Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Ghosts of movies past

There is something about Christmas, especially as one grows older, that makes us reflect back on holidays past.

Strangely, the Christmases that stand most prominently in my memory are the ones when I was separated from family and friends. And, believe me, this says more about me than it could possibly say about my family and friends.

One that particularly sticks in my memory was when I was at the end of my 21st year and using my Christmas school break to hitchhike around Europe. I was taking advantage of every tip of a free place to stay I could get a hold of. A friend from California told me of a place in the Swiss Alps that would put me up if I were interested in exploring my religious side. The prospect of a warm bed was more than enough to open my mind, so off I went after a few days in another free place in Paris. But I had not taken into account that the Swiss place would be closed for Christmas. After a bit of desperation, I managed to land in a hostel along with a couple of guys from Colorado, who had had the same plan as I. The hostel was run by a nice couple (Belgian husband, English wife), who not only prepared us a Christmas dinner with goose and all the trimmings but who also surprised me with a birthday treat the next day, having spotted my birth date on my passport. The fact that I had gone from the prospect of sleeping rough somewhere on a mountain road to lucking into a lovely place like that made it a truly memorable and special holiday.

Another memorable Christmas did involve my family, but it wasn’t at all certain that we would be together. I was making my then-annual trek from Seattle to Central California, where I would be joining my parents on a further journey to Las Vegas, where my brother and his family lived. But the thousand-mile journey was complicated by an unusual blizzard and freeze that covered much of the West Coast. (Strangely, it was very similar to the freezing, icy weather we have been having in Ireland ever since, well, since that climate change conference in Copenhagen.) As if hours of driving on icy roads were not stressful enough (my friend Eric had warned me against going, saying in his usual colorful manner that “your ass will be chewing the seat the whole way”), my engine failed somewhere in the redwood forest. A friendly Quebecois couple in a van gave me a lift to the nearest town so that I could arrange a tow truck, but I would have to leave my car over the holidays. A ride to a car rental company could not be arranged until the following day, so I had to tell my parents not to wait for me and I would have to meet them in Vegas. When I finally got a car, it was Christmas Eve and I had nearly 700 miles to drive to get to Vegas. It was a long drive, much of it boring and the long, final stretch without a bend in the road across the Mojave Desert. But as the hours passed by in the dark with Christmas carols streaming out of the dashboard radio, I achieved a strangely Zen-like peace. I was a man with mission and a trunk full of gifts. I arrived at my brother’s house around midnight, dead tired and full of relief. As with the time in Switzerland, it was the uncertainty of how it would all turn out that made the holiday sweeter and out of the ordinary and easy to appreciate what was important.

The other thing that floods my memory about Christmases past is the movies. As with many people, for me it’s the movies that we see during the holiday time that builds fond recollections. The ones that first come to mind are the usual ones. For example, there is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, which I first saw, happily, on the big screen but, strangely, during the summer. It was at Seattle’s Crest Theater, back when it was doing repertory. But once I saw it, I had to see at Christmastime, which I have done many times. I often think of George Bailey every time I get a little exasperated when the knob on the banister comes off in my hand (or equivalent; our banister doesn’t actually have a knob).

I also remember staying up to all hours when I was in high school and watching the version of A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sim on a beat-up old black-and-white TV that my Uncle Harry had given me because he had bought it from a motel that was unloading them and it was so cheap that he couldn’t afford not to buy it even though he didn’t need another TV. Going further back, I have very fond memories of watching Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles on NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies at our neighbors’ house over the course of a long, festive evening.

Years later, in fact the same year of the redwood forest breakdown, another memory would be made when my parents and I took all the nieces and nephews to see a new hit movie called Home Alone. It was a magical moment before we all had had the chance to get tired of Macaulay Culkin. I thought of it as a John Hughes film (he wrote it), mainly because I only knew the director with the unlikely name (Chris Columbus) for having made Adventures in Babysitting. Little did I know that he would go one to also give us Mrs. Doubtfire and a couple of Harry Potter movies.

A perennial that I have seen on too many Christmases to count is Michael Curtiz’s White Christmas. Mostly I remember watching it on the couch with my mom, who was in her element when she could be watching faves like der Bingle and Rosemary Clooney. I still get upset when I think of that busybody Mary Wickes listening in on part of Bing’s telephone conversation and jumping to conclusions and nearly (oops, that’s a spoiler) putting the kibosh on Bing’s and Rosemary’s budding romance. And, as the years go by, I identify more and more when Bing tries to position a letter at just the right distance so that he can read it, quipping, “I’m playing a little trombone myself.”

My mom was a great one for sitting for hours on the couch watching movies—in stark contrast to the Missus, who is one of those people who always has to be “doing something.” Mom had a quirky sense of humor, so she got a kick out of movies like Home Alone and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (my parents always referred to any house that seemed overdone with too much gaudy display of Christmas lights “a Griswold house”) and Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story.

One Christmas movie memory that sticks in my head is a mere fragment. On one of my annual holiday visits to my parents’ house in California in the mid-1980s, I was busy with something or other that must have needed doing because I had no time to sit down and watch the movie that was on the TV. But it looked intriguing and it starred Loretta Young, who was still ravishing in her mid-70s. She was a wealthy woman who was intent on reuniting her estranged grandchildren with their father for Christmas. I figured that some other year I would get a chance to see it properly but I never saw it come up again on the TV schedule during subsequent holiday seasons. Maybe it wasn’t very good and that’s why it wasn’t trotted out again like so many Christmas movies are. Anyway, it couldn’t have been that bad because Young won a Golden Globe for it, and the movie received three other nominations. It was called Christmas Eve.

Like the Christmases that almost didn’t happen, maybe I remember Christmas Eve because it’s the movie that hasn’t yet become a proper memory.

Here’s hoping all your holiday memories are happy ones. Love and peace to all who are reading this.

-S.L., 24 December 2009

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