Randy Russell is an actor and screenwriter. A purist, he will only work on actual film — American Job, The Pool, Soulmate, Modus Operandi, and the upcoming China Test Girls — so it all might end soon. His website is at rspeen.com.
Christmas, Again is a great title for a movie, or anything, really. Implying melancholy more than disgust, it could be a gentler way of saying: “Another Year, Same Old Shit.” As a rule, I avoid any movie with the word “Christmas” in the title — which is funny because my favorite movie of all time, seriously, is Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July (1940). But the crucial difference there is “July” — and the crucial thing here is that monster comma between Christmas and Again. While Christmas Again (no comma) would be Mickey Rooney in a version of Bad Santa with no sex, violence, drinking, or swearing, Christmas, Again promises something else entirely — complexity, possibly complications. That comma is like Marlon Brando sitting there; you know you’re going to get something other than what you expected, but will the return be worth the investment?
Written and directed by Charles Poekel, Christmas, Again is a month in the life of a man selling Christmas trees off a temporary lot in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Played by Kentucker Audley, Noel (pronounced like the man’s name, not what the angels sing), is a soft-spoken, pleasant young man who seems to be unhappy, and we soon learn about his temporary world. While it might seem cool to be living in the trailer on a tree lot, it’s also the job you can never leave. Noel works the night shift — 12 hours — while his friends, Nick and Robin, take care of the day, and Noel tries to sleep in the trailer amidst the city noise and light. It’s kind of a nightmarish, twilight existence; for him it’s always dark, no benefit from the sun, but never dark enough to sleep. It’s also very cold.
The naturalistic, improvised feeling of the acting reminds me of the first feature film I was involved with, Chris Smith’s American Job, in which we attempted to solve the problem of not having any actors by not having anyone act, and filming in essentially a documentary style. The actors here are actors (it’s New York, after all, where you can’t throw a rock without hitting an actor), but the feeling is that of people going about their everyday lives; much of it is the mechanics of selling Christmas trees, and the banter of retail sales. Christmas, Again was shot on film (the grain and feeling makes 16 mm, for me, the most lovely medium), often with existing light, so the contrast of the nostalgic Christmas lights, the harsh, white lights in the trailer, and the deep night shadows surrounding the lot really define the small world Noel inhabits.
Through conversations with previous years’ customers (Noel has done this five years running) we learn that a woman named Mary-Ann used to work there, and her absence seems to be at the heart of Noel’s sadness. Every time the subject of his ex comes up, the look on Noel’s face is of a knife twisting in his back. He seems disinterested in life and is just going through the motions the way people do in uninspiring jobs. He is snippy with Nick and Robin, annoyed by their ultra-coupleness. Oddly, the interactions Noel has with the women customers often seem to be sexually charged, though you can’t be certain if that is because the women are attracted to his rugged good looks, or if we are perceiving that through his point of view. Similarly, interactions with men feel passive-aggressive, sometimes bordering on abusive, even with the threat of potential violence.
I suppose, due to the universal nature of shitty jobs, I felt I could relate to much of the world depicted here, but rather than it being depressing, there is some pleasure in observing that particular weirdness, and it brought back some vivid memories. I spent several years delivering flowers on the holidays, which is more or less a pleasant job, until you encounter that person who is totally freaked out by your surprise box of roses, as if you just brought them a death threat. Late-night and third-shift work, at least for me, are the worst, and this film captures the hollowed out feeling of that twilight world that for no logical reason is tinged with fear. Just the sheer, random senselessness of it all. I once worked in a mall clothing store where two of my co-workers were named Ms. Liberty and Ms. Justice — their actual names. It should have felt like an odd, funny coincidence, but in the context of an already nightmarish world, such a thing, to me, took on the weight of a conspiracy.
Besides the gym to swim and shower, and a corner store for scratch-offs and 6-Hour Energy, the only other ritual in Noel’s life is the daily communion with his Advent calendar. I figured this was to show the slow passing of time until I realized he chased the treat each day with a swallow of water, which made me think: is there anything more depressing than the squishy, plastic water bottle with ridges on the side? That’s the kind of visceral identification this movie pulls you into. Then I realized he was talking a white pill each time. I don’t know what the pills were, but if they were intended to make him sleep, or keep him awake, or make him less depressed, they weren’t working.
While Christmas, Again‘s story is not plot heavy, something important does happen; on his shift one night Noel discovers a woman, Lydia (Hannah Gross), passed out, drunk, on a bench in a nearby park (watch out for that Goldschläger, kids, it’ll sneak up on you!) and helps her back to the trailer to sleep. This begins an uneasy series of encounters between the two. For me to elaborate here would be a disservice to the prospective viewer, but I will say that their interactions felt, to me, true, and featured that hopeless impossibility of communication between two people, when you think: why is it so hard? It felt much more like something you would experience in real life, or read in a good short story, than ever see in a romantic comedy, or any movie, really.
When I was much younger I used to think a lot about the idea of angels; not the corny Hallmark card, winged cherub variety that make you want to puke, but the more subtle, haunted version. Both are well represented — over-saturated, really — in popular culture, but the angels just keep coming. I really liked the depiction of angels in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) and the idea of a kind of practical, mundane reality to that supernatural world. But taking that further, I like the idea that there are some people who seem to be here for a reason. Whether you see them as divine beings or just good people depends, I guess, on your point of view, regarding your level of faith, disbelief or acceptance of all things as possible. Maybe what’s most important is what you bring to it, and that goes for art, too, and the way this movie plays out. I suppose some people might find it sad, even depressing and kind of tragic. Others, myself included, will see a kind of beauty in it. And, sure, why not… hope.