I moved from England to Maine in 2003. During this time, as I discovered many new family traditions, I came to the realization that the movie/Christmas special traditions of this country were vastly different from what I’d grown up with. GeekMom Nicole’s post earlier this month reminded me of this: all of the specials that she wrote about were ones I had never heard of prior to 2003. It took me years to love Ralphie…and even longer to love Rudolph. I don’t think I have yet managed to convince an American friend or family member of how wonderful my own Christmas specials are. So here are a few of the specials that I grew up with in England. They aren’t all English but they aren’t at all commonplace over here (from what I have seen).
1. Santa Claus: The Movie. This is the Father Christmas I saw in my mind as a child. When you talk about Christmas, this is the face that I see in that red suit. John Lithgow plays an evil toymaker to Dudley Moore’s optimistic elf. We follow the life of Santa in the 80s and watch a ragamuffin child and little rich girl help Dudley’s elf, Patch, learn what it truly means to be loved by Santa. The music sticks with me till April.
2.The Christmas Toy. Pretty much Jim Henson’s take on Toy Story, well before Pixar was around. What happens when you leave the room and your toys come to life? What happens when one of them believes that he will get to be unwrapped every Christmas morning. This show has some heavy moments in it (for instance, the toys “die” if they are seen out of place), but this is one I have already been watching with my two-year-old.
3. Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman. Having seen what toys who come to life do, this shows us what snowmen who come to life do. No dialogue from anyone, not even John Goodman, just music. If you have ever heard “Walking in the Air” and wondered why it’s always around, this is the source. It’s a beautifully quiet reflection for Christmas.
One of the things that I always looked forward to in December was getting the two-week edition of theRadio Times, Britain’s version of TV Guide. Usually published weekly, the two-week special encapsulates both Christmas and New Year’s, thus giving you the chance to schedule all of your holiday-time viewing beforehand. My dad still sends me a copy every year, though I can’t actually watch any of the shows. Still, I like knowing whether Zulu will be airing again on Christmas day, and I also like to be reminded to watch the Queen’s annual Christmas address. This year’s edition has me wishing for Gillian Anderson in Great Expectations and Christopher Eccleston in The Borrowers. I’ll have to settle, though, for ABC’s “25 days of Christmas” and get my Heat Miser fix on Christmas Eve.
Recently my family endured a week of cabin fever brought on by snow, weblessness, and our general proximity to one another. We survived by watching movies together each night after dinner, but were limited to our rental cabin’s movie collection. This included only dusty classics that every adult Homo Sapien has seen at least fourteen times. The movies were on “videotapes,” which we played in a big machine called a “VCR.”
The films we saw were made long before high-tech gadgetry, Dungeons & Dragons, or the rise of nerdy-cool. The word “geek” had not even arrived to brighten our world. Yet as I watched each movie, a proto-geeky character emerged, someone who embodied a certain early, nascent geekness.
(For all you definition hawks out there: I take a geek to be a smart person with an intense interest in something — as opposed to a nerd, who may have more trouble with social interaction. Here, this Venn diagram explains the whole thing. Come on back when you’re done.)
So without further ado, I present you with the four great classic films that we watched, along with my votes for their ur-geeky characters.
This one’s easy: Max Detweiler is the geek. He’s that friend of Herr von Trapp and the Countess, always ready with a bon mot and an impeccable suit. He’s also the one obsessed with his music festival and on the lookout for new acts. If he existed today, he’d be a gigantic Gleek.
Through most of the film Max cares more about putting on a fabulous show than about the recent Nazi occupation of Austria. Now that’s some impressively geeky singlemindedness. But in the end of course, he wields said fabulous show to thwart the Nazis, proving that geekiness can be a great tool for any underground resistance.
(My husband interjects that Max is also the prototype of the Swishy Gay Friend. Food for thought.)
If geekiness is part obsessional interest, then Miss Havisham is our 19th century gal. Perhaps you remember this nutty old bat. Jilted at the alter as a young woman, she avoids her pain by freezing time. She stops the clocks, boards up the windows, and remains in her wedding dress, sitting beside the still-set wedding dinner table for, oh, about fifty years. At the start of the movie she’s absolutely ancient, surrounded by ancient cobwebs and ancient cobwebby servants.
“That’s not geeky,” I hear you cry, “that’s downright insane. She’s several cards short of a Pokemon deck.” OK, good point.
But hear me out. Think of how singlemindedly Miss Havisham focuses on that one day! She’s had no visitors, no news from the outside, for decades. If anyone wanted to get accurate historical information about that day –What were people wearing? What were the headlines? – she’d be the undisputed go-to geek. She is to her own wedding day what a Civil War geek is to the battle of Antietam. I rest my case.
You may be thinking that the geek here is Boo Radley, the reclusive neighbor of Scout, the little girl who narrates. But friends, do not be fooled!
The geek is none other than Atticus Finch, Scout’s father, played by Gregory Peck. Oh, Atticus makes me swoon. Really, if that guy stepped out of the movie and proposed to me, I would have to disappoint my husband brutally. (Sorry, honey. The truth hurts.)
Atticus is smart and tall, and has the geekiest glasses possible for the Depression-era deep South. But what really clinches his status is his obsessional interest in justice. He is – dare I say – a justice geek. He puts himself and his kids at risk of life and limb to pursue his fight against intolerance, which he wages with his quiet, firm, intelligent, decent ways. Oh my. I’m getting all worked up again.
Could the geek be protagonist George Bailey, who is second in my heart only to Atticus Finch? (Sorry again, honey.) George certainly has his interest — traveling the world — but isn’t too obsessive about it, distracted as he is by little things like love, marriage and fatherhood. No, not so geeky.
I sifted through the movie’s truckload of characters: Mary Bailey, Uncle Billy, Mr. Potter, little Zuzu, and all the others with whom director Frank Capra viciously manipulates us into feeling a deep love for humanity. None of them are geeky. Could it be that Wonderful Life is geek-free?
Then it hit me. I’m the geek. I’m the one absentmindedly reciting each line along with the movie, down to the syllable. I’m the one who in high school painstakingly transcribed all of George’s speeches from the VCR (“The moonbeams would shoot out of your fingers and your toes and the ends of your hair…”) and affixed them to my bedroom wall. I’m the one who still – still! – sobs uncontrollably at the end. Every. Damn. Time.
And I’m not alone. There are thousands of us Wonderful Life Kool-Aid chuggers, and I submit that each time one of us watches the movie again… well … we’re the geek.
Playing “Spot the Geek” is like discovering fossils of ancient creatures that turn out to be our ancestors. “Aha,” we geeks say, “so that’s where we came from.” The whole process is enriching, enlightening, and of course an exquisite waste of time.
Perhaps you’ve played this game with other classic films. What’s your vote? Citizen Kane, anyone? All about Eve, Gone with the Wind, Philadelphia Story?