Tuesday, December 01, 2015

When Boomers Did Christmas Movies: Scrooged

Every year, you will see A Christmas Carol. In some form, that tale of the hard-hearted, greedy bastard experiencing an epiphany on the value of the sentimental, spiritual and emotional will find its way to your eyes and ears. It is a timeless tale that can cross eras and cultures. Dickens' tale of the Ebeneezer Scrooge received an update during a new era of greed. "Scrooged" hit American theaters in the holiday season of 1988, and has been a comedic Christmas entry on cable ever since. Released during the ascendant period of Boomer economic and cultural power, it is a great window onto Boomers, their concerns and their view of yesterday.

Scrooged on its surface is the Boomer striver (Frank Cross) from a modest upbringing "making it" at the expense of everything else only to find it is empty and lonely at the top. Through Cross' night with the spirits where we get a glimpse of 1950s America, the sexual revolution America, '80s America and then a Margaret Atwood looking future America, he finds enlightenment and redemption. Hollywood was already getting a bit lazy and had Cross be a network executive, so we get the movie within a movie setting. The score is a Danny Elfman '80s score. The lighting is incredibly '80s. The characters are incredibly '80s: WASP Greatest Generation chairman level executives, Boomer striver, California WASP weasel "Brice", Hollywood trope black female nurturer, and a former hippie social worker. There is a Richard Pryor on fire from freebasing cocaine joke. The Solid Gold dancers show up. Carol Kane turns her onscreen Carol Kane-ing up to "11". This is timestamped late '80s. This film embraces the 1980s. It is wonderful.

It is also incredibly Boomer. Frank Cross went head first into his job, forsaking everything else, to reach the pinnacle of success. He is the youngest network executive, and he repeats this multiple times. When we see the look back to his childhood what do we see? We see a dad who works a thankless job and doesn't nurture him, parents that don't decorate for Christmas and some veal as a Christmas gift. His tearful walk away from that childhood scene has him conjuring up false memories that he has stolen from television and film. Frank Cross gets ripped by the ghost for not knowing himself, but he is just an indicator of what we see now around us with people sharing memories from television shows clearer than their personal lives. Frank Cross was the exception then, but there are many more like him now.

The replacement of the personal with the stage managed by Boomers hits elsewhere as Frank Cross can never quite mimic his predecessor generation. Frank Cross receives a humanitarian award, which is a nice play on the original Dickens' work's solicitation for alms for the poor. The Boomers took the formerly valued and cherished idea of civic duty and community building and mocked it. It's the band aid giving symbolized by "check-box" United Way donations and throwing cash at a problem. It might be a check that is delivered to a non-profit, but the bond that formerly was present with the traditions of charity and Church going is gone. Scrooged fits the Carol tradition well by also maintaining the secular idea of the Christmas spirit that never has to mention Christ. This fits perfectly with Boomers and the '80s. Recall that the Care Bears were just a cute, secular way that adults could teach children about morality without using Christian angels. By 1988, the secularization of what we call the blue states was just about complete.

What is Frank Cross? Forget who. Cross is that Boomer that was incredibly successful at business who never spent time on a family or his soul. Whereas the prior concept of success still had an executive with wife, kids and community ties, the new concept was the Gordon Gecko who did not have time for lunch. Money never sleeps. Cross represents that bachelor, married to business Boomer archetype from a comical angle so that we can laugh away the sad reality of seeing it in your hometown and family. Released in '88, the film could take advantage of the '80s stock, land, and bond bubble to sell to audiences what they wanted to see. Yes, folks at home, that man in the corner office is empty and needing spiritual fulfillment. The masses want to hope that those men are miserable. Some are, many aren't. Strip away any drive for love, family and community as one handles the rat race in the city, and people will not even notice they miss those things.

His misplaced priorities even warp his mind for why he would need redemption and saving. The reality of his own mortality? The lost love? The little black kid who never talks and is sent to a facility? They are echoes of the original story, but do they not seem a bit more selfish? His final monologue even details his greed for the good feeling of Christmas and giving. Greed can be turned outward and made good. Is that the message? Greed is okay if it is for the right things. It is a bit odd, but if ever a generational update of the Christmas Carol tale was made to support the "Scrooge had a stroke and mental breakdown" interpretation, the Boomers delivered the best one.

One cannot avoid discussing Bill Murray's performance, which was crafted for that stock Murray character. Murray portrayed to perfection the crass, Midwestern prole who is punching above his weight class and won't fully assimilate to classy culture. The type-cast Murray is his Ernie McCracken character. The loud mouth successful sales rep who has money but no class. Note that he never drops his Midwestern accent despite his character being from NYC. He assumed the Connery privilege. This movie and script allowed Murray to have Murray moments. Those bits in movies where he can do a quasi-stand up bit within a scene are always fun. The entire homeless shelter scene is vintage Murray. Murray's type-casting of the successful, unrepentant asshole is what makes him a perfect fit for a Scrooge stand-in. He is going to sell you the Scrooge so well that you will believe his asshole behavior right up to the epiphany. This also makes that conversion as referenced above a bit, "is this a put-on?", which adds to the '80s and Boomer-ness of it all.

There is a quirky thing in this flick that timestamps the film and reveals the good old, prog media power. Keep your eyes open and look for the Free South Africa props. Posters on a wall, stickers and even an entire shot sequence? Yes, a scene was constructed for freeing South Africa. When Frank Cross is visiting the future, he stops by and sees his assistant's son "dindu who doesn't speak" in a padded cell. There is a specific shot that should make you scratch your head. His mother, played by Alfre Woodward, is visiting the "dindu who doesn't speak", and she is wearing a weird shawl and is barefoot. She is not there long, and is interrupted by a white, male orderly. Pause the film at that interruption by the orderly. Is that a shot designed to explain how the boy never overcame his trauma or is it an anti-apartheid message? Just seems odd to have a black American in the future barefoot and wearing a head scarf like one would associate with women in Sub-Saharan Africa. Watch the scene again. Maybe I am reading too much into it, but then again, Mel Gibson fought South African drug dealers in Lethal Weapon 2 in 1989.

Scrooged is easy to watch again and again. It is why it is on cable rotation. You know the jokes are coming but laugh just as hard. Murray sells it because it's his role, his asshole, his "Boomer jerk" brought to life so well that you want to see him clean up. Just like in the flick, in 1988 for Boomer asshole business types there is still a chance. Frank Cross is roughly a 40 year old so this mid-life crisis can force him to select a woman to take care of him. That is what your boss needs, your brother needs, your distant, hard ass uncle needs. He is going to find the light. It may be to help some little black kid, which is super-progressive, but he will make the world a better place per the norms of his day.

Boomers will see the light, right? The decade of greed and the me generation will eventually look outward, right? It was going to happen. That is what we hoped for Frank Cross and Boomers like him. Scrooged's world is twenty-seven years old. They still haven't seen the light. They are just as much Iphone zombies as the teens they complain about daily. They still are bitching about their parents. They still are misplacing their priorities. They still think the system is worth saving. Once again, they are retirement age and still bitching about mom and dad. They will have no one visiting them in nursing homes... and only themselves to blame.


Brandon said...

I really appreciate your movie reviews and analysis. Have you ever seen the 1988 movie Betrayed? It stars Tom Berenger and Debra Winger, and despite what others have told me, it portrays many tensions haunting the late 80s. I'd be interested in your take on it.

Son of Brock Landers said...

No, but I will check it out.

Alexandros HoMegas said...

Watched Scrooged all the time when I was a kid, only later I discovered that the movie was panned by the critics.

Toddy Cat said...

"they are retirement age and still bitching about mom and dad"

This is probably the most embarrassing thing about the Boomers. For God's sake, Mom and Dad are dead, or in a nursing home. You've been in charge for the last thirty years. This isn't Ike's world, or Nixon's or Reagan's. This mess that we are living in is the world you made - own it.

And yes, the Eighties are a fascinating decade, at least as influential as the over-rated and over-studied Sixties. Like the 1950's, there was a lot of stuff incubating under the surface then...