night of the hunter

Transpositions – Truly Unconventional Christmas Films for the Bleak Midwinter

I’m an associate editor for Transpositions, the online journal for ITIA, where I recently wrote on four very unconventional Christmas films from a theological perspective:

The traditional popular Christmas film is typically full of holiday joy and good cheer, as exemplified by enduring classics like the musical White Christmas, the madcap silliness of Elf, or the syrupy sentiment of Love, Actually. To be clear, I love all these films; these are the feel-good movies of the holiday season, the cinematic hot cocoa or cider which soothes the soul in the darkness of winter and the end of yet another year.

But what about Christmas movies featuring hyper-violent shootouts, alien chest-bursters, or maniacal serial killers? Shall we include these unconventional Christmas films in our cinematic holiday fare? While Die Hard may come to mind as an ‘unconventional’ Christmas film, after thirty years of debate it’s found its place within the Yuletide pantheon. Same goes for Gremlins, Joe Dante’s darkly comic fairy-tale, nowadays frequently found under the ‘holiday’ DVD section. Other notable unconventional Christmas-themed movies include the filmographies of Tim Burton (Batman ReturnsEdward ScissorhandsThe Nightmare Before Christmas) and screenwriter/director Shane Black (Lethal WeaponKiss Kiss Bang BangIron Man 3, and The Nice Guys).

In his consideration of Christmas films as secularised celebrations of the ‘religion’ of capitalist consumerism, Christopher Deacy says that Christmas ‘inspires such seemingly irreconcilable and disparate treatment’ in that ‘both Christmas and Christianity may be competing sites of religious activity’ within our post-secular Western culture. [1] I want to take Deacy’s analysis one step further—beyond consumerism, the cinematic ‘Christmas’ in a post-secular culture blurs the lines between belief and unbelief, sacred and secular, and thus expands beyond the generic holiday tropes to find the presence of Christmas incarnate within unlikely places. A filmmaker’s inclusion of Christmas within a film’s narrative, I suggest, invites a theological or religious interpretation of the work as a whole.

A filmmaker’s inclusion of Christmas within a film’s narrative, I suggest, invites a theological or religious interpretation of the work as a whole.

For example, we may view Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut as an orgiastic holiday nightmare, a re-imagining of what it means to give good gifts to our loved ones. John Rambo in First Blood experiences the ultimate ‘no room in the inn’ response as a traveller-turned-fugitive in the wintry wilderness at Christmastime. The Christmas season is downright purgatorial for two distraught hitmen in In Bruges, perhaps imagining the Nativity story from the perspective of King Herod’s (‘Harry’, in this case) conscience-stricken soldiers who are commanded to massacre infants in Bethlehem. Even without an overt Christmas referent, we can consider Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian sci-fi film Children of Men as a retelling of the Nativity story, one complete with its miraculous birth of a child bringing salvation and an unlikely Joseph character in Clive Owen.

Beyond those I listed above, I want to consider some truly unconventional Christmas films, movies which rarely, if ever, cross our minds when we recall the birth of Christ or the traditional holiday movies. [2] These are films either set during the Christmas season or with the holiday present within the narrative. In this, I’ll thematically follow the traditional four candles of the Advent wreath—hope, peace, joy, and love—to draw unlikely theological links between these grim-and-gritty Christmas films and the theological significance of Advent and the incarnation of God.

Check out the rest of the article at Transpositions.

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