Copyright © 2010 by James Clark
Though retail displays for Halloween are crisply displaced by Christmas decor on November first, there is amidst the quite drastic change of atmosphere an almost seamless continuity in the plunge toward amusement and thrills. But for adamant partisans of each celebration, there is a world of difference harboring a world of pain.
Tim Burton has given us his take on that war of the worlds not in a normal, live-action dramatic format, but in a film animating artworks by “stop motion” processes. Insofar as pliable figurines are photographed at minute stages of “motion,” with the stages run together, twenty-four poses comprising one second of movement on the screen, Burton has introduced a tissue of dynamics with a ghostly downdraft. The players of such a presentation would be physically dogged by a coagulation against which their impetus would struggle in a virtually imperceptible way. This subliminal, kinesthetic factor constitutes the engine by which the drama of partisanship in The Nightmare before Christmas (1993) takes shape. (An adjunct to this inventory is the recent 3-D formatting, which enhances the bite of motion, particularly that of the long-limbed protagonist, and especially as set in relief by expanses of sky or a bright, full moon.)
There is in the narrative a moment of apt sparkle that captures what this apparatus is getting at. A “Doctor”/ “Mad Scientist,” in the form of a wheelchair-bound facsimile of a Donald Duck who seems to have honed his manic impulses at M.I.T., amidst many demands on his services, works on cloning himself. He tops off the construction by opening the lid comprising the top of his skull, pulling out half of his own grey matter and plunking it into the model. His generally aggrieved and menacing face (with its eggplant-shaded mouth) musters a little twinkle and he says to the addition, “We’ll have conversations worth having!” Prior to the story’s beginning, he had hoped for a different kind of soul mate, in constructing a humanoid redhead-babe, “Sally,” who since then, has periodically attempted to poison him. Not only is she more youthful and mobile than her creator, but her discernment level, arising from his crazy physics, touches upon nuances of rightness (righting paralysis) he, for all his knowledge, knows nothing about. “Better,” he would reason, “another me, than such a troublesome, dangerous alien. Better to share with someone the solaces of hard science (including its imperialist appetites and hostility) than to invoke the tempests of a physics, a dynamics, altogether too hot to handle, and surely not worth the bother.” The Doctor is a highly respected citizen of “Halloweenland,” a place fiercely devoted to sharply honed deformity and vengeance, and a hotbed of clannish facilitation of spooky spleen such as to bring to mind Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
At the outset, it is October thirty-first, and the foot soldiers of that decadent army are, under the consummate guidance of a ringmaster with a long history of devising memorable orgies of spite, agitations pulling out all the stops to be, sensationally, the baddest, doing all sorts of risqué manoeuvres with their offensively primed bodies. “Everybody’s waitin’ for the next surprise. Don’t we love it!…Wasn’t it terrifying?! The most horrible yet!” Though not loving it, Marcello, the party animal of La Dolce Vita, would ride out his little ponies straight through till breakfast. His successor, Guido (of 8½), clearly partied out, dovetails with the go-to guy on the ground here, namely, “Jack Skellington,” “the Pumpkin King,” a tall, cadaverous (actually, skeletal) figure, who cuts out while the wild ones are still patting themselves on the back. He’s no longer buying into the kudos coming his way and the general strident, self-congratulatory baseline of his constituents, and hits the road (on foot) to find “something out there far from my home.” Sally watches him leave and whispers, “Jack, I know how you feel.” This, just before returning to the Doctor, with whom she had undergone a public brawl—he, jealously anxious about her being on those mean streets (“You’re not ready for so much excitement!”)—and having one of her arms ripped off. She knows how Jack feels because she, too, longs to get away from confining routines, like the surgeries to reattach severed limbs, amounting, for her, to tattoos no longer wanted. (While he continues his search for a better muse, she has yet another unsatisfying conversation with the powers-that-be. “You’re mine, you know?”/ “I’m restless. I can’t help it,”/ “It’s a phase, my Dear. It’ll pass. You have to be patient, that’s all.”/ “But I don’t want to be patient!” Her impatience takes the form of attempting to kill [with “nightshade”] the cautious researcher who cued her up to be his protégée.)
These goings-on ignite not only shades of Fellini, but also A.I. Bezzerides, whose screenplay for a little nightmare, called Kiss Me Deadly (entailing a scientist with a mean streak, and his wayward, deviously lethal girlfriend) had deposited many fingerprints upon the poem by Burton from which Nightmare evolved. “It was late one fall in Halloween land and the air had quite a chill”/ “The night is mighty chilly, and conversation seems pretty silly”// “I need something new”/ “This is something big”// “All that night and through the next day, Jack walked and walked.”/ “All night I walk the city…”// “…his gaze transfixed by one special door”/ “…a leather bound box…the great Whatzit”// “Jack opened the door to a white, windy fury…”/ Mike Hammer opened the box/portal and got burned by a shining fury.
Whereas Guido ends up being beached (not as unequivocally as Marcello), with no discernible way of getting back into production, and Mike is fried to a crisp, Jack keeps truckin’ at a default level, seemingly undeterred by the train wreck his undertaking with “something new” has precipitated. This outcome of satisfaction where there should be, if not dismay, a sense of loss, anticipates the easy-come, easy-go ways of Ed Wood and constitutes the grown-up matter of this scrappy amusement for the whole family.
On arriving at the ski-resort perfection (radiant white snow and crayon-bouncy highlights) of “Christmasland,” where Santa’s workshop and its aura of goodwill would ensure a tax-haven status, Jack proclaims, “In my bones I feel the warmth that’s coming from inside!” He has travelled from one quasi-theocracy to another, and assumes the latter dispensation of easy cheer is just what he needs. In this he is like Guido (as guided by the cadaverous magician), intent on gorging himself with nostalgic goodwill. He is decidedly not like loner, Mike, whose alienation from the respectable mainstream is as pronounced as his problems in face of sociopaths. Before considering who else he is like, and why, there is for us an unwelcome bit of additional disclosure about Jack. We can’t say we’re really surprised that, on beholding the wonderland of Santa, Inc., Jack puts on a corporate raider face and declares, “I want it for my own!” He has, from the opening moments of the all-conquering orgy of malice and fear, crackled into the spotlight as a far from unassuming showman in thrall to making a big splash amongst sadistic kinfolk. His first line of contact with others and himself is a fey, faux-opulent spate of recitative, recalling the nineteenth-century top dogs populating the blockbusters of Andrew Lloyd-Webber. Suddenly glaring and smirking with calculative energy, he stashes away for predatory research back home a number of objects chacteristic of the takeover target (including—in the course of adolescent souvenir-vandal relieving owners of property—the “C” in the sign for Christmasland).
And yet, the turmoil of that effusive and self-absorbed makeover adventure clings to the heresy (from the point of view of a hipster) of powers not covered by cool cynicism. Back at home (not-so-sweet-home), in going through the loot bag with his funky friends (whom he hopes to enlist in renos like those he’s doing on himself), he prefaces his clinic with, “The whole thing starts with a box,” a gift-wrapped present. (That would become a portable version of the portal to the real [but elusive] deal put forward by the door he opened on the tree, leading down to Christmasland.) “What’s in it?” the immediate- gratification mavens ask. / “That’s the point—not to know!” They imagine a shower of gifts consisting of nasty surprises. Seeing that a heavily taxed and benign action leaves them cold, Jack can’t think of anything more to do than bow to popular pressure, to which a dominant part of him remains devoted. “I may as well give them what they want.” He runs by them some misinformation about the airborne CEO of Christmasland being a “vulture” who swoops through the skies spreading terror. Then he sequesters himself in order to come to the right spin on his takeover of a vehicle delivering a “special kind of feeling,” just as Guido became remote to his acquaintances, due to trying to make fitting the violence of his declaration of war upon a world of ascetics. “Something’s up with Jack!”/ “There’s got to be a logical way to explain this Christmas thing!…Christmas is buzzing in my soul!…What does it mean?…Something’s hidden behind a door…I do not have the key!” He exhausts himself with “Scientific Method,” to the point of asking, “Am I trying much too hard?” This is a channel that could reflect improved means of discernment. And it could also reflect a giving way to old habits. Or both. “Just because I cannot see it, doesn’t mean I can’t believe it!” (In tandem with Jack’s studious rendition of Mike’s gut-level taxing himself to get into the swing of “something big,” there is the domestic strife of Sally and the Doctor—her repeated attempts to kill him in sensing that it is to her advantage to be a free agent. That of course recalls Mike’s nemesis, Doctor Soberin, and his headstrong partner, Lily.)
The puzzling dividedness of the off-putting protagonist, given something of a carte blanche by the rough and ready criteria of children’s diversions (particularly as pertaining to the supposedly easily resolved immature indiscretion of greed), involves another shard of motivation which the film demands we attend to. Jack is shown to be not merely a practitioner of crude self-importance, but (as with Marcello and Guido) a sensibility capable of extraordinary insight and therefore stepping out of line with a punitive outlook toward those not keeping up with him. Even as he savors the frisson of the winter wonderland, he’s noticing that the two-dimensional burghers are something of a joke in their not being awesome (this despite some kind observations), precisely the bait eliciting the carnivorous frenzy of the off-putting scary ones back home. Imagining himself thereby to be an improvement upon grandpa-like Santa, Jack sets out to turn Christmas into an extravaganza of strangeness for a clientele needing some tough medicine, while being addressed as cherished loved-ones. The plunge to knock over Santa’s flabby empire includes Jack’s availing himself of the Doctor’s lab equipment, along the lines of which he betrays himself as being—the chatter notwithstanding—himself not sufficiently evolved. Consequently, Sally, though admitting her own lack of patience, is far from impressed by the lucidity and thrills going forward. “It’s a mistake, Jack…It seems wrong to me. Very wrong.” Trouble is, we have Jack, enlisting squalid little delinquents, albeit funny in their teetering, arrested ambulation, redolent of not being good at walking in high-heeled kickers, to get Santa out of the way (namely, “the Boogie Boys”—a composite of Soberin’s bumbling hit men and the heavily made up kids at Marcello’s last party—who report to “Mr. Oogie-Boogie,” a breath of fresh air in his cool, Cab Calloway vocals, but suffused with Soberin-like malevolence); and then Sally, bursting into mawkish song, unfortunately in the Lloyd-Webber mold, “It’s never to be, for I am not the one.”
While stridently insisting that only benign and uniquely radiant products (handiwork of his ghoulish kinfolk) are headed their way, Jack, driving a coffin-like sleigh led by a shiny-nosed dead dog, distributes to “good” little members of mainstream society death-dealing toys. Of course he is repelled, by heavy artillery (not exactly Mike’s being “blown to smithereens”), typically wallows in gloom—“Spoiled all!”—cradled by a stone angel in a cemetery, temporarily, at least, minus its party-scene flavor—sees the point in continuing his reign as Pumpkin King, rescues Santa (thereby ensuring that a normal Christmas will prevail) and takes for his partner a Sally whose counsel of exclusivity has carried the day. The Doctor has his tailor-made “precious jewel” serving all his (perceived) needs. Jack croons to Sally, “I’d like to join you/ And sit together, now and forever.” “Saint Nick,” has found a Jack that holds fast (unlike Mike’s pal), and lives on to add lustre to lives adamantly preferring the canny to the uncanny. The dwarfish star he installs in the firmament of Halloweenland, as a parting gesture, serves to expose that hotbed of “uncanniness” as something of a fraud. The film’s preamble had put out there an apparently fun proposal, “Wonder where holidays come from? It’s time you began to think of it.” The Nightmare before Christmas hints at an infrastructure of dangerous and delightful fire upon which the clannish rituals of Halloween and Christmas childproof historical actions. In their uniting, Jack and Sally confirm that they concur in refusing to live up to the dramatic escalation of their once-promising restlessness.
Measured against Mike Hammer, Jack Pumpkin seems to lack gravitas, and joy, this latter lacuna especially painful in the context of Christmas. He and the little lady have a date with an interminable, constricted middle age, the tediousness of which would provide them with a good haunting. They have charged up to Guido’s last-minute challenge apropos of embracing the highlights of a thorny world, and been routed by it. “Here in an instant, gone in a flash.” Never one to waste an opportunity for discomfort, Burton takes on Christmastime and seems to beat it to a pulp. Of course there are quirky amusements along the way; but what he’s getting at could break your heart. Regarding a time which those of us in the West see as a major celebration, wouldn’t it be churlish to imply there is nothing to celebrate? And, at this juncture of storybook crisis, that is where good little Tim springs a lovely surprise, a wink, as if to say, “The games are still on, and fresh adventures may be just around the corner!” At his first entrance, his fawning fans tell Jack, “You make walls fall!” That’s not Jack; but it might be Tim.
In the course of insinuating the historical nightmare of mutually exclusive worlds, Burton (as writer and rather casual overseer) allows the narrative preparation to boil over in such a way as to bring into view not only the trenchant features of the work of Fellini and Bezzerides but a lively spicing of several lighter films (old, ghostly, but still kicking). Let’s start with Santa, being unwrapped from the confinements imposed by Oogie Boogie, who calls him, “Saint Nick,” by his rescuer, Jack, and in a mood to throw his weight around. His blazing eyes over that carefully coiffed beard, incredulous at the temerity of lesser beings, bring to us old-timer, Monty Woolley, especially as The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), stranded through the Christmas season (after a fall down their front stairs, like the tumble the Mayor takes at Jack’s place) at his dinner hosts’ nice place, and inducing (actually bribing) them to countenance their children’s breaking out of the mold of respectable Ohio. Accompanying this pundit is his secretary, a very young Bette Davis, who at that time, particularly with her prominent and anxious eyes, bore some resemblance to Sally, and whose running off with a struggling playwright the great man resents with all his guile. Now that Sally is on the loose in the form of Bette (a Bête) we can give vent to the weird and wonderful resemblance the Doctor bears, to Leslie Howard, who co-stars with her in The Petrified Forest (1936), and, as a failed (inert) poet, sacrifices his life in order to overcome her anxieties about busting out of the Arizona wilderness and going to live in France. (She has a bone-headed, jealous boyfriend, and thereby coincides with Simone, in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. She also has to deal with incursions of a gang of attitudinizing thugs, who could be called “the Boogie Boys.”) The forest where the dream and invasion of Christmas take place is decidedly mineralized, and Jack’s pin-striped tux goes along with it. To round out this factor, Sally’s rusty-red hair would get tangled up with Bette’s role as Jezebel (1938), where she risks life and limb for her man (and becomes a pariah to stodgy neighbors). The randy Doc (who, for my money, runs away with this picture [in a way similar to the “Beetlejuice”—squashed Nick—figure in the movie of the same name]) would construct a bombshell all for himself, and quaintly think of her as a “Jezebel.” (An out-take indicates that there was a notion to have him turn out to be Mr. Oogie-Boogie; but that would have been pushing the Soberin factor unnecessarily hard.) With her Parisienne Apache getup and tendency to pirouette (not to mention those eyes and that mouth) Sally reminds us of Leslie Caron, who, in An American in Paris (1951), has to tear herself away from a man who dotes on her and who preys on her conscience due to her owing her very life to him. (He graciously bows out.) From here, we’re a mere pas de chat away from her partnering Fred Astaire in Daddy Long Legs (1955). There she is the recipient of his anonymous generosity and becomes smitten with her remote benefactor. Jack’s stagey entrances, looming out of his pumpkin disguise and lifted like a figure-skater from the coffin-sleigh after becoming Santa, remind one of the stage architecture of amazingly long legs in Fred’s Mr. Bojangles of Harlem routine as appearing in Swing Time (1936). And, wouldn’t you know it, Sally has the ripe bearing (despite all the stitches and blue complexion) of Ginger herself, especially as The Gay Divorcee (1934), going through quite a bit of distress to disconnect from a scientist-husband (not nearly as funny as the Doctor of Halloween) and team up with Fred—she being kept under lock and key and making her escape by chic graphic design cut-outs, where Sally has to throw herself from an upper window, (temporarily) losing an arm and a leg. Topping off the fizz and whimsy, Fred has experience as a predator, going after career goodies related to Christmas (and many other holidays), in Holiday Inn (1942), where Bing Crosby is the hapless Santa being looted at the source of his rural club that comes to big city life for holiday spectaculars. The movie introduces the feel-right classic, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” and that’s a good place to leave for now the fascinating generosity of Burtonland.
Maybe, with all those vintage sweethearts swirling about (Burton even making so bold as to include in the roster of resources his own Edward Scissorhands, whose ice sculpting is echoed by the stone angel, and whose gift of snowflakes graces the launch of love by Jack and Sally), we should cap them off with an inspired touch of typically weird whimsy. On Jack’s concluding that the grateful dead are dead to his discovery, there is a coyote howl, perhaps from Anita Ekberg’s Sylvia.