Twenty-Three: A Christmas Carol, Distance, and Holiday Reunions

I don’t know how many film adaptations of A Christmas Carol exist, but the list seems endless. I’m not a maniacal fan of the story (though I don’t deny its power or charm) so I’ve only seen a few of said movies, but to my mind, the only Christmas Carols that matter are Scrooged, the dark and weirdly poignant Bill Murray comedy from the 80s, and A Muppet Christmas Carol, which is perfect (and Guillermo del Toro agrees with me). I do not need another adaptation, so I never had any interest in watching Robert Zemickis’s fully motion-capture take on the classic starring Jim Carrey as Ebeneezer Scrooge, but Gary Oldman had to go and get mixed up in it, so here we are!

Despite my dragging-of-the-feet on this one, it is worth mentioning that I don’t think the film is BAD, I’m just unsure if its mixture of the rote and the bizarre is really worth making a spot for in your holiday viewing. Then again… it is a uniquely detailed horror holiday family film, and maybe that fits the bill for Christmas 2020?

Note: This post is part of an ongoing project, the goal of which is to watch and contemplate every movie in which actor Gary Oldman has appeared (there are many, the man likes to work). Posts tend to contain reviews but are not excluded to that sort of framework– much like Gary’s career, I’m wildly unpredictable!

As with all MYWG entries, the following will probably contain spoilers!

  • Christmas Carol‘s ranking on the Oldometer: 4/10
  • Gary Oldman character quality: Gary plays Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s former business partner (in life) whose ghost returns to warn of the afterlife’s potential horrors, AND Bob Crachit, Scrooge’s saintly and long-suffering employee. He’s also… Tiny Tim, Crachit’s son, which is a weird choice, but okay. He’s fine, even particularly good as Cratchit, but it’s that motion-capture business, man. It’s too weird for me and I rarely see the performances shine through.
  • Does Gary Die in this one? He’s either undead or very alive, but Tiny Tim dies in an alternate timeline I guess. We’ll go with no.

Here’s what I have to say about Zemeckis’ Christmas Carol: it keeps you at a distance. Though much of the animation IS beautiful (the sweep through London during the opening credits is actually breath-taking), motion capture, while awe-inspiring in a way, is a frustrating medium that urges viewers to lean in and observe its craftsmanship while failing to actually deliver something true. Much has been said about its “uncanny valley” effect, the presentation of something outwardly human yet just off-base enough that it feels alien, and I agree that sometimes it comes off as flat-out creepy. Most of the time, though, it’s just soulless, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see it as anything other than video-game-y. Though I will say, when its well integrated with actual human onscreen performances, such as in Lord of the Rings or some of the Apes films, it works alright, but Christmas Carol has no such integration.

The Creep Factor

In its defense, that soullessness can occasionally work to the film’s advantage. The ghosts are well-conceived and appropriately creepy here– it makes sense to exploit the uncanny valley effect in their creation, since as spirits they are meant to be real-and-yet-not. A Victorian scholar friend of mine even commented that this movie features the most accurate vision of the Ghost of Christmas Past as a placid, creepy little shapeshifter.

Marley’s Ghost (Gary) is also a bit unnerving; when he first appears as the animate (ha) face on Scrooge’s door it’s one of the most effective jump scares I’ve witnessed in ages, I jumped out of my skin right along with Ebeneezer for that one. Marley also does stuff like unhinging his jaw and manually flapping his chin in order to speak to his hauntee, which is freaking terrifying (yes, this is a movie for kids, so this turns into slapstick to lessen the scary, but I think that makes it even more unsettling).

Sadly, when it comes to the human moments, we are still, like Scrooge, trapped in a field of disconnect. When Ghost of Christmas Present takes his charge around to all the happenin’ holiday parties, we want to absorb all the much-needed warmth from the Crachit hearth, but it still feels cold.

Christmas is different this year.

But that’s how it feels right now, in reality, to me. You all know the deal. Physical togetherness is a risk, and it’s one that spiking higher at the moment. Covid is everywhere. In my town, we have very few ICU beds remaining at the local hospital. As someone who helps my at-risk family with caretaking duties, I have to take extra precautions. I’ve certainly lapsed a few times, but since fall began I haven’t even been able to see my best friend, a middle school teacher, not even from a six-foot distance. I’ve spent most of the year at home, and I’ve been okay with that, but the holiday spirit has had me craving closeness.

A few weeks ago, I was having a bad day. I just wanted to tell someone about it, so I made a plan to buy something at my local drug store JUST so when the run-down cashier asked me “how’s it going” I could respond “not too great actually, you? I hope it’ll get better! yay Thanksgiving!” I waited a long time in line anticipating this exchange, only to be ushered to a self-checkout machine, which did NOT care about my day. I was so dashed by this.

This past week, I got the satisfaction of seeing some of my close friends in a “safe” outdoor/socially distanced gift exchange, and even though I couldn’t hug anyone it was GREAT and I wanted MORE. But now I might be paying for it– long story, but I’m currently quarantined and waiting on results for a Covid test (as of now I am thankfully without symptoms, I think– that psychosomatic stuff is a bitch, though, innit?). I don’t think I have it, and even if I do, IT WILL BE OKAY (Lord willing) but the whole thing has been sobering! How could I make it this far into the year of evil plague-free, yet fall prey NOW, so close to the finish line, and just when I was dying for some human coziness?! I’m not even a holiday-obsessed fiend! I don’t even have a tree this year!

I now know several people who will be spending Christmas in hardcore quarantine because of illness, and of course more because of necessary precaution. That is hard, especially after a year of hardship. I also know being alone during this time is actually the norm for many folks– that’s hard, too.

Like Scrooge’s disappointment when he looks in on his nephew Fred’s Christmas party, physically unseen/heard and even then conceptually rejected (recall if you will the “unwanted creature” bit), it’s a lonely business of feeling (which again, seems even more so when you’re in motion-capture land). Scary, too, like it is for Scrooge later when he is facing the specter of his death. But as (I suspect) we all know, while all versions of Christmas Carol stress the imperative to change for the better while we still have breath, it also tells us that so long as there’s life there’s hope.

Yes, I know, yadda yadda.

I Promise This Has a Point

Here’s a bit of trivia I can’t stop thinking about: So, Gary Oldman and Lesley Manville were married in the 80’s (see my mini poetic waxing about her over at The Firm post from a bit ago). They had a son together, but shortly thereafter they split and Oldman left for Hollywood. From the sound of some random interview comments from the both of them, there might have been some anger there, but who’s to say. Anyway, obviously they each kept building their careers, and Oldman seems to have formed a warm relationship with their kid despite the separation. I try not to get too interested in that type of thing, but I can’t help but be intrigued by the relationship when I notice that in Christmas Carol, Manville is playing Mrs. Crachit to Oldman’s Bob.

Might’ve been a weird, uncomfortable coincidence, just a gig for the two of them, but Manville (unlike Gary) isn’t really in the habit of taking on just anything, and I can’t imagine anyone jumping at the chance to not only work with their ex-spouse but play AT BEING spouses again. Sure, they’re in motion capture, but they’re still sharing the screen and presumably real-life space. Also, most of their shared dialogue centers on their concerns about their little boy, which makes for the very small handful of moments in which, perhaps, a tiny bit of that soulless animation is whittled through to make way for a modicum of human emotion (remember, Gary and Lesley share a child themselves).

Isn’t that… nice? Maybe I’m reaching– and I’m sure I am, who isn’t right now– but I just think it’s lovely that enough peace had been created for these two people that they could put aside a rocky past (and those goofy motion capture suits) and recreate a warmth between them, if only for a few minutes.

So hey. I take that weird trivia as a morsel of encouragement. It’s possible to create our own kind of false warmth to signify the real stuff or to commemorate the cozy closeness of Christmases past– it’s not the same, but it’s not devoid of love. If I have to satiate my need for festive, human connection through the soulless apparatus of Zoom, my phone, or the almost-real-but-not-quite interaction of waves through windows or smiles hidden under masks, I can do that for now.

On that note, I guess… God Bless Us, Everyone. Especially this year, please.

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