Sunday, December 22, 2013

Bad Laws Are Made to be Broken!

It's December, and if you're in the western world that means you're being inundated with the month-long cultural ritual known as Christmas Season. If you're like me, you spend some time during Christmas Season thinking about its attendant cultural signifiers. Here's something that's been rolling around in my head: "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" - the song - has always had a taste of the fascist to it. The 1934 song could just as easily be some weird paean to the NSA with it's lines about knowing when you're sleeping and whether you've been a bad, bad citizen kiddo.

So that makes it extra striking that the 1970 Christmas Special of the same name is basically Santa Claus for Anarcho-Whovians. The Rankin/Bass special, featuring the vocal talents of Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney, presents a counter-cultural rebel intent on bringing down the established order and creating a culture that rebels against the Cult of Productivity. And frankly, the whole thing plays like a Troughton-era serial of Doctor Who, with Mr. Claus himself in the role of the Doctor.

Going through the story, moments stand out. The villain - the head of the state in the hamlet of Sombertown - Burgermeister Meisterburger, finds an orphaned Claus on his doorsteps. His solution is to send the child to the state-run "Orphan Asylum" which we're made to know is a wretched fate displaces the burden of helping those in need from the community and instead shifts that burden to an uncaring, unfeeling institution. Luckily, nature intervenes and whisks the baby Claus off to the Kringle family, who raise him up to follow in their profession of toymakers.

As Claus gets older, he makes his return to Sombertown. This is shortly after Burgermeister Meisterburger vindictively passes a series of laws banning toys from the town. So not only does the film portray the apparatus of the state as bad - who would send a kid to Sombertown's Orphan Asylum? - but the political leader is also stupid, cruel and has the ability to use the power of the state to maliciously enforce his bad laws on a disenfranchised populace.

Seeing the oppression taking place in the aptly named Sombertown, Claus cannot stand by idly. As he meets two children and the local schoolteacher, Miss Jessica, he knowingly and deliberately begins distributing toys in direct violation of the law of the land. His is not a simple act of ignorance, but willful defiance of an illegitimate authority. Like the Second Doctor dropping into an oppressed society, he agitates for revolution while playing a bit of a clown figure (he also softens some of the most sketchy lyrics of the song the film's title is based on by making the lines a natural reflection of his personal disposition rather than some weird behavioral program).

Of course, Claus is caught by the Burgermeister and his state lackeys. As the Burgermeister praises the way the lack of play or toys will discipline the local children and make them productive members of society,* he runs into Claus and his toy distribution scheme. The Burgermeister explicitly refers to Claus as a "nonconformist" and "rebel." In classic Troughton-esque style, Claus acts in a casually disarming manner while fully embracing the role of antagonist to the powers that be. After a brief confrontation, Claus escapes the police and goes on the run.

*Presumably, given that this was released in 1970 this is supposed to be some kind of commentary on foreign totalitarianism (the Burgermeister is German, but the drabness and focus on efficiency and productivity feel a lot like a swipe at the Soviet Union). It's astonishing how well the Burgermeister and his view now reflects Capitalist orthodoxy and the new thinking of how public education is supposed to produce an army of well-trained, docile workers to be thrown in the maw of consumer culture.

On the run, Claus meets the Winter Warlock and melts his heart. Like the Doctor, Claus brings companions on board his adventure and they have transformative experiences where they become better people for their time with the Doctor. The song that Claus and the Warlock sing together - One Foot in Front of the Other - is particularly striking. It posits that the ability to change oneself comes from within, and echoes a sentiment from Leo Tolstoy that I've referenced regularly, particularly in how I think it get to the heart of what Doctor Who can be about at its best:
There can be only one permanent revolution — a moral one; the regeneration of the inner man.
The scene with the Warlock and Claus specifically sees the Warlock "regenerating" from his bad old appearance to his friendlier, wizard personality. I've always been primarily a fan of an anarchism that is deeply personal and focused on the betterment of oneself, and the strive to change one's manner of thinking and way of engaging with one's fellows. This hews closely to all that, and sets the stage for some of the closing scenes of the film.

Claus also finds that Miss Jessica - who was persuaded of the rightness of Claus' anti-authoritarian position - has followed him. She gets a song where she essentially has a moment of self-reflection and comes to better understand her own value system and motivations. It's great because the entire sequence is insanely trippy. There's really no other way to look at it except as the enlightenment that comes from an acid trip. The self-actualization narrative and the visuals all reflect the kind of stuff that was coming out of the 60s counter-cultural movement. In fact, it reminded me nothing so much as Doctor Who's The Krotons which similarly embraced the counter-culture of the time and the drug component of it as well. With this sequence, the film further aligns itself to an anti-authoritarian position and entrenches itself as a weird echo of Doctor Who.

The narrative goes on to explain that Miss Jessica becomes Mrs. Claus and the two get married on Christmas Eve. By this time Claus is on the run from the authorities and has become an outlaw hiding in the forests and mountains. There's a bit of a deal made in the film of how Claus and Jessica marry in the forest as they've been turned away from towns due to their outlaw status and being married before the eyes of God or somesuch. What's really interesting here is how the Winter Warlock, stripped of his power in an earlier scene, calls upon God to grant him some power to due some lighting tricks at the wedding ceremony. To be sure, this is not a staid, orthodox view of God.

In fact, nothing in the film really suggests a traditional, Christian view of a higher power. "God" is fairly nebulous and all that's said about the significance of Christmas could just as easily apply to any of the pre-Christian holidays that went on at that time of the year. Indeed, the film explicitly links any concept of a higher power with the pagan magic of the Winter Warlock. Rather that representing an authoritarian deity, the film seems to treat questions of faith in the sort of cosmic sense we might find in 60s counter-culture or the Doctor Who scripts of David Whitaker.

Eventually, Claus becomes the Santa Claus we all know today. The brilliance is that he "beats" the Meisterburger simply by changing minds and attitudes. There is no formal revolution (so, un-Troughton-like in that sense) but instead a follow-through on Tolstoy's call for the permanent revolution. The people of Sombertown realize they simply don't need the laws in place and so go on with their lives ignoring them. Santa Claus is free to embrace his chosen life regardless of what laws may be on the books and the people of Sombertown seem to get on just fine without a Burgermeister figure to rule over them.

A brief coda follows, where the narrator explains that some folks still just don't get Christmas. While one of the "examples" is a store clerk who is clearly just tired of having to take the brunt of abuse from the consumer capitalist side of the holiday, and thus a rather unfortunate target to pick on, the fascinating inclusion is the industrial businessman spouting platitudes about how silly it is celebrate Christmas with so much suffering in the world. Of course, he probably supports a Burgermeister-esque vision of molding people into compliant workers and the suffering he's referring to is caused largely by the economic system he propagates and profits from. I think the film cleverly sets this character up: we're supposed to read the bullshit in his feigned concern for the poor. Now that we're at the end of the film, we as viewers have the tools to recognize that the company boss is simply another burgermeister in need of a good toppling.

A triumph for anarchists and Doctor Who fans alike. Merry Christmas.

1 comment:

Wolter said...

Word.