The Manson Family Christmas Special
“I get it, you’re here to show me my past and I’m supposed to get all dully eyed and mushy. Well forget it pal, you got the wrong guy.” -Frank Cross
“That’s exactly what Atilla the Hun said. But when he saw his mother, Niagra Falls.” -Ghost of Christmas Past
I hate Christmas movies. Sappy, happy, feel good, treacle smeared onto celluloid. Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart need to be cock-punched from beyond the grave with a barbed festivus pole. Once public Christmas decorations start going up, I refuse to pause on old-looking films while flipping channels, missing all the Hitchcock and such to avoid seeing red over Yes Virginia It’s a Wonderful Miracle. And that’s before I even start uncontrollably shuddering over the animated Christmas specials. Hell, the Charlie Brown Christmas Special is the most tolerable of them and it was paid for by Coca-Cola. It’s not the holiday I hate (I’m nearly thirty and I still wake up early on Christmas morning), it’s the smarmy golly-gee-willickers simplistic sentimentality sprayed in every direction like a Hallmark Channel money shot.
But that’s what we’ve got Bill Murray’s Scrooged for, a throwback to the real spirit behind the Dickens original, cut with a few splashes of early Bad Santa. It dispenses with the cheer and the feel good buzz of what a wonderful joyful place the world could be for the less wholesome but more resonant message of not being a douchebag.
The film plays out along the familiar basic outline of A Christmas Carol, updated to contemporary (well, 1980s) America. A cruel rich man tightening thumb screws on his subordinates, the old partner warning of the coming three ghosts, visions of the past, present, and lonely future, the melting of a frozen heart. But as always, it’s in the details, in the ways of fleshing out the bare bones of a myth that Scrooged is so memorable.
Bill Murray plays Frank Cross, the Scrooge of the piece who in the modern world of course could only be a television executive. He spins dark humor, which always works best for him. When told that nothing can get the miniature antlers to stick on the heads of the mice: “Did you try staples?” When told the censor won’t let dancers popping out of their tops onto live television: “Charles Dickens would want to see their nipples.” There’s evil and then there’s villainy. Evil is a terribly serious affair, but what moralizing tales miss out on in their rosy optimism is why people are villains. It’s not because somebody was mean to them as a wittle boy or because their heart just needed to grow five sizes, it’s because it’s fucking fun to be the asshole. Evil might be heartless, but a man who has a special telescope installed in his corner office so that he can watch people he fires get thrown out onto the street by security on Christmas Eve has a unique kind of joy in his heart.
The details of the film work so well, the intertwined visions of his past and present, of cruel childhood and the choices Frank makes to let the things he loves slip away. It’s never presented as an excuse though, just as a reason, a wake up call. Everything Frank is, is a product of the choices that he made, not of circumstance and victimhood.
The supporting cast is excellent, rounding out Murray from start to finish. Bobcat Goldthwait, annoying in most anything else, deteriorates over the course of the film from an average sort of soft spoken office drone into a drunk and marginally insane shotgun wielder who just had the worst day of his entire life. Carol Kane feeds off of Murray in her role of the Ghost of Christmas Present, all her manic pixie energy channeled into mocking and physically abusing Frank. And there’s Robert Mitchum, the senior network exec who wants more programming to include elements his cats would like.
The ending gets a little too sugar coated. Frank gets the girl back, there’s a sing along, we even get the horrible “God bless us, everyone” from the sick child. But on the plus side, Frank doesn’t get the reset button, the magic happy ending; he has to live with his shit.
What’s curious about the film, and about the Scrooge/Christmas Carol tale in general are two facts. First, the ghosts appear to a rich guy. There are plenty of poor assholes out there who don’t appreciate the true Christmas spirit, but it’s the guy with the huge bank account that they care about swaying. The guy who at the climax of the piece starts throwing around money like it’s on fire to buy things for other people. He might be buying stuff for other people instead of himself, but the tale is inseparable from the notion of spending that money. Second, the choice to be good in these tales is always fundamentally selfish, not empathetic. The final nail is the specter of dying alone and unmourned. Choosing to be friendly so as not to be alone is not a moral change of heart but the donning of a mask.
Film for the ages? Not really, but it is still bloody hilarious after twenty years, and holds up relatively well except for the plot point of VCRs being the expensive present that everyone wants. And besides, Bill Murray beats Jimmy Stewart any day of the year, and especially on Christmas.
“I want to see her nipples.” -Frank Cross
“But this is a CHRISTMAS show.” -Censor
“Well, I’m sure Charles Dickens would have wanted to see her nipples.” -Frank Cross
“You can barely see them nipples.” -Carpenter
“See? And these guys are REALLY looking.” -Frank Cross
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.