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Rudolph: The book?

Sunday 12/24/23

I've decided that a book I'll be doing is about the 1964 Rankin-Bass special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which will be insightful and smart and funny and totally different and timely and timeless, and somewhat memoiristic in parts. I've watched this TV film hundreds of times in my life. I've watched it at the very lowest points of a life. I've written about it, been interviewed about it.

There's a depth in it--I'm being serious now--that I don't think has ever been discussed as it ought to be. It's as much about the Civil Rights movement and gay activism as anything. And, really, finding yourself. And not being kept from finding yourself. No matter who you are, what you are, how you're oriented.

I'll set it within the context of the strange, often hilarious, and weird Rankin-Bass universe. But there is nothing in that universe like Rudolph. Here's what I believe happened: Rankin and Bass made this first special in 1964, and they thought this would be their thing. There it is, that's what we made. What we had to say.

But then they got other chances and this full-blown career after they did another Christmas special with 1969's Frosty the Snowman. So that was five years later. They became--they got to become, I should say--these purveyors of Christmas memories--even memories that hadn't happened (neat trick, that)--and magic. Rekindlers of the holiday spirit.

But Rudolph was different. It's shocking now how gay this was, if you will, for a television program at the time. Fireball. Hermey the gay elf licking Rudolph's face. Rudolph all but modeling his ass for the viewer as he drinks out of a pond. The giant toothless mouth all ready to go. Look where Hermey stands after pulling out the Abominable's teeth.

It really is a work of equal rights and advocacy. Think about the scene after Rudolph is booted from the reindeer games. Clarice sings him her song about how tomorrow can be better--bit of woman-splaining there, but whatever, Rudolph submits to the lesson (or at least keeps his mouth shut)--and then Clarice's dad shows up to say that no daughter of his will be going around with a...with a...

You know what he wants to say. He wants to say the n-word. Or at the very least, "a Black guy."

There's a lot happening. You have bullying, discrimination, poor parenting, abuse of authority. Overcoming these things. Being handicapped outside and in. Depression. A mise-en-scene that influenced the cover art of Radiohead's Kid A. We get a terrifying flying lion and a nod to C.S. Lewis. A Socratic talking snowman. Sacrifice. Forgiveness. Redemption. Strength.

And bangin' tunes. What song better typifies Christmas from the TV era on than when Burl Ives, in that special, launches into "Holly Jolly Christmas"? That is the Christmas stuff right there. And look at "We're a Couple of Misfits"--it's a punk song, isn't it? Rudolph and Hermey were badass punks. They were like the Clash of Animagic. Instead of London's burning!!! we have North Pole is getting shook up!!!!!

Good for them--and they're great friends. The whole special is a lesson in the importance and duties of friendship.

The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) is pretty solid--especially the lengthy sequence with the Miser brothers and then their mother--as is Frosty, but man, Rankin-Bass specials were loopy, as I've written before. The Easter ones, too. Rudolph stands apart. They were doing something else with that one. At every level--script, execution, music. It was governed by a different approach, different rules, different techniques, and artistically it produced different results. It's the only Rankin-Bass special that I think you can honestly say is real art.

Some thoughts from watching it again the other night:

Santa: What a dick. Kid is born, and Santa shows up, trashes him, trashes his parents for creating him. (But then, curiously, sings one of the best, happiest, most addictive songs in the Rankin-Bass universe.) Later, at elf practice, having heard the elves' new song, which is this fawning tribute to their overlord that is expected of them as due course, Santa says it sucks so dismissively that he's halfway out the door before he's finished with the words. Towards the end, he only looks at Rudolph in terms of how useful he might prove to him. Life lesson right there.

The Bronx accents.

The playground as hell-space.

Jock v. nerd culture and the bringing together of people.

Does any "light" holiday special better capture what it looks and sounds like for someone to be bullied? There's so much hidden away--but also in plain view--with this special. Rudolph is ganged up on and driven away. He's alone for what we're led to believe is a long time. He could be suicidal. And yet, he doesn't lose himself--rather, he becomes someone who is an example for others.

Rudolph, incidentally, is like a week old and he's looking to hook up.

Some might say that Yukon Cornelius needs to chill, but he has passion. Do you? And it's not so much silver and gold that he loves, but the search, the quest. Yukon's search for meaning and fulfillment.

This is for kids--with a wink and a nudge, because it's also so meant for adults--but you have Sam Snowman using the word--and brilliantly at that, with his delivery--"nonconformity." He's trying to be sensitive to people's feelings. That's such a witty moment, just as when he says, "Ah, youth"--it's all in the cadence of that knowing tone, and the juxtaposition with what we've just witnessed--is such a wise moment.

The thing is, almost all books suck and have to be stupid. Or that's what publishing people think. So if you had some mindless book of canned factoids, some "whatever, you're not really saying all that much" quotes from people who worked on the special, and pictures from the special, which would mean nothing and couldn't mean anything to anyone, you'd be good to go, but if you want to do something smart and funny and different and deep and accessible and clever and rich, something that could become beloved, discussed, shared, given as a cool gift, with a super high word of mouth quotient, publishing people are far, far, far less likely to put all or any of that together, because they're simple and visionless and it's always about slapping out the same old shit that people forget two seconds after experiencing it if you can even accurately say they experience it at all. But you could really have something and do something with this book from this guy.

So I'm going to do it. Hell, if I had someone to do it with right now, it could even come out next year for the sixtieth anniversary, because I'd get it done fast.


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