Counterprogramming Capra: The Points Holiday Viewing List

Editor’s Note:  Okay: you’ve read Joe Spillane’s thoughts on Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, but maybe even his Points-inspired re-viewing of the film can’t get you excited about ol’ George Bailey and all that guardian angel stuff.  For all those who simply can’t stand any more cinematic Christmas cheer (Acker, Ambler, McClellan, Roizen, Spillane)– or who need their holidays leavened with some drugs and alcohol (Herrera, Long, Travis)– the Points staff offers the following suggestions.

Not-so-Righteous Dopefiend Carmen Sternwood

Caroline Acker:  In The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946), the errant ways of Carmen Sternwood (the younger sister of the Lauren Bacall character) drive the plot.  In one scene, she is apparently high on opium, which she’s been given in exchange for posing for pornographic pictures– which are retailed around town by a known “fairy,” Arthur Geiger.   To cement the image of Geiger as decadent and depraved, the photo shoot takes place in his house, which is decorated with Chinese objects; the dopey Carmen is dressed in Chinese-style garb.  The creepy Orientalist narcotics netherworld is juxtaposed throughout the film to the wholesome and alcohol-drenched realm where Bogey and Bacall do their thing.

Chuck Ambler: I’m not an expert on African cinema, but the recent arrest and eventual exoneration (after a “poop watch”) of Nigerian film actor and comedian, Baba Suwe got me thinking about whether drug use and drug trafficking are common plot lines in the hundreds of video films produced each year by Nigeria’s film industry—Nollywood.  I haven’t come up with any yet, but one could turn to Chris Obi Rapu’s classic 1992 hit, Living in Bondage (the film that pretty much created Nollywood) as a metaphor for addiction.  Like many Nollywood films, this one features lots of drinking in up-scale homes and commercial bars and cocktail lounges, but the plot turns in this movie (as in many Nigerian films) on a young man ensnared by witchcraft– and ultimately saved by Christian faith.  Many Nollywood films are available on line.

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Do Some Blow

Brian Herrera:  Less Than Zero (Marek Kanievska, 1987).  A college freshman comes home to Los Angeles for Christmas break and discovers that he can’t fix the coke-broken lives of his friends.
Go (Doug Liman, 1999).  A drug deal gone wrong makes for a mad mad mad Christmas Eve in this comedy-thriller.
Rent (Chris Columbus, 2005).  Christmas Eve marks both the start and finish for the five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes of the year in which everything changes for a group of NYC friends (including star-crossed and drug-addicted lovers Mimi and Roger).

Amy Long: It should be noted that Brian Herrera beat me to the punch and named not one but two (!!) of the movies I’d thought of listing here– Go and Less than Zero– so in his honor I want to recommend How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Chuck Jones, 1966).  No hard feelings, though; I just had to pull a little harder to come up with the titles that follow.  The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939): Okay, so maybe not technically a movie about drugs or alcohol–and certainly not about the holidays.  But what’s more psychedelic than talking lions and scarecrows, a technicolor dreamworld, and flying monkeys? Plus, the movie features probably the most vivid depiction of a poppy field since the arrival of color film, if not ever. When I was growing up, one of the networks played it every Christmas, so in my mind it’s  a holiday movie.  Next, The Ice Storm (Ien Ang, 1997): Based on Rick Moody’s 1994 novel, The Ice Storm is awash with alcohol, drugs, 60s nostalgia, and just what everyone needs more of on these occasions, family angst. As the title suggests, it’s set during a particularly icy holiday season.  “Dear Lord, thank you for this Thanksgiving holiday,” daughter Wendy [Christina Ricci] intones, “and for all the material possessions we have and enjoy. And for letting us white people kill all the Indians and steal their tribal lands, and stuff ourselves like pigs, even though children in Asia are being napalmed.”  Bonus: Go co-star Katie Holmes appears as Tobey Maguire’s love interest.  And finally, how about A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2011).

Oh Christmas Weed, Oh Christmas Weed!

I’ll admit that I’ve not yet seen the Harold and Kumar Christmas movie, which came out in November, but I’m always down for a stoner movie, and I unabashedly adored the first two Harold and Kumar films, so I think I may sit down and watch this sometime before the season passes. Weed, witty race jokes, and – what? – 3D!  What more can one ask of a Christmas movie?

Michelle McClellan: The Days of Wine and Roses (Blake Edwards, 1962). Many movies have followed and attempted the sincerest form of flattery, imitation, but few if any have matched this film, let alone exceeded it.  Students may giggle at other mid-century films that seem campy or dated, but this one leaves them speechless.  The differential fates of the male and female protagonists at the end of the movie tell you everything you need to know about gendered concepts of alcoholism in the 20th century United States.

Where are the Balls on that Tree?

Ron Roizen: The recent film Crazy, Stupid, Love (Glen Ficarra, John Requa, 2011)– which, incidentally, had more going for it than I expected — is the story of a middle-aged man whose wife has an affair and proposes to leave him.  The man (played by Steve Carell) moves out and spends evenings at an upscale bar fully supplied with attractive and eligible women.  He, however, drinks in solitude, muttering about his cruel fate.  After a few evenings, a super-stud bar-goer (Ryan Gosling) takes pity on Carell’s character and decides to instruct him in the art of the pick-up.  Gosling’s character has heard Carell’s character’s mutterings; he suggests that the wife left because Carell’s character,  somewhere along the way in their marriage, “lost his manhood.”  The first item in Gosling’s character’s re-education program is changing the way Carell’s character  drinks.  He mocks him for drinking through a straw and ordering a fruit-sweetened cocktail; men don’t drink that way.  The story moves on to changing other aspects of Carell’s presentation of self, but it begins with so simple a matter as how to drink a drink and what drink not to order.

Joe Spillane: When it comes to gift-giving for the true film buff, you can’t beat video releases from the Criterion Collection.  For years, they’ve been known not only for the technical quality of the films they present, but for the bonus features that accompany them.  If you love film, Criterion offers the whole package.  And now, in time for holiday gift giving (and viewing), here comes a box set called America Lost and Found: The BBS Story.  “BBS” was Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner, three producers who, in the words of the liner notes, “knew that what Hollywood needed was new audiences—namely, young people—and that meant cultivating new talent and new ideas.”   What’s in the box for Points readers?  To begin, 1969′s Easy Rider (Dir: Dennis Hopper), perhaps the single most notable counterculture film of the 60s.  You can’t wrench out the “drug” aspects of the film from the whole–they’re not separable, nor is the film reducible to them–but from first to last, Easy Rider’s got a lot to say about freedom and restraint in the psychoactive world.  And we’re not talking just about marijuana or LSD–Jack Nicholson’s “George” is personally and socially restrained by his use of alcohol, a frequent stand-in for the countercultural critique of mainstream hypocrisy and sedation.  Watch another classic in the box, Five Easy Pieces  (Bob Rafelson, 1970), with George and his drinking in mind, and you’ll see more of the same sense of alcohol’s connection to a fading American dream; The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdonavich, 1971) does much of the

Lost & Found: the Pre-Self-Parody Era

same.  Of course, the box set also gives you the Monkees’ absurd 1968 Head (Dir: Bob Rafelson), about as unwatchable an example of the psychedelic aesthetic as you’ll ever want to see.  That same psychedelic ambition shows itself in another generally disappointing but historically interesting film in this collection, 1971′s A Safe Place (Henry Jaglom).  None of these will make you nostalgic for the ’60s, but you’ll gain a better appreciation for the ambitions of the moment.

Trysh Travis: Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa (2003) is loaded with profanity, scatological humor, and rank political incorrectness, not to mention raging alcoholism– it might best be understood as Miracle on 34th Street Noir.  There are so many opportunities for the film to pull its punches and start mushing out– if you’re like me, your viewing pleasure will actually be spoiled by the fact that you’re worrying that your viewing pleasure is about to be spoiled by some softening in the script or in Billy Bob Thornton’s relentless performance in the title role.  But the levels of acerbic bile stay remarkably consistent throughout, and even the “happy” ending remains sharp.  If going home for the holidays makes you feel sixteen years old again, and you’re looking for a way to annoy your mom but you can’t blast your stereo because you want your own kids to sleep, watching Bad Santa in the family room might just about do it.

Ho Ho Ho

Editor’s Note: Points will be on a “lite” schedule over the holidays, posting content only intermittently through 15 January.  Check back with us then for a celebration of one year of madcap blogging, as well as for new posts, new contributors, and continuing jabs at the mainstream media, academic publishing, and ideological cretins on the left and right alike.  Til then:

“Arrive Alive–Don’t Drink and Drive!”

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