When Sentimentality Gets to Good Viewers

A film corollary to my last post, about bad books:

The media always reports on how emotionally hard the holidays can be, even while showing consumers joyously throwing their paychecks to grinning Macy’s clerks.


January 5, 2007

A film corollary to my last post, about bad books:

The media always reports on how emotionally hard the holidays can be, even while showing consumers joyously throwing their paychecks to grinning Macy’s clerks.

To resolve this tension, they should show me trying to choose stocking stuffers for Mrs. Churm. Long shot: Churm stands baffled at a cosmetics counter. Medium shot: Churm squints at “philosophy” products in each hand. Close-up 1: In left hand, a tiny vial of powder, labeled "hope and a prayer." The copy below it says, “hope is desperation, faith is relaxation.”

Churm: "Okay."

Close-up 2: In right hand, a tub of some cream that reads, “where there is hope there can be faith. where there is faith miracles can occur.” Close-up, face (with quizzical expression of someone who just found poop in his Easter basket).

Churm: “What the hell?”

There is a melancholy in these darkest days of the year; you can’t help but think about the passage of time, absent family members, and hard-frozen fields under the moon. Even if you were raised on Jesus, the fact that Christmas is supposed to be a happy event—birth, not death—is often lost, culturally, in the minor-key carols and Dickensian shivering.

On top of all that, 'tis the season that teachers must break with semester-long investments in students, find the energy to start anew, and travel to conferences. But none of it compares, in depressive currency, with the sentimental movies running endlessly on TV.

They shouldn’t get to me. I can watch Bergman and Kurosawa for days and be fascinated and thrilled; Citizen Kane is most impressive when Kane pushes his first wife away in his rise to power. The 1934 French film L’Atalante, about a young bride going to live with her husband on a barge on the Seine, becomes a metaphor of life’s journey itself. But nowhere in any of these films am I moved to tears.

Not so with TV movies during the holidays. It's not the holiday genre. I’m not saddened by It’s a Wonderful Life, though I am creeped out when Jimmy Stewart turns evil and rages against his kids. (Mrs. Churm, on the other hand, can’t watch Uncle Billy sob, or she’ll lose it.)

This year it started with Christmas Vacation. Chevy Chase was listening to his little hillbilly niece say that she didn’t believe in Santa because she never got presents. I cleared my throat, and Mrs. Churm laughed extra-hard when Chase hesitated comically over the phrase “trust in your…dad”  (disgusting Eddie, played by Randy Quaid).

Then came Christmas Story, the classic from Jean Shepherd. I can quote funny lines from it, but when the father leaned forward on Christmas morning and asked his disappointed son if there was one last unopened present in the far corner, I took a deep breath. “You okay?” Mrs. Churm asked.

When “the Grinch’s small heart / Grew three sizes that day,” Mrs. Churm averted her eyes as I suddenly strode to the kitchen.

If these movies were sophisticated, aesthetically powerful films, I wouldn’t mind. But why react to John Hughes’ heavy-handed portrayal of big-palooka John Candy ( Planes, Trains & Automobiles) wringing his bear-like paws, while Steve Martin’s angelic wife descends the stairs from on high, in soft focus? “Hello, Mr. Griffith,” she breathes. My chin quavered. “Oh, Honey,” Mrs. Churm said. “You’re touched by his love for his dead wife. I’m here, I’m here.”

“Move, would you?” I said. “I can’t see.”

Then came the coup de grace: My Dog Skip, a Kevin Bacon vehicle. I tried not to look, but…Oh god, no!

Not the little white-muzzled dog!

He’s too arthritic to get off the bed by himself! Like my childhood pooch, Tennis Shoes, left at home when I went to the army! The tears flowed in catharsis. All that pent-up feeling, when I was supposed to be a bloodless consumer of texts, trained in explication and critical analysis. An hour later I was sobbing on Mrs. Churm's shoulder. Two hours later, I’d used all the tissues in the house, and there was no sign of let-up.

“For pity's sake, Churm. Get a grip, would you?” Mrs. Churm said. I got in the shower to hide my exquisite sorrow under the Cascadia Drenching Rain Showerhead. But when the drain could no longer handle the sheer volume of tears, the tub filled, then overflowed. Our rugs were soaked; the cats fled in terror. When water began dripping from the light fixtures on the ground floor, I had to admit I had a problem.

We’ve moved to an unused dorm room until the flood-recovery company can knock back the black mold inside our walls. State Farm says they’ll cover it this time, but before next Thanksgiving, when the movies start again, I have to give my TV away.

Do bad movies move you?


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