BEYOND DULL WORK routines, unsatisfying marriages, dead-end relationships, and the tortuous burden of self-consciousness that we seek to escape at the movies, the holidays present an even more frightful nemesis to drive us out of the home and into the multiplex: our families.
It wasn't always this way. Thousands of years ago, with no Internet and only three network channels for entertainment during the long, lean months of winter, cave dwellers were grateful to gather with their clans and watch a rerun of McHale's Navy following their feast. A trip to the single-screen neighborhood cinema, perhaps showing The Towering Inferno or Hooper, was a luxury (provided saber-toothed tigers didn't attack along the way).
Today, with hectic, work-centered lives, busy social calendars, and precious little free time, people feel obligated yet resentful while gathering with kin during the holidays. Granted, a nice seder or Christmas dinner isn't in itself so unpleasant. If one could just arrive, shovel down the food as quickly as possible, then bolt for the door, such occasions would be tolerable. The problem is that for all denominations these feasts have been institutionalized in American culture; they're compulsory, a sign of good citizenship and family values.
This enforced proximity with blood relations naturally builds to a breaking point. There's only so much you can hear about your batty aunt's goiter. There are only so many times you can coo over the new baby or suffer small children poking action figures into your eyes. And don't let's start with your mother about when you're finally going to get married! As breakfast drags on to brunch drags on to dinner, surrounded by family members, there's this mounting revulsion that you share their same receding hairlines, their same tendency toward cellulite, their same horsy, nasal laughs, their very same DNA. That's usually the trigger that sets you fleeing in fear and disgust.
Like George Bailey stumbling wild-eyed through the snowy streets of Pottersville in It's a Wonderful Life, you seek refuge, safe harbor of some kind. But where?
Feverishly, you think, "Take me away, George Clooney! Hold me in your strong, manly arms," or, "Sandra Bullock, only you understand my needs!"
You get the idea. From the real to the ideal, movies provide a passage between yuletide familial claustrophobia and blissful autonomous escapism.
ALONE IN THE cocoon of darkness, accompanied perhaps by a gallon of popcorn and a liter of diet soda, you're free. In such solitude (or with a date if you must), dreamlike screen images gradually displace the waking horror of daily life.
Had a hard week at work? Imagine you're stranded on a deserted island in the middle of the Pacific for four years, like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Imagine you have to chop apart coconuts with rocks to survive. That's work! Still, you can wishfully identify with the resourceful, intrepid hero as he seeks to return to the woman he wants to marry, Helen Hunt.
Oddly, Hanks' symbolic screen rival this month is Mel Gibson, who courts Hunt by reading her mind in What Women Want. In some theaters, a third suitor is still vying for her hand: Kevin Spacey in Pay It Forward. Talk about a girl getting lucky— no less than three Oscar-winners lining up to woo a fourth!
In this way, more perfect representations of our own selves enact idealized courtship dramas and family dynamics. Like Hanks, Nicolas Cage plays a yuppie forced to confront the shallowness of his prior life in The Family Man. Only instead of a sandy isle, he's in an alternate universe where he finds himself married with children (rather like Rachel Griffiths in Me Myself I). The resulting confusion may be a bit sticky, but one can be sure that, like George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge, he'll be a changed, improved man for this glimpse of what might have beenСnd could be.
Thus, Hollywood tantalizes us with depictions of what we both crave and cringe from, teases us with celluloid husbands, wives, parents, and kids who seem all the more unobtainable for their flawless remove. For the fatherless teen ghetto protagonist of Finding Forrester, a surrogate parent comes his way in the form of Sean Connery. Sure, the old codger's a bit eccentric, but who wouldn't like to have 007 himself tutoring and encouraging one's hidden talents?
Likewise, in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, when dashing martial arts master Chow Yun Fat confers his approval, it means a lot. For one woman, he's a potential teacher and rival; for another, he's Mr. Right with silken robes and gleaming sword. As the three bound across rooftops and perform impossible acrobatic leaps, their weightless grace makes Tiger the one must-see, perfect holiday movie this season. It doesn't give us any bogus soundstage simulacra of home and hearth. Instead, the picture does everything we need at this time of the year: gets us out of the house, then leaves us content, amazed, and feeling something like peace.
Winter Film Preview