Since we are isolated and stuck inside during this Christmas season, I decided this year I was going to put together a list of of my favorite Christmas stories. The angle I took in putting this together is Christmas “pairings”, be it in book form or film. These are stories that seem to me to have a connection in spirit and focus, and which have inspired me over the years.
I have come up with 15 pairings of films/books in total, and my plan is to present those films one a day along with a brief reflection on why these stories resonated for me, how I see them fitting together, and what I think they can say to us in a more difficult Christmas season.
Here is my fourteenth pairing 🙂
ELF (2003) and LOST LOST LOST (1976)
These two films definitely could not be further apart. One is a more recent and highly popular American Classic featuring Will Ferrell, while the other is an immigrant born and bred, and very lengthy experimental documentary from someone who is described as a “poet and hero of the American counter-culture”. Given how Director Mekas, a Lithuanian exile forced from his land by Nazi and Soviety invasions, is said to have invented the “diary form” of filmmaking, I recognize that it is highly unlikely that these two films would cater to the same audience, but if you can go with me on this one for a moment, I think there are some powerful, overlapping themes to pull from both stories.
Lost Lost Lost is a 1976 film that is the product of 14 years of filming and captures Mekas journey from Lithuania to New York City as a “displaced refugee”. In speaking of this film, the director suggested that,
“The period I am dealing with in these six reels was a period of desperation, of attempts to desperately grow roots into the new ground, create new memories. In these six painful reels I tried to indicate how it feels to be an exile, how I felt in those years. They describe the mood of a Displaced Person who hasn’t yet forgotten his native country but hasn’t yet gained a new one. The sixth reel is a transitional reel where we begin to see some relaxation, where I begin to find moments of happiness. New life begins…”
The sole critic to review the film on Rotten Tomatos describes it this way:
A photographic Homer of his own odyssey, Mekas journeys — like us all — in irrevocable exile from his own past, attempting to reconstruct that invisible nation of youth to which he can never return.
– Ed Halter
In the film Elf, a film that holds an important place in my own story, we follow a young man (played by Ferrell) who found himself estranged from his family as a baby and taken in by Santa and his elves, who upon learning of his true identity embarks from the North Pole, the only home he has ever known, to New York City in order to track down his birth father. In a sense you have a picture here of a double exile, first by his abandonment which takes him away from his home in New York, and in a secondary sense the abandonment of his adopted home to return to somewhere now unfamiliar and reconnect with his birth father.
It’s not simply that these two films share the backdrop of New York City in common, it’s that they equally capture a picture of someone exiled from the home they know and forced to contend with an unfamiliar landscape and culture. The bombastic and deeply funny nature of Elf meets with the serious study of Lost Lost Lost, if from differing perpsectives and contexts, giving us this portrait of two individuals encountering this foreign culture and looking to create equally counter-cultural experiences.
What is also shared in common within these two narratives is this idea of holding both “homes”, the homeland and the land of exile, in relationship and in view. For Mekas, he is looking to capture the landscape of this new home while also holding his memory and awarness and present attachment to his homeland firmly in view. In Elf, we see him looking to connect both worlds as equal parts of hiimself, with the final images in the film being of this shared space. Being caught in the middle, this kind of feeling of lostness that we find in both films, is powerfully brought to light through the idea of relationship. This becomes the lens through which to locate a place to belong, to exist and co-exist with this lostness as a part of our forming experience. And out of the tragedy and devastation can grow something beautiful.
The reason why Elf is such an important film in my own life is two fold. First, it was the first date I went on with my now wife and then girlfriend. Elf became a touchstone for us, as eventually did our mutual love and appreciation for New York City which is where we went on our honeymoon and also where we returned five years later on our anniversary over Christmas time. We had the chance to see the musical stage production of Elf at this time and relive some of that wonderful connection. There is a bit of irony at play here two in that Lost Lost Lost released in 1976 barely a month after I was born.
The other reason it is so important is the parallel thread of Ferrell’s character embarking on this unfamiliar journey and finding this releationship with this wonderful young woman named Jovi (whom we always said, if we had been able to have blood born birth children we would have named her Jovie if she had been a girl). Two individuals who couldn’t seem to be further apart but whom share a desire to recapture that familiar childhood spirit that Christmas tends to evoke. A need to reclaim that lost sense of wonder and reconcile the tension that life often represents through its darker edges.
Before I met my (now) wife, I had actually recently moved out of home, embarking on my own sense of adventure while also dealing with some incredibly weighty stuff. Some of the darkest points of my life in fact. To say I was lost in the middle of the only home I had known and this new home I had inherited would be an understatement. And yet in my own journey of trying to reclaim that lost sense of wonder, this beautiful and amazing young woman, this adorable and deeply charming Christmas classic, and eventually the overwhelming biggness of driving up to that New York City skyline for the first time awakened me to a new sense of life.