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Christmas on Mars (2008)

by Corinne Rizzo

Wayne Coyne is one of those people that will strike you in one of two ways. Our first variable is the one that says “My god, what have I been doing with my life?” While the other will have you running in the opposite direction saying “Thank god I am doing something with my life!”

Does that make sense? Well, at first glance, neither will Christmas on Mars. But on second and third glance, a viewer will find themselves interpreting the film in ways a student would. In ways a culture seeking, culture loving, hunter of meaning would. This sci-fi essay in hope and perseverance lends to understanding. A viewer can’t help but find the clues and meaning left by Mr. Coyne and even has one asking, “Why haven’t I considered this idea before?”

So, for anyone who’s ever thought “I want to see a fantastical freak out film about Santa Clause and the colonization of Mars,” Christmas On Mars is the film to satiate that curiosity.

Our scene is set in the not so distant future (nowadays) with Steven Drozd (multi-instrumentalist for The Flaming Lips and Coyne’s best friend) as Major Syrtis. The major is undoubtedly the most balanced person on the Mars compound and sees the discrepancies in the colonization though doesn’t know how to interpret them. He seeks the help of his comrades to help him make sense of things, but it seems as though they are all a little panicked. Irrational even.

It is Syrtis’ first Christmas on Mars as he is the latest recruit to the compound. And no Christmas would be complete without a Santa Claus, so somewhere in the time before the film takes place, Syrtis found someone to play Santa for the Christmas celebration on Mars. Then, somewhere between choosing this Santa and about a half hour into the film, the chosen man beelines out of a main hatch and into the frozen red horizon of Mars.

In an attempt to discover why his Santa did this, Syrtis finds that his fellow crewman was suffering from the worst kind of hallucinations. Even worse, Syrtis discovers, than his own. The escape and subsequent death of his Santa was a desperate attempt to stop the hallucination.

Upon discovering the late Santa frozen still in the Martian tundra, a crewmember also meets a quiet and patient, albeit green with antennae, creature played by Wayne Coyne himself. A Martian, Coyne’s disguise is not too close to fooling anyone and after a series of investigations by the captain of the Mars colony and repetitive complaints by Syrtis that he is without a Santa, he is lumped on to Syrtis as the new Santa.

Not something he takes lightly, Syrtis tries to do the best he can to help the Martian understand the importance of Santa to people on earth.

At this point the viewer could be baffled by how Coyne sneaks the idea of the hope and generosity associated with Santa Claus and get real proud and say things like how cheesy things are becoming, but any fan of The Flaming Lips would open themselves up to that lesson. And anyone with no idea who The Flaming Lips are, will see their friends, family or whoever a little bit differently for being a fan.

The film’s Martian compound drama coincides with the birth of the first baby born on the colony since its origin. Christmas on Mars parallels the hallucinations and the desperation of these men and sets them up along the idea that there is this woman, trapped in a bubble and performing rituals and routines that seems scientific in  order to ensure the successful birth of her child.

In a way it is the Martian Nativity. Joy to the red planet.

With a set made entirely out of garbage in Coyne’s backyard, the film was a seven year long labor of love for The Flaming Lips. Finally released in 2008, there was no wide release, though you could catch it in movie houses every here and there. It seemed like anyone with a copy that had the space to accommodate was interested in showing the film. Special features on the DVD will show you the lengths the band went through to complete the film and a subsequent documentary about The Flaming Lips called Fearless Freaks shows the internal struggle of individual band members (the effect of Drozd’s heroin addiction on Coyne).

The film gets really loud and really bright and really graphic, so if you have issues with anxiety or seizures, it may be best to adjust your television sets accordingly (Coyne often gives this announcement at the beginning of a show because The Flaming Lips perform in the same manner). It is boring and interesting and shocking at moments, but worth the watch for anyone who can wrap their brains around something less than conventional.

It is no Miracle on 34th Street, but that might be even more incentive to watch.

Grade: A- (Watch it more than once , though, and not in the same day.)

Top Five Reasons to See Christmas on Mars:

1) There is no Christmas music.

2) Vagina marching bands.

3) The entire set is made of junkyard crap and filmed in Coyne’s backyard in Oklahoma City.

4) It may turn you on to The Flaming Lips (which you will never regret).

5) Adam Goldberg plays a psychologist.

A Christmas Story (1983)

by Steve Habrat

It is damn near impossible to find someone who loathes the idea of watching Bob Clark’s now classic A Christmas Story around Christmas. Unless you’re my mother, everyone else can’t get enough of young cherub-faced Ralphie’s epic quest to make sure there is a Red Ryder BB gun nestled underneath his family’s Christmas tree come the big day. For some odd reason my mother hates this film and I have never been able to figure out why. For me, I love watching it on Christmas Eve, but then again I am someone who falls head over heels for schmaltz. I remember watching this film as a kid and relating to it because who didn’t have that one gift that they were dying to find Christmas morning? The one where you anxiously tear off the paper, hands a bit shaky with anticipation, and then your eyes growing as big as saucers as you see the glorious treasure that was hidden behind Santa Clause stamped wrapping paper! It’s about the gift that makes you forget about every other gift that has your name written on it. But A Christmas Story ends up being about a little more than just getting that special gift. It’s about the trials and tribulations as a kid–swearing in front of your parents (Fudge!), getting beat up by older bullies, not paying attention in class, receiving average grades in school, dealing with siblings, etc. It touches on your father’s passive attitude about Christmas, your mother’s efforts to make sure it’s a cozy holiday with hearty food, the journey to meet Santa, and more! Even if you don’t watch it as a Christmas film, there is still something that can be cherished and reminiscent about your own childhood.

Set in 1940, in Hohman, Indiana (It was actually filmed in Cleveland, Ohio. My stomping grounds!), A Christmas Story follows young Ralphie Parker (Played by Peter Billingsley) and his adventures during the Christmas season. The film picks up with Ralphie seeing the Red Ryder BB gun in a storefront window and falling in love with rifle. He then launches a massive campaign to convince his parents, his stern mother (Played by Melinda Dillion) and his grumpy Old Man (Played by Darren McGavin) to get the gun for him for Christmas. Each attempt is met with “You’ll shoot your eye out” and disappointment for little old Ralph. But every door closed is another door opened and Ralphie takes advantage of every opportunity. Along with his little brother Randy (Played by Ian Petrella), the two Parker boys also face a terrifying visit with Santa, neighborhood bullies, a tongue getting frozen to a light post, embarrassing winter gear, flat tires, and their father’s prized lamp, all with hysterical results.

Director Clark approaches A Christmas Story with a dreamy haze that lingers through the entire movie, appearing as the flashback it is. The film is enthusiastically narrated and guided along by a much older Ralphie (Voiced by Jean Shepherd) and boy if that voice isn’t iconic now. This film is loaded with unforgettable moments, from the soap shoved into Raphie’s mouth after he drops the F-bomb to the tongue stuck to the light post that is both uproarious and pitiable. Who can forget that notorious lamp being delivered and the jubilant Old Man outside the house basking in the sensual glory? But there is also some beautiful shots in this film, from Ralphie peering out his bedroom window on to a snow covered lawn on Christmas morning, to one of the final shots of the Old Man and the mother sitting together on the couch, tree lit and watching the snow fall on to the front yard. These images look like they are ripped from 40’s Christmas cards. They are both vintage and modern, all in the same breath.

A Christmas Story wouldn’t be as popular if it wasn’t for those performances from all involved. Billingsley’s Ralphie is all starry-eyed innocence. A true product of the time he is growing up in. You can’t help but adore him. His brother Randy is a whiny little runt, one who is always pleading for the sympathy of Ralphie. Their mother is an incandescent woman, bursting with love and affection but stern when the chips are down. The Old Man is a gruff chap, one who comes down hard if the boys step out of line, but he has a heart of gold buried beneath all of his toughness. They all add up to be the face of a true old-fashioned family. There is also the rabid Scut Farcus (Played by Zack Ward) and Grover Dill (Played by Yano Anaya), the two nasties of the neighborhood. There is also the hilarious and creepy Santa Claus who bears down on children with intimidating and booming “HOOO! HOOO! HOOO!”s. He has the red nose and rosy cheeks, appearing almost too real at times.

There is a whimsical side to all the chaos in A Christmas Story, with knee-slapping fantasies that only a kid could come up with. Ralphie fantasizes that he returns to his parent’s home and has been stricken blind. Another fantasy finds him as a gun-toting cowboy picking off stereotypical black and white stripe clad burglars. As they “die” they wear black Xs over their eyes. The Wizard of Oz characters consistently pop up too, adding a much desired and achieved eeriness. Yet A Christmas Story finds the quirks in real life too. Ralphie is forced to wear an atrocious pink rabbit suit. A trio of Chinese waiters sing Christmas carols and mispronounce the “fa-la-la-la-la” parts. A bowling ball is dropped on the Old Man’s groin, sending his voice through the roof. According to Clark, the world itself and everything that happens around us is outlandish with a touch of cartoonish.

If you find yourself as one of the only people on the face of the earth who has never seen A Christmas Story, do yourself a favor and see it immediately. It has become a Holiday tradition for it to play continuously on television networks on Christmas day. My ritual, if I am able to, is to watch it on Christmas Eve, as it always really helps you get into the spirit of Christmas. In my eyes, it stands next to classics like Miracle on 34th Street, It’s A Wonderful Life (One of my all-time favorite films), The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Christmas Vacation. Perhaps my adoration of this film stems from the fact that it was filmed in the area which I hail from. Either way, the film remains a tradition every year, allowing those who see it to take a break from relentless shopping, wrapping, cooking, and decorating to reminisce about what Christmas looked like as a kid. Reminisce about a time when life was so much simpler. I think that many new viewers are not as hip to the film as many older viewers are, but the film still lives on. It lives on and replays just like our fondest Christmas memories.

Grade: A

 A Christmas Story is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.