Sunday, December 25, 2016

Wishing You a Merry Val Lewton Christmas

It's hard, slaving over a hot keyboard during the holidays--Christmas isn't a time for brandishing Activist causes, it's the season for peaceful classic-movie-watching on earth, and goodwill to studios, even to crazy, neurotic, spin-doctoring, Blu-ray-genocidal studios that banish every old classic movie to their MOD Archive like Mad King Ludwig.
I just wanted to find a nice sentimental Christmas-movie cause to stick up for.  I was feeling too good to bring up my old nails-on-chalkboard grudge about people who have never seen Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby in 1942's "Holiday Inn" because they think Crosby sang "White Christmas" only in the corny fading-studio 50's-G.I. Danny Kaye/Rosemary Clooney movie where, like, it's in the title, and it's Technicolor...Next year, definitely.  (Although with the stage show on Broadway for the season, maybe a few movie-illiterate folk will have heard of it now.)
It was too much work to do a post sticking up in defense of 1985's "Santa Claus: the Movie", in praise of the Alexander Salkind days when big-budget movies spent their money making big REAL soundstage-and-matte sets of Santa's workshop...
And I didn't see any point in digging up the already Internet-beaten fan debate about whether the first 1988 "Die Hard" (back when Bruce Willis played hip "regular guys", and still had hair and an actual working sense of humor) is a, quote, "Christmas movie", since to my mind, there is no debate:  It is.

But, with the smells of a fresh ham roasting in the slow-cooker, I decided to take it easy on the column this week, and save my holiday time for putting my feet up with the old Blu-rays and vintage DVD's.
And one that I always reserve for Christmas--or at least always tell people I do, just to see the look on their faces--is the heartwarming family holiday warmth of Robert Wise's The Curse of the Cat People (1944), from the director of "The Sound of Music".
Okay, cue the people saying "The What of the Who?"  And thereby hangs a tale to send you to the library's video section.  (Or to Mad King Ludwig's dungeon of the Warner Archive.)

To explain why, to the uninitiated, goes back to Jacques Tourneur's original Cat People from 1942:  In the story (later remade into overbearingly pretentious and point-missing kinkiness by Paul Schrader and Natassja Kinski in 1982), our hero Kent Smith meets mysterious foreign Irena, played by Simone Simon...But she tries to avoid marriage, claiming her ancestors were under an ancient were-panther curse.  Smith humors her "delusions" but when he turns to attractive co-worker Alice Moore to get Irena some help, Moore discovers--in one of the most film-school studied scenes in horror movie history--that jealousy has claws.

The creepy, atmospheric B/W thriller became a huge hit for RKO, and, like many a studio today, the studio now thought they had a franchise.  Every Hollywood studio hoped for a new "horror" line, now that Universal had broken the supernatural envelope with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and RKO thought they had a new horrormeister in producer Val Lewton.  The chief moguls at RKO pitched one cool Horror-Sounding Title after another at Lewton, hoping lightning could strike as many times as they wanted, starting with a sequel to their big studio hit.
But here's where kicks in what could be called "Val Lewton pranks RKO":  Lewton was a producer of eerie atmosphere, B/W shadows and lurking fears left to the imagination, and he didn't want to do lurid studio Universal-envy monsters...So, he found a way of sabotaging them by making stories in own style, and justifying the titles so the boss didn't complain.  When RKO threw "The Leopard Man" at him, he delivered the story of a circus performer who owns a leopard (which escapes into a sleepy border town), and when they pitched "I Walked With a Zombie", Lewton put George Romero aside to deliver a romantic potboiler set against Jamaican voodoo--"Jane Eyre in the Caribbean", unquote.
Lewton had been hoping to move on to "Amy & Her Friend", a heartwarming family picture about a little girl and her imagination.  But, when RKO's moguls pitched the "next hit followup, 'Curse of the Cat People'", Smith, Moore, Simon, and Lewton-regular Calypso singer Sir Lancelot had all been contracted.  So, Lewton simply changed the names, inserted his usual strategic justification-line in the script ("Ever since his first wife, it feels like there's been a curse on this house...") and the hit Cat People sequel was now the heartwarming story of Amy and her Friend for parents and children alike.

In the now-altered "sequel", Kent Smith is married to Alice Moore, after Simon met her end (or did she?) in the first film.  He's too busy with his job designing boats than to look after his shy young daughter Amy (played by a realistically sullen Ann Carter), who's misunderstood by the other kids at school and retreats into her overactive imagination.  In fact, whereas most dads might play along with their little girl's fantasy lives, Smith frustratedly seems to rage at Amy's pretend view of the world--"She's just like Irena was, believing things that aren't true!"...There, see how we got more of the "sequel" into the script?
Amy's only friends seem to be a reclusive grandmotherly ex-actress in the mysterious house nearby (and whose colorful senility about the past seems charming at first, but soon develops a dark Lewtonian edge, like seeing Norma Desmond played by Angela Lansbury), and Amy's claims of a beautiful princess in white who's become her "imaginary friend".  From child-perspective, we don't see Amy's friend onscreen at first, until she sees an old photo of Simone, and says "'But that's her!  You know my friend, too!"'
How could she have known, Smith wonders?  Hehehh...But since the story is mostly from Amy's fantasy POV, we're never allowed to know just quite how imaginary her "imaginary" friend might actually be.  
(As I described the story to one newbie, "Imagine if Val Lewton had remade 'My Neighbor Totoro', and turned it into a spooky B/W 40's RKO film."  Complete with a Totoro-style climax where Amy's parents search for her in a Christmas blizzard, and things still take an eerie, even if family-friendly, Lewton turn...)

Which brings us to our scene, for Season's Movie-Activist Greetings:  
As the parents welcome their upper-middle-class upstate-NY friends in on Christmas Eve for a caroling party, Amy lives the bane of all our neglected childhoods...The Grownups' Party.  
Until Irena (or is it Amy's imagination?) comes to the rescue:

Yeah.  Like the spooky hot French imaginary might-be-ghost babe says:  Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Theater Roots, Star Wars Edition: Notes From the O.G.

With Rogue One opening in theaters this week, it's an excuse for my favorite symbolic Star Wars-fan story:
In 2005, as the days led up to the big May 18 opening for "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith", the news covered the traditionally symbolic straw-man images of devoted core-cosplay Star Wars fans, with Jedi robes, Stormtrooper armor and plastic lightsabers, camped out six weeks ahead in front of Hollywood's Grauman's Chinese Theater (to even dare properly call it the current "TCL Chinese" is an insult to movies and theaters) to be first in line for tickets.

There was just one problem:  Episode III WASN'T opening at the Grauman's Chinese.  In a break with tradition, it was opening at the newer Hollywood Arclight theater, some distance across town.
"At a movie theater not so far, far away", LA Times, 4/8/05
"Yes, we know it's not opening yet, and yes, we know it's across town," one representative fan wearily explained.  The issue, they claimed, was not so much that the Arclight had more modern cineplex ticketing and different sound from the Grauman's, but that, well, opening at the Grauman's should be traditional!  They hoped that their camping out in front of the theater would be a statement that would inspire distributors to change theaters at the last minute.
When it, um, didn't, the fans in costume tried to portray their doomed vigil as a Fans For Charity stunt, getting sponsors to fund their marathon campout to raise funds for Starlight Children's Foundation...It wasn't about tickets, they explained, it was about celebrating the unity of a worldwide fandom!  Finally, on the big day of the premiere, the event concluded with legions of fan Stormtroopers rounding up the "Rebel scum" and leading them on a big charity parade across town to the Arclight opening.  Which was meant to be a big display of fan unity, but to the non-fans, came off as "Well, after all that, maybe you might like to go see it where it's actually playing, doyyy..."
The mainstream public's reaction in 2005 wasn't quite what it was in the glory days of 1977 and '78--Most '05 teen moviegoers looked at the diehard fans putting their spare time aside for the Glorious Cause and stared, "Dude...who stands in line anymore?  Why didn't you just buy your tickets online six weeks ahead at Fandango, like everyone else?"
It was thirty years too late to try and win back their hearts and minds for the days of Stunt Fandom to get the word out.

I have to admit, I love that story.  I may spend a lot of time saying what damage the Rise of the Multi and Mega-plex may have done to moviegoing in the 21st century, but I side with the "That's so 90's!" kids. Whatever else the plexes have corrupted the audience mentality with--now that every movie opens in every town, and your local shopping-mall 15-screen can serve all your one-stop needs, all day--worrying about getting tickets for a movie is one thing I do not miss anymore.

But y'see, I have a reason for that.  I'm a grizzled survivor of that sometimes revered, sometimes mocked, remaining audience of what the Star Wars fans call the "O.G."--Original Generation.
I DIDN'T grow up watching the Original Trilogy on VHS in my jammies, or first see Jar-Jar Binks on a Phantom Menace DVD.  I was thirteen when Star Wars opened at the big-city theater in the summer of '77 (in those days, it wouldn't hit the suburbs until a few weeks later), and I was IN those lines that the New Kids like to decade-mythologize about.  Ohh, was I ever.
And if I don't sound happy about it--proud, yes, wistful, maybe, but not happy--it's because it wasn't the myth that everyone thinks it is.   But it was something you don't see anymore.

Actually, I didn't line up in May, and I didn't go to the Hollywood Grauman's or NYC Ziegfeld, like all the iconic photos show. 
See that, over there?  That's the Boston Sack Charles, just down near the Charles River and Longfellow Bridge, just across big Cambridge St. from the old red-brick townhouses that led to the Public Gardens.  It was Boston's most cavernously elegant Cinerama theater back before the day, but now a strip-mall/office complex, still with the big wide-widescreen main theater, but split into cineplex mini-screens on the lower floor.  All the downtown commercial-chain theaters were owned by the Sack company, later bought out by Loew's, and with 1-3 screens each, which movie would be playing where was a matter of neighborhood real-estate reputation:  The movies that got the big audience would probably playing the Charles, or the Cheri next to the convention hotels, the snooty Oscar-bait would always play the Paris, across from the Prudential building, and the not-so-fortunate might be playing underground at the Beacon Hill across from New City Hall, or in a parking garage at the Pi Alley on Washington St.  
Suffice to say, the entire Original Trilogy played one by one at the Charles.  The location became such a local tradition (especially once the '77 movie played there for a year), it somehow didn't seem right to stand in line there for anything else.

Our family didn't move to the Boston area till June, after school let out, but Dad had already moved there in May for work, and wanted to take us in on the MBTA train to show us all the Boston-insider sights.  That meant a big movie night, and by that point, three or four weeks later, the little movie that Fox wanted to "bury" had become a hot ticket for the feel-good sleeper discovery of the summer, at least until the next 007 movie would come along in August.  (According to legend, theater-distributor demand had originally been so low, Fox resorted to illegally "block-booking", ie. blackmailing, theaters into booking Star Wars in late May, if they wanted to book the surefire best-seller adaptation of "The Other Side of Midnight" two weeks later.)  The press articles, quick to jump on stories about Francis Ford Coppola's discovery, the new young breakout American Graffiti director, homaging a sci-fi movie, played up all the "Tribute to old 30's cinema" angles, to make the movie look as if it was some Hollywood-genre labor of love to Flash Gordon...So even regular city-folk who hadn't bought the "secret" posters at sci-fi conventions were standing in line.  I'd never seen a three-screen cineplex before, and hoped that we wouldn't hear anything from "Exorcist II: the Heretic" playing downstairs.
And we stood in line for a very important reason--We were trying to get tickets.  It was playing on ONE SCREEN out of three, and if you weren't in line early enough, the movie would be Sold Out.  In fact, you weren't even realistically trying to get tickets for the next show, you knew that you were standing in line at 3pm trying to get tickets for the 9:45 show.  People about ten yards ahead of you would be the last to get 7pm.  Nobody was in costume, for one rather logical reason:  We didn't know who was in it, or what the heck it was about, apart from the fact that it was "old-fashioned" sci-fi.  I had some familiarity with the characters after a readup in a Scholastic children's magazine trying to target some underground hype, while every other upscale movie fan was looking for cineaste comparisons to John Ford westerns or The Wizard of Oz.  (Because Luke Skywalker came from a farm just like Dorothy, y'see, so that made C-3PO the Tin Man and Chewie the Cowardly Lion...)

Right up there, in that second-floor glass hallway over the CVS Pharmacy, was the line (which extended all the way down to the bottom of the escalator, or down the chair-ramp to the street out back).  With twenty minutes before the next seating, and trying to keep the midnight-show ticket lines from getting too long, the theater let the next-show audience into the lobby to keep down the crowds.  All we could see of the earlier show, still going on behind little glass panels in reasonably soundproofed wood and aluminum doors, was the climactic Death Star trench battle--Or rather, just isolated peephole bits and pieces of explosion sparks and cockpit closeups, at least, that's what they looked like.  A jam-packed crowded lobby of puzzled, impatient, stand-weary folk heard one Dolby-booming explosion after another coming from the inside theater with the sparks, and with some of the explosions...audiences cheering.  Okay, that was just strange.  We hadn't heard audiences mass-cheer anything for a long time, especially not during the gritty 70's Golden Age (okay, maybe Rocky Balboa after the fight), but whatever those lucky folks ahead of us had gotten to see, something had gotten them pumped.  

And in the Carter malaise of 1977, anything that could pump you to feel optimistic and happy enough to say that good things had happened to movie characters that deserved them was something that had come in from some magical Elsewhere.  This was NEW.

Oh, and as one of the ultimate Elite O.G.'s himself, James Earl Jones, points out, when we O.G. folk first saw Darth Vader give Luke the big news about Anakin Skywalker in 1980's "The Empire Strikes Back"...we knew exactly what we thought, and so did Jones when he first got the script.  And oh, how we LOVE to frustrate N.G.'s that the "Big moment" wasn't quite what their fantasized nostalgia likes to dream it was:
(As you can see, like most New Generations, the fanboy YouTube argument has since devolved into a nitpicking argument over whether the line was "No..." or "Luke..."--Even though we're clearly justified in remembering "No, Luke,..." muffled by '97 re-edits.)
And yes, Han Solo DID Shoot First.  That was because Han always shot first, it was his answer to everything.  No one appreciates that better than an O.G. who first discovered Harrison Ford in the seventies, when the future granite-face of "The Fugitive" and "Air Force One" still had a working sense of humor.

You may notice, in the YouTube clip, that most in the 2005 Sith-fan Parade are, it is safe to hazard a guess, under the age of 28, and most with a ticket for Rogue One are under the age of 39.  Star Wars had always been around as a Thing since literally before they were born, like the rocks and trees, and jumping onto the phenomenon was just something everybody geeky-cool did, sooner or later, like your first sip of Coca-Cola.  
The current generation's fan-love is an attempt to wish for something they were born too late to do.  It's a wish to see their favorite childhood DVD on the bigscreen, and try to capture Something Their Parents Did, just like 50's Grease-themed parties, or Civil War re-enactment societies.  If you dress up well enough, maybe, through some wishful miracle of time-travel, you'll have been Born Back Then too, even if you weren't.  
Even the attempt to bring "Star Wars: the Force Awakens" back to the "spiritual feel of the original", and bury the goofy George Lucas atrocities of the Prequel Trilogy, is essentially a story of a teen heroine too young to have seen the battles, against a teen villain who hero-worships a Vader-helmet relic, and snotty young new Death Star trainees trying to be Peter Cushing...A reverent New Generation dress-up movie for a reverent New Generation dress-up audience, until gray-haired old Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill show up for real.
Speaking for all us mad old grizzled O.G. hermits in the desert, it's not about Dressing Up.  It never was.  For Star Wars to be mentioned at all in the media in the fall of '77 (look, network TV's going to do a Holiday Special!) was validation that our little secret, which we called "A new hope", was finally starting to take hold with a grownup moviegoing society who were paying more attention to Vietnam-vet movies and Woody Allen comedies.  Hope for saving the Alliance went hand-in-glove with hope for discovering that Movies Were Fun Again, and our going to Star Wars was our trying to celebrate how much fun our grandparents must have had going to the Flash Gordon serial every Saturday.

The Boston Sack Charles?...Oh, that.  It isn't around anymore.  The downtown theaters all closed one by one in the 90's, to be replaced by the Loews' Boston Common 20-screen on Tremont St. (and some highway cineplexes in the Cambridge suburbs), and nearby Massachusetts General Hospital added six more floors to the future Richard B. Simches Research Center. When I went to MGH for a specialist appointment a few years ago, nobody I talked to could remember that Charles River Plaza North had ever been anything else.  You'll notice the CVS Pharmacy is still there, though.
Me, I can still remember a couple of Boston books I bought at the plaza bookstore nearby (not there anymore either), because to my Old Geezer memory, Star Wars was never a "franchise", a "phenomenon", a "Jedi religion" or a "fan lifestyle".  It was a movie night out with my folks in the big city, and even standing in the stupid line turned out to be worth it.

Monday, December 12, 2016

How Chuck Norris Freed Romania

Coming up to the end of the year, I'm usually making the last-ditch viewings of titles I didn't catch up with on my Netflix queue.  
It may be coming late to the party--seeing as it was already shown at film festivals in '15 and on PBS back in January '16--but for anyone else who hasn't yet picked up on it, I had to give a shoutout to Ilina Calugareanu's documentary produced for HBO Romania, Chuck Norris Vs. Communism, now currently available on Netflix US, and where all fine indie documentaries are sold.  (Which would be...most of the subscription streaming services.)

Like any great populist mainstream-audience documentary, it's one of those stories that, if it didn't happen, it should have, but fortunately, it did:

Under Nicolae Ceausescu's tight Communist control up through the 80's, Romania was culturally isolated from the Western world.  Two channels of television were cut to two hours of television a night, usually state-sponsored propaganda of ministry speeches.  Anything that even hinted at the infiltration of anti-state ideas was tightly cut.  Film or television might be state-censored just for showing an abundance of food, lest it give the masses dangerous ideas to grumble about.

Irina Nistor worked as translator for the state media's information department, before she was privately approached by a man she only knew by his last name and title, "Engineer" Zamfir, for a part-time job dubbing over black-market bootleg VHS tapes of smuggled Western films.
Sitting like a United Nations interpreter with headphones and microphone in front of a small monitor in a rented room, Nistor singlehandedly added UN-style second-after translation dub-overs to Zamfir's bootlegs--And in the process, she not only found herself exposed to new Western influences, but also the unseen free-spirited thrill of enjoying the job in the process.
"I was allowed to say things you weren't allowed to say in this country", Nistor recalls, in her job of translating Ralph Macchio in "The Karate Kid" one day and Sylvester Stallone in "Rambo: First Blood Pt. II" the next.  "I could say 'You stinking Communist'!"

So many secret fans recognized Nistor's voice coming out of every actor's mouth ("She had the voice of an angel", one surviving fan jokes, as most try to guess what body the Voice must have belonged to), Irina found herself becoming literally the Voice of the Underground.
In a country where a foreign-bought VCR could cost as much as a Dacia automobile, fifteen or twenty people could gather in a neighbor's darkened living-room apartment with the curtains closed for a cash-under-the-table "Video night", to watch just whatever forbidden Western VHS tape the local black-marketer had smuggled past the border in his car trunk.
As with any cheap forbidden-thrill, sex and action were the big sellers at first:  Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Stallone--A machine gun volley or kickbox-chop always transcended language barriers.  One woman remembers her first experience with Western films hiding her eyes to "Last Tango in Paris" ("I realized how far behind the West we were", one recalls.)
But as Zamfir expanded his operations to a thriving black-market factory of more smuggled goodies, audiences were exposed to more and more eye-opening images of life outside cultural repression.  Eddie Murphy driving through Beverly Hills was not as much of a culture shock to a disgruntled generation of Romanians as seeing the movie scene of a character walk into a grocery or convenience store with full shelves of food.

Although watching forbidden movies didn't mean deportation, watching unapproved movies might still attract attention by the Secret Police.  Kids grew up only vaguely knowing why they weren't supposed to talk about their parents and parents' friends watching a static-riddled Nth-generation copy of Top Gun (some barely visible, copied by bootleggers who had never heard of Macrovision), or why to hide in the bedroom if there was an unexpected knock at the door.

But a generation becoming hooked on the rush of illegal goods came to realize they weren't just watching the cheap thrill of seeing an action hero:  Watching Norris singlehandedly defeating his POW torturers in the "Missing in Action" series, or driving his Dodge Ramcharger out of the grave in "Lone Wolf McQuade", they were seeing lone heroes fight back against authority and win, and the triumph of the individual, not the state, over all impossible odds.
Golan & Globus's Cannon Pictures had now become Radio Free Europe.

By mixing dramatic re-enactment with the recollections, Calugareanu also manages to stage her documentary as an espionage thriller as well:
As Nistor's duties expand with Zamfir's growing business, she's aware the Secret Police may be on to her, but wonders why they haven't moved in yet.  Although she barely knows anything about her employer, agents seem to be treating him with kid gloves, and with her day-job bureau position, begins to suspect that she's been set up for high-level entrapment.
And yet, the movies win out even with that secret revealed.  Zamfir was a black-marketeer and a man of mystery, but behind all of that, he was an 80's video nut first

It's a feel-good documentary that takes a Romanian pop-culture nostalgia approach to the events--glossing over the other political upheavals that ultimately took down Communist Romania, and the harsh transitions in the changeover--as a romanticized myth that it really must have been Chuck who inspired the people to revolution.  As current Internet memes have it, what can't Chuck do?
And for US movie fans, it has any number of reasons to appeal:  On a culturally jingoistic level, it's another fun story of gloating over the end of the Cold War, and how the Berlin Wall couldn't stand up to our decadent capitalist revolutions of blue jeans, the Beatles and Coca-Cola.
For the movie-sentimental, it's another sigh in favor of the Power of Movies, as we see apartment living rooms of rapt audiences glued to an adventure on a small VCR-fueled TV set, and children playing out Chuck's victories in the street.
On a Big-80's Movies level, it's a nostalgia blast of how mainstream movies in the 80's could get fifteen or twenty people in a living room, of the thrill of taking the magic black hard-plastic tape out of its cardboard and popping it in the machine for Movie Night, and the cheesy glories of 80's action stars.  (Although for the glories of 80's Golan/Globus films, Mark Hartley's 2014 documentary Electric Boogaloo: the Wild Untold Story of Cannon Pictures, is recommended as further syllabus on the subject, and also currently available on Netflix.)

But with my own particular cause, I found the movie resonated an important lesson in our own repressed war at home as well:
It's a victory for democracy that could have happened ONLY with physical media.  

In the 60's, we'd be talking about forbidden books breaking down the Wall, a secret paperback copy of Jack Kerouac or George Orwell smuggled past the border guards in the book bag of an exchange student, and changing from hand to hand between intellectually curious university kids at a cafe'.  Ideas were in books, and books existed as things, conveniently packed objects that could be passed from one hand to another like a cigarette or cup of espresso, with the secret lure of "Here, try this, it'll open your mind, and it's, like, cool, too."  Preferably if there was no one watching who had already declared said package was against the interests of the Powers That Be.
In the 80's, once the technology caught on, we discovered that movies were books, things to put on your shelf to be preserved for posterity.  Or better yet, to be kept in a rental library for others, the more off-center the better, and loaned out to your friends and neighbors by hand, with the same personal-delivered message of "Watch this."  More just because it was Cool, Too than politically enlightening...But the point was to make it contagious, and watch the pandemic spread.  
The state could tell us "Don't read these books" or "Don't watch these movies", but nothing could stop the books or movies once we had them in our hand, because having them in our hands meant we owned the ideas.  And they were ours to throw about as we wanted, unless you could come and take it out of ours in person.
Studios at the moment don't have quite the same respect for treating a movie as a package that can sit on shelves or travel from hand to hand, or across patrolled borders in unmarked cardboard sleeves, next to a buried bottle of liquor or pair of blue jeans.  They wish to get it into our heads that, you see, we don't really like movies being physical objects, because they're so bulky and clunky, and that we wish for some great authority to handle them for us, and make it easier to watch the movies on their convenient terms.

Movies would be so much better, they tell us, if they were just somewhere in a corporate central location where important people could take care of them for you, and you wouldn't have to bother with tapes to snarl or disks to clutter up your shelf--That way they'd be YOURS, you see!

But it's because movies could travel, even to places where they couldn't, that they could infiltrate viewers who didn't even know yet that they loved the movies.  Movies that don't travel, and stay on the Internet in some soft, magic digitally-traveling ether of 1's and 0's, are at the mercy of the state's control of the Internet, what is allowed to travel on it, and just which of the masses are allowed to patronize advantage of it for their own good.  Physical media tends to frustrate that, since the problem of stopping that is in stopping the people who carry them...And that's always been a bit more complicated.
Ceausescu's regime could have stopped a theatrical film from being shown in public theaters, it could have stopped television, and it could have stopped the Internet before it even got to the border.  But Communism couldn't stop a VHS tape.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Four Disney Movies to See After "Moana" (and why you probably never saw them in the theater)

I have to make a confession here, and hope I can humbly beg your pardon:  I still haven't seen Moana in a theater yet.  
Don't worry, I have an airtight alibi:  I have a Disney Cruise coming up in February, and hoped that I was just in time to plan ahead and hold off seeing the newest Disney animated in time for the experience of seeing it three months later in the onboard theater.  Whether I should hold off on "Rogue One: a Star Wars Story" as well, in December?--Ohh, temptation.
So even if I can't yet discuss the movie in detail as other lucky folks might, I do know one indisputable fact from experience:  It is almost IMPOSSIBLE for directors John Musker & Ron Clements to make a bad Disney animated movie.  They're considered the "architects" of the Great 90's Disney Renaissance--those holy words that conjure up our great childhood decade of When Disney Animateds Were Good--just for their work straight out of the gate on "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin".  

"Ron & John" seem to possess an instinctive genius for understanding the "neato story" aspect of a great Disney movie that sticks in the memory, and push the right buttons like concert pianists.  A lot of Disney fans sing praises that the Great Classics of 90's Disney were Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise's "Beauty & the Beast" and Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff's "The Lion King", but I offer an alternate theory:  The zeitgeist manias for Beauty & Lion both occurred one delayed-reaction year after the surprise of grownups discovering that it was "okay" to like Mermaid and Aladdin, respectively, something you just didn't go around admitting at the time.  
After the entire 80's, when Disney was considered at death's door, and "animation" was considered only fit for corporate kiddie marketing of the Chipmunks and Care Bears, no grownup literally wanted to be SEEN going to a Disney movie by themselves, and some worried they might even be accused as some kind of weird pedophile.  Go back and look at the 1992 press reviews for "Aladdin", and see critics virtually reassure grownup audiences that no one would think badly of you, so long as you were going to laugh at Robin Williams' jokes.  The movement to give Beauty & the Beast a Best Picture Oscar nomination (born of early buzz-desperation and a big-event screening at the NYC Film Festival) was not so much a search for awards, as a search for public validation that it was okay to have liked Ariel & Sebastian a year before.
(I'm in the minority of just not finding Beauty and Lion particularly very good movies, and just a tad short on charm.)

If this November's "Moana" is getting good reviews for its strong story and characters, well, it's all in a year's work for these two.
If you don't believe me--and need a few disk rental suggestions to keep from going back to see the movie again--look back at four of the directors' earlier titles that, for one unfair reason or another, DIDN'T quite become as iconic Disney staples:

  • The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

If everyone expected Ron Miller's post-Walt studio to finally roll over and die of Terminal Outdatedness, it would have been in 1985.  "The Black Cauldron", produced during the studio's big shakeup between Old and New, was supposed to be the new bold revolution for the studio, but was a creaking, unholy mess that became the studio's biggest crushing money-loser--To add 80's insult to injury, the corporate-marketing "Care Bears Movie" had made more box office than Disney had that year.  The studio was embarking on a new strategy of putting out one new movie a year, instead of every five or seven, and the next year bounced back with a hyperactive, unexpected surprise.
Musker & Clements were the new young co-directors brought in to help flesh out old-Disney directors Burny Mattinson and Dave Michener, and you could see a catalyst change right away:  To the untrained eye, it LOOKED like a late-70's/early 80's Old Disney movie, fresh off of "The Rescuers" and "Fox & the Hound", with cute animal critters and a basic confusion about where to put songs in because, well, they "had" to...But there was a new fast-moving energy and humor to the story, chases were more exciting, gags were funnier, and the plot even now seemed to have some actual story structure.  Most of the humor came from the titular hero, Basil of Baker Street--the mouse who lives in Sherlock Holmes' apartment--as a manic lunatic of Holmes-like inspirations and impulses, as he chases rodent-London's worst villain (voiced by Vincent Price, clearly having just as much fun as Barrie Ingham's hero).

Why you probably didn't see it:  Well, few did.  It took a lot of word of mouth to persuade parents back to a theater after Cauldron.  But the diehard hopeful enough to go back got the surprise message: Prepare, ye unsuspecting 80's folks, 90's Disney is coming.  (Only it's not coming just yet, there's still '88's old-school "Oliver & Company" to slog through first, before the good stuff.)

  • Hercules (1997)

In 1994, "The Lion King" had become so (inexplicably) unstoppable, everyone assumed the blessed 90's Disney Renaissance would last forever.  That's why most audiences had such problem coming to grips with nagging, forbidden, heretical thoughts that 1995's "Pocahontas" and 1996's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" just might not have been very good movies, if not, in fact, insufferably melodramatic, manipulative and corny.  Hunchback, in particular, had laid so heavily and over-earnestly on the now creaking conventions of the Disney Villain and the Broadway-Style Musical Number, it was clear that the camel was becoming dangerously overladen and someone might be along the next year with a piece of straw.
A fast-moving, "Aladdin-style" pop-culture-reffing Looney Tunes spin on Greek mythology should have been the antidote, but at the time, backfired with grumbling audiences spectacularly.  All the blame for Everything You Happened to Hate About 90's Disney (or ABC, the Parks, you name it) was put on the head of CEO Michael Eisner; '97 audiences found the "contemporary" gags forced, sitcom and desperate, and the implied message that Disney was making, quote, "boring" Greek mythology more palatable by gagging it up seemed like it had Eisner's tasteless corporate style written all over it.
Ron & John reportedly weren't happy with the intended Helzapoppin-burlesque style--every time they tried to pitch their dream project, then-studio boss Jeffrey Katzenberg would stick them on the house project to keep them busy--but...they made lemonade with their lemons:  Even if not every gag lands, there's still as much energy in a musical number like "Zero to Hero" (with the narrating Muses depicted as a gospel-Motown group, straight out of songwriter Alan Menken's days on "Little Shop of Horrors") as there was in any of Aladdin's high-energy numbers, and the result still looks like the work of someone who knows what a good 90's Disney movie should look like, even when it might not be.  
Why you probably didn't see it:  Suffice to say, whatever 90's audiences were picturing "Disney Greek mythology" to look like at the time (probably picturing the Pastorale scene from Fantasia), it sure wasn't this.  The idea of getting British cartoonist Gerald Scarfe to design the wild angular style confused audiences, James Woods' movie-stealing Disney-villain turn playing Zeus's scheming brother Hades as a motormouthed Hollywood agent came off more overbearing than funny, and everything that should have gone over in the room at the time didn't.  Despite its rescued reputation on video--and a Disney Afternoon TV-cartoon spinoff--it passed Black Cauldron's record as biggest studio money-loser in theaters, and nearly brought the 90's Renaissance to a crashing halt, if '98's "Mulan" hadn't shown up the next year.

  • Treasure Planet (2002)

Traditional 2-D animation had a problem from '00-'03--Everyone was trying to kill it, so that they could figure out the reasons why it was "dying".  Audiences' grumbles with Michael Eisner had become a full-on mutiny, after Roy Disney had started the "Save Disney" movement at the studio to kick the CEO out.  Jeffrey Katzenberg at Dreamworks Animation noticed that women were the biggest fans of the princess-bashing anti-Disney gags in '01's "Shrek", and knew how to play the grudges against his old boss to stir up the rabble. '98's "The Rugrats Movie" for Paramount had started a "Cable Bubble", for every corporate studio to leap on hoping that there was a feature-film for cult cable toons like Hey Arnold or the Powerpuff Girls, and tried to explain why it was popping.
Worst of all, among all the industry's voodoo-analyses, was trying to figure out why three high-profile sci-fi-action animateds in '00 and '01--Don Bluth's confused "Titan AE", the technically ambitious but clueless "Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within", and Disney's own unlikable and bewildering "Atlantis: the Lost Empire"--had all tanked at the box office.  Well, there ya go, analysts rolled their chicken bones and divined, it clearly shows that audiences hated space action!

Disney actually had fairly high hopes for theirs:  One of the last projects from the legendary "Jam session", where animators first pitched story ideas for Aladdin and Mermaid, was an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island", updated to a sci-fi galaxy of alien pirates, Royal Navy space-sailships and 19th-cty. interplanetary seaports.
As crazy as the idea sounds, it's still a wildly visual and spirit-faithful adaptation of the original book:  While other directors at Disney worked on "girl power!" princesses, Musker & Clements' strength was creating memorable male heroes for the boys, and the book's Jim Hawkins is updated into a moody, thrill-seeking teen who finds his missing "father figure" in the sympathetic but menacing cyborg Silver, both played in perfect book style without an ounce of irony.  

(Updating mad castaway Ben Gunn to circuit-scrambled comedy-relief robot B.E.N., voiced by Martin Short, was a bit less successful, but by that point in the story, you just go with the book's spirit.)  Even the famous "Pieces of eight" parrot is updated into a cute alien shapeshifting blob who has clearly studied with Aladdin's monkey Abu, in how to steal comedy-relief scenes with pantomime.

Why you probably didn't see it:  Hoo-boy...Was there a marketing problem this movie WASN'T saddled with when it came out in theaters?  The main reason you probably didn't see it was Lilo & Stitch--The SaveDisney movement needed a "messiah", and Disney didn't quite expect a crazy little Hawaiian girl and slobbery alien vandal to catch on quite as well as they had.  The studio didn't know how to market their tropical summer surfing picture, and expected it would be long gone from theaters in time for the Big November Epic...But when word of mouth was still going strong after the summer, most fans were barely aware Disney even had one more movie opening that year.  Eisner quickly bought the "Audiences hate action!" theory, tried to beef up the humor, and recut Treasure's action trailers and ads as a wacky comedy of pratfalls and farty-noises.
The other problem was that maybe it wasn't a good idea for the studio to release the movie within two weeks of both a 007 movie and the second Harry Potter.  Throw in the fact that "The Santa Clause 2" was doing a little stronger than expected, and Planet now had three crushing contenders for its opening weekend.  It crushed, opened fourth, and Eisner was mortified that a 90's Disney movie, gasp, didn't open at #1.  To save face, he pulled it out of wide release in time for the stockholders' meeting, thus depriving it of that sweet Christmas-vacation business most studio family films now count on.  Disgruntled fans, waving Lilo & Stitch on their banner, and hoping that director Chris Sanders would be put in as new CEO to make "more weird movies!", shouted that Planet "deserved what it got"...Nasty old normal Disney movie!  STAY down!

  • The Princess & the Frog (2009)

Okay, this one you probably remember.  But I'm still betting you didn't see it.
If Eisner hadn't been kicked out in time--after a lot of studio in-fighting, staff firings and a disastrous fight-picking with Pixar--there wouldn't likely have BEEN a Disney for Bob Iger and John Lasseter to rescue at the end of the 00's.  Eisner had been so publicly cowed by audiences jumping on Katzenberg's anti-princess bandwagon in '03's "Shrek 2", he felt he had to personally offer the studio's head as apology for all those terrible princesses chauvinistically marrying princes, and corrupting our daughters' dreams.  2007's "Enchanted" was originally going to be a lot less gentle of a spoof on Disney princesses, and a much angrier, or at least more passively-hostile one, and the "Rapunzel" story in the works was going to be rewritten for two transported teens who hate fairytales, but then a miracle happened:  The Stinky Guy was at last ousted, more Disney-friendly heads were put in charge of the studio and animation division, and all of a sudden, it was okay to like princesses, fairytales, and happy musical numbers again.  Oops.
Musker & Clements had been one of the "director firings" after they couldn't adjust their latest project to the all-CGI that Eisner declared all new studio projects would be, but one of Lasseter's first announcments at the studio was that the Mermaid directors would be invited back to do one more old-school traditional 2-D animated princess musical...Nyeahh.  Fans were excited--We were about to see seven troubled studio years finally buried on hallowed ground.
Now, I said it was "almost impossible" for M&C to make a bad movie.  Have to admit, this is the "almost":  There are good ideas here, two of them, in fact, and they seem to pass by on separate trains and never meet.  One was the idea to adapt E.D. Baker's fairytale spoof "The Frog Princess", where the princess's kiss on the enchanted frog backfires, and the two hop through the swamp to find the cure.  But Baker's book was set in a generic fairytale castle, and the studio's idea was to update it to 1920's New Orleans, with jazz, gumbo, and a heroine who dreams of opening her own restaurant.  See, that's the idea, she wants to be a successful career woman and NOT marry a prince, since the prince is a comically irresponsible ladies-charmer from a bankrupt country, while the heroine's buffoonish spoiled-Southern-belle best friend throws herself at any prince she can find...Have we got the message yet?  Have we reminded you yet in this scene that our heroine wants to open her own business all by herself?  Have we got our crash helmet on, to protect us from falling bricks, or do we need to get out the Crayola crayons?  
Even though the "story" is a bit of an improvised shambles, with a rush of storyboards and supporting characters that don't go anywhere, Musker & Clements clearly went into this project in love with the setting, and if you have a choice of watching the Not-A-Princess Movie and the New Orleans Movie fight it out, the New Orleans movie is more rich and visual fun to root for.

Why you probably didn't see it:  You mean, BESIDES the fact they put it in theaters a week before "Avatar"?  (Nobody has yet been able to explain why movies that open in the second week in December suffer calamitous fates, but I'll wait a few weeks to see who's this year's victim, before explaining it.  Don't worry, there's a reason.)
The same voodoo-analysts (no relation to this movie's voodoo-doctor villain) came up with every imaginable crackpot theory--Racist audiences weren't ready for a black heroine?  Nobody liked musicals after all?  Boys didn't want to see a princess movie?  Nice tries, but the popular favorite was the traditional old "Told ya 2-D animation was dead!" from way back in 2003--Just hard to let go of a classic, especially for those hoping that Disney was ready to "stumble" under new management.  2010's "Tangled" quickly dispatched those ideas for good the next year.  (Although the fact that Tangled had been all-CGI still took the credit.)

Now, I know what some are saying right now:  "What?  How dare you say Hercules wasn't a hit!"  "Princess & the Frog?  My daughter loves Tiana at Disneyland!"
Well, see, that's the thing:  Audiences change.  Trends die out.  Cooler heads prevail.  We all find something else to be angry about, and forget why we were all so mad at the last thing.
Disney head Bob Iger deliberately thumbed his nose at all the "Told ya!" industry dogpiling on Princess & the Frog's box-office by immediately declaring that the heroine, Tiana, would now OFFICIALLY be a part of all licensed Disney princess marketing from now on, so there, haters, neener.  As a result, it worked--Like the movie or hate it, it's now probably the second-most visible 00's-10's movie to be seen at the Disney Parks behind "Frozen", and certainly one that sticks in the memory of new young fans.  Some, raised on a generation of DVD and Blu-ray, already aren't even aware that anyone had ever said bad things about Hercules or Treasure Planet.
That's what home theater is for, after all, for a movie to Outlive History, and give someone else a chance to see it.  Not to mention, making it a lot easier if you did happen to miss it.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Thanksgiving Memory: When Friday Wasn't Black

The Thanksgiving holiday brings back so many memories every year, I can still feel a "Thanksgiving morning" when I get up first thing on Thursday  Even if I'd spent the entire Mon-Wed. forgetting to look at the calendar, even when it's only me in the apartment expected to do my own sage-and-thyme cooking, and not stressfully throwing myself out of the kitchen and telling me to stay out until the turkey's in the oven, unless I wanted to help peel potatoes.  I still feel the gray nip of probably-going-to-snow in the air--gray skies were the Color of Thanksgiving, to go with all the harvest-browns--and want to rush to the TV to see the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade plug all the NYC family Broadway shows on the street before the parade started.  As we used to joke, we'd "Start preparing the turkey when the parade officially got going, and baste it every time an NBC soap star appears on a float lip-synching 'Winter Wonderland'".  
More to the point, Thursday and Friday were important days for TV, if you didn't have that personal alma-mater college-football Bowl game to watch:  One is that networks knew the kids would be home from school that day, and any that didn't have football would be using the time wisely, with bonus Saturday-morning cartoons and Hanna-Barbera's Kenner Classic Tales (with plenty of commercials for Kenner Toys).  And the second, tying in with the first, was that the local area stations that owned movies wanted to give their employees the weekend off, and would line up big three-hour blocks of all their family and first early holiday movies to fill time all afternoon, while you snacked on the chips-and-dips and carrot sticks that were being left out for company.  One of our Boston stations still owned George Pal's 1962 "Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm", which was three hours of family-demographic enough to end up on my all-time favorite lists, as well as a rotated holiday movie.
Ask some people to name "Thanksgiving movie", and on generational knee-jerk reaction, they'll say "Planes, Trains & Automobiles", because you're, like, supposed to watch it.  Depending on how far back in the generations you go, however, some will remember the days when TV networks actually showed a movie in the evening (preferably a three-hour one, also to give their employees the night off)--And you can probably judge how old, if they say either "Home Alone", "E.T." or "The Sound of Music".  Me, I go even farther back, and if I'm not using my ancient VCR to watch my last tape copy of Pal's Grimm, my conditioned reflexes expect a network or local station to be showing three hours of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang".  It seems heresy to watch it any other day of the year.

The Friday after Thanksgiving was also a very important holiday--We called it "The Friday After Thanksgiving".  It didn't HAVE a name, because it wasn't supposed to.
It didn't exist for any reason except that most businesses thought it was cheaper not to open again just for Friday, and turn a three-day weekend into a four-day one.  That meant you didn't have to do anything, except sleep late, lounge in pajamas, snack on cold turkey, cranberry and stuffing for breakfast, while Mom tried to be domestic and boil the turkey skeleton and thigh leftovers hoping that Soup would come out, like in the old days of low-tech homemakers before her.  (Uh, that's not how you make soup, Mom, we'd say, but no one would listen.)  
The original day after Thanksgiving--what do we call it, "White Friday"?--still had an important purpose in holiday commerce, however:  In those days, it was considered tasteful to hold off on Christmas marketing until Thanksgiving, so, as every kid knew, White Friday was the official Starting-Pistol of the great Getting Excited About Christmas dash...Annnd, they're off!  No early jump-starts, contenders, or you'll be disqualified!
Local stations continued to want to give their employees the day off, but with fewer Thanksgiving football bowl games to air, that meant movies...The Christmas movies, this time, now that it was allowed.  You might find a station showing "Miracle on 34th St." (while we were still in a Macy's mood), but most started getting the cheap public-domain classics ready, while they dug the more "hardcore" Christmas movies out of the back for later in December--By the end of White Friday, you knew at least one station would start the ritual monthly showings (plural) of "It's a Wonderful Life", and one might be brave enough to start showing the Alastair Sim "Scrooge" early.  And if you lived in the broadcast area of the NYC stations, White Friday was annual Laurel & Hardy "March of the Wooden Soldiers" day.

Shopping?  Oh sure, White Friday was for shopping, all right.  You just didn't camp out at midnight or search the Internet for sales flyers about what big-ticket purchase you'd been holding off all year for, though.
You went to the mall because, by three or four o'clock, a day and a half of cabin fever had set in, and you didn't want to enjoy Christmas starting-pistol preparations from a distance.  The Christmas lights would just be starting to be put up at the mall, and the holiday Muzak, of Nat King Cole's "Christmas Song" and Darlene Love's "Christmas, Baby, Please Come Home", would finally be allowed to be played over the loudspeakers.  If you lived within range of the Big City (Rochester NY, for me, before we moved to within a commuter ride of Boston), the family urge might be to look at the big department stores, and maybe end up with taking the whole family to a movie (theaters weren't conveniently at the malls back then) or the Christmas show at the science-museum Planetarium that wondered whether the Star of Bethlehem was really a 4 BC comet.
Point was, shopping was to put us in the mood for Christmas shopping--and hope to brainstorm present ideas we hadn't thought of yet--and was still recreational.  It wasn't something you trained to knock yourself and/or others out for.  When you got to the mall or parking lot and discovered every other person in a twenty-mile radius had the EXACT SAME White Friday holiday-sentiment urges as you did on the exact same afternoon, that's when it might suddenly hit you what a stupid idea it was, and that's one thing that's the same today as it was then.  Believe me, that didn't change.

So, you're probably asking yourselves--come on, start asking:  What caused the change?  When did the glorious holiday-tinged sloth and family time-off of White Friday turn moldy, and mildew into the predatory, kill-or-be-killed competition for the sake of sales figures once it turned Black?  And how did a name that was humorously given by news media, to explain the problems of stores and malls that had to deal with a mass-sentiment perfect storm of holiday urges, become ACCEPTED, and have its name now hailed as the center of American trade?  When did we think that Black Friday wasn't enough, that it should be a "week" instead, that it be lobbied to be declared a "national holiday" to help stores or employees, or that Saturday and Monday deserved their own names as well?  The historical cutoff point might be found in the Cabbage Patch.
In the 80's, Amazon didn't exist.  There was no "online" to order things--which is why you were deluged in paper snail-mail catalogues all month--and if you wanted to find the hot toy that season, you had to go to Toys R Us, because Target wasn't a wide chain back then, either.  And the big news story in November 1983 was that the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, which had first started as prestige dolls from a small independent maker, were going national, causing parents to storm malls, empty shelves as if they were Wonka Bars, and do incredibly cynical media-happy stunts (like buying three or four, and hoping to auction one off for $1000), trying to find them.  That itself wasn't such a big deal, except that we'd had TWO similar manias the year before in 1982, with parents trying to find ColecoVision videogame consoles, and those with older or no kids trying to find a remaining copy of that new "Trivial Pursuit" game that a couple of smart guys in Canada had just thought up and were sending to us southerners.
But it was the Cabbage Patchers that stuck in our cultural heads.   Even when we similarly stampeded each other trying to find a Tickle-Me Elmo doll in the early 90's, the news talked of a "Cabbage Patch craze", and we knew in exact detail what they meant.  It was such a media-friendly story, because the obnoxious cuteness of the dolls was symbolic, you see, of frustrated parents having to spend money on their worthless children every year...Making the act of cynically fighting your friends and neighbors either a self-deprecating display of how much better a parent you were, or how cynically you were willing to knock yourself out once a year in December.  Eh, the holiday's for the kids anyway.

And that was the problem:  It was a neato story, but it didn't happen every year. It would be nice if a hurricane or earthquake happened once a year that we could put on our calendar, so we could all have fun preparing for it, and the news stations could have fun building up for the disaster coverage...But they're forces of nature, so they don't.  They just happen, unless they don't happen.
And when they didn't happen to happen in '85, or '86, news media tried to MAKE them happen.  It's now a tradition to say, not what will be the hot-selling toy or Christmas item, but, quote, what will be the next Christmas "craze".  What new item will we fight each other for, that store chains can count on to make up for any losses they might have incurred the other eleven months of the year?  
Usually, its what $200+ high-tech item, like the latest smartphone, will be groomed to be the next "craze", as a ColecoVision was more expensive than a Tickle-Me Elmo, and you don't have to be a greedy, cynical parent to buy one, you could be a Millennial 18-24, too.

So, with the jollity every year, we come to Black Friday.  A day devoted to treating the entire national consumer like deranged, greedy, cynical idiots like ravers at a rock concert.  Because idiots are easier to predict, and thus easier to manage, than intelligent, tasteful customers, that might do anything unpredictable.
When you see "Doorbuster Sales!" at Target, Wal-Mart, Sears and Best Buy (well, some Best Buys now close over the holiday weekend to give their employees a break), ask yourself:  What "doors" are we expected, even encouraged to "bust", and why?  A Doorbuster Sale is not asking us to be polite in our shopping, because polite shopping to them means we're probably not buying anything--Instead, they are literally asking that we create another 80's Frenzy-Stampede craze out of thin air, even if we or they don't know what we're crazing for, and risk fights, injuries and possible vandalism, to help out the chain stores annual holiday-quarter and year-end sales projections.  What thirty-three years ago we shook our heads at as greed, tragedy and self-serving dark-side, we now chuckle at as tradition, and hope such mindless turning-against-each-other-like-jackals will happen again, because we've been told it's such a rich evocative part of the HOLIDAY.

For those who want to start a new holiday tradition, here's my Thanksgiving present, from the Movie Activist to you:
This year, take the day off and celebrate old-fashioned White Friday, like your parents did.  Do nothing--you don't have any reason not to, after all--and savor an extra day off from the Thursday that you were probably too busy working in the kitchen, or driving to visit other friends' or relatives' kitchens, to enjoy.  Go look at the Christmas lights if you have the urge, and browse for the sake of browsing, not bargains, but if the parking lots are too crowded, don't worry, they'll thin out by Cyber Monday or Spent-Out Tuesday.  (Now that they all have christened names.)
Of course, the old tradition, of sitting home and watching TV try to fill time with holiday filler, isn't around anymore, now that stations have no more obligation to create local programming besides news.  Fortunately most of us probably have at least one of our favorite Christmas movies or iconic specials on disk...That's what they're for, after all.
So, for those of you who DIDN'T grow up within broadcast range of WPIX-11 NYC as a kid, a chance to enjoy an old-fashioned local-station public-domain White Friday the way we remembered it in the days before 1983:  Laurel & Hardy in "March of the Wooden Soldiers"  (And yes, badly colorized, as every cheap public-domain B/W movie on local channels was in 1982.)

You'll have to provide your own cold turkey, leftover pretzels, thin homemade turkey-peas-and-water soup and 5 lb. holiday tin of cheese-caramel popcorn.