Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

I don’t hate Christmas. I really don’t, even though I am a bit of a godless heathen and dislike being stalked by a leering fat man for one entire month of the year. But I definitely loathe Christmas movies, and haven’t subjected myself to one since watching the execrable Christmas with the Kranks over two years ago.

That particular lowlight of holiday cinema exemplifies the worst impulses of the Christmas movie, masking its inherent nastiness in a syrupy ending. A couple decide to opt out of Christmas and spend the holiday on a cruise, rather than face the melancholy prospect of their first Christmas apart from their only daughter, who is off in South America. The film turns this couple into objects of scorn, but my initial reaction was sympathetic: what’s so wrong with them skipping a depressing, lonely holiday? It’s not like they shot Santa Claus. They just want to take a goddamn cruise, for pity’s sake.

Ah, but this is Christmas, most holy of days, and a celebration of peace and love, you jerk. Get with it or suffer the consequences.

Naturally, some obnoxious comedy of the feuding neighbour variety breaks out. A mean-spirited, smugly conformist tone overwrites the proceedings, and the bullshit saccharine message conflicts with cartoony slapstick excess—spasms of unfunny violence that are the film’s contempt for its characters bursting to the surface. It’s a thoroughly ugly film, and one that makes the very concept of community odious and inhuman.

By comparison, the naïve universalism of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is positively refreshing. These days, the war on Christmas is well on its way to replacing eggnog around the fire with sodomite orgies in the street, but back in 1964, apparently all baby Jesus had to fear was Martian invasion.

In order to bring some Christmas cheer to their listless children, the Martians kidnap Santa, who remains hilariously unflappable throughout his ordeal, chuckling idiotically at every menace and defending his kidnappers to a plucky pair of Earth children abducted alongside him. Not to spoil the ending for viewers who might not have noticed the film’s title, but the old man’s implacable jolliness wins out over Martian dourness. The climactic fight scene, involving children bombarding a villainous Martian with toys, is such a chaotic flurry of bubbles and flailing limbs and ecstatic faces that it feels like an elementary school production of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures.

Along the way, the Martians recant the error of their kidnapping ways and everyone learns the true meaning of Christmas: kids like loot (a cosmic truth, apparently). It’s a bit dopey, and no less conservative than a movie like Christmas with the Kranks, but certainly nowhere near as vicious. That film essentially bludgeons its characters into a false conformist utopia, but Santa Claus Conquers the Martians has this rather innocent view that the sheer wonderfulness of the holiday will always win over any doubters. It doesn’t matter if you’re human or Martian, Catholic or Muslim, or whatever—everyone loves getting free stuff and eating lots of chocolate, right?

Okay, so perhaps if I were a Muslim or a Martian I would find that notion a tad condescending (it’s always easy to say your own values are good for everyone else), but the culture has certainly shifted in the years between these two films. You can see the disillusionment in the later film, as we move from an earlier era where it was just assumed that Western Christian traditions were good for everyone to the present-day conservative resentment at the people who would dare reject these values. The two films trace a line between naivete and bitterness.

If they remade Santa Claus Conquers the Martians today, what would it look like? I imagine Santa would pack a gun, shooting smart missiles from his sled as he dismantles the oppressive old regime and promises the Martian children a new era of peace and plenty. Unthinkingly, he would give them little blond dollies and baseball bats for Christmas, angering the children who would try to explain to the oblivious fat man that they’re not little blond children and baseball isn't a very fun sport to play in space (every hit would be out of the park). Things would deteriorate from there. Claus would ignore criticism that he was out of touch with the Martian children. Elves would suppress dissidents. Finally, one night, the children would creep into his workshop, knives aloft, and they would reach into that fluffy white mane, slowly, a snowy hill, little red rivers…

I’m sorry, but it’s that old heathen instinct flaring up again. Something about these Christmas movies sets off my grumpy side. What can I say? These movies always bring out a mixture of our worst inclinations and best intentions and combine the two into something completely indigestible. Whether naïve or nasty, they break down into a celebration of community at the expense of any outsiders, all glossed over with a generic message of universal peace and harmony. Never mind the war on Christmas—what about Christmas’ war on us?

(Note: Oh, glories of the public domain! You can find Santa Claus Conquers the Martians on archive.org in a decent, if slightly abridged, copy. However, a better way of experiencing the film would be Cinematic Titanic’s mockery of it, which you can read more about here.)

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