Christmas Movies

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If you wanted to – that is to say, if there was something wrong with you – you could find a Christmas themed movie to watch every day of Advent. Each day you would open up a sickly sweet gooey gob of sentimentality (with the occasionally bitterly cynical nugget thrown in) and, depending on your nature, would either sneer in derision or sit, sniffling great snorting snotty tears. Most Christmas movies, as you can tell from my analysis, suck.

There are gems of course – often bittersweet pieces about personal redemption that may or may not require angelic or ghostly intervention, but generally can be watched as a life lesson about family, community and the role of good people in making the world a better place. White Christmas, for example, is completely without any kind of mysticism but is thoroughly uplifting – and a lot of fun, too. Its central theme is loyalty, between friends but on a larger stage as well.

On a more serious note, there is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the story of Harry Bailey and his struggle to support his family and make his community a better place. In this he faces the grasping banker, Potter, the very stereotype of the evil capitalist. One might think that Frank Capra, who directed it was some sort of socialist, but you would be wrong. Capra was a lifelong Republican who strongly opposed The New Deal and believed deeply in the American Dream. In fact, most of his movies were about how that dream had been suffocated by corrupt governments and evil rich people. As a conservative, Capra recognized that the American way of life depended on people being able to get ahead and that anything that prevented that – like excessive income inequality and monopoly capitalism – was a blight on the landscape. It’s a Wonderful Life is a paean to American capitalism – writ small – rather than a criticism of it.

A Christmas Carol – perhaps the most produced Christmas story ever with everything from serious renditions with Alistair Sims or Patrick Stewart to more frivolous examples like the Muppets or Scrooged with Bill Murray – is a slightly different kettle of fish. Dickens, while not much of a human being at a personal level, was a great reformer, viewing the excesses of the industrial revolution and the rising power of individual wealth as a danger not simply to society but to our humanity. He struggled in his writing and his personal campaigns to uncover the worst excesses of capitalism in early nineteenth century England. It is notable that Dickens relies on ghosts rather than angels to do his dirty work; he had a certain skepticism regarding the role of the Church – especially the high Anglican one – to actually make things better.

Rather, Scrooge is visited by three ghosts who are given the task of giving him three basic lessons, which can be simply stated as these:

  • No man is an island – everyone owes their wellbeing to those who went before and those who helped them; before anything, we are part of a community.
  • Hoarded money does no-one any good, not even the hoarder; we are all human and misery is ultimately shared, as is joy.
  • Money will not buy you happiness or a way into heaven and, if you are foolish about it, will not even buy you comfort or pleasure.

So there you have it. Christmas in a nutshell, whether you are a conservative or a progressive. Community, sharing and a beautiful dream.

And that’s ten minutes.

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Interstellar

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Most everyone I’ve read – mostly science fiction writers and fans – have described Interstellar as the best science fiction film of the last twenty years. There have certainly been comparisons to 2001 and so there should be – the references and homages to Kubrick’s classic were obvious. The focus of most people seems to have been on the space travel component and the treatment of concepts like relativity and the effect of gravity on space and time. And that was excellent. Spoilers ahead.

But to me the real strength of the movie revolved around the backstory of environmental collapse and the consequences for society when the planet can no longer sustain the human quest for more stuff. Whether you want to pin the blame on climate change or the depredations of Monsanto, the message is clear: we are pushing the world toward another extinction event and our only hope is… well, what is it? Abandon the planet or fix it?

At first neither seems possible. Science has run up against the wall. In fact, for most of the people involved, science has been thankfully abandoned (the Apollo mission was fake – which is another way of saying that progress is a lie — a central theme of all ultra-conservatives) as people subside into survival mode. Just hanging on and hoping that next year will be better.

But can science overcome human nature? Some certainly think not. Dr. Mann has abandoned hope – his view is that individual survival is understandable but that people are incapable of thinking in the abstract, of acting in ways that ensure the survival of the species even if their own survival and that of their children is the price to pay. It certainly is a conundrum but people have shown themselves capable of working on things they know will never be completed in their lifetimes. Visit the cathedrals of Europe most of which took 400 or more years to construct and you will see what I mean.

Others – Professor Brand – pretend to be almost there with the solution, even though he knows that the answer can’t be found without more data. He fakes his work so that people won’t lose hope. His plan B is plan A all along. He abandoned individual humans long ago so that the species can continue. He incorporates recursiveness in his equations as a way to hide the awful truth.

This is all well and good but really, isn’t that what we all do? None of us expect to actually reach the promised land but we all work hard to take a few more steps on the journey so that our children , grandchildren, or if you are like me and have never produced any, the children and grandchildren of our neighbours can have a better life. Individual selfishness is certainly a barrier to that but not in the simplistic way you might think.

What I really liked about the movie was the way it seemed to include a mystical element without ever having one. The solution seems to come from advanced aliens who want to help us (i.e. God) but in fact comes from the human future. But the person transmitting the message is from the present, from someone who only wants, selfishly, his children to survive.

In other words, the answer to our current problems can only be solved by us – in the present – driven by selfish motives that are ultimately altruistic. The answers don’t come from God; they certainly don’t come from abandoning science or accepting second best solutions because the real solution is too hard. It comes from the on-going scientific conversation and keeping an eye on the future. While the temptation always exists to hold onto what we have and fight fires as they come, to constantly look to the ‘more simple’ past, the world can’t take any more of that. The future is coming, one second at a time, and we need to prepare for it rather than deny it.

And that’s what good science fiction is: a conversation with the future.

I just wish all the actors didn’t mumble so much.

And that’s somewhat more than ten minutes.