Some people tell it like it is. If you're familiar with Terry Zwigoff, the director of Ghost World and Bad Santa, you know he's one of these people. Take his Indiewire interview when he talked about being offered Juno. "This is a retarded version of Ghost World. I can't do it. I can't stomach it. Sorry." Here's what he thought of The Beaver. "I thought that was one of the worst scripts I had ever read. But everyone said, 'Ooh it's on the Black List.' Yeah, well, good for it. They're a bunch of idiots. I saw the final film and there were no surprises." You get the idea.
Zwigoff's attitude and work can be divisive but not to worry, we've found a fan. Today's guest blogger, filmmaker Martha Stephens, appreciates the sad, crude reality that lives underneath Bad Santa's red suit and you'll want to read all about it. But before we get her take on the delightfully crass Christmas tale, take a look at the trailer for her film, Land Ho that she co-wrote and co-directed with Aaron Katz. Consider this a preview of her own honest filmmaking voice. Land Ho premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival and is being distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, now in theaters.
Christmas still elicits the glowing comfort and wonder in me that it's supposed to. I suppose I'm part of the majority in that way. But I'll sympathize with the disaffected and admit there are compelling, obvious reasons to be disappointed in Christmas. I understand how people turn on it for not living up to what the holiday claims to be, or what it seemed to be when you were a child. The 2003 theatrical cut of Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa appeals to both sides of the fence with a realism that I don't see in any other Christmas movie. But something inside me says this is what a Christmas movie should really be, and what the best holiday stories always aspired to be. Sure, there's something unusual about lacing a sex-obsessed, misanthropic alcoholic with the trim of timeless Christmas themes. But Christmas is far too strange to keep this from working, and Bad Santa really works.
If any of you've seen my previous work, you know I don't shy away from salty, colorful language, and you know I love an anti-hero. So obviously I like Billy Bob Thornton's character, Willie, a Mall Santa supported in his vocation by a creatively foul-mouthed elf (played by Tony Cox, who happens to be a little person). Between Willie's binges and benders, the two conduct a shadow career of Christmas petty crime which allows Willie (barely) to prop himself up.
I like the resolutely sad take on the anti-hero in this movie. Willie's not a freewheeling party boy, he's a weak, self-loathing jerk. The theatrical cut, much as it annoyed Zwigoff, actually does a particularly good job of triggering compassion for Willie, to go along with our laughter and disgust. I don't feel drawn vicariously into his world as an escape, I laugh along with him at the dark comedy his life has become. You would think this doesn't jive well with sleigh bells, pretty lights and goodwill, right?
But this is the classic Christmas story. We're conditioned to miss that fact because the badness in Bad Santa is really bad. It isn't sterilized by Dean Cain or CGI snowfall. Like Scrooge or the Burgermeister Meisterburger of Rankin & Bass, Thornton's character is actually in pain, and it shows. Like the misanthropes in those two stories, Willie discovers empathy when he finds a child more miserable than himself. That empathy forces him to grow up a bit, as he helps the kid, but he remains greatly and hilariously flawed. After beating up the kid's bullies, Willie declares that it "made me feel good about myself. It was like I did something constructive with my life or something, I don't know, like I accomplished something."
All of this resonates with me because I want to believe in this sort of renewal taking place, however weirdly, and especially through the holidays. But I'm skeptical enough that I only believe in something once I can see its cracks and flaws. Let me know what's deeply wrong with you (we all have something, or several things), and only then will I start to believe in you. Bad Santa does a clever, artful job of showing the brokenness underlying one particular Christmassy world. That's why I believe in it.
Raised in the hills of Appalachian Kentucky, Martha Stephens longed to create films celebrating and investigating her native land and people. A graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts, School of Filmmaking, Stephens's first feature film, PASSENGER PIGEONS, premiered at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival, and won Chicken and Egg Pictures' "We Believe In You" Award. Stephens's second feature film PILGRIM SONG premiered at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival in the Narrative Competition. Stephens's latest feature, LAND HO!, an Iceland-set buddy comedy which she co-wrote and co-directed with Aaron Katz, premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival to critical praise. It was included on numerous 'best of' lists and was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics. The film is currently in a theater near you.