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Take Your Carol: Robert Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol

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Take Your Carol: Robert Zemeckis’s <em>A Christmas Carol</em>

The phenomenon of the holiday makes it necessary for practically everyone to get into the spirit of things. Spin the globe, drop your finger, pick a holiday from where it lands, and that’s what happens. That’s why it’s a holiday, not a personal day. On the one hand, this can be seen as a social necessity. Part of your acceptance in a social group or subgroup depends on your ability to play a role not only in day-to-day business, but also in rituals. Commemoration, observation, celebration—these are all rituals of a sort. For a little less than a third of the human race, Christmas is the largest and most concentrated matrix of rituals. A few key images tell the story: Decorations appear in advance of the two major holidays that precede Christmas. Theme music besieges the airwaves. Homes and trees are adorned with lights. Government offices, too. These days—at least in my neck of the woods, where Christian and non-Christian faiths share a large and more or less nonviolent space, where pretty much every possible reaction to Christmas is okay—you can celebrate it, piously or non-piously, you can hate it, or you can attempt to ignore it. If, on the other hand, you find yourself in London, in the middle of the nineteenth century, some ways of thinking about the holiday are okay, and some are not.

Which brings us to Ebenezer Scrooge, easily the best known anti-social in Western literature. He’s also a miser, and Charles Dickens was shrewd enough to dovetail his money-hoarding with his misanthropy, instead of stacking the character with unlikable, yet unrelated, characteristics. As Dickens saw it, Christmas was a prominent, cultural fixture, but, politically speaking, it was also an impotent one. Social injustice was defined as the poor treatment of labor, a policy of zero tolerance to debtors, and brutal indifference toward the less fortunate. The character who personified this would not simply hate mankind, he would also hold its purse strings. The character arc of A Christmas Carol traces Ebenezer Scrooge’s evolution from a very bad man to a very good one, the engine of his moral reeducation operated by no one other than the story’s author. (You cannot otherwise explain the employment of spirits and surreal, malleable environments.)

What is unexpectedly inscribed by this fable is that, in order for Scrooge to emerge from his depths as a human being, he must fully embrace Christmas (carols, good cheer, food, social participation) and its attendant social behavior (charity, fair treatment of the worker, leniency towards debtors). This is not an accident. In the Dickens universe, Christmas is not simply an arbitrary metaphor that just happens, for the sake of the story and no further, to be structured around the tenets of good citizenship. Rather, it is how we—Christmas observers, secular and religious, if we align ourselves with the author’s moral compass—see ourselves in our most flattering light, during our most dominant holiday. During the years which saw Scrooge progress from a young boy to a stooped old man, he turned away both from the Christmas spirit as well as the Christmas ritual. Good cheer, good community, a good wife, good posture, etc., these were all chucked out the window. In their place, money, money, money. Over the course of the Christmas Eve of the story, Scrooge is offered a non-negotiable package deal: take Christmas into your heart, don’t ask questions, or you will lose absolutely everything.

Let’s think about this for a moment. While Dickens is known for his readiness to criticize society and organized religion, the medium through which Scrooge’s famous conversion is transmitted is a violent manner of inculcation. Scrooge is, of course, a complete fabrication—there are no stories of Dickens forcing a real-life, miserly lender to undergo an omni-sensory nightmare in order to convert the miserable S.O.B. over to a more charitable and, well, merry way of thinking—but it’s certainly interesting that Dickens chose to use, well, torture, the tool of many dominant institutions across history, to isolate one individual and force him to get with the program. And it’s not simple torture; he besets Scrooge on every front: emotional, psychological, spiritual, and physical. One of the canon’s most enduring storytellers, Dickens outlines with equal vividness and creative vigor the problems he sees in the world and the happy new world that emerges as a result of the solutions he proposes. But what does Boz require? A sacrifice. It’s a combination of the horror narrative with another familiar plot: “the dropout must drop back in.”

In filming Dickens’s famous story, Robert Zemeckis (the Back to the Future trilogy, Forrest Gump) exhibits a great deal more in the way of fidelity to the source material than one would expect from an animated movie constructed around a still relatively new performance capture technique and designed to be best experienced in IMAX 3-D. With that pedigree, one can most reasonably expect a feature to be high on gimmickry and low on what they used to call “tradition of quality.” The real experience, however, is a surprise in that it rejects that dichotomy. One of the most complex big-budget directors of the Spielberg age, Zemeckis is not simply struck dull by technology. Instead, he uses new tools to convey, as best he can, the cinematic aspects of Dickens, i.e. the dialogue and the urban spaces of the very early days of Victorian England. (It was Eisenstein who argued, by pointing out the use of parallel montage in Oliver Twist, that Dickens gave more to the cinema than the cinema gave to itself.)

As regards the temptation to trick up the 3-D ride for dumb audiences—in less impressive 3-D features, or less impressive aspects of better ones, the center of the screen is frequently the repository for sticking-out objects such as swords, arrows, fists, guns, skulls, sharks, or a ping-pong ball on an elastic cable—Zemeckis is not precisely a teetotaler in the field of gratuitous visual titillation. But more often than not, he employs 3-D to create layers seemingly within the screen, an effect most classically attributed to Jean Renoir and Orson Welles. None of this is to say that Zemeckis, who receives sole credit for the screenplay, and his fantastically enormous legion of technicians and department heads have crafted the most vivid adaptation of the famous tale. (For this viewer, certain previous films of A Christmas Carol were seen at such a young and impressionable age as to refuse to release their hold on that title.) But it is his own film, and Zemeckis sees fit to use the platform of the Dickens novella to explore what he can do with filmic space, and what it means to be an actor in the movies.

This runs counter to our most favored instinctive response to computer-aided filmmaking: the idea that, now that anything we can imagine can be rendered, with each year bringing us faster and faster processors, more and more memory, and seemingly unlimited access to capital, we won’t be able to make anything worthwhile. However, like many artists, Zemeckis is best served by boundaries, and an adaptation of Dickens is a strict, yet robust, set of boundaries. To take A Christmas Carol and put it on the screen, a few conditions must be met. There’s Scrooge’s introduction, the spirits, the memories, the catharsis, Scrooge’s rebirth, and God bless us, everyone. Zemeckis’s success is derived from his decision to launch a two-pronged attack: one, to be at least 89% faithful to the source material (in terms of setting, tone, and dialogue), and two, to push the digital envelope as far as it will go without breaking.

With the exception of a brief aside allotted to Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit, the first reel paints a very thorough and convincing portrait of Scrooge as one of the most miserable, yet among the most well-off, men in London. The “tuppence is tuppence” line is Zemeckis’s creation, and not found in the Dickens. So is the bit with the undertaker silently yet avariciously demanding of Scrooge a gratuity for his firm’s services. Zemeckis peppers his adaptation with little moments like these, some comical, some macabre, some going either way. After we’ve done impossible loop-the-loops around London, we expect a fairly innocuous, virtual reality roller-coaster ride, and it’s the arrival of Marley that ejects us most powerfully from that comfort zone. (During this sequence, which is more potent in its classic “oogedy-boogedy” scare’um effects than almost any horror movie in recent memory, parents who’d taken their under-10 kids expecting harmless PG-rated fun and Jim Carrey face-pulling fled in droves, as if the theater was on fire.)

The three spirit visitations feature some of the most brilliant moments in all of Zemeckis’s body of work. While one may complain of the uncanny valley and some problematic effects (an obese man executing a perfect backflip and landing like Mary Lou Retton is no less cumbersome here than it was in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! eight years ago), the meeting of eyes between young Ebenezer and Belle, his bride-to-be, at the Christmas social, is among Zemeckis’s most beautifully crafted moments, one that can bring tears to one’s eyes not because it is a filmed moment freighted with narrative meaning, but because an artist has charged a visual space with pure, undistilled emotion and let it glide by unadorned. The second of the spirits sees Zemeckis in full effect, The Ghost of Christmas Present sequence centering on a now more captive Scrooge who witnesses the Christmas experience of his contemporaries. Some are joyful and some are miserable, and the vehicle of this spirit’s visual lesson is a banquet hall with a translucent floor that takes impossible flights into the surrounding city. It’s somehow heartening that, with a brigade of visual effects technicians and rivers of flowing cash, Zemeckis would prefer nothing more than to recreate one of the cinema’s most time-honored photographic effects: double exposure, in the spirit of the early McCutcheon/Porter short, Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906).

Throughout A Christmas Carol, we are constantly aligned with Scrooge as spectators. He is often seen in close, over-the-shoulder shots as the spirits’ dream-plays unfold before him. Establishing perspective through over-the-shoulder shots in the same frame as the observed object is a technique infrequently used between the offices of Michael Mann and the Dardenne brothers, and, appropriately enough, in Zemeckis’s Carol it has more in common with shoot-’em-up video games than other movies. Several times during the spirits’ presentations, the Zemeckis digital camera will glide backwards and to the side as Scrooge’s head fills the frame, nose first. We are, given the clarity and magnitude of the visual effects concert, fellow victims of this all-out assault on the senses, but this act of establishing and re-establishing Scrooge’s perspective serves to remind us that he is the most privileged member of the audience.

One of the most crucial aspects of Scrooge’s transformation is that it is all too much for him to absorb and remain sane. More than once in the course of the story, he argues that he has seen enough, he’s learned his lesson, can he go home now. But while he’s through with the nightmare—glib and impatient on more than one occasion—it’s not through with him. It is made abundantly clear that Scrooge is meant to undergo a cleansing of the soul, even if it scrambles his brain and breaks his back. This is by far the most interesting layer of the Zemeckis experience, one built around an audio-visual event that straddles the midpoint between “a fun ride” and “a ride that will put you in the emergency room.”

Toward the end of the third visitation, Scrooge’s last layers of security, stature, and significance are stripped away, to the point where even a lowly rat takes on the form of mortal danger. It’s still not enough: he must also undergo the experience of being dead and buried. By the time Scrooge awakes to find he’s been given another chance, it’s clear that he’s not just a lot more cheerful, he’s also a little bit cracked. Getting his life back is something of a consolation prize for losing his marbles, i.e. we’ve broken your skull into a million pieces and put it back together, more or less, so…thanks for playing! It’s also at this point that we really hear Jim Carrey (the cheerful-just-past-sanity’s-breaking-point voice has long been part of his repertoire), and if an elderly moneylender doing a mad jig, alone in his office, isn’t the giveaway, then perhaps the scene where he terrifies his housemaid will do it. In a holiday rife with contradiction, what’s more appropriate than effecting limitless good cheer while remaining timid and terrified inside your own skull?

Jaime N. Christley sells contractual warranties of indemnity in a questionable part of the great city, in the shadow of vile, godless towers and amidst ghastly, nameless fumes and fluids. If he makes it through the day alive, he spends his spare time with flickers and shades, filing his correspondence with Out, damned spot!