Let me just open this by saying AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I have a strange fascination with Christian propagandist films. Mostly because they’re, well, terrible. Primarily, they’re made to inform an audience that they are right rather than actually open somebody up to the faith. I mean, say what you will about other propagandist projects, but they tend to be decently produced and a lot of them had techniques incorporated into film culture! Like, they had to be well made because propaganda, you know, is meant to be convincing. Why are Christian ones even made if they are not for the benefit of those outside these circles?
Before I go forward with that question, I need to outline that this isn’t ideologically bent for me. I say this because the movie I’m about to review was a hot button topic for a lot of atheist commentators, and that really isn’t my issues with it or other films of its ilk. Silence was one of the best films I’ve seen all year, and it’s all about the power of the Christian fate. But it’s also something that’s serious about challenging its characters and actually has major consequences and failings-it’s meant to put your own beliefs to the test. Most of these movies do not do that-their conflict is more that people think they are wrong rather than questioning if they are. Which brings me to this piece of shit.
Saving Christmas, commonly referred to as Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, is a 2014 film starring, well, Kirk Cameron, who also served as executive producer. For those of you who don’t know who Kirk Cameron is…keep it that way. But for the purposes of this blog, he’s a former child actor who starred in the popular American TV show Growing Pains. Although an atheist in his teens, he became a born-again Christian at 17, and after the show ended he devoted the rest of his life to his faith, starring almost predominantly in Christian-based movies and co-founding a movement with evangelical preacher Ray Comfort.
It’s his partnership with Comfort that gained him arguably some of his most notoriety with the good old internet world. Their content ranged from memetic, making fun of transitional evolution with their invention the crocoduck and claiming God’s divine plan must be true because the human hand can fit a banana properly, to incredibly insulting and hypocritical, adding a prologue to the Origin of Species lambasting Charles Darwin for his racism and his theory’s connection to Nazism.
There is a lot more you could talk about Kirk Cameron, but I just need to give you a taster of what his politics are like before we continue: he’s an incredibly devout born-again Christian who uses a lot of projection, deflection and spacious reasoning to defend his beliefs. That wouldn’t be an issue if he didn’t do this to try to force the world to see things in his way and using incredibly manipulative, dishonest tactics to do it. This is where Saving Christmas comes in.
Christmas is kind of a hot topic conversational piece for fundamentalist in America. The phrase ‘War on Christmas’ may have crossed your paths at least once during the holidays. Now, I could go into how ridiculously paranoid and unfounded these ideas are, but I’m only bringing it up as it relates to this. Because, in fairness, it’s not actually about secularists, non-religious or even non-Christians’ condemnation of Christmas as a holiday. Oh no-it’s about refuting how people in Kirk’s camp see through what a commercialised spectacle Christmas has become and how it’s completely antithetical to Christ’s teachings in the Bible. Before I delve into how insidious this is, however, let’s talk about the moviemaking qualities of this alleged movie.
Terrible Production Values
For this, I want to spotlight the film’s director, co-writer, producer and co-star Darren Doane, mostly because he put in so many spotlights in this fucking thing Spielberg is going ‘Dude…chill’. Now, this guy isn’t a nobody-he’s actually a really accomplished music video director. He’s best known for making a lot of Blink 182’s early videos, but he’s also worked with Jason Mraz, AFI, Atreyu, Funeral for a Friend, Jimmy Eat World, to name a few. He’s an industry professional with over 20 years experience, both in music videos and features. Why does this movie look like shit?!
Let’s start with something basic but pretty vital that they managed to fuck up: lighting. EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING in this movie has a dim backlighting set up just having the focal figures lit. That’s why I made a crack over the spotlighting focus, it’s everywhere here and just makes everything look dull. The brightly lit house, the darkness outside in the car, the weird flashbacks with Action Santa, all of this has the same lighting scheme and it just gives a stale look. I mean, I’m not expert on lighting, it’s absolutely something I don’t have a good grasp on at all while I pretend to be a film critic, but I at least know that you can light the goddamn thing without it appearing flatter than paper!
Editing. Oh, goodness gracious me, the editing. Scenes are dragged out a *lot* passed their breaking point. Because this film is trying to be a comedy, it tends to try to hold on certain expressions or lines in order to get a laugh, and manages to miss every mark. Comedy takes a certain amount of timing, and on top of a lot of the failure ad-libbing they seemed to think was gold and the painful, *painful* cutaways, this one needed a bit more bludgeoning with the cutting room…hammer. This metaphor got away from me a tad. The sound mixing is noticeably bad here too-Cameron’s monologue is clearly recorded in another space and no effort is made to make it match the audio levels in the car. It’s piss lazy engineering.
None of the cinematography is remotely consistent. The camera work is sporadic and weird, yet still manages to be boring. They shoot handheld for a few scenes in the house (did they shoot at the house and had no way of setting anything up?), it’s almost static over-over-two shot in the car, a lot of the flashbacks for Cameron’s stories has this portentious gliding and extreme close-ups because…deep? The dubstep Santa battle (I actually wrote those words in that order) goes kind of sporadic. The camera stops almost dead at the fucking hip-hop dancing to get a load of their shitty choreography (THIS GUY SHOOTS MUSIC VIDEOS FOR A LIVING!!!!!), and the climatic slow-mo belly slide into the Christmas tree scene is kind of amazing in its camp over the top goofiness (can you picture if someone just randomly belly slid over to the tree in weird elation than called up a spontaneous-yet-choreographed dance number? Nobody in the house knows what the guy went through!). This film has absolutely no cohesive style, and you absolutely feel the tonal whiplash here.
A lot of the blocking is really poor. Scenes just tend to open as if the actors are awaiting their curtain call. Probably the most infamous moment of this is after the painful hip hop dancing where Cameron runs in and awkwardly proclaims ‘Let’s feast!’ while the rest of the cast/family members just….stand there. Still. And the shot lingers just a little too long before Cameron finally makes his queue. And there’s a guy at the end doing…something. Another example is in said dance sequence where it cuts over to the children, and they look deeply uncomfortable and embarrassed. That’s just the kind of raw filmmaking that undermines the point of your goddamn scene.
It’s clear not a lot of effort went into actually trying to shoot this as if it’s a movie, and that’s probably what they were going for. As if Kirk Cameron was just laying about, feet up on the couch and thought ‘Let’s make a movie about how liberals are ruining Christmas!’ Just happened to have his ‘actor’ buddies and production crew were in town, grab a couple of mates, etc. That’s likely the feel they’re going for. Make it home movie-esque. Just being fun and goofy and improvised, just shoot with what we have. Because getting that sense of community gets across the idea that these people are joyful and merry and their poisonous, prejudice shit is supposed to smell all the sweeter because they’re together as a unit. The perfect tool for beating your ideas into people’s heads is making others believe that you’re completely happy because you follow them.
Speaking of sporadic, that leads into my next segment:
This movie is 79 minutes long. At its core, the story is not about Saint Cameron, but his in-movie brother-in-law, the subtly named Christian, played by Doane. Christian’s feeling blue because Christmas is too commercialised and excessively materialistic, so he goes off to sulk in his car. Cameron follows him and proselytises-I mean lets him know that his perception of Christmas is inaccurate and tells him three stories to a stunned and really gullible Christian. He finds his spirit, belly slide, dance party, fin.
Not a lot of material to make a feature film is what I’m saying here. It’s lucky for us, dear viewer, that this film is filled to the brim with padding and extended shots so we reach the barest minimum to be seen as a real movie, damnit! Let’s break down just how much the movie is padded out:
We open with Cameron sitting by the fire in a sweater as he tells us about how Christmas shouldn’t be taken away by the dirty heathens and feminists, this is five minutes before we get the logo and opening credits which take three minutes. 8 minutes we get the set up of Christian’s depression, followed by a painfully unfunny improv piece by the Casual Friday Conspiracy Guy. We begin the main hook of the story 15 minutes into a film less than 80 minutes long. We only cut-away from this briefly, to have probably the most surreal moment where Casual Friday Conspiracy Guy and Actual Conspiracy Guy (seriously, that’s his title in the credits) have an…odd spoken word recitation about various different conspiracies to keep Christians down as they cover their mouths with oversized coffee cups.
Outside of some really stilted forced ‘comedy’ from Cameron and Doane and some painfully slow blocking, the car stuff ends around 57 minutes in while we have the summation of Christian’s arc where we have an odd but brief posing for pictures of Santa segment, and then the five minute dance sequence at 1 hour 2 minutes in (seriously, I’m marking this so you can skip it-if for whatever reason you haven’t seen it and are masochistic enough to check it out, just skip the shagging dance sequence). We get Cameron’s sanctimonious closing speech at 1 hour 7 minutes, and the movie ends at 1 hr 10 minutes, with 9 minutes of credits including some terribly unfunny bloopers and a beat boxing segment from the Conspiracy Guys in the final 2 and a half minutes.
So, with all that in there, lets be really generous here. Keeping the intro, keeping the opening credits sans the pointless post credits scene, keeping that stupid conversation Christian has with Casual Fridays Conspiracy Guy as it sets up his animosity for Christmas and even accounting for how awfully stilted and pointlessly improv’d a lot of the dialogue is, this movie runs really at about 69 minutes long. Roughly 14% of this is obnoxious padding, and I am being generous with what I deducted!
Okay, there’s padding. Is it any good? I mean…probably one of the most infamous moments in the opening is that Cameron is drinking from an empty mug of hot chocolate, you tell me. The opening may be seen as him setting up the thesis statement, because every great movie starts with the lead sitting there telling you what to take away from it you know? But he babbles on about how people don’t want you to have Christmas cheer, how we politically correct the shit out of our stories, and then a random preview of the dumbest yet most awesome segment of the film (note: media res tends to not work when you 1. First open the film with a prat drinking from an empty cup, and 2. Have it be a random story right in the middle of things and not something that hints at everything that’s to come). This movie isn’t just about, as Kirk put it, wet blankets, but people who have a specific issue with the commercialisation of Christmas.
The Conspiracy Guys? Like, I’d say a lot of the stuff the main guy says is insulting (thanks for the aspergers bit, asshole), but it’s so rambling and incoherent that it’s impossible to know exactly what he’s on about. It’s the one part of the film that speaks about the supposed doubling down on Christmas spirit on a broader context, but the monologue itself is so silly and disjointed that I’m assuming this has to be, in some form, parody. Having said that, this means it’s antithetical to the message of the movie. The only explanation I have for the coffee mug thing is that the actors couldn’t memorise the silly ass dialogue and the filmmakers had to work around hiding their obvious dubbing. An effort they don’t really show in the rest of the flick, but whatever.
I’ve made my thoughts on the dance stuff earlier. It’s terrible. And there’s not much else to say about the credits/post-credit stuff. It’s just boring outtakes and terrible rapping.
I guess, again, that this is all to give it a silly, loose sort of feel. Just some mates having fun around the holidays, throwing everything and the kitchen sink in there. ‘Tis all in the spirit of the season, ho ho ho!
Let’s move on to something a bit more substantive then. What does Saving Christmas actually teach us?
The Stories Defending Modern Affectations of Christmas as Christian-Inspired are Stupid and Nonsensical
The focal point of this is Kirk trying to teach Christian about how he’s wrong to be desensitised by the commercialisation and excess greed associated with Christmas, and how it’s really all a celebration of Christ. There are three things he brings up: the nativity set, the Christmas tree, and Santa Claus. All of Cameron’s refutations of these points are ridiculous.
For the nativity set, Cameron brings a direct comparison to the birth of Christ and his resurrection by using the swaddling cloth he was wrapped in both times. To say this is a stretch is an insult to warm-up moves, because it doesn’t invalidate Christian’s point at all. Even the few families who still put up nativity sets (though, again, this film is for people who do), they wouldn’t exactly look down and say ‘Y’arrrr, that be a fine old piece of swaddling cloth!’. The teachings and legacy of Christ are not being kept here because it’s such a minute and random detail that nobody would ever consider the connection.
None of this is to say that this disproves Christian’s problems to begin with. It’s not like he denied the nativity wasn’t used. He acts like it does, but that’s because you could lay him down and keep the cattle warmed up for winter because HE IS MADE OF STRAW!!! He’s just there to agree with Cameron’s semi-coherent ramblings. The damn swaddling cloth is always there, and knowing its connection to the resurrection does not actually help people embrace their lord in any capacity! It’s like connecting the manger to the cross because they’re both made of wood!
…but then Cameron uses that to defend using Christmas trees, so what do I know?! Yeah, so Christmas trees are Christian because…the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life. Adam ate the fruit from it and damned mankind, Jesus opened the gates to let us back in after we’ve croaked it. Also something about the crucifix being made of wood and ergo all those trees are being sold are there because Crucifixions were stopped because of Jesus. Right. Okay. Few observations on this:
Christmas trees are fir. While there’s no record in the Bible, or elsewhere, about the wood that made the Crucifixion cross that Christ died on, AND it wasn’t likely to be fir because it didn’t grow around that area (there’s a great story about how it was dogwood, and the flowers that grow on it are crosses in penance for that, but that’s beside the point). That’s not even touching the tree that bore the fruit in the Garden of Eden!
Also, the Crucifixion didn’t…stop with Jesus? It didn’t even stop with the advent of Christianity-there is rumours of crucifixions still happening in the present day! I mean, I don’t know if they’re still made of trees, but it kind of invalidates the message. Finally, and most pertinently given Christian’s issues are the commercialisation of Christmas, most Christmas trees are fake. So, I mean, more tangible reasoning than a swaddling cloth, but still no dice, Kirk.
Finally, Santa Claus. Oh man, are they ever so proud of how ‘bad in a good way’ (they go out of their way not to call him a ‘bad ass’) their version of Santa Claus is. They bring it up *constantly*, even adding a teaser to the story for no reason! Why is he ‘bad in a good way’? Because he threw some lad out of a Church because they disagreed on how Jesus should be worshiped in those times, and he stood against those who wanted to de-sanctify the Holy Trinity. This scene, might I add, is included with a charge of POLITICAL CORRECTNESS ™ and comes complete with a dubstep beat down in slow motion and terrible editing. It is, without question, the film’s most surreal moment. Even moreso than the conspiracy ranting stuff.
I really just…don’t get why this means Christmas is still Christian in nature? I mean, I don’t think anyone denies that Saint Nick was a devout Christian man-he was beatified by the Church. It’s not that his story is inaccurate-there’s no proof that Saint Nick led a dubstep beat down of Arius the heretic and at most he may have…punched him, if any of it actually happened, but he was at this Council and he was staunchly anti-Arian. But none of this means anything because, again, most practicing Christians don’t know any of this, and Santa has been so stripped away from his roots that he’s more a secularist folk figure than a theological hero. Even with people making stories ‘nicer’, the myth of Santa Claus crosses various different cultures and embodies so many different traditions that to say the modern day idea of him is motivated by Christian fate is as ridiculous as acting like Coca Cola has a direct connection to the guy. (note: them changing his uniform to red and white is a myth, which kind of works with what I’ve been saying).
None of these stories hold any real weight, but because Christian is an idiot and has no actual doubts about his disillusionment of Christmas (and, again, is made of straw), he swallows this all up as if Kirk has imparted on him brand new scripture of our new God Capitalist Excess. The Church of Kirk. And while these stories are, well, stupid and pretty stretching to the point that would make Mr Fantastic feel jealous, they are part of a more insidious problem, and it’s the heart of its message.
Saving Christmas Thinks You’re a Bad Christian, and by Extension Person, if You so Much as Question the Materialism of Christmas, Because it Brings into Question the Materialism of Modern American Christianity
(I may be making these subheadings a bit too long)
Let’s zone in on Kirk Cameron’s monologuing. Not so much for comedic purposes, though trust me there’s plenty of that! (‘What next? They’re going to tell us hot chocolate is bad?!’ I mean…it’s melted chocolate, dude. Unless you’re making it with cocoa I’d say it’s not great. ‘Even Uncle Scrooge has his story.’ Yes, it’s a rather famous one actually. You know, it’s why you’re quoting Scrooge because…you know, he has a story everybody loves. Did you fucking proofread this?! Also, Uncle Scrooge is a rich duck, not the protagonist of A Christmas Carol). But let’s delve into the, uh, message he’s trying to gets across.
Earlier, I called it propaganda because that’s what it is; it’s here to preach how Christmas is being taken from Christians, and how you are just scum if they don’t celebrate it exactly how Cameron does, or are so brazen as to question how people react to it. But what about Christian, you may? He’s depressed about how Christmas is celebrated, and he’s portrayed in a sympathetic light. Ignoring the fact that Christian is not a character, he’s a prop for the painful moral, Cameron essentially calls him out because he dares to question how empty and over-extravagant this holiday is:
“You drank the kool-aid. You took the lie – hook, line, and sinker and swallowed it whole. And you’re spoiling the entire party for everyone. Your wife. Your kids. Everyone who came, wanting to just enjoy themselves. You’ve been listening to the wrong people.”
He’s spoiling Christmas because he thinks his wife hiring a Santa and putting A GIANT FUCKING TOY SOLDIER IN THEIR LIVING ROOM might be missing the spirit of the holiday a little. This is like an anti-Christmas special, Christian is the anti-Grinch. The Grinch learns there’s more to Christmas outside of the excess, Christian learns there isn’t. It’s fucking warped.
Look at how Cameron opens the film, in particular:
“I love Christmas. I love the cookies. I love the crackling fire. I love the presents. I love the stockings. I love the Christmas tree. I love the gathering. I love the family and friends. I love the characters. I love the smells. I love the food. I love the deserts. I love the fudge. I love the lights. And I love hot chocolate.”
Outside of family and friends, all he talks about are things and events. All splurging money on pointless shit instead of giving to the needy, looking out for your fellow man, celebrating the spiritual nature that is consistently affixed to the birth of Christ. And don’t think I’m putting myself on some sort of moral high ground HERE-I don’t do any of this either. I just don’t pretend I’m honouring my faith by hiring out a fucking Santa Claus or organising a dance party in my extravagant house!
That’s the crux of it. That’s why he brings up hot chocolate that he drinks out of an empty mug throughout the opening (side-note: how related IS hot chocolate to Christmas?). Why the house setting is so dressed up in warm, inviting colours and Christmassy decor and giant toy soldier reminding us that an infant was hunted by men in service to a despot allowing countless other children to die in his place (hey guys, your religion is kind of dark if you can connect silly little toys to child murder and not notice the whiplash). Everything is decorated and made pretty, contrasted to the bland car setting where Christian is actually contemplating the holiday’s place in his fate, to hide the ugliness and hypocrisy of celebrating your wealth and material wants on a day supposedly meant to celebrate a religious figure whose words you flagrantly ignore.
“How can we possibly capture all that is Christmas? We can eat until our sides split. We could smile until our cheeks hurt. And laugh until our bellies ache. We could sing until our voices grew hoarse. And we would not have even scratched the surface of this glorious day. This is our city. Our tree. Our story. Our lights. Our presents. Our songs. Our Saint Nick. It’s our hope. Our future. Our Savior. And, once your eyes have been opened, you can’t go back.”
Kirk Cameron connects embracing Christmas excess to religious piety, and tells you to do that too. Because he pushes in this cognitive dissonance he calls a movie to show that there isn’t something deeply disconnected between how secularised Christmas has (and should) become and its religious origins.
I just want to make one thing perfectly clear before I wrap (hah) up here: celebrate Christmas however the fuck you want. Eat, drink, be merry, be happy. Celebrate whatever holiday you wish, spend time with family, get the most grossly expensive thing you can find to make your child’s life a little better. This isn’t meant to be a judgement on however you celebrate Christmas. This is entirely a judgement if you pretend the way you celebrate the capitalist excess of this season makes you a good Christian without any self-awareness. Whilst you completely look down on those citing historical fact or just questioning how none of this fits what’s being taught in the Bible. I guess you’re just a worse Christian if you cannot afford nutcrackers and presents shaped like skyscrapers. Fuck off.
I don’t hate Saving Christmas because it’s terribly made. I don’t hate it because Kirk Cameron, a man who has been acting since he was a child, could not be less natural in front of the camera (I read a review that said it’s like he’s being held there at gunpoint, and that’s not exactly inaccurate). I don’t hate it for the shittily written, manipulative as hell stories that stretch Christian history and doctrine to their breaking point. I don’t hate it for its weird fluffy padding, weird conspiracy spouting or dance numbers. All those reasons make it suck, sure. What I really hate, what made me want to write about this turgid annoyance, is the poisonous and self-serving message that the excess of Christmas makes you a good Christian, and if you question this regardless of your faith you’re a shitty wet blanket and will be taken off Kirky’s Christmas list. You are writing your own story, Kirk. Stop being the villain of it.
I just want to finish this up by citing a rough transcript I used as a reference point in this review. It’s a Christian source, and honestly quite worth the read because their unironic positive analysis of it even sounds like snarky derision:
“[So Christian asks how anything in there is glorifying to Jesus, and since Kirk is such a strong, assertive, and confident leader, Christian decides he needs to see things Kirk’s way and asks Kirk to explain his view-point of the whole party, so that he can feel good about it like Kirk does.]”
You can’t talk about this movie without sounding like you’re making fun of it! But mostly I want to highlight this:
“This movie is not really a movie. It’s a monologue or long speech with visuals, a few myths/stories and plenty of entertaining music.”
They’re not trying to make this just a monologue. There’s a clear story being told here with an original(???) character having an arc, stop trying to defend how badly made it is. But we do agree on one point: this really isn’t a movie.