Saturday, December 31, 2005

Prelude to a Top Ten List

If there's one thing regular readers of this blog know to expect from me, it's a certain degree of procrastination. I'm compiling a list of best films of the year, many of which are a tad obscure, but I refuse to issue a final top ten until I've seen Munich, Syriana, Pride and Prejudice and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was on my top-ten list last year.)

However, I doubt these films will shake my rankings up too much. Syriana is standard Hollywood agitprop from George Clooney and the Steven Soderbergh production factory, while Munich is almost certainly an anti-Israeli polemic from Angels in America author Tony Kushner. Since I'm familiar with Kushner's oeuvre (and have seen way too much of it onstage), it's practically a given that I won't care for Munich. But with Steven Spielberg directing, can it really be as bad as all that? (I fear, gentle reader, that I shall soon find it can.)

The best new releases I saw this year were predominantly human stories, with politics either eliminated or shunted off to the background. Brokeback Mountain is the best new American film I've seen this year; Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation is easily the best romantic comedy in years. Alas, the Bujalski film still hasn't found a distributor. I've written on both films this week. The Brokeback post got quite a bit of attention, naturally; Mutual Appreciation seems to have received much less.

The best mainstream release that hardly anyone saw was Roman Polanski's brilliant Oliver Twist, a film which substituted Dickens's Victorian optimism for the deep, perverse pessimism of Chinatown. I'll write more about this film when it comes out on video, but for now I'll say that it may be the bleakest children's movie ever made.

Rodrigo Garcia's largely unseen (and unreleased) Nine Lives will also make my top ten, and I look forward to explaining the reason very soon -- as well as why the vast majority of Americans will miss something very special by not having the chance to see the film on an actual movie screen.

Murderball is the most obvious choice for the year's top documentary. March of the Penguins, however, will not make my top-ten list: I found the picture a deadly dull slog -- like one of those old "Disney True-Life Adventures," only without Uncle Walt's knack for storytelling. On the whole, the documentaries were the most wildly uneven offerings of a wildly uneven year. For every Murderball or Untold Story of Emmett Till (not a great film, but a fascinating one), we had at least two three-month anti-corporate hack jobs like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room or Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices. (To be fair, the Wal-Mart film was actually closer to a five-month hack job.)

I doubt Capote will make my cut. Philip Seymour Hoffman seems a bit ursine to play the elfin author, though director Bennett Miller ingeniously compensates by shooting Hoffman at a slight low angle and to the side (essentially the same way you see Hoffman in all the promo art). Dan Futterman's screenplay about the writing of In Cold Blood strikes me as quite good on a technical level, but Miller's direction is far too mannered for a story so grim and tawdry. When four people are murdered, two others are executed, a town is traumatized and a famous author loses his mind, one expects to feel some emotional impact; Capote, however, remains as serene and glassy as a mountain lake. Compared to Richard Brooks's hard-boiled adaptation of In Cold Blood, this comes across as In Cold Bloodless.

It is not, however, the most overrated film of the year: George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck snags that honor. Sure, the black-and-white photography is sharp, the compositions are flawless, and the faces of Edward Straithairn and Frank Langella look like they were carved out of mountains. But what good is any of that if your story generates no suspense? I tend to see Good Night as a Sunday-school lesson for left-wingers, and if you're inclined to worship at the church of Edward R. Murrow, by all means don't let me stop you. For me, the film's best parts were the jazz songs by Dianne Reeves -- and I'd say it's a pretty sorry drama when the Greek chorus steals the show.

Peter Jackson's King Kong is a massive cinematic hemhorrage, a failure so complete that I've found myself wondering if those Lord of the Rings movies were really the masterpieces I thought they were. They are, I suspect, but in future I'll have to qualify my praise. Suffice it to say that Peter Jackson's resemblance to D.W. Griffith may not be limited to the epic scope of his battle scenes, or his ability to craft crowd-pleasing blockbuster entertainments. There is also that little matter of race.

Like fellow blogger Rick Sincere, I must confess that the best films I saw this year were in repertory. I can't share his passion for George Cukor's unimaginative adaptation of My Fair Lady, but I'll gladly second the other old movies on his list. I have a few additional candidates: Marcel Ophuls's 1994 The Troubles We've Seen (Veillees d'armes) is a four-hour ramble through a war-ravaged Sarajevo which displays the shortcomings of the French media as thoroughly and savagely as The Sorrow and the Pity exposed French "resistance" during World War Two. And then there was Gille Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, a landmark film by any standard. I'm glad to have seen it on a screen, where Pontecorvo's ideological sympathy with Algerian suicide bombers is all too easily discernible.

Still, the best repertory films I saw in a cinema this year were Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight and Antonioni's The Passenger. I think more of Chimes every time I see it; I may eventually give it precedence over Citizen Kane as the definitive statement of Wellesian aesthetics. (It's interesting to think of Chimes as Welles's "Vietnam" movie -- the timing was right for it, and the Henry IV plays certainly have strong political overtones.) The 1975 film The Passenger, starring Jack Nicholson in his prime, is a very different sort of film, more overt in its postcolonial politics and at least at the beginning a sort of anti-Lawrence of Arabia. As with most of Antonioni's best work, what happens plotwise and what actually happens onscreen are two entirely different things. Still, The Passenger contains a few scenes of unusually straightforward satire, especially in its portrait of British and American media, and is slightly less "difficult" than something like L'Avventura (though it may be less rewarding as well).

Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Santa Wars

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus -- and may God help you if you dare say otherwise.

In honor of my recent, soul-crushingly Straussian post "Santa and Me: A Christmas Buzzkill," a loyal reader has sent me the link to this story from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, about a substitute music teacher who insisted on being truthful to the children under her care, no matter the cost. She told them that Santa Claus doesn't exist as such, that he's a mythical figure based on a Christian saint who died in the mid fourth century A.D., and that parents, not Santa, buy Christmas gifts for children.

Had she lived in another age, perhaps, this substitute teacher might be praised for sticking to her principles -- as John Scopes of the "Scopes Monkey Trial" is, for instance. Unfortunately, this teacher happens to live in our own age, and so the local Lebanon Daily News has characterized her factually impeccable Christmas lesson as "Grinchy."

The money quote, so to speak, comes from the district superintendent:

“We do not have a Santa Claus policy,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, but I really can’t say anything about it.”

Which raises an obvious question: How could the lack of a Santa Claus policy be "unfortunate"? If little boys and girls should return from school in tears because they've been told Santa is a myth, an official district policy can't dry their eyes, wipe their runny noses, or soothe their jangled nerves. Believing that it can is as absurd as thinking that a fat, red-suited man lives at the North Pole and circles the world once a year in his magical red sleigh. Yet an abiding faith in the "Policy Clause" is all too common among public school administrators, who contend that they can exercise a positive influence in the classroom simply by tying their teachers' hands.

Can you doubt, gentle reader, that the Lebanon School District will implement a "Santa Claus policy" before another Christmas comes around? Or that other districts will follow suit?

Believe -- or else.

Mutual Appreciation

The best comedy of 2005 probably won't be coming to a theater near you -- and this, gentle reader, is entirely your loss. Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation is an observational comedy in the style of John Cassavetes, but it accomplishes what Cassavetes never could: It's hilarious.

Mutual Appreciation is only Bujalski's second film. His first was the critically acclaimed but seldom seen Funny Ha Ha, now out on DVD and well worth a rental or purchase. Both films announce the arrival of a distinctive new filmmaker in the best "indie" tradition: Funny Ha Ha is a disarmingly frank, slightly aloof character study of a woman who just might be clinically depressed and borderline-alcoholic (though as I recall, the "d" and "a" words are never uttered in the film), while Mutual chronicles the slow decline of a rock-singer wannabe with no visible (or invisible) means of support. Bujalski describes Mutual as the "male" counterpart to Funny, not only because its protagonist is a young man, but because the film takes a decidedly less sympathetic view of his plight.

It displays the difference between style and sensibility; Bujalski draws inspiration from a number of different sources, but the end product is unmistakably his. His 16mm black-and-white film stock and jittery hand-held camerawork are reminiscent of Cassavetes' Faces, while his rock-performance scenes suggest an even grittier, lower-rent version of A Hard Day's Night. But Bujalski deploys his ultra-New Wave style to a decidedly twenty-first century end. In Bujalski's world, soaring costs of living have rendered the artsy bohemianism of Cassavetes' characters economically unsustainable. His characters are deeply ironic and anti-emotional -- more comfortable with wisecracks than personal revelations, perhaps, but not especially adept at either.

This is not to say that Bujalski's films lack dramatic impact: The ending of Mutual Appreciation is nothing short of devastating. But Bujalski's films are designed to hit audiences in a different place and manner than his stylistic predecessors do.

So far, Bujalski's subject in Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation has been the anomalous personal, social and class status of college-educated young people. His characters are trapped in dead-end temporary jobs, aspiring to a social mobility that fails to materialize. Older people are seldom seen except as parents or instructors -- and in both cases, they don't seem particularly interested in a rising generation that never manages to rise. Without pressing the point too much, Bujalski has infused verite technique with an almost undetectable social consciousness -- and in Mutual Appreciation, he adds a new element, by examining the endangered state of American manhood in a post-feminist age.

Maureen Dowd named her most recent book Are Men Necessary?, a title which one imagines could also apply to Mutual Appreciation. But where Dowd's question seems merely rhetorical -- the answer, as David Spade would say, is always no -- Bujalski seems genuinely concerned about men. Certainly the protagonist of his film (played by Justin Rice) would qualify as "unnecessary." With American Idol aspirations but only a modicum of talent, looks and business savvy, he's the sort of guy who would fit in perfectly with the second-rate artistes and lost souls of a pre-gentrified Greenwich Village. This may not necessarily be a good thing: In a party scene roughly midway through the film, Bujalski skewers an aging hipster turned wealthy poseur, suggesting that he doesn't care about his twentysomething companions beyond what he can get out of them (mainly sex).

However, the film suggests that its other male protagonist, a well-intentioned if slightly drab teaching assistant, may be no more necessary. This character -- played by Bujalski with a deceptively natural comic touch -- abides by the rules of manhood, chivalrously deferring to the women in his midst. He's the sort of guy who holds doors, treats female students with respect, and even volunteers for feminist causes. Most of all, he offers his girlfriend unwavering love and emotional support. That she will betray him is all but a given, but the casual manner in which she does so seems almost unforgivable. Still, the film reserves judgment on its characters: It refuses to pontificate.

And to be fair, the women of Mutual Appreciation are not deliberately cruel: They simply don't know what to do with the men in their lives. They don't require them for financial support, and in any case the young men they know are unable to provide it. Since these women also seem unwilling to accomodate the emotional needs of men in a relationship, they simply use the male of the species as a sex toy or a party favor. (Not coincidentally, this was the way men once treated women, back when they wondered if women were necessary.) In one extended scene, several women dress Justin Rice in drag, then laugh at him. Rice's reaction is surprisingly nonchalant. The spectacle inspires deep discomfort, not just because of the ways the scene calls gender roles into question, but because every character in the film -- male and female -- seem to believe that young women are somehow entitled to treat men in this manner. What is missing from the heterosexual equation, Bujalski subtly suggests, is mutual appreciation across gender lines.

I know I'm making the film sound like late-period Ingmar Bergman, but it's not. Mutual Appreciation is a very funny movie; Justin Rice spins comic gold out of his character's terminal cluelessness, and all of the actors avoid even the slightest hint of theatricality. A throwaway line about how snorting cocaine can help you "clean up the apartment in, like, two hours" leaves audiences in stitches, and it's not even the film's best joke. Bujalski's subtle social commentary is only the icing on this delicious little cake.

Naturally, Mutual Appreciation can't find a distributor -- which means that if you want to see the best romantic comedy in years on a motion picture screen, you'll have to live near a major independent film festival. That failing, you can order a screener DVD from the film's website. Either way, it's well worth seeking.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Break Out Those Gift Cards! (Murderball, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Paper Clips)

Gift cards are the perfect excuse to indulge in adventurous shopping. Technically, you're spending other people's money, and the terrific thing about spending other people's money is that you might buy something that you wouldn't ordinarily consider for yourself. (That magnificent two-disc Criterion DVD of Akira Kurosawa's Ran? Well, I wouldn't think of spending my forty bucks for it, but if you insist ...)

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention at least three offbeat films now on DVD, any or all of which might be worth seeing over and over. As it happens, these three films are all documentaries, and they have little in common except that they show extraordinary people doing interesting things (and that each one runs less than ninety minutes).

Murderball. In what must have been the strangest marketing partnership of the year, Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro's fringe-culture movie Murderball was picked up by MTV Films, the youth-oriented arm of mainstream studio Paramount. (Long story short: MTV Films never figured out how to market the movie, and it tanked at the box office.) While an editor at Spin magazine, Shapiro learned about the brutal sport of wheelchair rugby -- which participants have dubbed "murderball." But the most refreshing thing about this film is that it avoids the usual "extreme sports" cliches; in fact, most of the emotional drama concerns a highly competitive father who learns to appreciate a son who is neither competitive nor athletic. This is well-worn terrain for fiction films (Disney's Chicken Little recently tried it with predictably heart-warming results), but in the documentary format it takes on startling urgency, even poignancy.

The film also shows us a number of testosterone-charged young men, all members of the United States "murderball" team, who have come to terms with their disability without ceding even an ounce of their manhood. These para- and quadriplegics aren't the neutered saints one sees all too often on TV movies of the week, and wheelchair-bound Marc Zupan just might be the sexiest man to appear on a movie screen this year (though Eminem lookalike Andy Cohn runs a close second). As an examination of American masculinity, Murderball is unbeatable.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Judy Irving's ode to San Francisco's bohemian subculture is uplifting in the best possible sense of the word. One can't imagine a lost soul like Mark Bittner -- the film's ostensible subject -- thriving anywhere but in the City by the Bay. Thanks to a group of wild parrots and his own keen powers of observation, Bittner finds a purpose in life and just a little bit more (which I won't reveal, since it's the key surprise of the film's final shot, and since it places the entire film in a new context). Wild Parrots is a nature documentary, a keenly observed urban portrait, and a tender love story, all realized in a compact, seemingly effortless eighty-three minutes.

This 2003 film proved a hit on the festival circuit, and enjoyed a lengthy release in theaters. I saw Wild Parrots in Charlottesville only a few months ago, and fell in love with it. If you're not an inveterate curmudgeon you'll probably fall head over heels in love, too.

Paper Clips. Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab's G-rated documentary, about an improbable Holocaust memorial constructed by children in rural Tennessee, was the best movie I saw in 2004. Had I seen it in 2005, it would have been tied for the top position this year, too. For the moment, the Paper Clips DVD is a "retail exclusive" from Blockbuster Video, which finally gives the video superstore chain a compelling reason to exist. Never mind that DVD "retail exclusives" smack of monopoly, or that Paper Clips is the sort of cinematic treasure that everyone should have the opportunity to see and enjoy. After more than a year's wait (and a month-long run on HBO), the film is finally available for home viewing -- and will be more widely distributed in early February.

I've always meant to write more about Paper Clips -- how the film corrects knee-jerk portraits of Southern small-town prejudice, how even the most minor characters are well-drawn and thoughtfully realized, how respectful the filmmakers are to their middle-school subjects, how well the rural high-school students come across in interviews. It seems as if a thousand Hollywood productions can tell you what's wrong with America; Paper Clips dares to show you what's right. More to the point, it's just about the only movie that could make me pay a visit to my local Blockbuster.


Update (1/5/06): After looking for Paper Clips in roughly half a dozen Blockbuster stores, I've found that the film wasn't released there after all. A Feburary DVD release is still planned, but who knows? Apologies, gentle reader. I read the news on the film's website and confirmed it on the Blockbuster site, so I thought the story was legitimate. In the end, a reporter can be only as accurate as his sources.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Bad Santas

In Parliament of Whores, P.J. O'Rourke wrote that "God is a Republican and Santa Claus is a Democrat." That was when the GOP still had principles. For the past five years, our GOP-controlled Congress has proven that Republican conservatives can be as fiscally profligate as any left-wing Democrat.

With help from David Boaz of the Cato Institute, fellow blogger Rick Sincere shows us what Congressional Republicans have been up to this Christmas. Have they been naughty? Oh, you bet. Congress is chock full of Bad Santas.

Let's hope they get stockings full of coal next year.

Brokeback Mountain (some spoilers possible)

The key moment in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, I think, comes roughly midway in the film. Jack Twist (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) have reunited after years of separation, and they impulsively, passionately kiss. Unbeknownst to them, Ennis's wife Alma (Michelle Williams) witnesses the entire thing.

If Brokeback were an ordinary American film, or even a typical arthouse offering, this scene would lead to a bedroom farce or a comic misunderstanding. Certainly Lee's indie-movie framing, at once immaculately composed and slightly rough around the edges, prompts Pavlovian laughter from audiences. But then the director does something unexpected: He focuses on Alma's pain, and refuses to look away. The camera seems barely to move as she cries uncontrollably, and the audience grows distinctly uncomfortable with its lingering gaze. At this point Brokeback stops cold, and the audience squirms not with boredom, but with visceral discomfort and perhaps even a sprinkling of shame. It is only the first of many instances in which Lee's film cuts to the bone, challenging an audience's capacity to respond morally to human suffering.

To my knowledge, Lee has created only one other moment with such raw emotional power: The climactic scene of Sense and Sensibility, when Emma Thompson sobs with joy, employs a similar effect to a radically different and much inferior end. Creating these moments requires a certain ruthlessness (or perhaps even sadism) on the part of the director: Not only must the camera not divert its gaze from characters in their heightened emotional state, but it must impose a relationship between viewer and character that fixes on the intense emotion of the moment. Usually this is relegated to climactic moments -- like Orson Welles's one-take tantrum near the end of Citizen Kane, the heartbreaking resurrection in Carl Dreyer's Ordet, or the shockingly intimate two-shot between Seymour Cassel and a near-comatose Lynn Carlin in John Cassavetes's Faces.

Not since Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story, more than half a century ago, has a film lingered so long or dwelled so meticulously on the emotions of its characters, and in the process transformed quotidian domestic drama into the stuff of epic. Like Ozu's film, Brokeback deals with failed relationships -- though to a more extreme degree -- and at any given point in the film the major characters can be seen writhing like bugs on stickpins.

Ennis Del Mar is perhaps the most obvious example: Torn between a desire for personal authenticity and a love that he can barely bring himself to acknowledge, his character becomes a human train wreck. Far more successful is Jack Twist, who seems to view sexuality as performative, a matter of "loving the one you're with." Oddly, Twist is more sexually adventurous and more successful in his marriage, but the film gives the sense -- perhaps true, perhaps not -- that his versatility leads to a horrifying end.

The women in this film are subsidiary characters, but their dilemmas are remarkably similar: Lureen (played by Anne Hathaway in a pitch-perfect performance that couldn't be further from her Princess Diaries work) seems to have mastered the role of housewife, and performs nearly as well as her husband Jack. Michelle Williams's Alma is, as her name might indicate, the soul of the film, and perhaps the character who comes closest to achieving a happy, or at least tolerable ending: She manages to maintain her integrity, though it, too, comes with a heavy price.

Lee packs Brokeback with offhand references to Western conventions: The natural landscape surrounding the eponymous mountain where Jack and Ennis pursue their torrid affair, seems cobbled together from other movies. Lee provides a cliff-jumping scene straight out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, numerous campfire scenes (a well-known homoerotic cliche even before Gus Van Sant and River Phoenix exposed its sexual underpinnings in My Own Private Idaho), and a high plain through which the two characters can conveniently drift. If the natural scenery seems too self-consciously pretty to be real, the stultifying small-town life that frames their homosexual idyll is all too closely delineated, with the same sort of attention Brokeback screenwriter Larry McMurtry lavished on his novel and screenplay for The Last Picture Show thirty-five years ago.

Ultimately, the film's preoccupation with authenticity, especially as it pertains to gender roles, provides its closest link to the classic American Western. Still, when the Western's natural homoeroticism turns overtly homosexual, this notion of authenticity is radically "inverted." It's tempting to refer to Brokeback Mountain as a feminized Western, in which real men can confess their true feelings for one another and real women can stand up for their own needs and desires. But the film is much more complicated than that: It acknowledges that these characters possess traditionally masculine, heterosexual duties, including the care of wives and families. That Brokeback cannot reconcile personal responsibility with homosexual love (as Dale Carpenter has noted), or conclusively repudiate the heterosexism it tries to indict, is perhaps its greatest failing for Gay and Lesbian audiences. But the contradction also provides this film with tragic heft. Ultimately, these characters seek nothing more than to be true to themselves and each other, and they never quite achieve that goal. Whether society is to blame for their plight is a question the film wisely leaves open.

For most of the film, Lee seems content to exploit and subvert convention, while subtly teaching his audiences new and more humane ways to experience cinema. In the closing scenes, however, Brokeback Mountain careens into what for most American audiences will be emotional terra incognita, with grief too deep for words or tears. In a way, the film is designed to prepare us for these final moments, when we're compelled to identify with a form of love that most of us have been conditioned not to take seriously. The film is a plea for empathy, not just in society or politics but in the American cinema as a whole -- and it is in this last regard that Brokeback may be most revolutionary.

Much of the hype surrounding Brokeback suggests that the revolution may be a long time coming. David Letterman has conducted a one-man crusade against the "gay cowboy movie," and Nathan Lane famously performed a minstrel-show Broadway parody of Brokeback on the Today show. (Correction 1/27: That was also Letterman. Lane denounced Brokeback on the Today show, but without the aid of song and dance.) That the openly Gay Lane would attack the film is less surprising than it would seem: I suspect that Gay men who have adopted an ironic "camp" sensibility as a personal defense mechanism will prove especially resistant to the film. When I saw Brokeback in D.C.'s Dupont Circle, one young Gay man heckled the screen, Rocky Horror style. He sounded like the sort of fellow who spent his high school years under siege, and who learned that a withering wit is often the best defense of the powerless. In a strange way, he seemed to belong on the screen with Jack and Ennis.

What's remarkable about the publicity for Brokeback -- good, bad and ugly -- is its near-complete disconnect from the film itself. Bloated, brain-dead blockbusters like Peter Jackson's King Kong or the new Narnia movie can profit from a media blitz; Brokeback, however, resists even its own hype, and challenges us to accept it on its own terms. If we're not up to the task, the fault (for once) may lie within ourselves.

Some films are as thin and transparent as the celluloid they're printed on. Others appear to have been blasted out of bare rock. Brokeback Mountain fits the latter category: Even with its flaws, it's the best movie of the year. Go see it.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Santa and Me: A Christmas Buzzkill

When I was five years old, my kindergarten teacher told me about the Tooth Fairy, and my father was livid. "It's not cute to lie to kids," he grumbled. I can almost see the mixture of disgust and determination as he prepared to issue a stern dose of reality to his son. Later that evening, he solemnly informed me that the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus didn't exist, and any grownup who said otherwise was lying to make kids feel better.

My mother insists that I cried for days. I doubt I cared much about the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny, since I hadn't lost any baby teeth and didn't like jellybeans. But Santa Claus was different. Even though I knew that Santa possessed my mother's handwriting, I still wanted to believe. (And I probably wasn't too thrilled at the suggestion that my teachers, in whom I had placed unwavering trust, were capable of outright falsehood and deceit.)

Director/essayist John Waters has claimed that Santa Claus is "the god of Christmas." The idea seems well supported by numerous television specials, advertising campaigns, films, children's books and other assorted holiday detritus. Indeed, if there is a civil religion in America, that "right jolly old elf" is probably in the middle of it. Since I'm more pragmatic than principled, I generally go along with the lie: If parents want their children to believe in Santa, they must have their reasons. Besides, what would a Gay guy like me know about parenting?

All the same, it seems as though encouraging a child's belief in Santa could easily backfire, especially if the child is intelligent and unafraid of a challenge. A friend of mine become an atheist at the tender age of nine, after a brief dialogue with his parents. When he asked them if Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy were real, they took a deep breath and replied that, no, although they told him these beings were real, they were imaginary.

"So what about God?" he asked. "You told me he was real, right?"

From then on, the argument was his.

Now in the Bible Belt, the only thing worse than homosexuality is atheism. Both are seen as a renunciation of Christian values, and therefore are held in widespread abhorrence. Of course, homosexuals are genetically predisposed to hellfire and brimstone, much more than the ordinary run of sinners, and thus are to be pitied (unless they come out of the closet, or sue for equal protection under the law). Atheism is a different and far more troublesome matter. It is unquestionably a choice, and so atheists are theoretically as redeemable as Jews or Moslems. But unlike mere infidels, atheists are presumed to be Very Bad People with no sense of personal morality, since (according to most evangelical Christians) moral standards cannot be established without some divine basis. In any case, I suspect that if Santa were linked to either homosexuality or atheism, he'd be tossed out of the American South on his jolly red keister.

So I can understand the impulse behind those cranky, fundamentalist tracts I see every year, the ones claiming that any belief in Santa constitutes idolatry, or that Santa wears a red suit to signify the arrival of Antichrist. True, these attacks on St. Nick are a bunch of Christmas crockery. Yet I wonder if they're wholly unfounded.

Even though I'm the only adult in my family not to have married and reproduced, as December 25 approaches I find myself surrounded by more and more young children. They're prime consumers for the cult of Santa, they believe in the Great Holy Elf, and the whole thing seems distasteful and absurd to me. Sometimes I think we shouldn't tolerate this Santa-worship, let alone encourage it.

Perhaps one reason we do is that the cult of Santa has distinct advantages over Christianity proper. As gods go, Santa isn't demanding. He requests only that children "be good" -- which translates to filial obedience, nothing more -- and he doesn't seem to mind much when kids slip up. Contrast with God, who inundates grown-up believers with vague and obtuse commandments, then threatens merciless and eternal punishment when believers fail to comply. Santa wouldn't throw unbaptized babies in Hell, or send his own son to be cruelly slaughtered. Unlike God, Santa likes children. God is awesome and majestic; Santa is intimate and friendly. And unlike Christianity, the cult of Santa Claus (at least in North America) doesn't mention Satan, let alone fixate on him.

Santa Claus shows up at shopping malls, department stores, and town festivals, and you can have your picture taken with him for a small fee. God, on the other hand, remains unseen and unreachable, no matter how much you might pay. Santa Claus promises to satisfy our desires. But God offers grown-up believers no promise of earthly reward, and only the vaguest idea of a heaven after we die. Children climb on Santa's lap and tell him what they want; grownups fall to their knees before God and confess their guilt. Given a choice between Santa Claus and God, who wouldn't pick dear, lovable St. Nick?

Still, the central message of the Santa cult -- believe, behave, and be rewarded -- is a child's version of Christianity, a candy-colored reduction of a faith which can be unclear, anguished, even frightening. It is religion with training wheels, so to speak: Before children believe in big, scary things they can't see, they should commune with a human-sized deity who will understand and empathize with them, and as a side benefit satisfy their deepest, most selfish desires. It might not be overstepping to suggest that since Santa is the way most parents like to see themselves, parents might introduce their children to this Christmas cult so they can bask in the Elf King's reflected glory.

Or perhaps not. Whatever the reason, the little ones in my own extended family believe in Santa Claus without exception, and I seem to take solace in their unwavering faith, even though I can't remember a time when I shared it. The Santa cult endures from year to year, passed down from parent to child, or from child to child. If it's basically a lie, it's an indestructible one, and there is comfort in its sheer, cussed longevity. In a way, the cult of Santa may have taught me the most important thing about religion: Its ritual tradition can offer a measure of hope, even when the faith which gives it some deeper meaning has gone.

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