The colors of White Christmas

The opening of White Christmas is like a gray winter’s day. It’s nighttime on a battlefield, and an army unit is celebrating Christmas and the impending reassignment of a general. The men are all wearing dusty green uniforms, and they are so quiet you could hear a snowflake land. Their eyes are focused on a makeshift stage, where Bing Crosby starts to sing one of the most popular Christmas songs in the world. This is when, no matter how many times I’ve seen the movie, I start to cry. Bing Crosby’s voice is just too beautiful, the love he shows these men too sincere for my bruised heart to take.

There are no bright colors on this battlefield, and the only Christmas tree in sight could rival Charlie Brown’s. There is no light except for bombs falling—at first far away, and then close enough to cause destruction that ends the small respite Christmas had provided from the horrors of war.

It’s in this chaos where the friendship of leading men Phil and Bob is solidified. When the bombs cause a wall to fall toward Captain Bob Wallace (played by Crosby), well-meaning goofball Private Phil Davis (played by Danny Kaye) pushes Bob out of the way, injuring himself in the process. In return for saving Bob’s life, Phil asks to be a part of Bob’s show when the war is over. Phil plays up his injury, preying on Bob’s guilt and good nature until Bob relents. With their handshake, the world of the film transitions from a gray winter’s day to the colorful, perfect world of a snow globe.

My favorite part of Christmas is the decorations. Every year I decorate a Christmas tree, loading it up with the most colorful ornaments I can find. I use the tackiest garland and the sparkliest tinsel to make the gaudiest Christmas tree possible. (Did you know that tinsel garland and strands of tinsel are different? Did you know that multiple colors of each can clash so hard it hurts your eyes?) I have some oversized ornaments so big they make my little Seussian tree lean over to one side. It’s loud and crowded and imperfect, just like me.

White Christmas is the opposite of my little Christmas tree. Where my tree is chaotic and overstuffed with clashing colors, White Christmas provides a beautiful, coordinated diorama of glamour. When I pull out this movie each year, I know exactly what I am getting: a perfect Christmas scene, with tiny beautiful figures frozen in time. All you need to do to is shake it up and add some snow.

The introduction of Bob and Phil to the Haynes sisters is the shakeup this world needs. Betty and Judy Haynes (played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, respectively) are another show business duo who sing and dance—just like Bob and Phil, only their act hasn’t quite taken off yet.

The song I constantly get stuck in my head, no matter what time of year it is, is the song the Haynes sisters sing at the nightclub where they meet Bob and Phil. I’ll be walking around my apartment mid-June and suddenly the line “Lord help the mister that comes between me and my sister” will pop into my head and I won’t be able to help bellowing the next line to our pet parakeet who sings along: “And lord help the sister who comes between me and my man!”

They both wear blue dresses, covered in lace, and carry large, feathered fans to use in their routine. While watching the Haynes sisters sing and dance to that song, Bob and Phil become as enraptured as I do. Their eyes are drawn to their true loves, and their fate is sealed from there. After helping the sisters get out of trouble at the club, Phil tricks Bob into following them to Vermont, where the sisters are booked for the holidays in what turns out to be an inn run by their former general. What follows are the adorable hijinks that I imagine all beautiful, talented people in show business fall into when they get together. They sing and dance to solve their problems, and mend hearts and minds with their creative souls.

Like a snow globe, this movie is a time capsule. Not just for the glamorized picture of 1950s show business, but also for my own idealized version of the holidays. When I watch this movie, I am transported back to a couch in my parent’s home, snuggled under blankets with my mom, who watched it with me every Christmas. Every time I think of White Christmas, I think of my mother. To me, she is as inextricable from the movie as Bing Crosby is to the song he sings so well.

This is not a sad story. My mom is alive and doing well; we talk all the time. When I asked her what she liked about this movie, she got so excited she started to stutter. She watched it with her family, she said, and her father sang the songs in his deep voice. Watching this movie around the holidays ties us all together, me to my mom, to her parents, like garland on a family tree. My mom’s dad died before I was born, and her mom died not long after. I don’t have Christmas memories of them, but I have a shared experience of something beautiful we all have watched. We were separated by time, but the movie never changes. I am seeing what they saw, singing the songs they sang, and allowing the colors and feelings of Christmas to wash over me in the same way.

And the colors in White Christmas are beautiful, indeed. The jewel tones of the costumes act like ornaments to the story. The yellows are not just yellow: they are mustard, they are goldenrod, they are citrine. The colors are a little too strong to be real; they take on a hypernatural, saturated tone. Just look at how blue Bing Crosby’s eyes are. Look at how red the velvet is, how luminous Rosemary Clooney looks in her black sequined gowns. I want to dive into those swirling colors and live where things are a bit too bright and a bit too beautiful to really exist.

After watching this movie for the thousandth time one winter—it was gray outside but bright and warm on my TV screen—I researched how they made White Christmas. It was one of the few movies shot in VistaVision, which the movie proudly displays on one of its opening screens. This film process was used by Paramount to create a wider screen, but it was quickly dropped for more technically advanced films that were less difficult to use and had a finer grain. In America, its popularity lasted less than 10 years. But the real star of White Christmas is Technicolor. The same process that made Dorothy’s world come to life in The Wizard of Oz, Technicolor is known for that look of oversaturation. It was often used for musicals, mirroring the exaggerated look of stage makeup to create a not-quite-realistic image that’s visible on the stage from far away. The colors in a movie made with Technicolor are visible from the back of the room—hell, they are so bright you could probably see them from the moon.

The combination of these two processes envelops the viewer in a wide, colorful world. It’s a little fuzzy around the edges, like a daydream, in a way that films made with new digital technology aren’t. One way isn’t better than another—I am not one to say that more advanced technology and more flexibility in which to create “ruins” filmmaking in any way. But White Christmas represents a sliver of time in the life of filmmaking. It is a preservation of a perfect marriage of filmmaking process and subject matter. It requires saturation and richness to live in this world where dancers tap dance on a whim and singers duet whenever they fancy. It requires the viewer to let go of realism and accept the exaggerated fashion of fantasy. It would lose its sheen under the scrutiny of high definition.

The writing and direction, though, hold up under a microscope. Like all fairy tales, it seems like a simple story at first. Chaste kisses stolen in front of a fire while drinking buttermilk and eating liverwurst sandwiches lead to love, which leads to misunderstanding, which leads to reconciliation. A tale as old as time. But not one line is wasted, and all of them are sharp.

On the first night they all meet at the club, Phil asks Judy to dance. They move from the dance floor in the club to outside near the water, where they use boats and a dock as a stage. The camera follows every dip and twist, the same way two new lovers will follow each other into their relationship. They’ve just met, but they step together keeping perfect time, gracefully dancing into love, rather than falling. Judy’s skirt flows around her like a cloud when she spins, emulating the dizzying feeling of a new crush. Their dance is more elaborate than any so far in the movie—Phil and Judy make each other better, more beautiful.

When they get interrupted because of a phone call from Betty and Judy’s troublesome landlord, Phil offers to help. “We like to take care of our friends,” he says. “We’re practically strangers,” Betty says. “Well, we’d like to take care of that, too,” he responds, their conversation flowing just as easily as all of their dance routines.

In one of my favorite scenes, the relationship of Bob and Phil is shown in the way they undress in their dressing room after a show. They are arguing, but while they fight Phil tosses his cane to Bob to put away, and Bob passes his hat to Phil to put in a suitcase. It’s a song a dance of a different kind, one that reveals their familiarity couldn’t be disrupted by something as silly as a disagreement. They’ve helped each other put away their clothes a million times, and have probably had this same argument a million times, too.

An argument with a close friend in real life would send me reeling, but in White Christmas, I know it will be resolved in two hours’ time. That’s why I turn to stories in the first place—they fix what I cannot, offering a perfected image I take comfort in, but that I couldn’t possibly live up to. In stories, arcs make sense, and tragedies have meaning. Colors in fictional worlds coordinate instead of clash. I sometimes worry that I hide too much in pretty pictures of false lives instead of facing my real problems. Instead of sand, I stick my head in books and movies.

My real Christmas with my lovable but fallible family will never match the beauty of a perfect Christmas image in a snow globe. But taking pleasure in small moments of beauty is no small thing—and making something beautiful can be momentous. Every single shot and dance step of White Christmas acts as a tiny Christmas light, adding up to a stunning whole that illuminates those I love in a rosier glow. My own Christmas decorations similarly act as a tangible representation of the love I feel for the world around the holidays. Sometimes the decorations are the point. After all, a Christmas tree with no ornaments would just be an ordinary pine.

The Invitation and navigating grief

the invitation

The opening scene of The Invitation is a perfect introduction to the movie. A man named Will and his girlfriend Kira are driving to a dinner party when they hit a coyote with their car. Will gets out of the car to check on it, and when he sees the coyote is beyond help, he kills it with a tire iron.

When they arrive at the dinner party, thrown by Will’s ex-wife and her new man, Kira tells the story of the coyote. The hosts agree: Will’s actions were a gift, he a benevolent god who showed mercy to an animal who wouldn’t have been able to survive.

But one man’s mercy is another man’s murder.

If the coyote had been healthy, if it were able to speak its will to live, if an emergency vet were on hand nearby, people may not be so quick to call Will’s actions merciful. But the coyote was going to die anyway. Will killed it because he believed he was sending the coyote to a better place—not heaven necessarily, but a state where the coyote couldn’t feel pain longer than it had to. Because of this, the quick finality of death was better than a slow and tortured life.

I had to make the same decision as Will when my cat got sick. A tumor in his throat, Cisco could no longer eat. Treatment options to extend his life would have only meant more frequent visits to the vet, which he hated, before the cancer would come back anyway. For Cisco, I decided that a quick death at home with me was better than a slow and painful life spent on cold metal tables with strangers.

But what happens when death comes quick to the young and healthy? Or to a person who voices the desire for more life? Or to a loved one you couldn’t bear to live without?

The Invitation is the story of people struggling with these questions, as everyone must struggle with them eventually. It began with Will and Kira and their encounter with the coyote. But The Invitation, like all of director Karyn Kusama’s movies, is about a woman.

Will’s ex-wife is named Eden, and she has found a paradise to help her deal with the death of her and Will’s young son a few years earlier. Her relief comes in the form of a cult, called the Invitation. According to the Invitation, negative emotions like pain, grief, and anger are chemical reactions in your brain that are not necessary for living. By accepting the Invitation, all of those emotions can disappear.

I don’t belong to any church, but I understand grief. After I saw The Invitation, I thought about my own small, recent tragedy. I let myself remember the feel of Cisco’s fur, the sound of his meow when he begged for ham from the refrigerator, the way he felt when I picked him up—not when I held his frail body at the end of his life, but when he was healthy and fat and heavy in my arms. And for a moment it felt real. And for a moment I felt happy, and at peace.

Of course, a cat is not a person. A pet cannot love you the same as a person can, it cannot talk back to you and tell you its desire to live or the peace it’s made with death. A cat is not a young boy who was killed in a freak accident at his fifth birthday party, like Will and Eden’s son. The death of a sick cat and a young boy are not equivalent. But grief has never been logical or fair, and depression has never been reasonable.

I fell into a depression after Cisco died and then slipped further when I felt guilty for allowing the death of a pet to hit me so hard. He was not a person. He was not a son I had wished for and raised and tried to protect. He was not a child who told me his plans for the future before that future was cruelly cut short.

But even so, the idea of being with him again was so complete and so real, it scared me. In the middle of my worst days, when I cried for no reason and every reason and hid my tears from the people who loved me, I could see myself wanting that relief. I could see why the promise of reuniting with someone you missed could be enough to make you believe in doing something awful.

The belief system in The Invitation claims that death is relief from pain, and that death will bring you together once more with those you love. After sending something I loved to death, I had to believe that, at least a little bit.

I’ve never let myself imagine Cisco as clearly again, maybe for the fear that I wouldn’t be able to stop. I am not in danger of wanting to die to see him in the afterlife, but I am in danger of remaining forever in that dreamlike state, in between living and remembering the loved ones I miss.

This is where The Invitation takes place—trapped between the present and the past. Eden still lives in the home she shared with Will, but she lives there now with her new partner, David. When Will enters the house for the first time in years, he can’t help but see visions of his past life, as if the ghost of his young son were a guest at the party. The scenes of his memories are hard to distinguish from the scenes of the dinner—they look the same, except the memories of his son and his happy life with Eden swim in a golden, brighter light.

When Eden comes into view for the first time, she floats down the stairs in a long white dress. It calls to mind not the mirth of a wedding gown, but the gravity of a burial shroud, as if she is preparing to be sacrificed. Though she seems calm and grounded at first, as Will spends more time with her, Eden’s unstableness begins to show. Will tries to navigate the woman he no longer recognizes, just as he tries to navigate the house he once lived in. It looks so familiar, but it’s not the same. Walls appear in rooms where he knew doors used to be. Similar to the effects of grief itself, Will can no longer find his way in the life he once knew.

The cult offers Eden and David a way to move forward from this state of limbo. They both used the Invitation to ease their debilitating grief: David had lost his wife, and Eden her son. They feel the Invitation saved their lives, and they use the dinner party to preach its teachings to their friends. When they evangelize their newfound faith, their friends turn skeptic—too polite to openly mock them, too familiar with their pain to fault them for finding a way to manage it.

Eden implores Will to join in her happiness, but he is stuck in misery. Will resents Eden for appearing to move on from the death of their son; his constant pain feels like a monument to the child he couldn’t save. Will’s discomfort with the woman who used to be his wife increases as the night goes on. Will notices bars on the windows that weren’t there before. He sees David lock the front door after a party guest comes inside. He starts to believe that Eden and David are hiding something, that their calm personas belie danger within. Will’s paranoia culminates in knocking glasses of wine out of his friends’ hands, convinced that Eden and David had poisoned them.

He was right. Every single glass that Eden handed to her friends contained a liquid that would kill them with a single sip.

Eden and David had planned the dinner party as a way to kill those they loved most, and then kill themselves. They meant everyone to die together, toasting to life one last time. But when Will interrupts the toast, they go after their friends with guns, knives, and whatever tools they have.

The brutal killings in The Invitation are terrible to watch. Kusama uses whispers and silence here where other directors would use tense music or screams. She does not glamorize death the way other horror movies do, by making each death a contest in increasing outrageousness. Instead, she slowly and carefully shows that victims feel pain and fear because they want to live. She focuses on faces of the people being hurt, and the camera lingers on Eden’s doubts when it doesn’t go to plan. The gravity of these deaths indicates that Kusama has felt the pain and grief of death, too.

The religion in The Invitation leads to disaster because it smothers that pain instead of helping someone through it. Acknowledging someone’s pain is to recognize their humanity; the Invitation instead treats humans like animals. Like the coyote, Eden and David see themselves and their friends as something to be put down instead of truly seen and understood.

The final scene of The Invitation highlights how pervasive this need for recognition is—or perhaps it shows how many of us are broken without it. After the rampage, the survivors leave the house and see a red lantern in the yard. The red light acts as an omen, a signal of the horror that happened within. As the sound rushes back to their ears, the friends hear sirens all around. When they finally look away from each other’s horror struck faces and into the hills of L.A., they see that red lanterns glitter the landscape, each one indicating another house where followers of the Invitation held their own violent dinner parties. The red lights are too numerous to count, sick stars in the night sky that form a constellation of destruction.

It should be hard to see why Eden and David turned murderous toward the ones they love most, but it’s not. They believed death would be a way to bring peace to their friends and save them from the pain they had experienced. It’s easy to see why they made that choice, and why they chose to believe in a religion that allowed them respite from the hell they’ve inhabited, even as it preached of death.

In beginning of the movie, Will chose death for something else, killing the coyote as a kindness. At the end, Will chooses life for himself by deciding to carry his grief with him as he moves forward. He doesn’t let go of or escape his pain, but he is able to make room in his heart for hope in spite of it. Like him, I have chosen faith in life over faith in death. But I can’t help but pray for grief to ebb, and to see those I love again.

Why I’m a fan of Star Wars’ Rey

rey and bb8

The complaints have started to come in. So far, I’ve heard the politics in Star Wars: The Force Awakens don’t make sense, Rey is too good to be believable, and that rehashing the story beats from the original films takes away the great experimentation of what people loved about the films in the first place.

First, it should be known that all Raes are exceptionally great at everything they do, so Rey’s skills were no surprise to me. She also lives on her own in a tough world and fights off a gang of men to save herself and BB8 before she even meets Han or Finn, so it’s clear she’s pretty good at fighting for her survival and thinking on her toes. Better than young Luke, even, who had a home and didn’t have to bargain for his food every day. (Luke is also a big whiney baby much of the time, but this isn’t about him.) If you need more convincing, Caroline Framke does a great job of laying out why Rey isn’t a Mary Sue.

As for the politics in the Force Awakens: I don’t care. I got the gist, and wondering about the details of a post-Empire government and why the Resistance is different than the Republic did not impede my enjoyment of this movie in any way. What threatened to derail it instead was being so prepared to be disappointed every time Rey got into a bind. Here it is, I thought. This is where she gets into trouble she can’t get out of, and Finn will need to rescue her.

But that never happened. Instead, she rescued herself and she rescued her friends. Instead, Rey not only fought, but she also survived and excelled.

What shocked me, looking back, is how ready I was for the let down of seeing another woman not get to be the hero. I was hoping for better but ultimately not surprised when Finn picked up the lightsaber. Of course, I thought. Here it is, here’s the part when Finn gets to fight with the lightsaber and Rey has to watch from the sidelines once again. I thought this even as my worst expectations had been disproved not yet an hour earlier when Rey talked herself out of imprisonment and fought back against Kylo Ren’s mindwashing all on her own.

For as predictable the Force Awakens may be, Rey saving herself surprised me. The movie played on the expectation that Rey would need rescuing a few times, and each time she didn’t need a man’s help I was shocked and delighted. Isn’t that the experimentation and subversion of expectations that people loved in the originals? To me, and to many other women watching, that element of surprise was there. If you didn’t see it, maybe it’s because you are not used to bracing yourself to watch women get shunted to the side.

What kills me is how even as I wanted Rey to be the lead in this movie and get to do heroic things, I didn’t truly believe it would happen, not deep down in my bones. I’ve seen popcorn movies before; I know how it goes. Rey gets to be charming and beautiful, but when it came down to it, she wouldn’t be able to come through when it really mattered without a man helping her out. And, honestly, I still would have loved it even then because Rey, Finn, and Poe are so charming and loving, and it was so good to see Han and Chewie again, and because I am so used to the disappointment of not seeing a woman save the day that it hardly would have registered.

That’s the saddest part. Women have been denied being the star and seeing female-specific stories for so long, we’ve become used to it.

I didn’t know I was missing this: This is the refrain I’ve seen from women again and again lately. Rachel Syme said it in her wonderful essay on women making culture:

“And this flash of recognition immediately made me sad: How moving it is to feel like you can meld with the screen, how deeply this mirroring affects you and changes the way you feel for long hours. I realize how rarely I feel this way, the way that men must feel all the time.”

And Jessica Ritchey said it in her great piece on Rey:

“This wasn’t just going to be the story about how Finn and Poe become great heroes, with Rey helping out and minding her place. This was also going to be the story about how Rey becomes a great and powerful Jedi.

I didn’t know how badly I needed to see that story.”

I said it myself in a recent Tinyletter:

“I didn’t know I was missing women-specific stories until I got a taste. I had always felt fulfilled with the stories I’d been given until I uncovered the giant hole that had always been there. Now my thirst cannot be quenched.”

I didn’t know that connecting with a character could feel like this because it’s never happened to me. Never before have I seen a girl who shares my name save anyone. Never before did I know what it felt like to see myself as the lead of a franchise like Star Wars.

I didn’t know, but now I do. It’s been an awakening indeed.

The backlash against Rey isn’t surprising. To survive in a man’s world, sexism mandates that women need to be better than the men. But when Rey has the skills, they change the rules and say she’s too perfect, that she got too good too quickly.

To demand perfection in stories by and about women is, as Admiral Ackbar would say, a trap. When a work doesn’t meet that invisible mark, people who don’t take women’s stories seriously use any flaw they can find to easily dismiss it. But perfect female characters will never exist. Women are complex and varied, and no one story or one character will ever be everything that every person needs–especially if you want your women quiet and compliant.

It’s a familiar pattern now. Book or movie contains a woman lead and some female-driven plotlines like a love triangle or motherhood, book or movie becomes a hit on the back of female fans, book or movie is picked apart and ridiculed endlessly. (The original Star Wars included a love triangle that no one seems to mind even though two of the spokes are siblings, but this isn’t about that either.)

If culture is serious about including women, it can’t dismiss everything that isn’t an ideal example of a woman. (And who gets to decide on the ideal portrayal of a woman? As Rachel Syme pointed out, it’s certainly not women who are making this culture in the first place.)

Rey may be flawed, or not flawed enough, but to me she is perfect.