Monday, January 04, 2010

The Nightmare Before Christmas: The Anti-Christmas Carol

(Ok, yeah, I should have posted this before Christmas. I wrote it before Christmas, but then I realized no one would be looking at the blog till after New Years. I have never been timely.)

My mother loved Miracle on 34th Street and I responded as a teenager by insisting we do these kind of anti-christmas movie marathons every year: Scrooged, The Ref and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Scrooged: Bill Murray. Nuff said. The Ref I have not seen in years and imagine it would be terrible to watch now. I liked it because I think I really identified with the way Dennis Leary tore into suburban facades -- years later this would re-emerge in the form of American Beauty, which also took apart suburban facades as embodied by Kevin Spacey.

What makes The Nightmare Before Christmas entertaining to me now is of course the loving design of everything in it, which I don't think has been rivaled since: Coraline, while great in many ways, has nothing on this movie. This has to be the main thing: the literally two-faced mayor, Oogy Boogy Man made out of bugs, skinny Jack fallen into the snow, Sally made out of rags. The songs are largely forgettable except for a few good lines here and there ("There's children throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads / they're busy building toys and absolutely no one's dead"; "And since I am dead I can take off my head to recite Shakespearian Quotations").

But the thing I return to again and again are the themes which are surprising and well developed for a movie that, like Coraline, could have still been a great movie if it coasted by with something far less smart.


The Nightmare Before Christmas is ultimately about the limits of knowledge, specifically knowledge of that thing grad students call "The Other." Jack is the ruler of a Halloween kingdom but has ennui that no one around him can understand because they are all self-satisfied. He wanders into the woods and finds the door to Christmas Town. The story sets up its connections to the fairy tale here as no explanation is given as to why he has never been in this area before, which does not seem to be very far away from where he lives -- but that in itself is a metaphor. It is our inability to see it that makes it seem far away.

(Something similar happens in Beowulf, if I can quote an earlier blog post of mine. Just after Grendel’s monstrous mother attacks and the survivors decide to go after her in her lair. We are told “It is no pleasant place. From it the surging waves rise up black to the heavens when the wind stirs up awful storms, until the air becomes gloomy, the skies weep.” When they get to this “many a lair of water-monsters” it is truly horrible: “Then they saw on the water many a snake-shape, strong sea serpents exploring the mere, and water-monsters lying on the slopes of the shore such as those that in the morning often attend a perilous journey on the paths of the sea, serpents and wild beasts.” What is interesting is its location: the monster Grendel and his mother “hold to the secret land, the wolf-slopes, the windy headlands, the dangerous fen-paths where the mountain stream goes down under the darkness of this hills, the flood under the earth. It is not far from here.” The phantasmagoria of Christmas Town is also not far from where Jack lives. Otherness is always right around the corner. )

Jack is inspired by Christmas town, which is full of things he has never seen before, and the experience of something outside his world is inspiring. But when he goes home to tell everyone about it they are simply unable to grasp it without making it something they already know: they imagine a severed foot inside the stocking, christmas presents as boxes of steel with terrible things inside, and so on. "To a man who has only a hammer, everything is a nail" as the saying goes. Jack, realizing he can't properly explain it decides to finally give them what they want, describing the leader of Christmas Town as "Sandy Claws" "like a lobster huge and red" who swoops from the sky in the middle of the night and invades homes. But it is not that he can't communicate it -- it is that he can't really understand it either. He hooks Christmas Lights up to an electric chair and is very pleased with the skeletal reindeer he ends up with. Not unlike films that make allegories of America's recent wars (including 28 Weeks Later and Avatar apparently, though I have not seen it), The Nightmare Before Christmas tell the story of someone who dives in confident in his abilities (to take the place of Santa Clause and deliver presents), but does not anticipate how disconnected he is from the ordinary people on the ground, who he terrifies and who eventually blast him out of the skies (with missiles he at first thinks are fireworks).

But one of the best things about the Nightmare Before Christmas is about how it is a counterpoint to A Christmas Carol. A Christmas Carol -- like It's A Wonderful Life and unlike Miracle on 34th Street -- is the rare Christmas Story that is good in addition to being popular. But A Christmas Carol ultimately has a troubling subtext. Though it is never stated explicitly it seems pretty clear that Ebenezer Scrooge is a caricature of Jew. His love of money is hardly definitive but his name derives from the first book of Samuel (7:12-14), where it marks a famous Jewish Battle.

"Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Eben-ezer, saying, Hitherto hath the LORD helped us. So the Philistines were subdued, and they came no more into the coast of Israel: and the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. And the cities which the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron even unto Gath; and the coasts thereof did Israel deliver out of the hands of the Philistines. And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites."

In A Christmas Carol the battle being waged is for his soul. Read in this way, A Christmas Carol tells, in secular terms, the conversion of a Jew to Christianity. The man who loves only money learns to care about Tiny Tim, a stand in for all the poor, wounded and sick, and love his fellow man.

Now turn to A Nightmare Before Christmas. This is the opposite story. This is the story of a man who is not satisfied with his life, in spite of the fact that no one near to him wants to see him change, and who longs for a conversion to another faith. And he does everything he can to become a member of this other world including dressing the part (the red suit, the beard) and taking the main role for himself. No zealot like a convert. But in the end he learns that trying to change your life in this radical way, the way captured by a Christmas Carol, is not for him.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is positively Victorian in its class system. Like the Incredibles it is about how people are born into certain roles and how they deserve the power they are born with. It is stupid or villainous to try to become a part of another class or set as Jack and the villain in the Incredibles do because it is simply not who you are. This kind of overreaching past your caste -- breaking the great chain of being -- leads only to disaster, like taking over the world or ignoring your kingdom so that less savory forces (like Oogy Boogy) threaten to fill the void you have created in your absence. The film ends with Jack refreshed and ready for next year, secure in his old faith, vision, and class.

12 comments:

jennifer said...

nice to see you blogging again, Geoff.

Is your only evidence of a Christmas Carol's subtext the name Ebenezer? Ebenezer was a popular name in the early 1800's for British Protestants who subscribed to Puritanism. Puritans not only often took their names from the Old Testament, they did not celebrate Christmas. They considered it a heathen holiday. I have several Ebenezers (and many other Old Testament names) on the British side of my family tree.

Geoff Klock said...

Well it is more the whole picture -- the name, the obsession with money, the fact that he is in deep need of a conversion, and the fact that that conversion is to caring for the sick and poor.

Kevin Maher said...

Great essay Geoff. Just two quick things:

1. I like your take on Jack's fascination with "the Other". The film included an epilogue poem which touched on the real significance of the story:

"But after that night, things were never the same/
Each Holiday now knew the other one's name"

The events of the movie matter because it changed the world of Holidays, they each gained knowledge of the Others.


2. I know a 2-year-old who would argue that the songs are not forgettable.

Geoff Klock said...

Wow. I TOTALLY do not remember those closing lines. And I totally apologize to your 2 year old. She is welcome to write a rebuttal. :)

Jason said...

The closing lines only appear on the soundtrack album, not in the film. The opening poem is also extended. And both poems are recited on the album by Patrick Stewart, who gives the text a lot more character than whoever did it for the version used in the movie. (No offense to that guy.)

(Patrick Stewart, of course, also did a one-man version of "The Christmas Carol," which is significant in this context, maybe, unless it's not.)

Here is my point-by-point response to the blog:

1.) I want to believe The Ref would still be funny if I watched it today. Why so pessimistic about the Ref? Why so leery of re-viewing it??? (Ha! That was totally off the top of my head!)

2.) 100% agreement on the design. I watched it on the Disney Channel at my mom's, and was struck by how well it holds up and how -- just like you said -- it's not only as good as anything I've seen in recent stuff, it's better. It kicks the ass of "Avatar"'s visuals, for example. (Which personally I think are being way, way over-rated. Recognizing that the visuals were difficult to create is not really the same thing as them actually being good.)


3.) If you mean lyrically the songs are forgettable, I'm on-board. Melodically and harmonically, I would argue that they are ingenious. And beautiful.

4.) I remember someone pointing out in an article once that it was ironic that Disney put out this movie about a doomed attempt to impose one's culture on someone else's only a year or two after the disastrous debut of EuroDisney.

5.) I guess that's all I got. You were right, Geoff, I did enjoy this blog-entry a lot.
5.)

Kevin Maher said...

The epilogue poem wasn't used in the film. I just recently heard it when I got my sons the soundtrack.

Like so many deleted scenes, you can understand why it wasn't used.

here it is:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vFjNfMXpew

Kevin Maher said...

sorry Jason, I wrote my comment without reading yours.

scottmcdarmont said...

Interesting that you draw the paralell between The Ref and American Beauty as Kevin Spacey was the husband in both films (and the actress who played his wife in that film looked an awful lot like Annette Benning in American Beauty... I'm also surprised Jason didn't point this out...)

Jason said...

Scott, that's because it's pointed out in the original post.

Christian said...

"The Nightmare Before Christmas is positively Victorian in its class system. Like the Incredibles it is about how people are born into certain roles and how they deserve the power they are born with. It is stupid or villainous to try to become a part of another class or set as Jack and the villain in the Incredibles do because it is simply not who you are. This kind of overreaching past your caste -- breaking the great chain of being -- leads only to disaster, like taking over the world or ignoring your kingdom so that less savory forces (like Oogy Boogy) threaten to fill the void you have created in your absence. The film ends with Jack refreshed and ready for next year, secure in his old faith, vision, and class."

I don't think it's quite as gloomy and caste-set as The Incredibles though. Unless I'm misunderstanding the significance of snow in Halloween Town by the end of the film. I figured the entire world finally gets to experience something that is undilutedly christmasy, or a pure Other, compared to their imitation of it. You can cross over between the two realms, the snow proves that.

Christian said...

Of course whether that means you have to "met in the middle", the snow being a gift from Santa Claus to Jack for "saving" Christmas after having almost ruined it like rewarding Prometheus if he had given the fire back to the Gods or it's just the result of the nature of Christmas Town crossing over, for a brief moment, into Halloween Town due to Jacks meddling.

Anonymous said...

Hallowe'en falls on 31 October, well in Autumn. It's not that rare to have snow by that date in most of North America. It may not be that cold most years, but it happens often enough. As I assume Hallowe'en Town experiences late October weather year-round, we should expect it to snow now and then. It may not mean anything.

I guess Scrooge fits the 19th Century Jewish stereotype so well, that Adam Sandler even felt the need to point out that he is not in fact a Jew. (But guess who is-- All Three Stooges!)