Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
You've probably had your fill of the usual Christmas movies, and you certainly don't need us to steer you to "Miracle on 34th Street" and "White Christmas" and "It's a Wonderful Life." But what about great Christmas scenes in movies? You asked for it, we've got it. Over the next three days we'll be counting down twelve memorable scenes of Christmas, ranging from the grim drama of "Lethal Weapon"'s Martin Riggs contemplating suicide to the lighthearted comedy of "The Thin Man"'s Nick and Nora Charles drinking their way through the holiday.So enjoy numbers 12 through 9, and come back for more holiday scenes tomorrow.
12) "Lethal Weapon" (1987)
Here's an idea: "Lethal Weapon" is the more adult, violent version of "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Bear with me.
Like "A Charlie Brown Christmas," we are dealing with a cartoon narrative centered on the sadness and intense loneliness that the holidays can exacerbate. In both, a key moment for our depressed hero takes place at a Christmas tree lot. As in the Schulz/Melendez cartoon, the protagonist is forced into a partnership with people he does not entirely trust, and forced to engage in social interaction for the greater good of the community, even though almost no one wants him around. He makes a series of costly mistakes that only seem to wreak havoc on everyone's nerves, but end up being secretly brilliant in the end. And he has a smarter, more stable friend, one with his own family problems and pressures, who guides him and reminds him that the season is ultimately about rebirth, hope, and love.
By now, "Weapon" screenwriter Shane Black's Christmas fixation is so well-known as to be a running joke across the films he's written and directed, from the Xmas-set "Weapon" (directed by Richard Donner from a screenplay Black wrote a year after graduating from UCLA), to Black's directorial debut "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" (which features Michelle Monaghan in Santa gear), to this year's Black-written-and-directed "Iron Man 3," where a defeated Tony Stark drags his broken armor through the snow, bonds with a small-town lad who teaches him the true meaning of heroism, and finds a kind of kitschy spiritual rebirth. But there's also something very "Peanuts"-like about Black's viewpoint—whether they're buddy cops, failed actors or superheroic billionaires, the Black hero is often a hyperarticulate, overgrown child in a world where adult supervision is either absent or incompetent (it's not much of a leap from Snoopy's Sopwith Camel to Tony Stark's fleet of flying Iron Men—they're both absurd acts of imagination that suddenly take on their own, hallucinogenic reality). Black's scripts generally require actors comfortable with fast, self-involved monologues and surreal digressions, where masculinity is punctured and celebrated in the same joke: Marlon Wayans, Robert Downey, Jr., and Mel Gibson are childish anti-heroes bouncing off the slow burn reactions of co-stars like Bruce Willis, Val Kilmer and Danny Glover.
But the core of Black's best work—and the most direct line to "Peanuts"—is the realization that none of what's happening is really that funny, if you stop to think about it. It's all well and good to be jumping off buildings, blowing up construction sites and solving murders in Hollywood, but Black's protagonists are damaged, selfish, and addicted to the very kinds of trouble they're always struggling to escape. The distance that the generic trappings and cartoonish tone of so much of his work provides is central for making the strangeness go down sweet. The same is true for Schulz—take a moment's pause to step back and you'll feel like Charlie Brown placing the too-heavy ornament on his tiny green tree: "Aaugh! I killed it."
That's why the best and most important scene in the whole "Lethal Weapon" franchise is the one above. Mel Gibson's Riggs—the "Lethal Weapon" of the film's title, so named because he's a cop whose suicidal impulses mean he'll do almost anything to get a job done—sits alone in his trailer during the holidays, watching "Looney Tunes," emptying a bottle of whiskey, missing his dead wife, and putting a gun in his mouth. Literally bringing Bugs Bunny into the frame is a single entendre statement of the Black/Donner aesthetic, and the cuts to Riggs' wedding pictures might be putting too fine a point on it: "This is why the Big Movie Star is doing this, folks," the imagined subtitles might read.
But as hard as the narrative and visual framing works to explain Riggs' suicidal depression, the scene works because Mel Gibson's face conveys no reason, no logic, no clean explanation: it's just shows the slow, incongruous, and eventually unstoppable flow of emotions that overwhelm the character. Given his recent turn away from acting, and the current darkness of his public persona, it's shocking to watch this scene twenty-six years later, and be reminded of just how fully committed Gibson was to Riggs' emotions. From the way he slouches against the edge of his couch, to the swallow of whiskey, to the release of breath that is the first gesture of loading his gun, every tiny move or facial twitch is perfectly timed: but the effect is not a showcase of actorly timing or physical tics (even within the heightened drama of the scene), but a complete investment in what's happening to Riggs in that moment. And never does his face betray the idea that he has the slightest theory as to why Riggs is suicidal, why he chooses a moment of sitting in front a cartoon on TV to shove a gun in his mouth, why he cries and doesn't pull the trigger. It simply is, and Gibson honors that instant for the character by inhabiting it without any distance.
It's a hard thing for an actor to do, and a difficult sensation to describe when writing about the scene, because it's about using highly detailed craftwork to convey unknowability, that inability to articulate that so often defines the experience of depression. And it's that ambiguity that provides ballast for the rest of a very silly, very entertaining action movie.
Why do so many great Christmas films and television shows look at a joyous holiday through a dark lens? Why are the best films of the season often those that recognize the parts of the audience that are, to paraphrase Linus, "the most Charlie Browniest"? We can talk of consumerism, financial stress, personal loss, loneliness, and even the weather, and those are all valid and important. But sometimes it's just the way that the season makes us feel an especially intense "I don't know," and the ways in which art can function to remind us that we are not alone in that feeling.
11) "Goodfellas" (1990)
Is there a more authoritative opening in all of sixties American pop music than the drumbeat that opens the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" (1963)? The Wall of Sound that slowly builds in its wake—piano, tambourines, guitars, strings and voices coalescing to create a cry of passion perfect for transitor radios—extends and develops the sonic bliss, but it's that drumbeat that grabs the ear and sets your hips shaking. The force of the beat is so strong that it's only when you really focus on the lyrics that you realize Ronnie Spector is issuing a plea to her imaginary lover, rather than a command: how could anyone possibly resist that kind of discophilic love?
I love those sixties girl groups with an irrational passion: The Ronettes, The Crystals, The Shirelles, and all the early Motown groups. I love them so much that I built the concluding chapter of my Ph.D. dissertation around the central question of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" ("Is this a lasting treasure?/Or just a moment's pleasure?"), because I was certain it was the key to understanding our relationship to popular culture (I know I'm right about this, too). So, when The Ronettes' version of "Frosty The Snowman" plays during this scene of Jimmy (Robert De Niro) berating his partners in crime for spending the Lufthansa heist money too soon, I know I'm supposed to be paying attention to the rat-a-smack rhythms of Nicholas Pileggi's dialogue and the way Martin Scorsese uses close-ups and excruciating pauses to play out the violence and tension. But all I really want to do is concentrate on the music in the background, on how The Ronettes negotiate the quick turns of each verse like a skater gracefully curving on slick ice. And I'm I know I'm right about this, too.
The song first appeared on Phil Spector's album "A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector." The Ronettes had struggled for a couple of years on Colpix Records, where their singles failed to chart despite live concert acclaim. They auditioned in 1963 for Phil Spector, who got them out of their earlier contract and signed them to his Phillie Records label. In August of '63, "Be My Baby" gave them their first hit, rising to #2 on the charts, inspiring the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, and creating a bond with the Beatles, whom they met when touring England the next year. By the time Martin Scorsese used it for the credits sequence of "Mean Streets" (1973), Ronnie Spector had married and divorced Phil, whom she described in her autobiography as a tyrant, locking her up in their mansion and making her watch "Citizen Kane"'s Susan/Kane scenes as a way of understanding how he saw their relationship.
Within the context of "Goodfellas," then, The Ronettes become one more layer of meaning, if we understand Phil Spector's abuse as a way of reading the various masculine rituals and abusive relationships that run throughout the movie (and if we think of "Frosty The Snowman" as a pun on the coked-up world Henry Hill and his wife have already entered by the time of the heist). Certainly, the layers of meaning that music provides were central to Scorsese's aesthetic; in an interview after "Goodfellas" opened, the director observed, "With 'Goodfellas,' I started by listing maybe sixty-five or seventy songs and I choose out of that. I'll take a section of music for a certain period in time…It assists in the chronology of time in the movie."
That's true, but it's also a way to play with that chronology: The "Christmas Gift For You" album was released in 1963, but the Lufthansa heist occurred in December, 1978. Does this fifteen-year discrepancy just signal the way in which the album became a seasonal perennial? The way the goodfellas are, by the late seventies, turning into an anachronism, one that will quickly break apart? Maybe. But tracing back the history of "A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector" reveals a few more wrinkles: it was released on November 22, 1963, the day JFK was assassinated, which adds another layer to the air of violence and conspiratorial tension that will soon erupt in bloody montage. Further, despite its current reputation as a Christmas classic, it flopped upon initial release (it's mind-boggling to imagine a world that rejected "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," but there you have it), just as Jimmy and Henry's criminal masterpiece unravels in ways they can't foresee. In fact, it only gets its commercial due in 1972, the year before "Mean Streets" and the Spectors' divorce, when the Beatles' Apple label re-releases it to great acclaim, and its songs and arrangements would be covered by Bruce Springsteen, U2, and many other contemporary pop acts in ensuing decades. It would be the inspiration for similar pop-themed holiday records, and when CDs took hold in the 1980s, several record companies found it to be a constantly successful reissue.
It's an unexpected gift, and one with a checkered and ironic history, which makes it the perfect backing for this scene, which is a delirious and darkly humorous parody of Christmas consumerism. It's the holidays, everything's about to fall apart, and not even the authoritative beat of The Ronettes can hold it all together anymore.
10) "Batman Returns" (1992)
Twenty-one years later, after Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan, the summer blockbuster "Batman Returns" looks as visually and tonally dated as the Batman television series that Tim Burton's more gothic, Frank Miller-derived take on the hero was thought to have replaced. Its self-conscious artificiality (from the steampunk buildings and the snow, to the forties-style radio microphones, to the Warholian shock of white atop Christopher Walken's head) feels less like grit than a clever film student's mash-up of Fritz Lang movies and Janet Jackson videos: "Rhythm Dark Knightion." Even the casting is off-kilter: Walken's outsized camp as industrialist Max Shreck (the name itself a play on the star of the German Expressionist classic "Nosferatu") feels right at home in this environment, while Michael Keaton's naturalism is nervously out of place, the actor's darting eyes and untidy laugh registering as a meta-gesture of performance discomfort as much as a character trait. Like Batman himself, it's a film that finds a way to make the familiar wonderfully strange, like a forgotten flash of pop avant-garde.
Writing in the mid-thirties, just as German Expressionist filmmakers were emigrating to Hollywood and transforming its familiar genres, the critic Walter Benjamin wrote, "Memory is not an instrument for surveying the past but its theater. It is the medium of past experience, just as the earth is the medium in which dead cities lie buried. He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging." What would we get out of digging through the theater of this strange Christmas scene, particularly if we look to its margins, the visual equivalents of that cultural space to which Tim Burton's superhero film has now been shoved? In the upper left, diagonal swath of the frame, one can glimpse part of the garish "Shrecks" department store sign, glowing in a neon fragment that reads "Ecks." Dig through "Ecks" and you discover Johann Eck, a sixteenth century German theologian who defended the papacy against Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation, and its attacks on its infallibility (and in particular, his attacks on the notion that freedom from sin could purchased with indulgences). Dig deeper, and you find that Eck took his name from his birthplace in Bavaria. Dig a bit more, and you discover Deutsches Eck (or "German Corner") a headland where the rivers Moselle and Rhine meet and join together. After World War II, a German fluff was flown there a monument to the idea of a Germany united beyond its Cold War partition; when the Berlin Wall fell, pieces of it were placed by the flag.
Money, power, changed names, divided identities and reunified communities: sounds like a "Batman" film to me. Much more than the Burton's first Bat-movie, "Batman Returns" is about the play of transformed archetypes, both superheroic and otherwise: the movie starts with a cheeky play on the story of Moses, as the deformed infant Oswald Cobblepot is dumped by his wealthy parents into the Gotham sewers, floats up its dirty rivers, and is adopted by the penguins who live below. He returns to wreak havoc on the power system that's rejected him, blackmailing Shreck into funding his campaign to become mayor of the city. Bruce Wayne's own status as a misfit orphan makes him initially sympathetic to Oswald's plight, but his duty to protect the city puts him at odds with Cobblepot, and forces him, ironically, to defend Shreck, who he knows to be dirty. It also puts him at odds with Selina Kyle, the mousy secretary who, through Shreck's violence, is transformed into Catwoman, the eventual instrument of Shreck's downfall.
Cobblepot believes he can blackmail his way into power, while Shreck believes indulging him will buy his own way out of the corporate sins he's committed; Selina Kyle believes none of this, and leaves her declarations of righteous change scratched on Shreck's face. Meanwhile, as both insider and outsider, Batman is trapped in purgatory, forced to do evil to protect the lesser of two evils, his calling always leaving him emotionally isolated (the film's chilly Christmas setting is the perfect objective correlative of Batman's soul).
All of this plays out against a narrative that is, like so many of Burton's films, a tapestry of spectacular set-pieces. For all of the twists and turns of the plot, there's not a lot of forward momentum in "Batman Returns"—it relies on us being spellbound by Burton's technical wizardry and impish visual imagination. This scene is a good example: it blends gothic doom with political satire, grays of visual winter with ironically deployed, holiday-bright reds and greens. Expressionist point-of-view shots out of Murnau rub against oversized package props that wouldn't have been out of place on the TV show in 1966. Narratively, it's a prelude to a moment of terror, but Walken's comic tycoon feels like a character who wandered over from "A Christmas Story." Far from the stripped-down, self-serious Lutheranism of Nolan's later films, Burton's Batman is gloriously excessive, the perfect Deutsche Ecks of cartoon and aching humanism.
That it plays out by a department store sign makes it all the more appropriate: it was the 19th century Parisian Arcades, with their fragmented spectacles of consumerism, that Walter Benjamin wanted to read as the emblem of a materialist critique, only to be rejected by his more powerful friend, Theodor Adorno, who felt it rested on the wrong street corner: "Your work is located at the crossroads of magic and positivism. That spot is bewitched. Only theory could break the spell." As many critics have pointed out since, Adorno had unintentionally offered the world's most elegant definition of cinema, and certainly of the kind of cinema Tim Burton makes: drawing on the logic and technology of mass industry in order to create something more magical, spooky and ambiguous.
It also feels like one definition of the Christmas story, where magic and science meet in immaculate conception, a leap of faith as fraught with potential risk and salvation as one of Batman's flights into the night. If Christopher Nolan's new Dark Knight would break the spell through which Burton's Batman defined the movie superhero for a generation, this scene still remains as marvelously generous and outsized a gift as that big red box that shows up at its end, unleashing something goofy, scary, and ecumenically spectacular.
9) "Metropolitan" (1990)
A few years ago, I taught Whit Stillman's "Metropolitan" in a film theory class, pairing it with "Do the Right Thing" (1989) as a sort of provocation: I wanted the students to think about two films released around the same time, associated with American independent film, and set in New York City, but offering very different demographics, and very different stylistic and narrative takes on the space. The results surprised me: I had assumed that Spike Lee's film, which remains as fresh to me as when I saw it in 1989, would be the one they'd gravitate towards, its bright colors, pop soundtrack and more explicit politics seemingly closer in line with the tastes and viewpoints expressed thus far.
Instead, they rejected Lee's vision as artificial, didactic, and overly stylized. They didn't exactly embrace "Metropolitan," either—several of them admitted to frustrations with its slow rhythms, its self-involved characters, and its ambiguous conclusion. But at a certain point in the discussion, what slipped out was a sense of uncomfortable affinity: for those who were upper-middle class, East Coast kids who'd escaped to the Midwest, the world of "Metropolitan" could, at times, feel a bit like a glimpse of home.
It's set during a Christmas break, but it's that sense of secrets held close, then released under pressure, that makes "Metropolitan" a true Christmas film. The movie tells the story of Tom, a young man who, home for the holidays from Princeton, attends a debutante ball and falls in with a group of the "UHB," or "upper haute bourgeoisie": a term bandied by one for their own social scene (and used ironically by the film to both satirize and create sympathy with them). Tom and his mother are not wealthy since her divorce, but this is the world he comes from, even if he wants to see himself apart from it. And it's a world of secrets: about class, about love, about politics, about sex. Over a series of debutante ball after-parties, those secrets slowly come out.
Another UHB, the cynical and self-involved Nick (Chris Eigeman) has told stories about Rick Von Slonecker, a young aristocrat whom he's accused of rape and abuse. One night Rick shows up at the afterparty. This scene, a surprisingly emotional climax to a film that is otherwise deceptively anecdotal and even sketch-like in its scene structure, picks up on and plays with the inquisitorial tone that questions at holiday gatherings can take on for twenty-somethings who are home from school: from the way it isolates Nick (Chris Eigeman) arguing in the frame, to the way it follows Rick through the room to meet his accuser, it feels very much like a courtroom drama (albeit one with drooping Christmas wreaths placed around the "courtroom").
In his essay for the Criterion disc of "Metropolitan," Luc Sante notes how the low budget forced a restricted shooting style that hovered "between stasis and airiness": the first half of this scene is about that tension, as Nick won't move and Rick must, one holding in his aggression and the other an entitled ball of id. The pauses are exquisite—Eigeman's quick verbal facility means Nick can un-self-consciously reel off lines about "non-exclusive Upper East Side afterparties" with ease, even as his jaw tightens and his shoulders tense like those of a noir schlemiel. Visually, he's marked as a loner and false accuser, and yet it's the one time in the film when his ironic, comedic pose drops and he takes an earnest and righteous stand (although he admits to creating a "composite" girl in his stories—"like they do in 'New York' magazine"—he's not wrong about Von Slonecker). It's a lovely use of visual irony, the best summation of the movie's unwillingness to fully mark anyone (well, except Rick) as a hero or villain.
"Metropolitan" is a film that exists out of time. A title card at the beginning tells us it's set in the present, but its dialogue is full of references to "the derringer craze," to Averell Harriman, to "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie": markers that were a decade or more in the past when the movie was released in 1990. Its characters feed on Jane Austen, Lionel Trilling, and Babar; they speak of Fourierism (Charles Fourier's philosophy of social reform) and rituals like drinking at least one glass of water each night before bed. Rick is a shock not only because of his actions, but because of his ponytail—it feels like an intrusion of modernity in a world of the "UHB" (urban haute bourgeoisie) seemingly untouched since the end of World War II. Setting the story across two holiday weeks is a brilliant touch because it forces on an otherwise floating, golden-lit space of wealth some sense of temporal progression, while underlining just how quickly time is passing the UHBs by (as they often say it is, rather defensively).
But for that two weeks, they (and we as their eager audience) have the holidays, and a world of debutante balls, silly games at afterparties, wreaths and trees and rented tuxedos, and all the secrets about the past that get displaced into banter and unrecognized declarations of love. Stillman's world is a gorgeous space of escape and humor, until the questions come out, and reality comes crashing back in.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
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