With its visions of Red Ryder BB guns, doddering angels and overgrown elves, the Christmas movie constitutes a genre unto itself — even if it's essentially the artificial tree of the cinematic canon. Just like the aluminum spruce that until three days ago was fending off dust mites in a Hefty bag, it'll be tucked away in the closet on Dec. 27 and forgotten for 11 months.
Not at Alonso Duralde's house. For fans of Yuletide movies who think they've seen it all, the veteran film critic's got a brand-new bag. His new book Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas (Limelight Editions, $16.99) is a guide to Christmas movies that doesn't give off that moldy fruitcake tang of familiarity. Maybe that's because Duralde's celluloid stocking stuffers include Christmas crime movies (the nasty John Cusack noir The Ice Harvest), holiday horrors (the 1974 sorority slasher Black Christmas), ghostly Swedes (Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander), and duds he terms "lumps of coal" (sorry, partisans of Thomas Kincade's Christmas Cottage).
Perhaps best known for his stints as film critic for The Advocate and MSNBC.com, Duralde's a familiar face from TV's The Rotten Tomatoes Show and The Grid; you may also have seen him in special features on the Brokeback Mountain and Valley of the Dolls DVDs. But he got his start in Nashville in the 1980s, contributing to E. Thomas Wood's seminal zine The Fireplace Whiskey Journal, and other publications. Now on a cross-country book tour, the author and former festival programmer returns to his alma mater, Vanderbilt, for a book signing and a free screening of The Nightmare Before Christmas at Sarratt Cinema at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 8. We detained his sleigh for a brief interrogation.
Q. This book looks like a project that started life around a dinner table one Christmas. Did it start with an observation about how many bizarre nontraditional Christmas movies were out there, or did it start with a particular movie?
Actually, I've been asked several times over the years to create lists of alternative Christmas movies for various publications ... and if memory serves, I wrote my first one for the Nashville Banner back in 1988. But generally speaking, I'm a big fan of Christmas — I start listening to carols on Nov. 1, and we entertain a lot. (When I'm not on a book tour, that is.)
Q. What was the first Christmas movie you remember seeing?
Probably It's a Wonderful Life, back when it was seemingly always on television; it was probably several more years before I actually saw the whole thing start to finish and not in pieces while changing channels.
Q. Almost every great Christmas movie — with the obvious example being It's a Wonderful Life — has a stout dose of despair. Is misery hard-wired into the Christmas-movie genre?
Well, it's all about contrast — if Christmas movies were joyous from start to finish, there wouldn't be much drama. The power of watching a character hit rock bottom and then finding redemption through the spirit of the season, is what makes so many Christmas stories so satisfying.
Q. Who made the best screen Santa, and who made the worst?
Well, I think Edmund Gwenn's portrayal of Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street remains pretty unassailable, although Ed Asner is pretty terrific in Elf. And while there are plenty of terrible movies about Santa — Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Santa Claus: The Movie, the Mexican Santa Claus — the worst performance is probably Alberto Rabagliati in the awful The Christmas That Almost Wasn't. Although granted, it might be the fault of the terrible dubbing.
Q. Is there an actor/actress you consider the reigning deity of Christmas cinema?
Bing Crosby still holds the crown, thanks to the troika of Holiday Inn, The Bells of St. Mary's and White Christmas, although John Cusack is sneaking up on him with The Sure Thing, Better Off Dead and The Ice Harvest.
Q. Switches and ashes aren't cheap. What battered VHS tape should Santa give rotten kids instead?
I can't imagine worse punishment than sitting through Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, an ultra-low-budget kiddie movie shot in Florida, where Saint Nick finds himself stranded in the Sunshine State.
Q. One director, the late Bob Clark, gave the world not only A Christmas Story but also the proto-slasher movie Black Christmas. Which do you find scarier?
Despite the best efforts of certain cable networks, I'm still not tired of A Christmas Story, but I love the fact that the same filmmaker is responsible for two such different — yet beloved — holiday tales. Those creepy phone calls in Black Christmas still give me the willies.
Q. Die Hard: great Christmas movie, or greatest Christmas movie?
Well, it's Top Five for sure, and definitely greatest Christmas movie where lots of stuff blows up. It's been fascinating to find out from so many people that Die Hard is an annual movie tradition in their house.
Q. Why are there so many bleak crime movies set at Christmastime? I don't just mean The Ice Harvest or even Bad Santa; practically the entire Shane Black filmography (from Lethal Weapon to The Long Kiss Goodnight to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) constitutes a war on Christmas.
Well, sometimes what makes Christmas interesting as a backdrop is the dichotomy between the cheery season of giving and dark deeds being perpetrated by desperate and greedy individuals. Setting a crime movie at Christmas just makes everything look seamier.
Q. Is there any genre that has proved stubbornly resistant to Christmas decoration? I'm having a hard time thinking of hot sex movies with a holiday angle, though I'd happily be proved wrong.
I'm of the never-say-never school, because while certain genres seem like they'd never work with a holiday feeling, someone is out there waiting to prove you wrong. In the book, I point out a handful of gay indies that have tried to pull off Christmas to varying degrees of success, but I remain hopeful that some queer auteur out there is going to get the formula right.
Q. Do you have a little-known movie you'd like to see become a holiday tradition? I was delighted to see you included a pretty obscure gem, the Preston Sturges-Mitchell Leisen romantic drama Remember the Night.
That was a real treat for me, since I had never heard of it before writing the book. I'd be thrilled if the Bill Forsyth comedy Comfort and Joy or the Deanna Durbin/Gene Kelly film noir Christmas Holiday got released on DVD and introduced to a whole new audience.
Q. Is there a Christmas movie you just cannot watch, for whatever reason?
I thought it would be funny to watch the made-for-TV movie The Christmas Shoes, based on what I think to be the very worst Christmas song ever written, but I have yet to get through it.
Q. Just wondering if you're looking forward as much as I am to the holiday favorite that simply cannot be overplayed. I refer, of course, to Eyes Wide Shut.
That's probably the inclusion in this book that raises the most eyebrows, but if it's a staple in your house, go for it! There are people I know who think that it's odd that I make it a point to watch The Ref again every December, so it's all a matter of taste.
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