Friday, December 10, 2010

HAVE YOURSELF A MOVIE LITTLE CHRISTMAS—An Onstage Conversation With Alonso Duralde

The value of Alonso Duralde's Have Yourself A Movie Little Christmas is as a Yuletide resource to research (quite possibly) every known Christmas-themed movie on the face of the planet (or, at least, the ones worth watching). Structured in nine thematic chapters—1: Movies for Kids; 2: Movies for Grown-Ups; 3: Comedies; 4: Tearjerkers; 5: Crime & Action Extravaganzas; 6: Holiday Horror; 7: "Scrooge-a-Palooza"; 8: Lumps of Coal in Your Christmas Stocking; and 9: Christmas Classics—the beauty of Duralde's book is its utility: all you need is personal interest or seasonal necessity to easily access its festive bounty.

Myself, I dove right into Holiday Horror, partly because Gremlins (1984) and Black Christmas (1974) were the two entries Duralde brought to San Francisco's Castro Theatre on his national book tour; but, also because this chapter synopsized Christmas Evil (1980), Lewis Jackson's sole directorial effort, which—as Duralde quotes John Waters—is "the best seasonal film of all time … If I had kids, I'd make them watch it every year, and if they didn't like it they'd be punished." Also known as You Better Watch Out, Peaches Christ is giving the film and its director due idol worship at Midnight Mass this Saturday, December 11 at Landmark's Bridge Theatre. With each entry, Duralde offers "fun facts" and—regarding Christmas Evil—Duralde notes that the film's male lead Brandon Maggart is Fiona Apple's father and a Tony nominee for the Broadway musical Applause. Further, Jackson turned down Kathleen Turner when she auditioned for a role. Perhaps her voice hadn't yet become scary enough?

In his chapter on Christmas comedies, Duralde likewise mentions Remember the Night (1940), a Preston Sturges script directed by Mitchell Leisen starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. "It's weird to see Stanwyck and MacMurray playing such a sweet and loving couple after their immortal turn as murderous grifters in the classic Double Indemnity (1944)," Duralde writes, "but this time around, they positively sparkle." Decide for yourself when Eddie Muller and the Film Noir Foundation screen Remember the Night on a double-bill with Mr. Soft Touch (1949) at their inaugural "Christmas Noir" program coming up next Wednesday, December 15, at the Castro Theatre.

Fun Facts for Remember the Night? Though the film is set at Christmastime, shooting took place in July so all the leaves had to be stripped from the trees for the winter farm sequence. MacMurray was so tall that he was forced to stand in a hole during the nightclub scene so that the camera could shoot over his shoulder when he introduces Stanwyck to the judge. Along with Easy Living (1937), Remember the Night is the only other film Sturges wrote but didn't direct at Paramount that he felt warranted purchasing a 16mm print for his own collection. Though billed as a "Christmas noir", Duralde wouldn't call Remember the Night a noir, though he could recommend Lady in the Lake (1947) as a true Christmas noir, or perhaps the relatively unknown Christmas Holiday (1944), based on a Somerset Maugham short story, directed by Robert Siodmak and featuring Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly in uncharacteristic casting.

See how handy this Yuletide resource is? For Christmas films you've known—or films you've thought you've known—and all those holiday gems you've yet to discover, Have Yourself A Movie Little Christmas guides the way as surely as Rudolph's "nose-so-bright"!

At last night's on-stage presentation at the Castro Theatre, Jenni Olson—who has been friends with Alonso Duralde for 20+ years—revealed by her introduction that even she could barely keep pace with Alonso's broad and shifting credits. Duralde admitted he has had great fun going around the country flogging his book. He prefaced the Castro doublebill with a clip reel compiled by
David Kittredge (Pornography: A Thriller, 2009).

Inbetween Gremlins and Black Christmas, Duralde and Olson returned to the Castro stage for a brief conversation. Duralde—who was working in a Georgia movie theater back in 1984 when Gremlins first ran—recalled firsthand little kids getting the crap scared out of them, their frightened tears, and their irate mothers. Under the aegis of "Steven Spielberg Presents", parents were misled into thinking Gremlins was suitable for their small children. Not so. The parental outcry against Gremlins and another Spielberg film that came out that summer—Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom—led to the implementation of the PG-13 rating.

Asked how he became a film critic, Duralde answered that he had ruled out every other possibility of anything he could do with his life. He'd loved movies since he was a little kid and learned to read primarily so he could read the movie listings for any theater within 20 miles of his house. During the '70s when Hollywood nostalgia took hold, his older brother came home with volumes on Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and the Marx Brothers, and nine-year-old Duralde was beside himself. He started out by writing movie reviews for his high school paper—"no one else wanted to write them"—and has never stopped since then.

As for coming up with the concept for a book about Christmas movies, Duralde admitted he has always been a Christmas fan—"Soap and candles smell best at this time of year"—so a book on Christmas movies seemed obvious. Plus, often invited to contribute lists to various media outlets, one of the most frequent requests has been for his top ten alternative Christmas movies. Eventually he did enough of those lists to recognize there was a book in there.

Asked for "tips" regarding which Christmas movies to take a look at this upcoming season, Duralde prefaced that people like different categories but his favorite are the dysfunctional family Christmas movies. That being the case, he would have to recommend The Ref (1994) with Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey, Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale (2008) with a French cast headed by Catherine Deneuve, and La Bûche (1999)—"a Christmas movie for people who hate Christmas." But he also likes ridiculous Christmas movies (nicknamed "lumps of coal in your cinema stocking") such as the Mexican film Santa Claus (1959), which—he reminded his San Francisco audience—won the Golden Gate Award for Best Family Film at the 1959 San Francisco International Film Festival. Santa Claus was directed by René Cardona—known for Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy (1964) "and other classics"—and involves Santa and his close friend Merlin the Magician battling Satan for the spirit of Christmas. It's currently available on Netflix Instant Watch and scheduled to air on TCM this evening at 11:00PM (PT) as part of an evening of Christmas classics (check out Richard Harland Smith's TCM essay). Duralde admitted Santa Claus stretches the "C" in TCM.

It's A Wonderful Life (1946) is considered the definitive Christmas movie, Duralde recommends Frank Capra's "other Christmas movie" Meet John Doe (1941), which serves to remind "that we are in a Depression again." Meet John Doe is about a corrupt business man taking over a newspaper ("very Rupert Murdock") and a grass roots political movement that gets taken over by corporate interests wanting to push their own agenda. As timely as ever, Meet John Doe has just turned 70. "Am I watching The Rachel Maddow Show?" Duralde quipped, "What the hell?"

As for Hanukkah favorites, Duralde recommended The Hebrew Hammer (2003) starring Adam Goldberg, which he characterized as "a kind of Shaft for Jews." Goldberg plays a Semitic superstud who saves Hunukkah from the evil machinations of Santa Claus, Jr. (Andy Dick). A hard "R" and not for kids.

As for GLBT Christmas fare, Duralde couldn't think of a lesbian entry and encouraged filmmakers to fill the niche. As far as gay guys, the Canadian feature
Breakfast With Scot (2007) came to mind because the adopted nelly kid is super-obsessed with Christmas; a running theme throughout the film that leads to a big scene at the end of the film. It's not a great film, but it's nice and one he can recommend, in contrast to a handful of others which induce groans (and not the good kind). Again, he encouraged GLBT filmmakers to come up with a Christmas movie we can call our own.

As to how many times he watched these movies to research for his book, whether he watched them several times and/or all year round, Duralde stressed he couldn't imagine what his neighbors thought in mid-August when "God bless us, every one!" was coming out of his window every couple of hours. Some of these films he watched for the first time preparing for the book and others he watched again to refresh his memory; all were watched at least once, and others several times. He basically watched most of them over a period of nine months. He had written the first chapter as a sample to send to publishers but it wasn't until Limelight signed on to do the book that he was then given nine months to finish it up; but—being a terrible procrastinator—it was really the final two months wherein he applied himself.

Since writing Have Yourself A Movie Little Christmas, Duralde has been keeping a running list of additional entries, most recently the Finnish fantasy Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010), which recently opened in New York. Rare Exports is about scientists digging for oil in Lapland who discover and disturb the grave of Santa Claus who then comes back to life and goes on a killing spree. "I really want to see that!" Duralde grinned. But he railed against The Nutcracker in 3D (2010) as "the worst fucking piece of shit ever made." He warned against going to see it even as a joke bad movie because "it will suck the life out of you." Duralde might mince pies for Christmas, but never words.

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