Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, December 16, 2013

Coal und der Switches Symplex: JINGLE ALL THE WAY

When it comes to holiday entertainment for the whole family nothing tops the "heroin-smuggling nuns" episode of the BIONIC WOMAN that played Xmas eve back in the 70s and has never been seen again. But we must settle. Mom wants the CHRISTMAS STORY marathon on TNT ("you kids loved that movie as kids, remember?") My brother and I roll our eyes since we endured high school with co-star Scottie Schwartz. My brother Fred likes BADDER SANTA but that kid grosses me out. I vote for the Pagan Solstice celebration of THE WICKER MAN! There's no kid at all in that, just evil Celtic children snickering at a cop's befuddlement, which is badass. We settle, always, for them all... and just wince whenever 'good' or 'normal' kids are present.

Bridgewater-Raritan HS's Scourge
Then there's a second problem with Xmas movies, the classic example of which is in SCROOGED when Bill Murray starts his lengthy rant about how we should all sing soul music together because he's finally learned the meaning of Christmas. My friends, this is nothing more than Münchausen-by-proxy syndrome, the Xmas version, which I call Coal and Switches Syndrome. It's that thing where an egotistical workaholic proceeds to create pointless disasters so that Xmas is almost ruined, all so he can race in at the 11th hour and save it. Beside Murray's Scrooge, there's Nic Cage in The FAMILY MAN (2000) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in JINGLE ALL DER WAY (1996).

To get back to kids, for they pollute many Xmas films. If real kids could have any wish, could be anything they wanted, more than anything they'd want to be adults. They don't ever imagine themselves as kids. There wasn't a single kid in STAR WARS because Lucas understood this (but then forgot it). Misunderstanding this fundamental rule of viewer identification processes led to the idiotic decision to create sidekicks like Robin and Superboy and all those movies where we don't just see what a kid would imagine, but a kid imagining it.

I mention all this because Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of those men children want to be. His overly muscular body is almost a burlesque of how boys confuse muscles with prowess; we love his comically stern accent, his straightforward way with a catch phrase, wherein you can't tell if he gets the joke or not (it's better if he doesn't). Kids delight in seeing someone so free of layers and guile; he's a crazy playful tyrant six year-old in a giant barbarian body --and we love him for it. But in JINGLE, Arnold is just an ordinary gym owner/personal trainer and largely absentee father, avoiding his son's karate performance because (subconsciously) it would mean some other athlete getting the applause. Arnold thinking he can get away with being an average suburban dad in the first place is a really bad sign. He's like an unconvincing superhero alter-ego with no superhero to turn into.

Arnold needs to realize he is not, and has never been, an average dad figure. He is not all-American Joe material, if he was, why would we bother paying to see him? In the symbolic structure of the film, though, being unaverage is a crime tantamount to neglect and he must atone by finding an unavailable/sold out super hero action figure for his emotionally blackmailing son, the superhero itself being a burlesque of impotent male rage (as a kid you have the excuse --you have no rights, are dependent on adults, and easily beaten up by kids even one or two years older). Arnold wants to be his son's action figure, but such a character, like Lacan's Phallus, is defined (in a child's mind) by his absence. And in the guilt trip nanny state PC 90's, absence is also tantamount to neglect, so Arnold has a double neglect thing going. The result is that he has to bow down to a plastic figure because his son prefers the totemic imitation phallus to his dad's genuine absence. It's a bit like Jesus being told he's not a good messiah unless he writes a letter to Santa.  

JINGLE has hints of turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself (which Guy Debord dubbed détournement): the film digs a canal into the rotting roots of the American capitalist frenzy Xmas tooth, only to fill it at the last minute with souvenir gift items available for purchase at a store near you. And like any good capitalist product, JINGLE knows how to incorporate its critique against itself within itself. That's recuperation!

One way Arnold tries to become the action figure phallus-fetish for his son is through the aforementioned Coal-Switch Syndrome: He creates drastic emergencies for himself, crises anyone who's lived in suburbia for more than five minutes would easily avoid. But he's an adrenalin junkie who rides suburban angst the way Charlie Sheen rides air currents in MAXIMUM VELOCITY. He ignores his secretary's notes that he needs to go to his kid's karate practice until the last minute, just so he can speed down the emergency lane because of the traffic. He combs through every toy story in town on Xmas Eve like a maniac as he slowly realizes his son's asked-for toy has been sold out for months, unavailable at any price. He asks for help from other shoppers and is genuinely shocked they laugh at him for being so naive. He seems to subconsciously invite contempt from fellow shoppers just so he can throw one of them into a toy display. His inability to get a call through to a radio station giving away one of the dolls leads to him smashing up the DJ booth. The fervency of his son's Xmas wish, and his own terror over seeming a bad father create a kind of eminent domain right to push and shove old ladies and children, resist arrest, trash a kid's jungle gym in the mall, willfully commit legions of traffic violations, impersonate an officer, terrify innocent pedestrians, break into and rob his neighbor's house, punch out a reindeer, and inadvertently interfere with a bust on a bootleg toy factory (run by carny schemers dressed as elves and Santas in the film's funniest bit).

In short he may not be a good dad but his reign of downtown Xmas terror makes a great metaphor for American foreign policy, especially as concerns third world countries: America is a nation so frenzied in our conspicuous consumption we trample every country who gets in the way, barging in wherever we smell oil and trampling any ecosystem like it's some slow-moving old lady shopper.

I imagine we're supposed to sympathize with Arnold's amok American dad, but the only dads who could possibly relate are, I imagine, the Hollywood elite who aren't off their cell phones more than a few minutes a year, and would be as dumbstruck as Arnold is if they suddenly had to do their own Christmas shopping. It would be more believable if Arnold was a toy come to life, fresh out of the box, believing his own cover story, like a Buzz Lightyear or post-Recall Quaid. Here he's supposed to have been living in the suburbs since before his kid was even born.  And that's just not believable.

When all his feigned ignorance and willful bull-in-a-china-shop methods fail, Arnold eventually solves it all by becoming the real life version of toy, by positing himself as the kind of father who's not afraid to use a jet pack to trash an African American family's living room as they're sitting down for Xmas eve dinner, praying! Arnold speeds through one window and out the other, just missing their heads for their heads are lowered in prayer, the only mention of God or Jesus anywhere in the film --all to prevent another African American from stealing the toy he's (unfairly) awarded to his own son by endangering the lives of pedestrians.

Needless to say, this was before 9/11 and now his behavior seems more unnerving than comical, like showing your son you love him by leaving unmarked black suitcases around an airport.

Who is to blame?

1) TOY MARKETING STRATEGIES: Perhaps it makes sense from a PR standpoint for toy companies to deliberately limit production on certain popular toys to drive the demand up, but in a country like America where everyone's self-worth hinges on providing their child with whatever they 'wish' for, it can create real stress on the national fibre. There's no reason that the most productive country in the world (China) can't meet the demands of the most demanding country in the world (U.S.) so the blame becomes personal --the dads who forgot to shop til the last minute are the victims. Movies themselves do this all the time. Disney lets their classic titles go "into the vault" to drive up resale value and ensure higher sales during releases / promotions, and certain rarefied cult director iconoclasts insist on releasing their own films on their own label, like David Lynch or Russ Meyer, ensuring the price never gets too low and avoiding middleman and PR fees but resulting in long stretches where they're not available. But kids don't understand supply and demand. They only know that if they don't get the toy they want, there is no Santa, and so they may as well become a derelict drug addict.

2) MEASURING-UP ANXIETIES: I don't have kids so I don't quite understand, but from movies like JINGLE I glean a certain fear of measuring up to some paternal ideal that, to be honest, I don't remember seeing when I was a kid in the 70's, when parents looked after their own good time first (as on MAD MEN) and got us some, not all, presents we wanted. To get us all was considered bad form, 'spoiling' us. Overall we were much more bored than kids today: we had no internet or cell phones. But, in knowing our father's self-regard didn't hinge our approval, we at least felt secure. In fearing him, we didn't need to fear anyone else. Arnold's kid might not fear his dad, but pays for the luxury with a great deal of collateral anxiety. If the son says he wants a jet ski, for example, and the next day one is waiting in the driveway, what a great dad! But then the kid feels guilty because he sees dad's car is missing, clearly having been sold to pay for the jet ski. Now the kid can't even get a ride to the lake to use it.

A Wizard of Oz version would be if the dad--rather than standing firm on his split subject of the fearsome non-du-pere / old man behind the curtain able to hold the black bag of social decoration (the social order's equivalent to Skeeball prizes--tried to be the wizard all the time, s has to race to set up his smoke and mirrors at school for his son's soccer game or--in this case--karate demonstration. Finally, he collapses from a stroke trying to keep the illusion alive, only in this case since he can't separate the two, the illusion on the smoke and mirrors isn't a fearsome green patriarch but a sensitive square jawed smiling advertisement of the perfect 'soft' dad.

3) NO ONE LEARNS THE RIGHT LESSON FROM CAESAR MILAN: If you don't assert your dominance over your dog, your dog assumes you are weak and thus feels he must take over as pack leader. This makes your dog a nervous wreck. How can a dog take care of a family when he can't even open the front door?  Kids with needy parents wind up in the same position. Adults are able to navigate the social order and assess dangers far better than dogs or children. But if they are too weak-willed to be stern and authoritarian when they need be, then the children or dogs feel, however unconsciously, that they have to step in. This is illustrated perfectly when Arnold calls his wife to tell her his car is totaled in pursuit of the doll, and Hartman answers the phone saying he's eating Arnold's wife's cookies while she takes a shower. Arnold shouts into the phone: "Put that cookie down now!" He's trying to boss around Hartman like he's a kid, showing only a frazzled damage control kind of obsessiveness that's destructive to himself and those around. In other words, Arnold is like a five year-old trying to be the father and falling apart (like a bad pack leader), yapping at falling leaves and biting mailmen. He doesn't realize he needs to embody the role of the father, not the 'fun dad who's a pal' or the superhero or the 'swell generous appeaser' who will only create another nervous idiot like himself out of his son.

That cookie line has gone on to become quite the meme and gives Arnold the quid pro quo revenge excuse he needs to Grinch up Phil's tree :

While we're expected to root for Arnold, it's actually rival doll-seeker and uncouth mailman Sinbad who is the most complex and worthy of sympathy. The only one at the store who doesn't sneer at Arnold's confusion over the absence of Turbo Men, he even offers to join forces, an offer which Arnold coldly rejects. As we see then-relatively unusual sights like people macing and tazing each other over sale items at the department store, what's most amazing and sad is how completely oblivious Arnold is to the idea that he is not the only dad in the world who waited too long, that he is just another dopey sucker paying capitalism's harshest price for waiting to buy buy buy. In other words, he's punished for not fully absorbing the Pavlovian conditioning necessary for impulse spending early and often (he works out at the gym, rather than shops, for his endorphins). But he is still conditioned enough that he genuinely believes it's his right as an American dad to use excessive force in pursuit of his individual needs, never questioning the validity of his Coal and Switches Symplex. Even having a coffee with Sinbad, his only friend, guarantees nothing: Arnold shoves him aside to be the first caller into a radio station, then seems genuinely shocked and hurt when Sinbad does the same to him.

But all is redeemed as far as I'm concerned, when, after he hits bottom, Arnold shares a beer with the reindeer he knocked out the previous shot. It's his moment of alleged redemption, making up for decades of bad blood between him and the animal kingdom from when he drunkenly punched out a camel in CONAN. And even if it skirts around being a total anti-consumerist parable, I applaud the film's brutal satirization of the consumer mindset and the Coal Switches Syndrome, even while endorsing each in the end. That's the unique problem of a country with a free press, namely that once an institution incorporates its own critique, it nulls all criticism by depicting the critic criticizing it, of having the thing itself critique its own thinghood and thus having its cake but charging you for it anyway. Like the kid who punches himself in the face so the bully doesn't get him first, Arnold can only fight bigger guys than himself and have it be fair....just like Rock Hudson has to wait until the end of GIANT before he finally finds someone in his same height and weight class. (Sinbad comes close, as does this guy:)

The point is, fatherhood's integrity takes a bullet in the name of commercial fetishization and makes us wonder: who is it that thinks kids most want to see parents suffering indignities on their behalf? The same idiots who think kids want to see kids in the first place? Arnold's kid is an emotional blackmailer --he needs to have his father not get him the action figure. He needs to feel that terrible sting, suffer in his room for awhile, and get over it. it's part of the maturation process; having the figure under the tree would make him happy for a few hours, but he would lose interest in it by dinnertime, and dad--having busted so many heads to get it--will be upset and hurt his son's not playing with it enough. Not getting it keeps it at maximum value as an objet petit a. His son will need to Adults like Arnold in JINGLE are not avatars of how boys want to imagine themselves, but stooges, cautionary tales, comical, neutered, pleading, desperate, pissing themselves in vain attempts to win their children's fickle favor. A kid trying to impress his father is natural and helps both parties grow, but a father trying to impress a kid is unnatural and stunts the world, as we now know (by which I mean the world is stunted). Feminism, the nanny state, equal rights, and anti-smoking legislation have stolen the balls from out the father and then kicked him where they used to hang, saying 'see, if your balls were still there, that kick would totally hurt, so you're welcome!'

A handicapped man once said of women: "we let 'em smoke, vote and drive, even put 'em in pants! And what do we get? Russian roulette on the highway, a democrat in the White House, you can't even tell male from female.... unless you meet 'em head on."

That old man was played by Stuart Lancaster, and the movie was the Russ Meyer's 1965's FASTER PUSSYCAT KILL KILL! It's currently out of print, but if ever there was an Xmas movie worth running someone over for it's this one. RIP Haji... you were some kind of a woman... and ballsier than most modern dads. We could learn a lesson, if it was only in stock.

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