Friday, December 27, 2013

Santa Claus the Weird

Richard Lopez recently wrote a blog post about a movie he and his son watched called Santa Claus. His reaction is here. He includes a link to the trailer. I remembered the movie! That is, I remember seeing the ad for the movie on television when I was a child. I never saw the movie itself till I watched it with Erin on Christmas Day. It can be found in the Youtube repository, where our entire culture currently resides.

As happens so often with diversions meant for children, Santa Claus is a good piece of craziness. It was made in Mexico in 1959, then turned into an American product. I cannot say what was lost and found during the translation process. The movie’s a bit jumbly but nonetheless full of spectacle of a surreal sort.

Eastman Colorscope gets credit for the visual attack of the film. Who knows what that entails? Is Eastman Colorscope better than Technicolor? Well, the color is both faded and heightened, some of which may owe to old film or I don’t know what.

A voiceover narrator explains bits thru out the film. It comes across like a documentary. The first scene shows Santa’s workshop floating out in space above the North Pole. You may wonder why the displacement of Santa’s workshop from its usual terrestrial situation but later on we are informed that Santa can only stay on Earth on Christmas Eve. That suggests some penance that the jolly elf must serve. That’s a curious, undeveloped touch.

Inside the workshop we meet the jolly fellow. His jolliness verges on insanity, at least in his most heightened moments. He laughs hysterically for no discernible reason. Santa, as we receive him in the panoply of legends, is never really mischievous, but still he seems to have an air of Coyote. You know, sneaking around from house to house, eating cookies and milk at each one, busy at his endeavour. He’s up to something.

In the movie, Santa looks at his Christmas shrine, which is a manger scene, with Mary the honoured one. That confluence of sacred and profane makes me uneasy. He quickly leaves his shrine and toddles to his organ, which he starts to play with gesticulating zest. Surprisingly, because the actor obviously isn’t actually playing the organ, Santa puts a lot of energy into playing the pedals. He does this, seemingly, to entertain the elves.

In a separate workshop area are gathered the elves. At least I believe they are elves. They appear to be children from around the world. Here we get a rather tedious scene in which children/elves dressed in traditional gear of their land sing songs in their native tongue. The children (the actors) appear drugged, perhaps overwhelmed by the movie-making process. Just the fact that it is snowing inside the workshop might be enough to explain their discomfiture. Maybe 10 countries are represented in this scene including Russia and the nation of Africa.

We shift from this scene to Hades, Satan’s domain. The workshop was trippy enough. Hades is where the bad acid takes over. Hades is dark and red and flaming. A handful of red demons with big ears and bovine horns perform a cheesy Broadway dance routine that I guess means to assure young viewers that Satan and his crew are a bit wan and not to be worried about. Maybe it’s just me but when I see demons doing high kicks, I know I’m looking at shoddy merchandise.

After the dance recital, Satan’s booming voice explains that something has to be done about this fellow Santa. Satan directs a demon named Pitch to head up to the surface and mess with Santa. This isn’t the childish crank depicted in the Book of Job, this is Snidely Whiplash inventing nefarious plots that thin to nothingness.

Pitch transports instantly to an earthly rooftop, where he laughs with unreasonable vigour. The game is on.

Well, all he does is irritate. A crowd of children and parents gathers outside a toy store to ogle the delights. Included are a rich man and his son, who is confident to receive a great gift. We also meet a wispy little poor girl, who doesn’t look to get much. Pitch tempts three boys to lean toward the coal side of Santa’s list. They proceed to throw stones at the store window.

At Santa HQ, an elf alerts Santa that something’s afoot. Santa commands that his viewing device be used. It’s a sort of telescope with an eye at the end. I remember this image from the ad of long ago. Santa also has a listening device, a big ear, an a speaking device, a big, weird mouth. All this serves Santa’s good/bad surveillance.

Santa approaches anger at the thought of these boys performing bad deeds. He understands that Pitch is involved but still lays a burden on the boys. When I was in first grade, some second graders convinced me to yell something at the policewoman who got kids across Bedford St safely. They did not bully me, just explained how doing so would be a good idea. Well I did, I yelled “You rot.” I ended up having to stay after school there at the crosswalk. High crime. The point of this reverie is that I knew no better, and neither did the three boys. But Santa no like the rules broken.

Pitch also convinces the little girl to go to the dark side in some minor way. Her good soul and that of her mother make this only a brief dalliance. And Santa’s there to help her. There’s also a boy whose parents are a little neglectful of him, which Santa needs to right.

Time to deliver the presents. Santa has his sack and the elves stick presents into its internal endlessness. The narrator informs us that Santa’s reindeer, all four, are mechanical. Another random adjustment of the familiar legend. Aint anybody heard of Clement Moore here?

Santa carries with him something to make people sleep, allowing him to make his sneak attacks, and something to allow him to float, so that he can make use of chimneys. He rights Pitch’s wrongs. Ah but Pitch manages to make Santa’s magical items go missing. And just then an angry dog chases Santa up a tree. This is desperate because Santa’s time on earth is almost up and Santa especially doesn’t want to disappoint the little girl.

Santa calls to the elves, who can hear him thru the listening device. A magician named Merlin is called for. He’s a fragile, doddering old man in wizard suit. I’m not sure Merlin actually does anything. It seems like some of Santa’s magic stuff just appears, and all is well. I mean the dog stops barking and Santa can climb down from the tree. When I put it that way, the crescendo of dramatic tension doesn’t sound like much.

Santa seems like a good soul, if not that bright. The movie evokes a sense of the downtrodden even amidst its concern for middle class virtues. The Santa myth lacks comprehensiveness, which is obvious here and elsewhere. Why does Santa even bother to give presents to the son of the rich man (identified as such): that kid’s going to get the toy he covets.

In the old days, Santa was seen doling out dolls for girls and tin soldiers for boys. You could see Santa and his elf crew making those. Who ever thought Santa made Rocket ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, let alone PS4? So that conception of Santa is a fizzle. The image of the laughing, red cheeked Santa pleases but you cannot really hold it all together, the myth. This movie has its visual strength and basically good soul. It differs from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, which just wants to be antic and fails. I feel that Santa Claus the legend will soon be outmoded. Too simple, and not generative enough in terms of product merchandizing.