Every year, the holiday season officially begins in earnest with the milquetoast strains of emcee Lauer declaring St. Nick’s arrival on a sleigh/float/flatbed in the annual Macy’s parade. Like clockwork, he delivers the news with all the forced enthusiasm of a supermarket clerk alerting customers that a kid has vomited in the cereal aisle; and we’re off and running. This year, in the Thanksgiving day department store-sponsored cavalcade of fourth-tier pop acts fake-singing, increasingly obscure giant balloons, and unbridled corporate synergy, the money shot was especially tart, an enticingly sour miracle on 34th street: The poorly-positioned camera, eager to capture the grand entrance, cut too soon, or maybe too late, and, instead of a majestic advent, Kringle, coming down the route, was fully obscured by a plume of confetti, swallowed in the frame and ceding the spotlight to the giant, heaving Victoria’s Secret billboard dominating the intersection. Just as this out-of-time four-hour-plus gauntlet was set to hit its anticipated, goosed climax, the juxtaposed modernity encroaching on the edges—gaining ground year-over-year, pilling the fabric of this beleaguered ninety-year tradition—briefly pushed to the fore. In other words, the most beautiful, poignant (sexiest?) image of this Xmas season—the final dirge in an interminable year—came right at the tickertape breach birth kick-off for the holiday blitzkrieg.
The crystalline sacred/profane Macy’s parade composition—with eye candy for all ages—is but a drop in the bucket of yuletide surrealism—an annual crucible of anachronism and distorted cryptograms and rituals ushered into an unforgiving present-tense. Since the aforementioned day of reckoning, a continued barrage of Claus-ian appropriations have paraded across various channels—including but not limited to some weird, tanned, George Hamilton-looking swinger Santa with hookers on each arm trying to buy a mid-level sedan, a Santa that may or may not be pleasuring himself under a decorous indoor tree, and, for our sins, any number of classicist, oddly predatory depictions, most featuring the rotund, flamboyantly attired intruder watching a sleeping child with unnerving intensity as he eats his allotment of baked goods. In some corner of the earth, he’s called Annual Gift Man and he lives on the moon.
Whether the digital age has amplified fantastical rituals or fully eroded them is still an open question in this liminal moment. Commercials (and commercialism proper) are the life-blood keeping cultural artifacts and tropes alive while turning them into mutant husks, for better or worse. In the face of this tightrope act, some peddlers are opting for psychosexual oddness to throw gawkers off the scent. I’m convinced it’s a similar psychopathy that compels middle-aged mallrats to sing along to muzak while shopping. Such ridiculous displays lead inevitably, mercifully, to glorious and just backlash inversions—from the rotten-but-soft-in-the-middle classic Bad Santa through progeny A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas and Krampus, to name a few. The thriving Grinchian alternate reality—a proud tradition surely as old as the tradition itself that also includes the likes of Brazil, Black Christmas, Christmas Evil, and Batman Returns—is unsurprisingly robust and gaining strength with each passing year.
What is the holiday season but a lurid uncanny exercise: Everything, every environment is as it was, but now it’s covered in tinsel and cardboard decorations and lights and plastic? It’s recognizable but also askew, forcing you to engage with the familiar in a different way, luring you in with shiny objects and ritual guilt. It’s a never-ending rabbit-hole of signification. In the month-long lightheaded state, Die Hard and Home Alone start to look ever more congruous, and deep meaning emerges from their intersections—the multi-level claustrophobia, the Scottish heritage, the spring-loaded Rube Goldberg pyrotechnics, the antagonistic presence of pop culture, the ghosts in the machine, the gleeful violence, the trajectory toward the reunification of the nuclear family, trauma to the feet. The mashup pastime is a testament to the meat grinder that is the holiday multimedia experience.
Hatred of the season may be as old as the season itself, but in these uncertain modern times, if you can strike a balance between pastiche parody and sincere celebration, it’s gold. An even better example of holiday symbology stretched and reinforced at the same time comes via some armchair artist in the echo chamber. As supercuts approach supernova, a growing number approach high-art, tapping sublime postmodern jubilation. 1200 Ghosts is now the reigning holiday masterstroke, bridging a century-and-a half of media folding itself over, and foiling benevolence with a Belsnickel-esque whiff of malevolence. Simply put, it’s a supercut of hundreds—at least 400, hence the title—of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol retreads, threaded into a coherent movie quilt, like a yuletide The Clock or Final Cut or Los Angeles Plays Itself.
Dickens packed Carol with an embarrassment of riches—time travel, parallel universes, wish fulfillment, socialism, friendly ghosts, terrifying specters, universally recognizable meditations on regret and greed and their toll, redemption arcs, mutton chops and top hats galore, etc. The clean, replicable three-part structure (plus bookends, and, often, bookends beyond the bookends, giving some implicit latitude for excess and onions) has made this the go-to template, ideal for commercial breaks and calculated scribbling. It’s linear and abstract at the same time, which makes it ripe for reinterpretation and variation. The Brit’s tale is a tricky time-jump narrative that converges past, present, and future in striated alternative timelines. 1200 Ghosts exploits this clockwork internal mechanism but complicates time and space into oblivion, overlaying a real-world timeline, and constantly shifting settings and tones, as told through popular culture, and flitting through a wormhole of appropriation with precision, but also reckless abandon.
As told by countless diegetic and non-diegetic narrators, fanciful and ominous tones melt into a nebulous soup. Our constantly mutating scrooge surrogate is led through his three-acts, amplified out like a recursive, Dantean barrage of infinite alternate realities (Dickens’ original, character-based one-act slipstreams and the bramble that is the cultural lexicon) piling-up in a densely-refracted trial by fire—not unlike our experience of it. The continuous effort to identify the clips pulls the viewer along, working downstream with the narrative arpeggios. It’s jaunty but it revels in the mid-distance utilitarianism of narrative. Without the chance to acclimate to the cadence of the narrators, the peccadillos of their delivery and speech patterns gain humor in isolation. Dozens upon dozens of makeshift, ersatz Victorian Londons and a steady stream of mutton-chops ensue. Television and film, cable and broadcast, cinema and theater, classicist and hyper-revisionist, modernist and postmodern, intertitles and comics panes, silents and talkies, digital and celluloid, video games and radio, text messages and soap operas, cartoon and live-action, muppets and cereal and Nyquil commercials, pious children’s programming and porn; all and more are threaded together and the seams and incongruities give it guile and charm. Sometimes these figures are fit in the same screen, split down the middle and placed on either half; sometimes, the disjunction is between the voice over and the image; sometimes, they are ripped straight and whole from their source, sound and image and frame intact.
In the fractal juxtapositions and culture clashes, a captivating harmony is forged. So often throughout the years, the text has been pilfered from the original source verbatim. In the pile-on, the limitations and methodology of adaptation, and the many lazy fallbacks, are exposed. Signified is steady even as the signifier is unstable. Hundreds of takes on a single character—from curmudgeonly to villainous to roguishly charismatic and beyond—make for a fractured, inconsistent, complex central character. Other characters are stuck in their plot device pawn modes for eternity. In the infinite narrative loop, each new creator has to take the medicine while kicking at the walls. Pop culture and our recursive experience of it, especially this time of year, is in fact the central, recognizable, relatable center of gravity. It’s a much more satisfying, culturally literate, fittingly hellish, and celebratory unending parade.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.