I am not here to discuss the veritable existence or not of Santa Claus, but I would like to offer a few thoughts on that rather rotund, if not jolly, red-suited, white-bearded, generous fellow. His very appearance is strange given what America considers to be aesthetically appealing in male beauty: oldish, chubby (rather fat, actually), lots of facial hair, white hair, suspenders, large black boots. 007 would never look like that. Santa Claus is an odd figure who actually scares small children who are often faced with having to meet Santa up-close and personal, sitting on his lap. Though known for his kind generosity, he also keeps a naughty and nice list, which is a rather sinister proposition, especially if you have been naughty. Santa represents a threat to impose punishment if certain levels of good behavior are not observed. The naughty-nice list is a strange sword-of-Damocles type weapon which for some causes a certain amount of personal introspection. Some people worry about how bad they have been during the year because they know they deserve nothing, nothing at all. The mere existence of Santa suggests associations with the supernatural, or perhaps the magical, but the flying sleigh and reindeer imply that all is not what it seems to be–Santa is not just Santa, and those reindeer are not run-of-the-mill quadrupeds. The question of his residence is also very problematic: he lives on an ice flow which has trees and fixed foundation buildings. Yes, the ice is permanent, and ice houses or houses on ice are totally possible because we see the behavior in Minnesota all the time, forming small cities of ice houses on area lakes. The elf population, however, is really problematic. My question is how Santa funds the feeding of his workforce, the housing for so many reindeer, and flying sleigh maintenance. Elves are not particularly problematic because of the Harry Potter documentaries explaining the care and feeding of these magical creatures, but still I wonder about their toy-making skills. I also wonder about how Santa makes it down chimneys in his unhealthy state of chubbiness. Chimneys are dicey enough to maneuver even when you are skinny, but if you are carrying around an extra sixty or seventy pounds, you might not make it down the chimney at all. I think the perks of being Santa, however, are very nice, but quite unhealthy, being free cookies and milk at all his stops. Perhaps being Santa is harder than it looks. Mrs. Claus does a lot–let’s out his Santa suit, overfeeds him, tells him he’s going to be late, nags him about new curtains for the living room, stuff like that, so we know who to thank for all those gifts on Christmas morning. I worry that Santa Claus is part of patriarchal conspiracy to enslave elves, repress reindeer, spread the wealth, and generalize breaking and entering. I also worry about Santa’s blood sugar and waist line. He does not lead a healthy lifestyle, and his cholesterol must be sky-high. I worry about Santa, and maybe you should too. So Santa is the generous, fun guy, handing out free stuff, watching over us all, checking the “naughty/nice” app on his phone, wondering if it will storm this Christmas Eve.
The first time I saw this movie was in a nasty old movie theater in Madrid where the customers smoked in the theater while drinking cans of beer that they bought out of plastic tubs in the lobby from a guy who looked a hundred and six, but was really forty-five. The year was 1980, and the last vestiges of the old regime were still lurking around in dark corners like wild dogs. The print of the movie was horrendous–scratched, patched and worn out. There were subtitles in Spanish that only proved that the person translating the dialogue didn’t know English, and he didn’t want to learn English, either. So I sat there in the dark with my three cans of beer and watched Rick and Ilsa fall in love in Paris, I watched her walk into his gin-joint in Casablanca, I watched Rick tell Ilsa to get on that plane and support her husband because “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” He’s in tears, she’s in tears, and you know they will probably never, ever see each other again. She walks with her husband to the plane knowing that that part of her life is over. I know the film was made on cardboard sets in Hollywood. The movie theater stunk, the film was worn out, the beer was warm, but none of that mattered. I was enthralled by what I consider to be one of the top ten movies of all time. Ilsa is beautiful, erotic, passionate, and crazy-in-love with two very similar guys. Rick is cynical and tough, believes in nothing, trusts no one, but he’s a romantic and a sentimentalist. The rest of the ensemble is brilliant as they orbit the stars. The entire film is bathed gently in a thousand tones of gray that wrap the characters gently in their soft shadows. Gray is so pervasive in this film that the entire final scene is played out against a thick fog which completely erases any need for scenery at all. Finally, the bad guys have been thwarted, the good guys have flown away on a plane, and the hero and his plucky sidekick walk off into the foggy night. The ending is not neat, a million threads are left hanging, but the cynic has conquered his cynicism just a bit and perhaps has even found a little bit of himself again. Anyone claiming their nationality to be “Drunkard” can’t have too many ideals or dreams left. I left the theater smelling of stale cigarette smoke, rancid beer, and old sweat, but I knew I had witnessed something very special, and every time I see Casablanca now, I admire it that much more. As Rick would say, “I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.”
Can it really be that bad? I mean, it´s only a few minutes, to let your focus go, to let the mind drift, your eyes close a bit, and at least for a short while, you really don’t care about your surroundings. You slowly relax, your muscles go slack, your blood pressure drops, but you aren’t quite asleep either. You are dreaming wide awake. Background sounds do not disturb you, and other people and places invade your waking dream–a street in another town, a sunlit terrace in another country, a foggy mountain meadow, a neon-darkened subway, a busy county fair, a smoke-filled bar in an eastern port, an air-conditioned kitchen with an apple pie cooling on the counter, a rainy Sunday afternoon in May, a dark alley in a small Midwestern town. You tumble through time and come out in another life, a dingy office that smells of stale smoke and sweat. You don’t know the raven-haired beauty that just walked into your office, but she spells trouble. You can smell her perfume, lilacs and roses, and you don’t like it. That skirt couldn’t be tighter or shorter and still be a skirt. She wants to smoke a cigarette, and she fidgets with a lighter, but you have no ashtray. Her voice is husky and rough and you have no idea what she is talking about, but she reminds you of a case you solved in Chinatown, and you’re already thinking you want no part of this fiasco. A stiff drink would go down pretty well about now. The siren of an ambulance haunts your conversation. Something about her little sister, something about an older man, but none of it makes much sense. A sad song that plays too well on the mean streets of this city of angels. I recognize the surname and wonder what she’s doing slumming here in my office. Dirty work is only done by a dirty detective. She’s the daughter of a retired oil tycoon, she needs help, but this can only end badly…and the phone rings. “Hello, no, this is not the ticket office, no, I don’t know the right number. Yeah, bye.” And it’s over.