roof. John and Paul come alive on stage and are having a blast. George is more subdued, like rocking out on a cold, windy rooftop isn’t the best idea. Ringo just does what he does, unflappable behind the drums.

A word here about the fifth Beatle for this show, keyboardist Billy Preston. He’d met the band way back in their Hamburg days and dropped in the sessions in London just to say “hi.” He wound up drafted in to playing electric piano and organ (and goofing around with a Stylophone!), fleshing out the band’s sound, dedicated as they were to doing it all live. It’s after he arrives that things really get more focused and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to suggest that he’s the real hero here.

Another word about the baddies of the piece – the cops who come to shut everything down. If, like me, you’ve ever wondered if Monty Python sketches were too hard on British cops and authority figures, exaggerating for comedic effect, this footage convinced me they weren’t. The cops couldn’t have been more wet blankets if they had been played by John Cleese and Graham Chapman. There’s even a pepper pot who complains on the street! Life imitating art (or vice versa) and all that.

It Just Ends

This is an odd thing to say about an eight-hour long documentary, but it really just ends, without wrapping up stuff very well. After the concert on the roof there’s some brief footage of folks listening back to the recordings the film rolls credits, over which some more footage of the last of the studio recording takes place. It’s an odd choice that, among other things, leaves us without a full take of “Let It Be.”

Beyond that, given that the film is about the creation of these songs, it’s odd not to have a post-script about the actual release of the album. Or about how they went back into the studio almost immediately to work on what became Abbey Road (several songs from that album pop up during these sessions). Or about how Phil Spector got a hold of Let It Be and glooped his production onto it. Or . . ..

I get it – you got to stop sometime and that’s when the footage ran out. Still, given that there’s a little “how we got here” prologue for the band’s history a similar epilogue would have made sense.

Get Back, Jo

As I said, if you’re a Beatles fan or interested in seeing music get made, from the ground up, this is well worth your time. Otherwise, probably not. I’m glad it’s here and I’m glad I had the time to work through it. I don’t think I’ll add the Blu-Ray to my collection, though.