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Seasonal Pageantry from Philadelphia: Christmas Dreams

Christmas 01

By Elias Savada.

Christmas comes but once a year, but folks who like the holiday’s sweet joy and heartfelt message might take a look at Christmas Dreams anytime they’re down and weary. It’s a surprisingly simple spiritual picker-upper that takes The Little Drummer Boy and The Nutcracker Princess, two public domain characters that Disney can’t sue Philadelphia filmmaker and Film International contributor Andrew Repasky McElhinney for copyright infringement, and tells separate dream stories about each, before fading out with a rainbow-colored, lift-me-up meet-up of the two youngsters. Conrad Sager and Francesca Flamminio, who portray them, are surrounded by an ensemble of local talent. They are pleasant pawns here, swirling about the fake snow and CGI effects that liven up this small, seasonal treat. America’s religious heartland should respond with small doses of appreciation.

Technically there are four stories (there is also more than one version of the film – more on that in a minute), as the boy and the girl each have present-day tales from which their dreams arise. It’s as familiar to anyone who has watched the classic It’s a Wonderful Life. The boy’s life starts the film out with the recognizable “pa rum pum pum pum” as the child taps away on a few wooden crates along a dirt path. The background of pristine white snow, European-style chalets, and majestic mountains greet a winter-attired, ethnically assorted group of carolers as they swing in harmony to the movie’s non-stop soundtrack. Smiles as big as snowballs adorn their faces.

Christmas 02The boy is a member of a poor, working-class family, whose father, angered by a letter, bangs a shovel about the falling snow, before popping his son’s toy drum skin with a clenched fist. The score, often picking up a dynamic pop intensity, follows the lad furiously shoveling the snow, without much direction, but definitely sticking to the beat. Exhaustion quickly sets in; he tumbles into bed, and his dream-vision begins. Obviously, the lad has a somewhat hard luck life.

Half a film later the pretty girl’s tale arrives. She lives in a large mansion with her abundantly wealthy, interracial family, including a bedeviling younger brother (Daniel Venini), as they prepare for a lavish, formal holiday party. The set is more interesting here. All the walls are light blue, the floor has large, alternating black and white square tiles, aching for a set of human chess pieces. The wait staff has precisely arranged pink ties and cummerbunds. The dancing flows with a homespun cheer that infuses the entire film, although the camera now adores watching from above, as the actor-dancers spin about. The girl, who drinks champagne and immediately falls asleep, finds her dream state emerging via a spirit emerging from her unconscious body.

For the most part, the same ensemble flows through both fantasies. The Drummer Boy gains a backup band/comedy troupe (Vinny Celeiro, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Greg Giovanni), who play their love-to-prance-and-dance roles filled with hammy expressions and whimsical reaction as they move from one sketch to the next. The Nutcracker girl’s scenes are shaped with some semblance of a plot that revolves around she and her younger brother chasing one another.

Christmas 03In The Drummer Boy fantasy segment, the mild adventures are clean-cut and candy-coated. Electric, glow-in-the-dark dancing robots (with sunglasses) entertain a crowd at a winter flea market. The three back-up-band members morph into mariachi attire and find themselves frolicking on warm, sandy Parrot Beach as The Three Amigos, where the cast now dances in skimpier, yet still family friendly, swimsuits. McElhinney also takes a brief stab at the capitalistic economics of the holiday. Santa makes a cameo appearance.

The Nutcracker dream commences at midnight in the girl’s now eerily quiet home, with guests askew and masquerading as castoffs from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Definitely the darker side of the film, especially as her younger sibling takes ax whacks to the Christmas tree. To the rescue comes a man with a gift – a wooden drummer boy doll (further tying the story elements together).

With not a word spoken on the soundtrack – a continuous flow of Christmas tunes – Christmas Dreams is a wordless experience swayed by endless choreography performed by its cast. The film was shot in 2012 with barebones props set against a green-screen backdrop, before the filmmaker and his techies turned it from caterpillar to butterfly with three-plus years of effects work that would fill in the film’s bright, colorful, festive overlay. The music is buoyantly arranged by Michael Rapp, one of the producers and authors (along with McElhinney, choreographer Jenn Rose, and Kim Lenny).

This is also not the film currently available on iTunes and Amazon Video ($14.99 buy/$4.99 rent), at Walmart ($16.59) or from http://christmasdreamsthemovie.com ($14.95), a website set up by the film’s producers. The version of the film I caught is not yet available to the general public. It’s McElhinney’s 77-minute director’s cut, which will first be offered up at a retrospective of his films at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art, where most of his oeuvre is preserved.

Christmas 04McElhinney shot this as a silent film; it feels edited together like chapters from the passion play films that were among the first compiled “features” in cinema history. In fact, there aren’t even intertitles proclaiming what the actors might be saying. For the most part this works, although, at times, the imagery only causes some confusion when trying to follow the miniscule plotlines.

The version being offered for sale (it came out around last November) was created by one of the film’s producers, and presumably follows the director’s version, although it runs 3 minutes longer and and enlists TV’s Hercules Kevin Sorbo, a devout Christian, as a narrator. I suspect his part in the film (which I have not viewed) builds up the film’s religious dimension (minimal in McElhinney’s edition, which contains a brief manger scene with the three wise men played by the back-up band members). Sorbo sells it from his website for a not very magnanimous $30.

With no dialogue to guide the viewer, attention to costume, makeup, and actor interaction is tantamount to understanding the film’s flow. I can’t say I follow what’s behind McElhinney’s occasionally hallucinogenic vision (Cossacks dancing on a lunar landscape; gingerbread men marching in the snow, or the Nutcracker girl roller blading on an ice pond surrounded by fir trees adorned with brightly colored guitar and horn needles). The action itself often feels improvised and nonsensical, especially when the head of the drummer boy doll is pulled from its body by the girl’s brother. What looks like a rugby scrimmage ensues, followed by an appearance by a higher spirit. With irreverent nods to Busby Berkeley one minute and to Rocky Horror Picture Show the next, this is a truly strange and wondrous salute to Christmas.

In memory of film editor Ron Kalish (1942-2018).

Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).

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