As we come up to Christmas time again and all our thoughts are brought towards either the sacred spiritualism of the season or the profane consumerism of gift giving I would like to take a moment to look at some of the films that address both these issues in modern cinema.
The first film I want to analyse looks at these themes from the perspective of an outsider unaware of the social intricacies that are entailed within the Christmas tradition. This film is the fantastical fable brought to life by Tim Burton: “Edward Scissorhands” (1990). The film pulls back the tinsel clad veil of the suburban “White Christmas” culture and reveals the characters within it for the vain imposters that they purport to despise. The second film I will take a brief look at captures the true essence of Christmas spirit, in contrast the protagonist is on the inside looking out, an ambitious dreamer trapped within a provincial town. Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) captures the real desperation of the social pressures that provoke the spiralling breakdown of a man who begrudgingly accepts his mundane role in life, it then shows us the affects of the wonderful gift his seemingly small life has on the people around him. This is a truly moving and heart warming tale.
My first film choice, Edward Scissorhands, may not feel like the idyllic example of a Christmas film, it has neither the iconic classical status of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) nor has it achieved the cherished comedic value of Will Ferrell’s “Elf” (2003), however, within its fantasy world this film deals with the fundamental issues that split opinion between the spiritual ideology and the consumerist nature of Christmas. Shown through the brilliant vision of Tim Burton's direction we see both the surreal and the hyper-real clash within this mythical tale. Balanced teetering between both worlds the character of Edward Scissorhands stands as a cautionary fable for all those who are lost in the superabundant opulence of the season, for me this personifies modern Christmas and the whole spectacle that it entails.
Edward Scissorhands is an artificial creature lost and alone without a maker, taken in by a kindly Avon lady (Peg Boggs), played wonderfully by Diane Wiest, Edward is brought out of his dark gothic solitude and thrust into a modern, 1950s style, consumerist society. Being a man-made creature he is neither human nor machine: he is a cyborg of sorts, unfinished, naïve, and innocent with an imagination without boundaries. As such he is unable to integrate himself into a world that is constantly contradicting itself, where the Foucauldian structure of authority confuses the outsider with its subtle use of provincial language. The character of Edward, played by Johnny Depp in arguably one of his best roles to date, is the personification of childhood innocence and graceful creativity. He knows no definition of society’s linear expectations of right or wrong and is consequently left vulnerable, exploited, abused and eventually ostracized from society for not accepting the limited role he has been given within this Technicolor world.
Burton expresses the visual difference between Edwards gothic hilltop home and the suburban town below with his typical stylistic flair. From the opening scenes depicting the gothic and misshapen world of the dark mansion on the hill to the brash coloured, uniform world of the suburban dwellers below. The tale feels very reminiscent of the Nietzschian story, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” with a character who goes from dwelling in the mountains to travelling back down into the world of the living like a wise prophet to point out the misconceptions of society.
Similarly in “It’s a Wonderful Life” James Stewart’s character, George Bailey, is our moral compass pointing out the wrongs of society that no one else has the eyes or the brains to see. He sacrifices his own dreams of travelling the world and building great skyscrapers for the small town aspirations of a woman whose love suffocates him and a father who leaves his financial troubles like a moral burden on Georges shoulders. Again and again George is given the choice of weather to do the right thing or take the easy way out. He turns down his dreams every time. The character of George Bailey, unlike Edward Scissorhands, is fully aware of the social implications of his actions. He accepts his limited role in society because his singular dreams are less important then the dreams of his friends and family. Unlike them he can see passed the façade of the money obsessed banker Mr Potter, choosing to reject his empty promises of living a life of consumerist wealth. Instead he is left with a fallen down shack of a house, a business on the verge of bankruptcy, and to top it off he’s contemplating suicide. This is where the spiritual intervention comes into play in the form of Clarence the Angel.
The theme of spiritual intervention from consumerist despair is prominent in both these films. In both examples an immortal being comes down from a great height to change the perspective of the people below through showing them a surrealist world turned upside down. By changing our perspective of the world we can see what is truly important to us. In this case it is people who are important, specifically, the relationships between the main characters and those who they love.
Love is at the centre of Edward Scissorhands. At the heart of the story is the relationship between Edward and Kim Boggs (the Avon lady’s youngest daughter). This is a true vision of unrequited love, we see the character of Kim (Winona Ryder), steeped in teenage angst involved in a unhealthy relationship with a rich mans son, gradually turning away from the selfish hedonistic ways of her boyfriend to falls in love with the artistic outsider Edward.
Edward, here, is a symbol of the spiritual, the representation of childhood innocence: the quiet creative soul. The suburban world below is clearly the symbolic representation of the commercial: The fetishism of the new, the unique and the unusual that can be commodified and consumed like so many roast dinners or Christmas puddings.
This transition towards the spiritual is captured late on in the film when Kim goes outside to find in astonishment that it is snowing, the cause of which is Edward’s ferocious seal in ice sculpture. Dancing in the snow, dressed in white, pure and silent, this moment encapsulates the essence of spiritualism at Christmas. This natural phenomenon, made artificially by an artificial being, is transformed into a symbolic herald to the spirit of Christmas.
Snow, as the herald of Christmas, is seen throughout every single Christmas film you have ever watched. Period. Ever since Charles Dickens wrote about the snowy landscape of “A Christmas Carol” we as a society have been obsessed with the idea of a “White Christmas”. The harsher and more unforgiving the whether conditions the more intensely we create around ourselves the ideology of consumer spirituality, the warm blanket of our Christmas spirit made through the stories we tell, the songs that we sing and the gifts that we give to ward off the depressing chill of mid-winters grip.
Tim Burton’s mythical fable and Frank Capra's tale of spiritual intervention hold many moralistic lessons that we can extract and apply to our own experience of the Christmas season. Firstly, Christmas is a time to welcome all those who are alone or over-looked. It is time to suppress our selfish ambitions and give something back of ourselves to those we love. Secondly, it warns us not to let the pressures of society sully our gift of giving with its consumerist gluttony. It teaches us not to give into despair, not to let short sightedness prevent us from seeing what is truly important. It also shows us through the actions of the people in the town how the ignorant and selfish can misuse, shame and abuse the gift of Christmas. It is a story about life, a fable about the temporary beauty of the season, which like the fragile structure of snow that falls from the heavens to earth, it is a fleeting gift precariously floating in the wind, magical wonderful and mysterious.