In the strange hinterland betwixt (yes, its a word) Christmas and New Year – I’m vaguely aware it might be Saturday because it was all the football coverage smattering the TV schedule like monkey flung shit that drove me out of the house.
Christmas is weird for me, it draws me together with my family, which I am grateful for, but in doing so it highlights how little I have in common with them. Even now in the pub I’m aware that the same football coverage that gave me the push to get moving would have only entrenched them further.
So I’m thinking about Christmas a lot and something I read caught my brains eye and has been harder to shift than a wet hair on a mirror. Is Die Hard a Christmas film? Various people on Twitter have been making arguments one way or the other, mostly I think out of bloody minded iconoclasm. Which I can respect. But I can’t leave it alone.
And I think I’ve come up with the definitive answer…
See? Glad I could help.
Allow me to show my workings. ‘Is DH a Christmas film, appears, on the surface to be a genre argument. Which is tricky because genre lines are blurry, but not unsolvable.
Genre means ‘type’ or ‘kind’ and is recognised by its conventions (a sentence my A-level Media Studies teacher made us all memorise by the way, to ensure we all got at least two marks in the exams).
Conventions are things that normally occur, they can be stylistic in nature, hats and horse appearing in Westerns for example, or thematic and related to the plot. The entire film Scream was Wes Craven masterful de-constructing of these plot conventions and effectively killed the Slasher sub-genre of Horror for five or so years resulting in a vacuum filled by the gratuitous torture porn of Saw and Hostel etc.
So what are the conventions of a Christmas film? Stylisticly we expect snow, Christmas decorations, red and white suits, music with carols or at least sleigh bells. And thematically again its pretty easy to recognise (especially seeing as I’ve been put through hours of agonising Hallmark straight-to-television cable movies for the past three months.) The narrative is normally about the coming together of family (whatever iteration that takes in these future times) and redemption through this connection. The most popular Christmas story, retold in every permutation possible, is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Which is this them in a nutshell, and one of my favourites because it isn’t religion or high ideals that redeem Scrooge, its his connection to those around him. A uniquely humanist and secular message wrapped in the template for Christmas we still follow in western world.
DH is set at Christmas but contains very little stylisticly of what we would expect from the Christmas genre. It’s set in LA so no snow, although the fluttering debris at the end is a nice substantive touch. The film takes place in an office building with only some scenes at a Christmas party which isn’t overly decorated. The Christmas touches seem to counterpoint the very serious action, used as relief, much in the same way the protagonist’s witty and human dialogue underlines the violence. For example the note ‘Now I have a machine gun too Ho Ho Ho’ or the holly packing tape that the protagonist uses to tape a gun to his back with.
So despite these lyrical Christmas touches and it actually being set around Christmas time it contains very little stylisticly that we recognise as seasonal visually.
I’ve seen it argued that DH is just the story of a man that wants to be with his family at Christmas, which is cute, and certainly fits thematically with the genre of Christmas film but has the disadvantage of conveniently IGNORING THE ENTIRE PLOT.
And, when you drill down, wrong. The only two relationships through the film that are given any real room to develop are between the ‘hero’ John McClain and the ‘villain’ Hans Gruber, and the one that actually carries the real emotional weight of the film is between JMcC and the black(the use of race in DH is another blog post entirely) police officer that first responds to the police call, Sgt. Al Powell (yep, I googled it). The relationship with his wife does give him the motivation to stay and fight the villains but isn’t really the emotional core of the film, I would argue its thematic equivalent of the stylistic Christmas touches.
Now don’t get me wrong, Die Hard is a brilliant action film. Brilliant because it changed the action genre for good, it was one of the first where the male protagonist showed how fallible he was. Throughout the film he is hurt, scared, unsure and most importantly, vulnerable. Which really hadn’t been done before. This is partly down to the script, but you have to credit Bruce Willis with the performance that managed to make the character likeable throughout.
So if this IS a genre argument the answer has to be ‘NO’ Die Hard is in no way a Christmas film.
So why doesn’t that feel like a satisfying answer?
I suppose there is a third way of recognising a Christmas film, and that is context. We recognise a Christmas film because its a film we watch around Christmas time.
Before culture was atomised into bit size nuggets flying around us in a cloud and available at the swipe of a finger there was a limited palette of films that got pulled into our Christmas habits. These were repeated every year and became part of our routine. The Great Escape is undoubtedly a film people associate with Christmas but couldn’t be read as part of the Christmas film genre by any stretch of the mind. Recently in a podcast (Marc Maron’s WTF) the director Jon Favou said he was most proud of Elf because it become part of the rotation of films that played around Christmas. Showing an understanding that its the repeated rituals that makes these cultural items special.
This explains why there is such a unchristmassy (yep, definitely a word, don’t check) film can be labelled as part of that genre, and why there is an argument about it.
Ultimately a Christmas film is a film that makes you feel Christmassy (again, don’t bother checking, defiantly a word). Its just now we are no longer bound by the five channels to dictate which bells will make us drool. We get to choose what’s important to us, what we share, and repeat sharing until it becomes entwined into our own seasonal traditions.
Unless it’s football, because that just shit.