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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Klaatu Obama nikto?

Every year about this time, I take another look at my lists of Christmas classics and Christmas not-quite-classics, from eight years ago, to see if I should do an update. Once again, I am content to let them be.

For whatever reason, over time, those two pages are among the highest hit-getters on this web site. I suppose people are always looking for ideas of movies to see, and maybe a bit more around Christmas time. Certainly great holiday films are an integral part of my own fond memories of Christmases past.

So what does it say about me that my list of classic Christmas movies includes no film released later than 1954 and shows no signs of letting in a new entry. Have I become one of those old curmudgeons who dismiss anything new and modern and retreat to the uncomplicated nostalgia of the long-ago rather than deal with the here and now? Members of my parents’ generation have long been heard to say things like, they don’t make ‘em like they used to and that the current crop of big screen actors cannot hold a candle to the Hollywood stars of yore. But logic suggests that there is no reason that good movies and good actors cannot be produced at any point in time. They shouldn’t all be clustered back in one era. In fact, if we follow logic, it only makes sense that, the longer the craft of filmmaking is practiced, the better it ought to get. Certainly, the technical part is constantly being refined and improved. And today’s directors and writers and actors have the work of previous generations to study and attempt to improve upon. Rational thought says that movies should be getting better.

So where is the new A Christmas Carol or Miracle on 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life? In the case of the first two, of course, it is quite easy to answer the question. Miracle has been remade four times under (more or less) the same title (three times for television) and a few more times, without acknowledgement, under other titles. And Charles Dickens’s classic has been adapted so many times, it is hardly worth counting, as I discussed a couple of years ago. And, as I posited back then, It’s a Wonderful Life can actually be seen as one more variation of that work. So, if there are only so many basic Christmas stories to tell, why don’t filmmakers get better at telling them?

The answer is: some do. There were at least three film adaptations of A Christmas Carol before the one that is considered definitive (Irishman Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1951 version, titled Scrooge in its original British release). But there is no denying that once a particular version of a story, usually the original one, has been fixed in the public mind, it is hard to dislodge it. It is essentially the same reason that Pepsi has never dislodged Coke as the number one cola or Avis has not un-throned Hertz in the car rental market. Or, if you want to take it far enough, it is the same reason John McCain was not able to co-opt the perception of being the candidate of change. Establishing the brand pretty much makes it yours to give up—if you do not botch it. And classic films are classic films precisely because the filmmakers did not botch it.

So, while there is always the possibility of yet another version of A Christmas Carol out there as well as yet another rip-off of It’s a Wonderful Life, more typical holiday film fare tends to be yet another lame Vince Vaughn Christmas comedy or, more likely, high-profile animation releases or potential Oscar nominees that have nothing to do with the season. Better to watch the classics late at night on television or on DVD.

And speaking of pointless remakes coming out during the holidays, the big release worldwide last week as the new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. (I am more hopeful about an upcoming remake of Forbidden Planet, but only because I understand that Babylon 5 guru and Changeling screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski is writing it.) I haven’t seen it, so I am trying to keep an open mind. And certainly there is a case to be made that Keanu Reeves might be the Michael Rennie of our time. He is certainly well qualified to play an alien from outer space. But this movie is arguably appropriate for the holiday season because the story is, after all, a thinly veiled retelling of the story of Jesus. In the 1951 version, the Christ figure Klaatu was trying to save the world from nuclear escalation. In the new edition, he is apparently trying to save it from environmental destruction.

What is striking to me about Reeves’s characterization, at least from the few clips I have heard, is that he seems to be channeling Mr. Spock, as played by Leonard Nimoy. Now this leads to a whole other fleshing out of the symbolism of the movie. Mr. Spock, after all, is a Vulcan. And we have recently elected a Vulcan to be the next president of the United States. Coincidence? I think not.

Now some of you may wonder why I keep calling President-elect Obama a Vulcan. If this confuses you, simply go watch any episode of the series Star Trek: Voyager and tell me that Lieutenant Commander Tuvok is not the same person. He has obviously had some work done on the ears, but they still give him away. And for those of you who think you are way ahead of me with the Star Trek: Voyager angle, yes, I am well aware that Tuvok owes his presidency to the renegade Borg Seven of Nine. Hers was the second of two messy divorce cases that strangely paved the way for a relatively inexperienced state senator to beat formidable opponents in primary and general elections for the Senate. The way the records of both cases came unsealed when they did seems an awfully strange and lucky coincidence but, hey, I wouldn’t want to be caught implying that anything untoward would be going on in Illinois politics. Let’s leave all that to the past and just hope that President Klaatu will save us.

On that hopeful note, take my advice and spend less time watching the over-hyped holiday releases or watching the news, which is depressing, and settle down with some good old classic Christmas films. They may make you cry, but at least it will be for the right reasons.

-S.L., 18 December 2008

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