On Saturday 19 December, we are delighted to welcome Elizabeth Sankey and Jeremy Warmsley of indie pop duo Summer Camp, who will perform a festive-flavoured acoustic gig followed by a screening of one their favourite Christmas films, Elf at Hackney Picturehouse. Elizabeth lends us her views on the unique animal that is the Christmas film.
Writing Christmas songs is the toughest challenge for a band. In general, songs are a medium that works well when treated with restraint. Lyrically you only have a couple of minutes to get your point across, which necessitates succinct and direct ideas, but at the same time you’re trying to reach as many people as possible. Writing lyrics that are specific and highly personal can be a gamble. John Grant and Courtney Barnett can do it, but they’re in the minority. Writing a big, sparkly neon green and scarlet red Christmas tune feels uncomfortable for most people, so often you just try not to mention anything to do with the season at all. Then you pop some sleigh bells on top and release the song in December.
By comparison, Christmas films always seem like the perfect gift for any creative person enamoured with the festive season. You’re walking into a genre that accepts completely the existence of magic, and is perfectly chilled about the fact that every year an old man breaks into people’s homes via their chimneys to leave socks and remote-control helicopters beneath their indoor tree. When you can present your audience with the tale of an eight-year-old boy who’s able to set up intricate and extremely violent traps to knock two grown men into submission, and they nod along and declare it a heartwarming classic, well, you know you can do whatever you want.
Perhaps what you want to do is dress up Dudley Moore as an elf who feels out of place in the North Pole and disappears to New York, where he meets a semi-evil businessman whom he tries to befriend – which is what happens in Santa Claus: The Movie. Or maybe you want to dress up Will Ferrell as an elf who feels out of place in the North Pole and disappears to New York, where he meets a semi-evil businessman who is his father – which is what happens in Elf.
Personally, I most enjoy the films that venture boldly into the Christmas legal system. The Santa Clause – I like to think they worked back from the title with this one – sees Tim Allen (aka Tim ‘The Toolman’ Taylor, aka ’90s TV, aka I feel old) gets tricked into a contract to become the next Santa Claus. He finds the old Santa Claus dead on his front lawn, puts the red jacket on over his boxers to keep warm, and then (obviously) gets in the sleigh to carry on delivering presents – with no mention of police or an ambulance.
The 1947 classic Miracle On 34th Street (and the not so classic 1994 remake) sees a man go before a New York Supreme Court Judge to prove that he is Santa Claus – because, you know, why not? In fact, Christmas is a time when a bit of mental instability goes a long way. After all, Frank Capra made us fall head over heels in love with George Bailey, a man who attempts suicide and then gets rescued by an angel who’s crap at his job.
There are also the films that try to deal with the more grown-up realities of Christmas. Die Hard could be a metaphor for the struggle a parent feels when they need to finish all their work before they can make it home for the big day. This is also pretty much what happens in Jingle All The Way. There’s also the festive work of Vince Vaughn, the unlikely poster boy for family disharmony during the season thanks (or rather, no thanks) to Four Christmases and Fred Claus. Rom-com lovers can watch The Holiday. Personally I wish there was an edit of that movie which only contained the scenes involving Eli Wallach.
Ultimately though, kids rule Christmas. Kevin McCallister should be in therapy for his actions but instead he’s a hero. This is the time of year when kids are at the centre of attention and can enjoy festive treats such as watching Frozen on repeat for eight million years. The perfect Christmas film seems to involve a wildly unbelievable story, Vince Vaughn, snow, family reconciliation and a child getting what they want. Or if Vince isn’t available just remake last year’s Paddington, which managed to include positive messages about diversity amongst shots of Peter Capaldi in mustard pyjamas – all of which I strongly approved of.
In the future I hope we have more Christmas songs that smack you round the face with tinsel and mince pies. If these films prove anything it’s that this time of year isn’t about being restrained, it’s about indulging your imagination completely and then letting go. Eh Elsa?