A Gathering of Xmas Schmaltz

December 7, 2011 | By

Every one has their favourite Xmas TV special or movie (sometimes several) which they watch every year to get them into the ‘spirit’ of the holidays, regardless of religious denominations or lack of, although mine still stands as 1988’s Die Hard (see piece from 2008): a brisk tempo, choral-peppered music and some classical extracts to boot, and intertwining tales of redemption with elegant choreography in human, RV, and helicopter form going full throttle.

Second favourite would probably be Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander (1978), which, if I actually had time, would watch again, but alas, as things go each holiday season, there’s less time to appreciate a 5 hour mini-series, let alone multiple TV specials.

The nature of TV holiday specials is to hit all the sentimental marks so you, the audience, click off the idiot box feeling warm & fuzzy inside; a sense of goodness about humanity; anticipation of your own family gathering; seeing predictable dramas unfold and issues resolved so you too can handle your idiot brother, egotistical sister, detail-oriented mother, and yapping father before a single slice of turkey is cut.

Seasonal films are in some way coping mechanisms, because they reassure adults that no matter how annoying family will be, nor the gigantic mess leftover from guests, nor the segment of visiting relatives you’d like to accidentally forget to pick-up from airport, nor the lecturing you’ll get from an elder or big mouth, You Will Prevail. You will remain your own Special Person. And when New Year’s chimes in, you’ll be satisfied you fulfilled your familial obligations, and are fully entitled to pickling your brain in sparkling wine.

Case in point: The Gathering [M], a 1977 teleplay with a name cast from top to bottom (except the two kids – they’re nobodies), including writer, director, and executive producers (Hanna-Barbera Productions). It’s a perfect example of how to transcend the schmaltz genre without wallowing in its horrid excess. The Gathering is indeed manipulative, but it works because the camera always flips back to its central figure – aging father and all-around grumpyman Adam Thornton (Ed Asner) – instead of the younger, hotter cast members. It’s about the parents, and with a terminal disease thrown in to give ‘the gathering’ at Xmas extra gravitas.

Now, you have in fact seen this schmaltz before: that thing called Family Stone (2005), except in Gathering we’re told right from the first scene the familial hero is gonna die. No disease is specified, and no details are given beyond a time limit, so the plot essentially involves Adam’s need to redeem himself before he reaches his expiration date. He’s also still alive by the end credits, and we’re left with a portrait of a clichéd but swell family.

When originally released, the makers of Family Stone played a dirty trick:  it was sold to audiences as a comedy, with much wacky hijinks in the trailer montage. Reality: around a 1/3 into the film, they drop a bomb that mom is dying of cancer, which is essentially the filmmakers grabbing you by the throat and shaking you like a rag doll, screaming ‘This is sad! You must cry now! She will die soon!’ and repeat the process via different manipulative scenes until mom is stone cold dead, but her spirit lives on in the cheap blinky-blinky star that peaks the Xmas tree.

Gathering and Family Stone are linked by the same themes (or perhaps, the latter stole from the former), but whereas one managed to deliver schmaltz with more discretion, the other went for your throat and sometimes administered melodrama like punishment with a metal baseball bat. There are those who need to be bludgeoned with clichés in order to achieve their catharsis, but sometimes simplicity works better, which is why Gathering deservedly joins the pantheon of acceptable seasonal schmaltz.

It has dated, and is designed to reach specific dramatic peaks prior to ad breaks (as it was original made for TV), but unlike Family Stone and its ilk, at least when it’s over, you won’t find bruises around your neck, or a big bump on the head because the screenwriter felt you weren’t sniffling & snuffling hard & loud enough.

Coming soon: Why, more blather! Plus review of socially impolite dramas, and sundries.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor
KQEK.com ( Main Site / Mobile Site )

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