The best anti-capitalism Christmas films

24 12 2010

As Tom Lehrer once said: “Christmas is the time when we all get to reflect on

The Christmas holiday season can be big business for the movie industry

The Christmas holiday season can be big business for the movie industry

what we most truly and sincerely believe in. I’m referring of course to money”. Like him I suspect that most of us view the commercialisation of Christmas at best as a mixed blessing. However it’s become an inescapable fact that the modern holiday season has become a huge exercise in generating cash. Hollywood was typically quick to jump on this bandwagon and over the years has produced literally hundreds of Christmas-themed movies. Here then is my list of the five of the best that aren’t trying to sell you anything, and put the boot into capitalism as well.

 1) It’s a Wonderful Life

On the face of it this isn’t the most cheering of films, featuring as it does James Stewart attempting to commit suicide, but I can’t think of a better anti-capitalism Christmas movie than this. The villain of the film, Mr Potter (Boo! Hiss!) is a stock broker and for extra topicality it also features a run on the banks.

2) Die Hard

Not the most obvious choice for this list but it’s set at Christmas so it counts. Money-obsessed baddie Hans Gruber (played by Alan Rickman doing his best German accent) attempts to rob a huge Japanese corporation by invading its head offices during the Christmas party and taking the staff hostage. His plan is foiled by plucky cop Bruce Willis. Initially armed with just a vest and a couple of iconic one-liners he defeats the bad guys and wins his estranged wife back at the same time, while she learns that family matters more than her corporate career.

3) Miracle on 34th Street

Not the horrible 1994 remake (Richard Attenborough should have known better) but the 1947 original. Here a department store Santa turns out to be the real thing as he teaches those around him the true meaning of Christmas. One of the few films where the hero is saved at the end by the US Post Office.

4) The Muppet Christmas Carol

Who would have thought that the Great Gonzo would turn out to be the definitive Charles Dickens of his generation? Almost every year someone attempts to make their own version of Dickens’ classic tale, as the book’s themes are truly timeless, but this is one of the better attempts. Scrooge has spent a lifetime accumulating wealth and power only to discover that money can’t buy him happiness. While there are many fine versions of A Christmas Carol, this is one of my favourites as it’s both a musical and features talking animals.

5) Scrooged

Yet another Dickens’ adaptation, this time starring Bill Murray as an evil TV executive who is visited by the three ghosts. This is a gleefully satirical attack on pretty much every Christmas institution you care to mention and features Lee Majors as a machine gun armed Santa. Classic stuff.

And just for balance here is the worst Christmas movie of all time:

The Star Wars Holiday Special

Few of you will ever have seen this monstrosity as George Lucas, in a rare moment of wisdom, has banned it from ever being shown again and used his vast wealth to destroy all copies. However, thanks to the wonders of modern technology it’s been preserved on YouTube as a terrible warning to future generations. Made just after the first Star Wars movie, this TV film features Han Solo and friends attempting to get Chewbacca to his home planet to celebrate Christmas. No one wanted to appear in this but were forced to due to their contracts. It’s hard to choose what is the worst part but here are some of the more cringe inducing: Harrison Ford visibly drunk, Princess Leia singing, Jefferson Starship turning up to help out. The Star Wars Holiday special is quite possibly the most cynical movie ever made and a naked attempt to extort money from gullible fans.

Dr Matthew Ashton is based in the Division of Politics and Sociology in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences





Pantomime and national identity

22 12 2010
Lifting the curtain on a very British art form

Lifting the curtain on a very British art form

Each country around the world celebrates Christmas in its own way with traditions unique to that location. For instance, in Britain nothing says Christmas to me more clearly then the bumper double issue of the Radio Times, brussels sprouts for dinner, and the annual showing of The Great Escape on BBC2.

I saw in the paper recently that the USA have just discovered the joys of the uniquely British institution of pantomime, and are attempting to stage one in Los Angeles.

While I applaud their efforts I have doubts about how successful this venture will be. Pantomime is a very British art form and whenever I’ve tried to take American friends to see one they’ve always come away more bemused than entertained.

Here then is a quick run through of some of the main features you’d expect to find in the perfect panto:

Cross-dressing

Apparently my American friends sat through the entire first half of Dick Whittington without realising that the young lady playing the hero was actually meant to be a man. “But she’s wearing tights and a mini-skirt”, they protested. “If she’s playing a guy surely she should at least be in trousers”. I had to explain that in pantomime the hero is always played by a woman, as is the heroine. The fact that the hero’s mother, the Dame, was also played by a man only added to the confusion. They later commented to me in the pub afterwards that they didn’t realise cross-dressing was such a big part of British culture.

The non-human characters

While most of the characters in pantomime are played by humans the best ones are usually the non-human performers. A few years back I saw Basil Brush playing the chief of police in Aladdin at the Nottingham Theatre Royal. I use the word playing in the loosest sense though. While the other actors made at least some effort to look like they were from an Arabian country, Basil was still dressed like an English country gentleman. Whether it’s Keith Harris and Orville, Basil Brush or Sooty and Sweep, every good pantomime should have a talking puppet (or non-talking in Sooty and Sweep’s case). Of course, the best thing to have from a comedy point of view is a pantomime horse, but they’re depressingly rare these days.

The jokes

A good pantomime is a weird mixture of contemporary satire and ancient music hall routines. Hence there has to be lots of thigh slapping, lashings of innuendo and some truly terrible puns. For example “A boiled egg in the morning is hard to beat” or “A bicycle can’t stand on its own because it’s two-tyred”. A lot of modern pantomime jokes are straight out of a Tommy Cooper routine from 1974 and that’s half the charm.

The audience participation

Unlike most forms of theatre where the audience has to just sit back and watch the action on stage, pantomime actively encourages everybody to get involved. This can range from shouting out well known catch phrases; “Oh no it isn’t” and “She’s behind you” to singing a song towards the end. For some reason this is usually “Row, row, row your boat”, and the audience are split into sections to sing the different parts. If they do well they’re usually rewarded by having sweets thrown at them. You don’t get that with Chekhov!

Dr Matthew Ashton is based in the Division of Politics and Sociology in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences





It’s in the bag! A look at one academic’s favourite fashion accessories for Christmas 2010

21 12 2010

Lee Mattocks, a lecturer in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Art and Design, takes a look at some of his favourite bags for this season.

– Envelope bags are among the most practical and chic accessory inventions of the past decades. Simple outfits look fabulous when topped with similar details as it creates the perfect vibe to make a real statement with your look. Inspired by Marianne Faithfull, Alexander McQueen’s Faithful Glove Clutch is the cool girl’s essential accessory. The rock inspired piece will vamp up your Christmas wardrobe and you will be safe in the knowledge that you’ve bagged yourself a serious classic.

– Retro-inspired fashion lives its second heyday for autumn/winter 2010. Handbags for this season also adapt the vision of designers who are eager to re-invent and upgrade the old-style trends. The latest accessory trend breathes life into the classy designs and tailoring of more sporty style bags, some of these are larger in order to provide us with enough space to carry all our essentials when doing the family circuit this Christmas. Crafted from soft crinkled leather and featuring a shimmering patent finish, YSL’s Easy medium tote is guaranteed to make a statement.

– Williams British Handmade’s, contemporary and refreshing take on traditional luggage uses historical craftsmanship to create luxury leather goods completely stitched by hand in the UK. Produced in collaboration with accomplished metal-workers using the highest quality bridle leather, a WBH briefcase is at the top of my wish list this season. Winner of ‘Accessory Collection of the Year’ amongst numerous other awards, it demonstrates the desire and support for historical craftsmanship for the modern consumer. 

– Of all the quilted bags this season, Smythson’s Nancy Tote in dove gray is a firm favourite of mine. Beautifully crafted in terms of leather craftsmanship and understated hardware, this simply elegant piece will be at the top of many Christmas wish lists. No loud colours or big logos to be found, this understated accessory comes in a larger tote as well.





Christmas horticulture

21 12 2010

Some information, tips and gardening advice on the plants associated with Christmas.

Caroline Wright – lecturer in horticulture at Nottingham Trent University’s School of Animal Rural and Environmental Science

To speak to Caroline, call the University Press Office directly on 0115 848 8785 or email christmas@ntu.ac.uk.





So here it is, merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun: Christmas and psychological wellbeing

20 12 2010
Materialistic aspects of modern Christmas celebrations may in fact undermine psychological wellbeing

Materialistic aspects of modern Christmas celebrations may in fact undermine psychological wellbeing

Given the religious and cultural significance of Christmas is it surprising that so little psychological research has been carried out into what it means for people in contemporary society and its effect on psychological wellbeing. In fact, most psychological research has examined the more negative effects such as whether psychiatric admissions and suicide rates increase over the festive period.

However, an interesting 2002 study entitled “What makes for a Merry Christmas?” was carried out in the USA by Tim Kasser and Kennon Sheldon of Knox University (Illinois) and published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. (No, I didn’t know such a journal existed either!). The study built on previous research by Kasser, who showed that people whose lives are focused on goals such as intimacy and community feeling report greater psychological wellbeing, whereas those people who are more concerned with money, possessions, and image were less happy.

In relation to Christmas more specifically, other previous research has indicated that there are seven main types of activities that occur during the Christmas holidays. These are (i) spending time with family; (ii) participating in religious activities; (iii) maintaining traditions (e.g., decorating a Christmas tree); (iv) spending money on others via the purchase of gifts; (v) receiving gifts from others; (vi) helping others less fortunate than ourselves; and (vii) enjoying the sensual aspects of the holiday (e.g., good food, drinking, etc.).

Through the use of a survey, Kasser and Sheldon examined these seven experiences and activities that are associated with Christmas wellbeing using the ‘Satisfaction With Life Scale’. All the participants in their study were presented with 25 “experiences and activities” and asked to rate “how much each experience actually occurred during the previous Christmas season” on a scale of 1 to 5 (where a score of ‘1’ indicated that it was “completely absent” and a score of 5’ indicated that it “occurred a great deal”).

The questions were given to adults aged from 18 to 80. Overall, the study found that around three-quarters of the respondents had a satisfactory Christmas holiday whereas only 10% had a very bad Christmas holiday. However, just under half of the sample (44%) said they had a stressful Christmas despite being satisfied.  The average scores (out of five) for each of the seven activities was in order of occurrence: spending time with the family (4.05); enjoying food and drink, etc. (3.22); religious activities (2.88); traditional activities (2.87); spending money on other people (2.84); receiving gifts from other people  (2.40); and helping others (2.44).

Their research also showed that more happiness was reported during the holiday period when family and religious experiences were particularly important, and lower wellbeing occurred when spending money and receiving gifts predominated. They also reported that, in general, males were much happier and less stressed than females during the Christmas holidays. Older individuals reported greater Christmas happiness, although this effect, Kasser and Sheldon argued, was largely explained by more frequent experiences of religion. There were no differences on any other demographic factors including income, education, or marital status (i.e., being rich, clever and in a relationship does not appear to have any influence on how good Christmas is).

Kasser and Sheldon concluded that the materialistic aspects of modern Christmas celebrations may in fact undermine psychological wellbeing, while family and spiritual activities may help people to feel more satisfied. So why is this the case? Kasser and Sheldon suggested that both family and religion provide satisfaction of needs for relatedness to others, which is a well-known determinant of positive functioning.

Professor Mark Griffiths is based in the Psychology Division in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences





The psychology of games

16 12 2010
People will be out to prove their superiority at the games boards this Christmas

People will be out to prove their superiority at the games boards this Christmas

Christmas is perhaps the one guaranteed time of year that families up and down the country get together and play games. I don’t know about you, but it is one of our family traditions to play inter-generational games for hours on end on Boxing Day afternoon.

Most of us love to play games – especially if we win! I like nothing better than an afternoon at the Scrabble board – but even if I lose, I have usually had a good time along the way. So what is the fascination with games? Why do we play them? How are games categorized? And what makes some games so successful and others not?

Why do we play games? Game playing is a free and voluntary activity, a source of joy and amusement bounded by precise limits of time and space as well as what the sociologist Erving Goffman called “a world building activity”. Sigmund Freud was one of the first people to concentrate on the functions of playing games. He speculated that game playing provided a temporary leave of absence from reality that reduced individual conflict and brought about a change from the passive to the active. More modern thinking is that people play games to concentrate on a limited stimulus field, in which they can use skills to meet clear demands, thereby forgetting their own problems and separate identity.

Games provide the opportunity to prove one’s superiority, the desire to challenge and overcome an obstacle and a medium by which to test one’s skill, endurance and ingenuity. Games, unlike some activities (including life itself!) tell us whether we have won or lost. Sociologists have argued that in the context of a competitive and materialistic culture that has become increasingly regimented and standardized with little room for individual creativity and personal achievement, games offer the illusion of control over destiny and circumstance.

How are games categorized?  Perhaps the best categorisation of game types was formulated by the French anthropologist Roger Caillois who listed four classifications. These were: agon (games involving competition), alea (games involving chance), mimicry (games involving simulation) and ilinx (games involving vertigo – such as children spinning round and round). In the context of games like chess, poker, Scrabble and Monopoly, alea and agon are crucial in that they offer a combination of skill, chance and luck.

Most people desire opportunities to test their strength and skill against an adversary, and those games that offer a component of skill or talent combined with luck and chance provide the most favourable conditions. This is particularly prevalent in males who are deemed “masculine” if during the socialization process they show (socially) important traits such as courage, independence and bravery. Another interesting observation is that in games involving winners and losers the real prize is often status as opposed to positive material gain. Thus, by taking risks, reputations are built and winners gain social rewards.

What makes a successful game? Nearly all successful games (e.g. chess, Scrabble, backgammon, card games, various video games, etc) share fundamental similarities. These factors determine whether games become firmly established or simply fade away and include the capacity for skill development, a large bibliography, people to play against (including competitions and tournaments), and, in contemporary culture, corporate sponsorship and advertising. Let’s look at these briefly in turn.

All good games are relatively easy to play but can take a lifetime to become truly adept. I would therefore argue that the capacity for continued skill development is important for an activity’s continued popularity and future existence. Secondly, for games of any complexity there must be a bibliography that people can reference and consult. Without books and magazines to instruct and provide information there will be no development and the activity will die. The sheer number of monthly game magazines on the market again demonstrates how healthy the game industry is! Thirdly there needs to be people to play with or against. At the serious end this will include competitions and tournaments. Without somewhere to play and likeminded people to play with there will be little development within the field over long periods of time. This is very much linked to the capacity for skill development as the best players in any activity will want competitive arenas in which they can demonstrate their dexterity, prowess, physical and mental reaction time, problem solving ability and overall game play. Finally – and very much a sign of the times – no leisure activity can succeed today without corporate sponsorship and advertising of some kind.

So when you are playing Monopoly with Auntie Cheryl and cousin Frank on Boxing Day afternoon, just remember that there is more to games than the sheer enjoyment of playing.

Professor Mark Griffiths is the Director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University





Political skills for a perfect Christmas

15 12 2010
Be sure to sit family members who don't like one another at opposite ends of the dinner table this Christmas

Be sure to sit family members who don't like one another at opposite ends of the dinner table this Christmas

They say being a politician is one of the hardest jobs in the world, but personally I’d argue that hosting the perfect family Christmas is much more difficult. In order to cope without losing your sanity, the following political skills are vital:

Resource management

This is not just about making sure everybody receives an equal number of roast potatoes at dinner. Gift giving is a complex process of working out how much you can afford to spend and then trying to find the perfect gift for less. At the same time though you have to make sure that whatever you give is of roughly equal value to what you expect to receive in return. Spend too little and you look mean, spend too much and you could potentially embarrass the other person. One thing all parents should remember is to have a good supply of batteries handy, otherwise the expensive new electronic toy you’re bought for your offspring will be useless until the day after Boxing Day when you can find a shop that sells them.

Diplomacy

If Christmas is about anything it’s about not offending people. Therefore you need to make sure that members of your family who don’t like each other are seated at opposite ends of the dining table. Equally, it’s important to be able to listen with good grace to the advice of the 101 people who will try to tell you where you’re going wrong while you’re cooking the dinner (but won’t actually offer to help you prepare it).

The power of persuasion

A vital quality, especially when you’re woken up at 6am by over-excited children demanding to open their presents. The eloquence needed to convince them to go back to bed for a few hours’ much needed sleep might strain even Obama. It’s often just as difficult to persuade the same children to stop playing their video games so that an elderly relative can watch the Queen’s speech.

Tact

The ability to say, “Yes Grandmother, of course I like this sweater”, when she hands you something horrible, green and orange that is clearly four sizes too big and made out of the itchiest wool known to mankind.

Bravery

This is being able to wear the said sweater outside on the customary post Christmas lunch walk, despite the mockery of other members of your family.

Dr Matthew Ashton, lecturer in politics in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences