Tuesday, December 08, 2015

When Boomers Did Christmas Movies: Christmas Vacation

"You're the last true family man."

Are your Christmas memories focused on your home and your immediate family or are they centered on how you interacted with your extended family at your grandparents' home? Who hosted "Christmas Dinner"? I bet a jaunt to gramma and grandpa's house was in play for Christmas. Boomers had fewer children compared to their parents, so this may have accounted for it. The elder statesmen or matriarch would put on the Christmas circus performance that the Boomer kids grew up with, including food favorites and silly old '50s decorations. It was great not just for bringing a family together but to transfer traditions along the vertical generational line.

When were the Boomers going to take over the duty and power of hosting holidays? National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation attempts to answer that. Many Boomers had families, and Chevy Chase's Clark W. Griswold Jr. is your Hollywood representation of that phenomenon. Griswold represents that strain of Boomers that want to recreate the magic that Boomers grew up with. The idea of performing duties and rituals as the right thing is evident throughout Griswold's escapades. Family vacations, seeing elderly relatives, housing relatives, marrying, doing fun things with kids, staying with the mega-corp for decades, buying gifts for struggling relatives; Clark Griswold always does what he considers the right thing in the tradition he was raised. Griswold tries to accomplish some wholesome family things that he envisions are good and traditional.

While America's secularization was nearly complete in blue states, this film has some little touches to traditional family values. The Griswolds say grace before the meal. Does anyone go to church for Christmas? C'mon this is Hollywood. Still, the flyover Americans get a fair shake. Why? It is the work of John Hughes, the '80s film maven. Hughes single-handedly is why so many '80s flicks have a Midwest setting. While Cousin Eddie is the hick for laughs, there is a genuine decency behind some of his behavior. His ignorance is an innocent stupidity ("heart bigger than his head"). Hughes did this in many of his films with Planes, Trains and Automobiles spotlighting provincial or middle of nowhere types as sources of comedy but decent people. The cab driver in Planes, Trains and Automobiles can be a sight gag with his crazy cab and hairdo, but he is not a weirdo or loser. He is proud. Contrast this with newer films where rural equals dumb, mean and most likely racist/rapist/sexist/homophobe.The people of the Midwest were Hughes' people. Hughes left Hollywood, and raised his family back in the Midwest.

Two things that timestamp this '80s that really stand out but in different ways are the home decor for Casa Griswold and the SWAT team raid at the end. The home design and decor is incredibly '80s with more boxed room design and no open floor plan, and the window treatments and wallpaper are so busy and loud. This is contrasted nicely with the '80s sleek and chic look of the DINK neighbors, so all aspects of suburban, '80s home decorating are covered here. The SWAT raid at the end of the film is meant to be ludicrous. It was. Now SWAT raids on unsuspecting suburbanites are normal. Truly sad when the ridiculous is now completely normal and expected.

I love the film. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, I will watch it roughly 30 times. By mid-December, I am "off-book". I quote Clark Griswold when my family acts dumb ("It's good, it's good", "That it is Edward, that it is indeed"). I laugh at Clark and Ellen's annoyance with incompetent family members. This is life. I love to make up lyrics to the Ray Charles song and sing it in his voice to trick my wife into thinking that those are the real lyrics. I have a family full of eccentrics. This is my life for events hosted at my house. My wife is just like Beverly D'Angelo in the film, supporting me and a great rock for handling their stupidity. We both know a Christmas Vacation is in our future. Everyone couple goes through it at least once.

Can a Christmas movie be full of hot women? Of course it can. This is Hollywood. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays the neighbor who was one half of a DINK couple. She is pretty sexy in the film with her long hair. There is the lingerie saleswoman who plays the Christie Brinkley fantasy role for Clark Griswold in this iteration of Family vacation films. She rocks the French cut panties well, and plays the straight woman for one of Chevy's finest scenes. Juliette Lewis plays the daughter, and is jailbait here, but has anyone wondered what fountain of youth she is drinking from? She has aged incredibly well, so her cute look earlier in her career has allowed her to surpass finer looking peers as they age poorly. Beverly D'Angelo makes the MILF hall of fame with her look here. The Christmas night look is fantastic, but I'd be derelict in not noting her dark '80s sweater over dark pants as deliciously MILFy.

D'Angelo is not just eye candy. D'Angelo and Chase were in their third film together as husband and wife, and the chemistry is believable. I loved the silent exchanges, facial expressions and interactions within their conversations because it is what married couples do when trying to minimize how vocal and often they slag on their ne'er do well family. The only thing missing between the two of them was an arms outstretched, eyes bugged out, shrug-shake, which is code for "Jesus Christ, can't ____ get his fucking act together". Couples do this. It's the joy of knowing one eyebrow raise means so much more. It's one additional reason why some elderly couples die within months of each other; they lost their partner in comedy. Chase and D'Angelo sell their screen marriage to viewers with these small touches. It appears believable that the Griswolds are a loving couple, and Ellen will always support Clark's adventures because she knows he has loving intentions.

Clark's intentions are genuinely focused on his family. As the quote that opens this essay explains, Clark Griswold is the last true family man. He is spending his Christmas bonus on a pool for his family. He is the classic provider. He has to endure horrible in-laws and his dad and father-in-law bickering about parking and who suffered more in WW2 (listen to background dialogue). He puts up with it because they are family. Clark finds old Christmas films in the attic. Does anyone else care? No, but he watches them, feels the pangs of nostalgia and channels that energy into his Christmas. The movie begins with the trek for the perfect Christmas tree. He is going to do it for his family even as they roll their eyes.

Clark is not just the last true family man, but knowing what we know with Hollywood tropes, he is the last competent man. Will Ferrell took over the large, physical white male comedy roles, but his performances have been an odd blend of lampooning the classic white male role and reaffirming it. Grantland spent an essay writing about just that idea, trying to say white equals obsolete in every paragraph. Movies today have savvy and smart men, but if they are white, they are going to be the villain or murky, grey and selfish executive. The females and minorities talk the grey, ambiguously good white guy into doing the right thing. Clark Griswold has plans. Yes, he has goofy antics, but he thinks big. He executes on his plans. Pay attention to work scenes. He is an engineer who designs a great product that the gruff executive discusses in a trade show presentation. Clark has a window office in a tower in downtown Chicago. Clark lives in a nice suburb of Chicago, and his wife does not have to work. Clark also has to deal with incompetents all around him. It's Clark trying to hold things together while those around him fail repeatedly.

The film's script does a nice job of offering foils to Clark Griswold. Griswold's last competent man routine is fleshed out in contrast to Cousin Eddie. Eddie is a broke, unemployed scrub who cannot provide for his kids and gets swindled out of money regularly. Clark takes him in and buys his kids Christmas gifts. Neighbor Todd, the yuppie, earns good money to afford a home in his neighborhood but cannot be a man. This is explicitly stated during the final home wrecking as Julia Louis-Dreyfus' "Margot" insults his failure to perform manly duties. Clark has an office job and can use a chainsaw. Clark Griswold may tear down the forest, but he is going to find the perfect tree. When you look at the foils, you also get the sense that Clark Griswold represents the last guy who knows right from wrong and will choose right. This last bit he has to teach to his boss, who in an anachronistic touch lives in the same suburb despite being the "big boss".

Chevy Chase is a Boomer funnyman. Born right at the beginning of the boom, Chase was a multi-talented individual that aged with the Boomers. He had an amazing ego, but when his acting was on, he earned the right to it. Something lost in our modern era of gross out humor, trash humor and other garbage, derp effects is the use of slight facial movements and expressions to full effect. Belushi is a master of this in Animal House, to the point where you have to consider "Silent Bob" from Kevin Smith films a direct rip off of Bluto. Chase was the same in that he could use his delivery, his posture, his body positioning and facial expressions to sell a joke and a scene. That peculiar effect that seems to haunt all comedians of losing their "funny" hit him hardest. I take that back, maybe Eddie Murphy lost his in a sadder fashion. Whether it is a disconnect with ground level culture or running out of gas to keep producing funny bits over and over again, it is the rare comedian who keeps his "funny". Christmas Vacation is Chase's final hurrah. It was the last moment that he was funny. After the credits rolled on Christmas Vacation, Chevy Chase was no longer funny.

It was final hurrahs all around. It was John Hughes' final hurrah. He had a blockbuster later with Home Alone, but Christmas Vacation is the last of his heavy cable rerun classics and has aged much better. It was the last definitively Hughes movie. It was the Boomers final family hurrah. Even the youngest Boomers were fully grown adults by 1989 (mid-20s). The divorces were adding up. The abortion holocaust was in the rear-view. By 1989, more families had fewer children and childless aunts and uncles in higher numbers. They could never match the genuine wholesomeness of prior generations for Christmas flicks, and as they ascended to middle aged and elder statesmen roles in families, we saw them fail. We know the fraud that they are. They still whine about their parents. Taking their elderly parents in became a burden to complain about, when in the past having a grandmother in the home was a natural part of life and a positive. They labelled themselves the sandwich generation. Boo-hoo, you have to spend time and share space with your blood relatives. If this movie represented the promise of Boomers aging into mature roles within families, it was an empty promise.

We will watch, not for the Boomers but for the aspirational goal. Clark knows this is a quest for perfection because he confronts his dad about why his childhood events were always disasters. Clark is the Boomer trying to make things right. Some of us try. If you have hosted a family Christmas, you have been in Clark's shoes. We all want a great family Christmas. We all want to relive those years when everything tasted great, egg nog was consumed in gallons and Christmas still had its magic. It's a yearning for the comfort of childhood, but a desire to give it to our children. It's a desire to give it back to the generations that set us up. Clark W. Griswold Jr. wants his family to give like he is giving. He wants them to aspire to making it a special moment, which might be too much to ask their dipshit contemporary selves to do. A Christmas spent with loved ones, some outdoors fun and that little bit of childhood belief are all we need for a good Christmas.


Kevin Michael Grace said...

Chevy Chase was plenty funny as Pierce Hawthorne on Community. "I say things others won't. That has value." Indeed. I'm laughing now remembering how he terrorized Donald Glover with a Norwegian troll doll in "Remedial Chaos Theory": "He seemed quite taken with it."


Unfortunately, Chase has no self-awareness and claimed constantly the show was "not funny." He missed the joke. Pierce Hawthorne was both a parody of Chevy Chase and a tribute to him.

Here's Pierce in all his pathetic boomer glory as the Beastmaster: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZuvZJclKWI (With bonus Eddie Murphy Delirious reference for Ryan.)

Alexandros HoMegas said...

There is a documentary about John Hughes but it was made without his permisssion, his movies were about White suburban Americana but the '80s was all about suburban Amercians

Kevin Michael Grace said...

And here's Community's summation of "[that] demographic's well-documented historical vanity," "Baby Boomer Santa":

Santa Claus was born in 1945
He had a boogie-woogie Coca-Cola army jive
And when the Commies gave the polio to Doris Day,
Santa helped the Beatles chase McCarthy away.
That Baby Boomer Santa
He never gonna die.
Santa fought at Woodstock and Vietnam
And smoked a ton of acid and burned his bra.
And then in 1970, he did more drugs
And his hair stayed long and he… grew a mustache
Baby Boomer Santa
He’s gonna stay ali-hi-hi-ive.
Santa invented Spielberg and microchips.
Santa invented Coca-Cola and aerobics.
He made the Iron Curtain and the Gremlins too
Fake butter and AIDS and Twin Peaks.
Baby Boomer Santa
Thank you for MTV.
Baby Boomer Santa
Thank you for everything.
You’re welcome.
You’re welcome for everything
In the world!
You’re welcome
You’re welcome for all that I bring
To the world!
I’m Baby Boomer Santa
I bring the gift of the world!
Baby Boomer Santa
I’m an American pearl!

Absolute genius.


Laguna Beach Fogey said...

Chevy Chase stopped being funny when Americans finally figured out that he's a dick.

Suburban_elk said...

Good post, i would recommend to whomever. Gets at something of the Christmas spirit.

Chevy Chase was the big man for quite awhile, the 80s and whenever. And suddenly he wasn’t funny. As the original post says, he lost touch with the ground-level.

Chevy was unusual for a star of comedy because of his classic alpha looks. Most comics are making up for their little dicks, but not him.

I didn’t get the part about the sandwich generation, about how they failed.

One scene from Vacation that was really out of place was when the Griswolds were at Cousin Eddy’s and the hick cousin says to Audrey that her dad (Cousin Eddy) tells her that she is the best French kisser.