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Notes on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Tuesday 11/28/23

Rankin-Bass's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was on CBS last night. In my life, I've rarely missed seeing Rudolph "live" in primetime, no matter what else has been going on. I texted my sister last night that it was airing so that she could alert the kids, but I'm not sure how enthusiastic they are about it. Figured I'd set down a few thoughts. I've written about this special various times in these pages and been interviewed about it over the years, so I don't want to repeat what's already out there.

I was quite young--probably eight-years-old or so--when I realized that the special had these other elements about being African American and gay. Hermey the elf is clearly meant to be a gay character, and there's a gay subtext throughout: Fireball, different poses you see the characters in--think of when we encounter a more physical mature Rudolph taking a drink from that Arctic spring.

The racial subtext was quite plain to me when Clarice's dad practically spat out the words that he wouldn't let his daughter go out with a red-nosed reindeer. I understood that he really meant a Black guy. (Just as Chuck Berry did in "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.") I know this wasn't why the special was made, but it was 1964, and the themes of the Civil Rights Movement were in evidence. It struck me as a bold choice, that this was a special trying to do right. It was on the side of the just. It's that feeling that gives the special the resonance it has beyond Christmas. You don't get much in the way of worldly, relevant themes from Rankin-Bass, but you did with this one, the same as you would with A Charlie Brown Christmas the following year.

I don't think Rudolph gets enough credit for this, in part because we infantilize everything now. I saw yesterday where Tim Allen had gotten in trouble because he said that your pets don't love you. They don't. Love is complicatedly human. It's a human force, power. It requires recognition, sacrifice, and a variety of choices. It's not a feeling. Love requires free will and then acting upon that will with purpose and devotion. Love is not by accident, by habit, or by instinct; humans do not have instincts. You have free will, and as much as anything, love is a choice. It requires a conscious choice to open one's self up to another in a concentrated giving over to that other person for their growth and well-being, which in turn abets your growth and well-being. Love requires vulnerability. Actively choosing to be vulnerable. It requires empathy. Empathy requires imagination. You are going into the life of another. That's more than witnessing their life or being around them; you are going into their life--into them. Love is rare. Actual love.

Without choice, without empathy, without free will, without active, conscious purpose, without vulnerability, without risk--because love puts heart and soul on the line--you don't have love. You can have all kinds of great, wonderful things. You can have connection, fealty, affection, devotion. An animals can have degrees of these things for us. And vice versa. But love? Love is something else, and that's good. That's not to reduce the value of a human-animal relationship. To be able to love and truly be loved, takes our most human parts. Unfortunately, they are parts that we now often disavow, turn our backs on, and destroy out of fear, insecurity, our terror of self-knowledge, with that knowledge being another requirement of love.

I read some comments, and what they conveyed to me is not only how little love there in this world, but how so few people are capable of giving or receiving love. It's not a bad thing that your dog doesn't actually love you, because love is so far beyond that. Which is not to knock dogs or having a dog or caring about your dog. Love is on a different plane, though. It is part of the best of what a human might be. A human. People are very reductionist. More and more so. Look at what happens when they discuss the Beatles. There's never any intelligence, any understanding of how the art functions, and little interest in that. It's cheerleading. Nostalgia. Cliches. Weightlessness. It's depth-less. Look at how people discuss athletes. It's like they're stuffed animals. We turn everything into dolls. We reduce our own humanness in actuality, and we reduce the humanness around us in the terms of how we choose to see it. Or not see it, for myriad reasons.

I'm actually a member of these various Christmas and Rankin-Bass specials Facebook groups, and the comments are unilaterally embarrassing. It's hard to believe they're from adults, in theory, but then again, very easy to believe if you read any comments from adults in what this world has become, with all of its quasi-illiterate, broken people. Infantile adults. Regressive adults perpetually seeking to return to the womb by way of what they were at five-years-old, but when they were five, they had imagination, they were on the way up, they were growing each day. Growing up each day. You could say they were at a higher point than most are now, at twenty-six, thirty-eight, sixty. You picture people sitting there sucking their thumbs when you read--or try to--what they wrote, and you wonder how they got out of second grade. They're not seeing anything in the special. What the special really offers is lost on them. It's more like this calming, lulling, torpor-inducing amniotic fluid to them.

But as a Christmas TV special sort of for children--because it can work as well for an adult--I thought Rudolph was cutting-edge. I've watched Rudolph and listened to Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity--from that same year of 1964--back-to-back and that made a kind of sense to me.

One of the worst viewing experiences I've ever had in the cinema--and the worst with something I actually like--was a few years ago at the Brattle in Cambridge when they screened Rudolph. It was Woke robots jeering the screen, on the hunt for anything that they didn't now deem socially acceptable. Like when it's time to get the "women-folk" back to Christmas town. It was how people talked in frontier-type art and entertainment. Rudolph borrows a certain Western iconography--I don't mean Western hemisphere, but rather the movie genre.

Yukon Cornelius, for instance, could have come out of an Anthony Mann film. But this also speaks to how uneducated people like that always are. Harvard means nothing. Chances are if you go to a school like that you're even less educated in the ways that matter than the man on the street. The dumbest people I've ever known--I mean, hell, look at these Everything wrong with publishing posts--are from backgrounds like that, and there isn't an objective third party who is going to be like, "Wow, they're smart, I'm intimidated by their intelligence."

Any familiarity with the Western, be it in film, literature, or television, would tip you off to some of Rudolph's vernacular, its verbal mise-en-scene. In parts. Because it's an amalgam. That amalgamation was a staple of the Rankin-Bass universe. It occupies this place out of time, out of geography. The newsreel footage--which is very Citizen Kane--at the start of Rudolph is almost incongruous now. I say almost, because it still works; they blend it in, and that's because that footage likes like newsprint come to life, which is itself a magical concept. You could see Hans Christian Anderson favoring it.

But we don't get a lot of the present day in any of the other specials. Same with the Hammer universe. Where are we? When are we? The Universal monster films are similar. It's like when all of a sudden there's a phone in a Frankenstein picture. Your sense is that it's not really there. It's not contemporaneous. More like it manifested itself, magically, so this part of plot could be handled conveniently, without having to wait three weeks for a letter to be delivered while we all wait back at the old watchtower laboratory, and then, puff, the device is gone again, with no one in the picture remembering it was ever there or realizing it had been invented.

I'd say that a nineteenth century setting is most discernible as a Rankin-Bass rule, but there are exceptions. When we get those exceptions, though, they also feel cut-away from the here and now. Any here and now. A past here and now, if that makes sense. Rankin-Bass is a step to the side of chronological reality. They are ahistorical works of the part of imagination concerned with sourcing wonder to move closer to joy. When they are at their best, I mean.

I'm not talking Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (1979), which still is fun. I watched part of it yesterday, to be honest. But again, I like that Rankin-Bass aesthetic. I like Rankin-Bass architecture. There's a building near the Bunker Hill Monument that could have inspired a building in 1974's 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, which is actually my favorite Rankin-Bass special, though it's not that "good." What it is is super tuneful ("Even a Miracle Needs a Hand"), and it's almost niche Rankin-Bass, a work for the Rankin-Bass devotee beyond the obvious ones like Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, and, to a degree, The Year Without a Santa Claus because it's always on and the Miser brothers have aged well with a certain type of pop culture buff who likes less-likely-than-usual references to obscure things that really weren't that obscure which they grew up seeing a lot of in the 1970s and 1980s (and which became the entire basis for Family Guy).

The cut of Rudolph that CBS airs isn't complete. It omits a short scene near the end with just Yukon Cornelius and Hermey that I like, which slows down the rush to the finish just the right amount, and gives the special better pacing. You'll see it in the version that Freeform--I think that's the station--airs many times in the lead up to Christmas, and it's on the Blu-ray.

I'm not sure how long the special will be around as this staple of the season, or how kids respond to it today. I suspect that its staying power now has a lot to do with adults who want nostalgia. As I've said many times, I hate nostalgia. I hate looking back if it doesn't help take me forward. Looking back for looking back's sake. I think it rots your brain and your soul. And there's probably already plenty doing that. Nostalgia disgusts me, bores me, and seems to me contradictory to the point, the challenges, the task of being alive, of being human. A human moves forward. Always. An artist moves forward. Always. A real one, that is. Today is always more important than yesterday and tomorrow will be more important than today. What will you make next? The same as a human must live as though they are repeatedly asking themselves, "How will I be better at living tomorrow?"

But the only commentary I encounter about Rudolph is some older person saying how it takes them back. They feel warm and safe when they watch it, etc. Kids raised on what to me is the inauthentic look of computer-generated visual effects may well look at Rudolph as some antique. I think it looks so very believable as this depiction of this make-believe place, this corner of your imagination brought to externally viewable life. I'm pretty sure that what we imagine, the stuff of our creative dreams--and we all have them, to some degree--doesn't look like what I see with Marvel movies and the like. I think they're much more organic, authentic...touchable. Somatic. We can run our hand over them and feel the grains atop the canvas. That's definitely Rudolph; just watching those felt-like trees I can nearly feel them.

Santa is usually a moody, judgmental bastard in the Rankin-Bass universe. He's always bitching about something, and he needs to be appeased--as with 'Twas the Night Before Christmas--like he's some god demanding tribute with this over-inflated self worth. For instance, when it's snowing too hard for him to deliver the toys that year (Rudolph), or he doesn't feel like getting out of bed because he heard one unfavorable remark about him from some gadfly (The Year Without a Santa Claus), he always says that Christmas is canceled. It's off. Because he won't be delivering toys. Christmas starts and ends with Santa for the prevailing version of the Rankin-Bass St. Nicholas (the Santa of Frosty being a heartening exception). Charlie Brown would be appalled. It's more than the toys, mate. We are supposed to be conscious at this time of the year that it's our duty to be people of service who look out for the well-being of others, our fellow humans. We're supposed to be aware of this every day of our lives, but Christmas doubles as the cram session before the exam, when we're all meant to review the material of the class up until then. And maybe we'll do better next year, but probably not, though. At which point, Christmas will come around again with its reminder.

The cottage our three heroes stay in--until Rudolph lights out in the night--reminds me of a Cape Cod abode near the sea, but at the North Pole.

I sympathize with Yukon Cornelius when he's at the Island of Misfit Toys and the toys all start singing. You know he's like, "What the f--- am I doing here? They're going to sing now? What am I supposed to do while that's happening?" Comet as the gym teacher--that's really what he is--is spot on. He answers his own questions, which is such a gym teacher thing to do. "Right? Right."

And obviously Rudolph's take-off scene--"I'm cute, I'm cute"--is meant to be this reindeer orgasm thing. Just keep going up then coming down then going up again--spurting. It's orgastic in spirit, I should say. But you know what this is as you watch it, if you're watching it as anything more than the holiday special version of whatever it once meant to you to climb into those footie pajamas after you finally set aside the Sears catalogue. Which is fine, too. Just limiting.


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