Today, we’ve got a few holiday-themed mini-essays by our regular contributors about Christmas movies, music, and lights.
Eyes Wide Shut
Since the canonization of Die Hard as a Christmas Movie, a debate has raged about where to draw the distinction between a Christmas Movie and a movie that merely has a Christmas setting. What makes Die Hard a clear-cut Christmas Movie, I would think, is that in addition to its setting it also has a Christmas-appropriate central theme: the reunification of the nuclear family.
By this criterion, there is little doubt that Eyes Wide Shut is a Christmas movie. The Christmas setting of Kubrick’s final masterpiece is not casual. He crams as much Christmas as he possibly can into this movie. I’m not the first person to observe that Christmas lights are to Eyes Wide Shut as candles are to Barry Lyndon. Many scenes feel like they are lit entirely by the harsh, multicolored glow of the Christmas lights that wind around nearly every column and window frame. There are something like a dozen Christmas trees in the movie, and any number of wreaths, candy canes, and Santa hats.
Eyes Wide Shut begins at a Christmas party, where Dr. Bill Hartford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) both observe each other flirting with other guests. Afterwards, Bill insists that he feels entirely secure in their marriage, which leads a stoned and aggravated Alice to recount an occasion where she would have eagerly been unfaithful to him if she had the opportunity. Bill is called out late at night after a patient dies, and rages quietly with jealousy as he walks the streets of NY. He dabbles in increasingly bizarre and dangerous sexual misadventures, and for much of the rest of the film’s 2 hour 45 minute running time we follow Bill on a Nightmare Christmas Sex Odyssey Through Hell.
So where’s the Christmas theme? Well, we again find the reunification of the nuclear family. I wouldn’t propose a reductive interpretation of Eyes Wide Shut, but one thematic strand is the roller coaster of monogamy. The film explores the fragility of the artifices that some monogamous relationships depend on—particularly, the presumption of absolute fidelity in thought as well as deed. Bill is unable to cope with Alice’s imaginary dalliances and retaliates in a way that puts him and others in actual danger. Things have to get very real before Bill gains some perspective and undertakes to repair his marriage through confession and penitence. Ultimately, the nuclear family is reaffirmed and the necessary artifices are restored. Merry Christmas, Bill and Alice, only one or two people had to die and the spark of marital desire is rekindled (for now).
Billy Idol is still touring, and putting out a record every decade or so. I’m a big fan of Devil’s Playground (2005) and Kings and Queens of the Underground (2014). Buried in the middle of Devil’s Playground is an oddity – a great little Christmas tune, complete with holiday bells and the wizardry of the best rock guitarist you might well have never heard of, Idol’s longtime partner in crime (sometimes literally) Steve Stevens.
“Yellin’ at the Christmas Tree” is an anthem for those of us for whom not every Christmas was a tinsel-wrapped Hallmark moment in front of a warm pumpkin-spiced fireplace. For those of us whose worry wasn’t whether Dad would remember the buttery rum fruitcake, but whether he’d drink too much rum and forget to show up at all. The song is funny, but also, for those of us who recognize the world Idol describes, a little sad.
A year later, apparently embracing Johnny Rotten’s description of him as the “Perry Como of punk rock”, Idol released a Christmas album titled Happy Holidays, but strangely “Yellin’ at the Christmas Tree” isn’t on it. Idol did don a suit and film some brilliantly cheesy, tongue-firmly-in-cheek videos for a few of he standards on that album, including “Jingle Bell Rock” and “White Christmas”.
Two years ago, I had the good fortune to spend Christmas in the southern hemisphere. One of the strangest things—aside from the smell of pine needles and cinnamon sticks in the summer heat—was the presence of Christmas lights in such a setting. The practice of putting them up hasn’t fully caught on in Australia, but some people did it. And although I enjoyed them, the lights didn’t have the same effect on me that they normally do, and I think I’ve come to understand why.
It wasn’t just that it was summertime and therefore not the typical setting. It was that the days didn’t need the brightening that Christmas lights bring. After all, Christmas falls a few days after the December solstice, i.e., the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. But this means it is a few days after the longest day of the year in the southern hemisphere. And these days are not only long. They are sunny, hot, and not even a little bit bleak. Imagine how you feel the second week of summer vacation. That’s how Christmastime feels in Australia. But in the northern hemisphere, the days are short and in many places even during the daytime are not sunny (especially where I’m from, a place that regularly has white Christmases).
I now think Christmas lights are our way of fighting the bleakness of the shortest days of the year, and the beginning of our darkest and coldest months. We may not be able to see stars on these cloudy nights, but we can see the twinkling of each other’s porch lights. We may not see the sun for days or even weeks, but WE WILL MAKE OUR OWN TINY SUNS AND SHARE THEM WITH EACH OTHER! And all those giant balloon Santas and snowmen are just the icing on the sometimes tacky, but always triumphant cake.