It’s a Wonderful Life
These classics have been supplemented in my lifeTIME with a few “newer” ones: A Christmas Story, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (which I can’t stand), and even Die Hard was added to the lineup after I left home. I like some of these movies and only can barely tolerate some. When I started out on my own, Christmas was put through the ringer, as I described before. And the movie-watching tradition was not exempt from my analysis!
So, what qualifies a Christmas movie? For most people, I think it has to pass two criteria: 1) It’s set around Christmastime; 2) It’s saccharine fluff.
For my family growing up, I think the rules were: 1) It’s set around Christmastime; 2) It’s good. Heh, so we skipped White Christmas.
My rules: 1) It’s good (got that from upbringing!); 2) It’s got something to do with a problem being solved by the hero stooping down/incarnating the situation. That’s what Christmas is all about for the Christian! Leave the schmaltz outta my Christmas, man.
From Frederick Buechner’s Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary :
Christmas itself is by grace. It could never have survived our own blindness and depredations otherwise. It could never have happened otherwise. Perhaps it is the very wildness and strangeness of the grace that has led us to try to tame it. We have tried to make it habitable. We have roofed it and furnished it. We have reduced it to an occasion we feel at home with, at best a touching and beautiful occasion, at worst a trite and cloying one. But if the Christmas event in itself is indeed—as a matter of cold, hard fact—all its cracked up to be, then even at best our efforts are misleading.
The Word became flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God… who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.”
Came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms. It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.
So the hero came down. In this sense, Die Hard is the only of my family’s Christmas movies worthy of the holiday! Didn’t John McLane enter a deadly situation to rescue his estranged bride?
On my new family’s list of Christmas movies, we have a very limited few. This year we pretty much just pigged out on Lord of the Rings. We’ve been reading the first book together and watching the movies, maybe in anticipation of the new Hobbit flick. The stories inside this book are very concerned with incarnation, quests, and restoration. The whole thing hangs on the removal of evil from Middle Earth, which is similar in tone to the mission that brought Christ to earth. You could use Sam’s devotion to Frodo as an illustration for Jesus relieving of us our burden and coming into the dark places for us (“I can’t carry it for you – but I can carry you!”) Or, the devastating light of Gandalf entering the world of the Wormtongue-crazed King Théoden could work as an illustration of Christ’s light entering the world (“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5)
I could go on.
The movie that I think best illustrates the peculiar power and reason for Christmas is The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, my favorite of all movies. The world is in awful shape as this movie starts. War has shut the city down, children are running scared and scattered, the walls will fall and death will trample on everyone inside. The condemned citizens of this city have no services at their disposal anymore. They can’t buy food from a shop, the shopkeepers have all gone. They can’t buy tickets on a coach, because they’ve all gone too. The only service still available to them is in the theatre. Those awaiting death can hear a story one last time before the Turks break through their walls.
The object of storytelling is debated often (at least around my friends it is). Is it edifying at all? Is it simply escapism? Is escapism a legitimate use of time? Well, I don’t think any of us would begrudge the denizens of this troubled town a few moments’ escape.
As the play is being performed, Sting is about to be executed for some unrealistic battlefield heroics because of the city’s strict adherence to Reason. A good guy’s act of derring-do saved lives, but it was a little hard to believe, so he’s being killed. This is a humorless place, not terribly unlike the world Christ entered.
Finally, the Great and True Storyteller emerges. Enter, the most unlikely of heroes:
“Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash and I’m delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever.”
The false storyteller is removed and the hero tells his story; his own story. The actors were trying to tell it, but failing. He not only sets them right, but changes the world by its telling.
First, we enter his reality. As the real Baron starts to talk, we don’t see reenactments of his adventures, or a fade-away to his memories. We go to the place of his adventures with him. From the “real world” a little girl believes him and accompanies him on his further adventures. As they go, he de-ages. He’s not an old man after all! He really is the hero, just disguised as a weak old man.
Baron Munchausen doesn’t simply enter the world of danger to save his people. He enters their world of danger and invites them, through storytelling, to step out of theirs and into his world of adventure and joy.
Old friends have forgotten (maybe never knew) and are revitalized by their new adventures with the Baron. The movie tells the story of a quest for the Baron’s story. When it’s found, he returns to the dark city besieged by Turks and he wins the battle!
The Word made Flesh indeed. The story is no longer told, but realized in the Incarnation of Christ, that second part of the eternal Trinity.
Baron : Gentleman, don’t you think it would be a good idea to silence those enemy cannons?
Gunner : No, sir.
Baron : No?
Gunner : It’s Wednesday.
Haha – the Baron’s battle against stupid bureaucracy is not that terribly unlike Christ’s own battle against the legalists of his day. You could picture Christ Himself saying, “Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash and I’m delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever.”
I could go on. As I admitted, it is my favorite movie.
Here’s a good thought: children believe in ways that grown-ups find very hard to do. Remember, Christ said, “Anyone who will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:17) I think this has something to do with believing the fairy stories. They’re not unbelievable because magical things don’t happen and so it’s hard to accept things like God becoming a man, or two fish and five loaves of bread feeding five thousand people. Magical things do happen. Those magical things did happen. The reason grown-ups find it hard to believe is because we’ve been trained to believe our lives really are made of up 160 pounds of flesh in a six-foot high frame. The magic has been pounded out of our heads by humorless atheists and practical politicians and self-help theologians.
Little Sally asks, but doesn’t have to, “It wasn’t just a story, was it?”
The Germans made a color film version in 1943. Beware a bit of nudity and sexual situations. I guess the Nazis didn’t mind a little skin! Sheesh!
Here is the 1943 version:
And here’s the 1961 version, made in the former Czechoslovakia, and with wonderful visual effects:
And here is an inspiring little music video tribute to the film that says in four minutes what I just took 1400 words to say: