Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Miracle on 34th Street

Lowdown: Santa Clause is put on trial.
First, let’s clarify the versions: The Miracle on 34th Street reviewed here is not the version considered to be a classic from 1947, but rather a remake from 1994 that was aired during Christmas day itself on Channel 10. Second, let’s clarify the why: I watched the old version ages ago and wanted to refresh my memory about said miracle, given the high regard with which the film is considered (many quote it as their favorite Christmas film); my partner, on the other hand, wanted to watch it because it was referenced in a book she was reading.
In retrospect, we should have known better. Miracle on 34th Street, at least in its 1994 incarnation, seems more like a film coming out of the Joseph Goebbels production lines than a film worthy of air time and my time.
The story is only slightly different to the 1947 version; it was modernized. An American store chain, Cole’s, is in financial trouble and becomes the potential takeover target of a heartless rival chain. Things pick up for Cole’s when they pick up a new guy off the street, literally, to act as their 34th street shop’s Santa Clause ahead of the Christmas sales. That new Santa (portrayed by the very Santa like Richard Attenborough) turns out to be quite a success story, attracting and touching the kids that pay him a visit to discuss their Christmas plans. But there is something unusual about the guy: For a start, he refers to himself as Kris Kringle. Second, he seems to really believe he is the genuine article, the real Santa Clause. But is he? The rival chain puts that claim to the test, and eventually we end up with a trial to decide whether Santa exists or not.
In parallel we have ourselves another story of a single mother (Elizabeth Perkins), who is rather dull and depressing with work the main thing on her mind; her daughter, who craves the love of a family; and the mother’s lawyer of a boyfriend that aspires to be more than a boyfriend, Dylan McDermott. They’re all brought closer together through Kris Kringle when Perkins hires him for Cole’s; but Perkins, unlike everyone else, doesn’t believe in Santa, and thus dooms herself to a miserable life. Can she be convinced to see the light?
As films go, this version of Miracle on 34th Street is a very cheesy affair that features all the bad things one normally associates with an American film: pretentious and unreal morality, predictability, and some very badly imposed conservative values. It is definitely not a good film, even when taking into account it is primarily aimed at young kids.
However, there is something that takes Miracle on 34th Street further down from being just another bad American film and into being a truly horrendous film of the Goebbels production line. And that is the way faith and the matter of Santa Clause’s existence are discussed, and in particular the way the film insists on Santa Clause’s existence while criminalizing doubt in his existence.
First there are the reasons the film comes up with for the existence of Santa. It basically comes down to a statement that’s repeated by Attenborough’s character: if you don’t have faith, you are doomed to a life of doubt. Naturally, the film provides its handy version for the way a life of doubt is lived through Elizabeth Perkins’ character: a cold blooded, boring and depressing person with no love for her family and no way to relate to fellow human beings. The film goes on to say that you’re either happy with faith or sad and gloomy in doubt. The film, in short, provides a misleading and untrue representation of skeptics in a way not dissimilar to the way Goebbels portrayed Jews as cunning rats. Miracle on 34th street has its own agenda that it likes to push, and if that agenda doesn’t align itself with reality then hey – who gives a shit about reality? We don't need truth, we have faith.
Well, the truth is that there is no Santa Clause. The Santa Clause we know, dressed in red and white uniform and a white beard, is a less than a hundred years old product of Coke’s advertising (hence the choice of colors). No child has ever received a Christmas gift where Mr Clause or any of his elves had anything to do with the gift, and that is an undeniable fact that even the most devoted Christian will not be able to deny. Not to mention that you won't find any non Christian believing in Santa.
The reality is also that there is good living to be made in a life of skepticism and doubt. I know that because I know myself, and I know that because my policy is to not believe in anything that doesn’t have evidence to support it; further, I know to keep on doubting even that which I believe in until I find a better explanation. I’m proud of this attitude, an attitude that's the best recipe of uncovering the truth, and unlike the Perkins character I think I lead quite a happy life. I even have friends whom I like and trust, simply because I know that this is what friends are like and I know that like me they have their ups and downs. Yes, my friends are human beings, and oddly enough I don’t require imaginary friends to allow me to enjoy their friendship.
Worst scene (blooper alert):
The film’s climax, where the trial’s outcome is determined by the writing on a dollar note – “in god we trust” – is indication towards all that is bad in American society. It’s got both the overemphasis on everything to do with money over humanist values, as well as the religious fanaticism that seems to run loose in the USA. Indeed, there can be no better demonstration of the way religion overtook reason in the USA than the history of America’s favorite motto.
And as for taking the words on a dollar note as evidence in a court of law...
Overall: Pass the barf bucket, quickly! 1 out of 5 stars.


Wicked Little Critta said...

I'm with you on this one. I do like the older version, but more for nostalgic reasons than anything else.

It's frustrating when something like faith is praised and praised until people don't even know why they have it in the first place. When you eventually see Religulous in 10 years, you'll hear him ask people: why is faith good? I don't know if anyone ever stops and thinks about that. Those closest to me don't think I'm capable of dealing with life because of my skepticism, when clearly I am.

Moshe Reuveni said...

With regards to reasons for believing, or why is non evidence based faith good, I recommend the presentation in the following post:
Basically, Dennett (an American philosopher who is also a famous skeptic) is arguing that even the believers don't really hold much faith in their faith; what they do value is the act of believing, and for reasons he goes on to discuss in detail. So far, Dennett's explanation is the best I have bumped into.
I have to add that many people close to me don't think I can deal with life either, notably my parents. Faith doesn't have much to do with it, it's more the "little child of the family" syndrome. Because I’m “little” I have no capacity to know things for myself (other than the bullshit science fiction I read and watch) and therefore have to be led by those who do know (or think they know or pretend they know). Perhaps your experience comes from similar reasons and just happens to be labelled with the faith tag? I obviously have no idea, I'm just making a suggestion.
In my family, no one is a true believer; they do the rites (e.g., fast during Yom Kippur and have a meal on the eve of Rosh Hashanah), but if you ask them why they're doing these things and what value these things have they just shrug (and then utter an insulting comment concerning my skepticism). They are completely unable to see that what they're doing is actually an insult to their faith; as Dennett says, they lack the belief; they just believe in believing.

Wicked Little Critta said...

I haven't watched that presentation yet, though I fully intend to do so sometime in 2010.
I agree with the general idea that many people believe in believing, but I also think that others believe their view is 100% truth. Actually, I think each of my parents represent both of these views. Interesting distinction, though.
The "little child" syndrome, for me, may be a longer comment for another time...but what I meant by being treated like I'm incapable of dealing with life is in this case religious. For example, complaining about something elicits "If you prayed about it, it wouldn't be on your mind" or "You don't understand what it's like to give your problems over to God" or "if you believed you would see God in your life." The funny thing is, I'm more confident and less stressed than I've ever been before. Go figure.
I guess the point is: kids don't need Santa.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I think you'll find Dennett's presentation interesting, as he tackles the points you've raised (excuse me, Daniel Dennett, for the distortions I am about to introduce to your arguments):
1. Dennett classifies people of the 100% truth category as people that never really bothered thinking about what it is they believe in. The reason why they don't bother is that their belief in believing is so strong they're afraid of questioning the belief. He goes on to discuss the reasons for this fear in detail.
2. Dennett discusses interviews held as a part of his research with pastors who turned back on their faith. Their breakdown point, faith wise, tends to be similar: upon formal studies of theology they are suddenly exposed to the politics of belief, things they never teach you in Sunday School. They realize they were fed with bullsh*t and doubt enters the scene.

For the record, I find statements along the lines you're dismissed with (e.g., "You don't understand what it's like to give your problems over to God") quite scary. When people talk about religious fanaticism in the USA, this is what they talk about.
I don't know how I would tackle it if it came from within my own family but I suspect I would have probably ignored it and moved on with my life. The worst I have had was my mother asking me to pray for a sick relative before going to sleep; she truly thought it would make a difference, which I have found scary. Arguing didn’t work; if you don’t pray you’re evil because you’re not doing everything you can. Add another brick to the Jewish mother that can never be pleased syndrome.

I guess the points are:
1. Kids don't need Santa (dead obvious to me given that I grew up with no Christmas or Santa).
2. Non evidence based faith is dangerous.