Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas Movies

The longer I go without posting, the more pressure there is to write a post worth reading, when I do. And yet. My ideas for posts are pretty much limited to 1) a review of the quality of various web-based job search engines 2) fretful soul searching about what kind of job I really want, and how much I'm willing to compromise, and whether it's inevitable that women will always compromise more than men 3) that really weird dream I had last night. Y'know, I'm an anxious person. I could fill three blogs with my anxiety. But who wants to read that? Although Woody Allen's made a pretty good career out of it, come to think of it...

Anyway, that leaves me with little to write about besides the Christmas movies we've watched so far this year: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, We're No Angels (1955), While You Were Sleeping. Three movies that manage to be sweet without being saccharine (okay, maybe While You Were Sleeping counts as saccharine.)

Christmas Vacation
and While You Were Sleeping actually go pretty well together. The latter is about a lonely woman who wants a family so badly that she's willing to resort to fraud to join one. "Lucy, you're born into a family. You do not join them like you do the Marines."

But the family she's trying to join is almost as ridiculous as the Griswolds of National Lampoon fame. Watching them together makes one really appreciate one's ridiculous relatives and in-laws. (Eddie: "Yeah, I got the daughter in the clinic, getting cured off the Wild Turkey. And, the older boy, bless his soul, is preparing for his career." Clark: "College?" Eddie: "Carnival." Clark: "You got to be proud.")

We're No Angles has a similar theme. Three escaped convicts find themselves caring about a family they'd meant to rob. "We came here to rob them and that's what we're gonna do - beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, slash their throats. Soon as we wash the dishes." The convicts are lonely.

One thing I see, watching these movies and others like them, is how much harder it is to be "normal" than I thought as a kid. I used to think that getting married, having a house and a family and a decent job was the easy road. Every family I knew had that. Now I see that's because of selection bias. Partly it's that people who've won themselves stable relationships and jobs are more likely to have kids. And then my sample was skewed even further by the neighborhoods I grew up in and the people we knew. Now I know more people, and now I've had a taste of how much work and luck are actually involved in achieving the kind of by turns tedious and ridiculous life. It's sort of the opposite of the message you get from a movie like American Beauty. I sort of want to see Chevy Chase's character and Kevin Spacey's character have a beer and talk about it. They're similar guys, and they both have... fantasies, but ultimately Clark Griswold is happy, despite everything.

A recent New York Times article points out that some of that same tension -- family vs freedom -- is at the core of that other classic Christmas movie, It's a Wonderful Life.

And I've got one more movie to throw into the mix, with, I think, a related theme: Trainspotting. Just read the opening monologue. So much disdain for the kind of family life that Christmas movies celebrate. But the alternative he gives is heroin addiction, and whatever else the movie does, it doesn't make heroin addiction seem like an attractive lifestyle.

When you're a kid, you can't help but take for granted the kind of life you're born into. If that life is relatively secure, and everyone you know lives the same way, and if you haven't lived long enough to see institutions crumble and to experience failure, then you're not going to understand how small the kind of island of stability that you grew up in probably is. Though it may seem boring, stability is in fact a difficult achievement in a chaotic world. Just ask Zuzu.

Christmas movies seem to be the designated genre for reminding us of this, and I really appreciate them more, as an adult.

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