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The Ultimate Thanksgiving Day Movie Marathon
(For Families Who Feel Awkward Around Each Other)
Last week, I promised a review of the new Ryan Reynolds/Will Ferrell vehicle Spirited, a Christmas Carol update with songs from sultans of schmaltz Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. But honestly, I can’t think of anything more dispiriting than that. So instead, we’re going off-format again. This week, I’ve been binging Thanksgiving movies ahead of a guest spot on a Thanksgiving-themed episode of It’s the Pictures podcast. I’d never really given much consideration to “Thanksgiving movies” as a subgenre, with that lane always having been choked out by horror movies on one side and Christmas movies on the other, but once I started digging into the Thanksgiving canon, I realized it’s a rich vein with a lot of wonderful, eclectic movies.
So, with that in mind, this week I’m offering my patented1 Ultimate Thanksgiving Day Movie Marathon (For Families Who Feel Awkward Around Each Other).
Are you gathering with a bunch of family members next week? Do you feel weird hanging out with any number of them? Are you, for whatever reason, not involved in meal prep and therefore have hours to fill on a day when everything is closed? I’ve got you covered—I have programmed your day from 9:00 AM until you drop. You’ll be entertained, you’ll have something to talk about during dinner, and, best of all, you’ll spend a cumulative 8.5 - 10.5 hours of the day sitting peacefully, looking at something aside from your loved2 ones’ faces.
(Disclaimer: This is obviously meant as a fun thought exercise, but if anyone actually tries it, please tell me.)
9:00 AM - Roll up to the TV, grab some coffee first if you need it, but you probably won’t because you’ll be woken right up by The Wiz (1978, Dir. Sydney Lumet, currently streaming on Showtime)!
This might seem like an oddball pick, especially for the kickoff movie, but for all intents and purposes, The Wiz takes place entirely on Thanksgiving night. We open with a turkey dinner in a packed Harlem apartment; following an opening song in which Aunt Em (Theresa Merritt) moves through her joyous crowd of dinner guests singing about love and forgiveness, it’s during the cleanup that Diana Ross’ Dorothy finds herself transported to the magical—if questionably wonderful—land of Oz, and it’s shortly thereafter that she returns to the snowy November streets of New York, her entire adventure having lasted only a moment in Harlem time.
God, there’s so much to say about this wacky, wacky movie. It’s kind of a slog at times, with glacial pacing and dreary songs but—and I apologize if this is heresy in any particular corner—the same could be said of The Wizard of Oz. And The Wiz has a lot of things The Wizard of Oz does not have, including (but not limited to): walking, singing graffiti art; animate subway columns and fanged trash cans that roll around flapping their jaws like nya-nya-nya; a song where a bunch of grotesque little troll people unzip their skin to reveal the sexiest dancers 1978 had to offer (who then dance around while Nipsey Russel break-dances under 25 pounds of robot-carnival-barker prosthetics); and Richard Pryor. And did I mention the production design? The Wiz is basically Production Design: The Movie, and if a lot of that production design is distinctly unsettling–this one goes toe-to-toe with Return to Oz for the title of most nightmarish Oz movie–it’s also got more innovative use of shapes and colors than you see in an average month, let alone movie. Be thankful there was ever a time when millions of dollars of studio capital could be spent on something this howlingly odd.
In all seriousness, on this rewatch, I found myself enchanted by how closely this film matches the spirit of L. Frank Baum’s book rather than imitating the 1939 film (something they were presumably prohibited from doing for copyright reasons; see Dorothy’s book-faithful silver slippers). That book is a lot rougher around the edges, with a lot more random pockets of uncanny menace, than the movie had time for and interest in. The Wiz has time for and interest in a lot of random uncanny menace, and even if you get bogged down at times (seriously, how many songs does one final scene need?), the captivating moments are so captivating, it’s hard to begrudge it much of anything at all in my book (OK, actually, invent a time machine and cast someone else as the scarecrow, that would be great).
11:14 - The credits have rolled! What a wild ride! Go have an early lunch (keep it light; you have a big dinner coming up!) and debate whether you’d rather live in the NYC of 1978 or the OzYC. Lot of plusses and minuses to both!
12:00 - Get back to that couch, because it’s time for The Ice Storm (1997, Dir. Ang Lee, currently streaming on Showtime)!
Set in 1973 in suburban Connecticut, Lee’s adaptation of Rick Moody’s novel takes place entirely on and around Thanksgiving, with the centerpiece sequence being the Friday night key party that every adult in New Canaan finds themselves embroiled in while the titular weather event rages outside. To call a movie chilly tends to be akin to calling it remote, but for as much WASP-y repression as it centers on, The Ice Storm is an incredibly humane movie with an eye for complex moments and character detail that brings the whole thing to vivid, breathing life. At one point, philandering central character Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) finds his 14-year-old daughter (Christina Ricci) messing around with the neighbors’ kid (Elijah Wood) and marches her home with a scowl on his face—until, halfway there, he realizes his little girl’s toes are cold and offers to carry her the rest of the way back. It’s the kind of storytelling brushstroke you can’t prepare for, and it hit me like a truck on this revisit.
It’s remarkable that I ever tried to watch The Ice Storm as a young man. I can’t remember whether I was a teenager or a twentysomething when I took my first run at it, but I have to imagine I bounced off it like a tennis ball, because I certainly don’t remember it leaving much of an impression. Watching it this week, only a decade or so shy of the adult characters’ ages, the whole thing was so poignant it was almost overwhelming. But it’s not the kind of movie you want to start or end your day with, so we’re putting it here in the early afternoon. You can take it.
1:52 - The credits have rolled! What a wild ride! Time to go outside, move around a little, talk about why key parties died off anyway. Or maybe you just go off into the fresh air separately for an hour to consider your individual frosty ennui.
3:00 - OK, you’ve gotten some exercise, processed some of Ang Lee’s emotional assaults. Time to sit back down for Alice’s Restaurant (1969, Dir. Arthur Penn, not streaming legally but watchable in full on YouTube).
Adapted from “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre”—Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 “talking blues” song (a specialty of his father Woody)—Penn’s film stars Arlo himself in a counterculture romp through an autumnal Western Massachusetts. A Thanksgiving dinner lies at the film’s core, a joyous coming together of an ad hoc family of hippies and drifters, who dine in a dilapidated church in between scrapes with the officious Officer Obie and a surreal draft board. There’s a pleasant feeling of existential gratitude to the thing as Guthrie’s protagonist traverses a series of absurdist vignettes enacted by a bunch of hippies who try to find whatever scraps of love and joy they can before their number, seemingly inevitably, comes up.
I have a huge soft spot for ’60s dirtbag picaresques—my mind goes to erstwhile folk singer Richard Fariña’s 1966 novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me—and Guthrie’s star vehicle is a prime example. In a certain sense, there’s a continuity with Inside Llewyn Davis, as Arlo hustles a folk scene less than a decade removed from Llewyn’s, and the influence of Woody Guthrie (with a character by that name here shown hospital-bound with Huntington’s chorea until he passes away in the second half) links the half-generation gap between Llewyn and Arlo. It’s appropriate that Alice’s Restaurant came out at the twilight of the ‘60s. There’s an elegiac, nothing-gold-can-stay quality to the film’s mood—Arlo may be able to scam his way out of the draft, but there’s no escaping the needles making their way onto the streets of Stockbridge—and with its antic beginning and wistful ending, it feels appropriately somber as we move towards the most thankful time of the day.
4:51 - The credits have rolled! What a wild ride! Time for dinner (because everyone who was cooking all day agreed to stick to the movie marathon schedule, right?). Have some turkey, have some drinks, enjoy a little light discussion on the long tail of the ‘60s, and whether anyone at the table has ever tried heroin.
6:30 - Everyone who’s been watching movies all day is required to do the cleanup. You have two hours; make it count.
8:30 - Everyone back to the TV, it’s time for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973, Dir. Bill Melendez & Phil Roman, currently streaming on AppleTV+). Honestly, as far as Peanuts holiday specials go, this isn’t really one of “the good ones.” It’s not bad by any means, but it doesn’t have any particular spark or magic to it. You know how the Christmas one and the Halloween one kind of put you back in touch with the spirit of the season? This one is just about a weird dinner. It’s cute, but that’s all.
To be very, very clear, we are not watching the Thanksgiving episode of the 1988 miniseries This is America, Charlie Brown, which retells the story of the Mayflower voyage and Plymouth Plantation starring the Peanuts characters. It’s grotesque, and—shockingly—not particularly culturally sensitive by 2022 standards. So, again, let me make myself clear: we are watching A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, the one with the weird dinner. It’s no better than fine, but when it’s a holiday, you watch the Peanuts special for that holiday. It’s a law.3
8:55 - The credits have rolled! What a wild - OK, that was a pretty mild ride. Go to the bathroom, freshen up the drinks, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. The really good one’s up next.
9:00 - If you saw last week’s newsletter, you know we have to wrap up with The Last Waltz (1978, Dir. Martin Scorsese, currently available for purchase and rental on iTunes and in a stunning new transfer on Criterion Blu-Ray), the concert film documenting the last show of the Band’s original lineup. The show was held on Thanksgiving night, they had just served the entire crowd a turkey dinner—hell, one of the first audible lines is Rick Danko’s “Happy Thanksgiving.” As Steven Hyden wrote, it’s “the best Thanksgiving movie ever made.”
I’ve written plenty on this one, and I’ll continue to do so elsewhere. So here, I’ll just say: God, I’m thankful for this movie. On my last rewatch, I noticed one moment during Bob Dylan’s set that really set my heart alight: the camera is trained on Robbie Robertson; Rick Danko is out of focus in the background; Bob is about to launch into an impromptu reprise of “Baby Let Me Follow You Down;” he’s noodling on the guitar, getting ready to make his move. And there, out of focus in the background, just before Bob shifts into making that move, Rick’s face is overtaken by a kind of awestruck grin. Blink and you’ll miss it—I mean, look at the part of the frame that’s in focus and you’ll miss it—but if you do look at it, you’ll see a moment of what looks for all the world like unbridled happiness, and it just brings a surge of blood to my chest.
I honestly can’t say why. Yeah, I love the Band, and yeah, I love Bob, but there are other movies, and other spots in this movie, that let me experience those pleasures. There’s something specific about the fact that this is what’s being framed, and this is what’s in focus, but this is what’s actually there if you’re looking—it’s a testament to the power of movies, the way they slap a little box on a few of those diffuse moments that make up existence. That shot is so short, but I’ve been thinking about it all week. It makes me feel so lucky to be alive. Isn’t it great when movies can do that?
Sorry, guess I got a little distracted there. That’s the thing about The Last Waltz, though: it’s the perfect movie for when you’re a little distracted—say, by the Thanksgiving comedown. If you want a movie to doze intermittently throughout, you can’t do better than The Last Waltz. You’ll just drift through a sea of rock, poking your head above water every so often and noticing, Hey, Neil Young looks like they just found him at an out-of-the-way bus station, or Wow, how does Joni Mitchell even do that?. Maybe you rouse yourself for part of “I Shall Be Released,” and then stumble off to bed while the theme plays and the credits roll. Speaking of which…
10:57 - The credits have rolled! What a wild ride! Wake up; it’s bedtime!
11:00 - For everyone who can still hang, it’s time for Thankskilling (2008, Dir. Jordan Downey, currently available to stream on Tubi). I haven’t seen it or anything, and I’m definitely not staying up for it—I started dozing off around Muddy Waters’ Last Waltz appearance; I popped back in for a little of “The Weight” but then I was out. Enjoy Thankskilling, though. Seems like it would be a fun movie to watch late at night with whoever’s left standing, here at the end of all things.4
I’ll probably take next week off unless the mood really strikes me. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I’m thankful for you.
Bedtime on Thanksgiving