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

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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





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