Thursday 26 December 2019

On a Thousand Walls, Christmas Special: Pottersville (2017)

Today we will be talking about the surpassingly, bizarre Christmas movie Pottersville. We will spoil plot elements of the movie. But we will not spoil Christmas.

Obviously we've already dealt with our favourite Wyrd Christmas Movie. That's Gremlins, because of course it is. Why would it not be? Obvious festive horror fare isn't thin on the ground, but let's face it, the bar for Christmas movies is never high. I'm not really interested in a scary Christmas anyway. But Christmas is weird, it is, and yet, Christmas movies try so hard not to be. My kids have been raiding Netflix and Prime for low bar family Christmas films, and there seem to be three basic themes in modern Christmas movies: the kids defeating bad guys and winning over negligent parents at Christmas, good people finding another chance at love at Christmas, and good people saving something important at Christmas. The fourth traditional theme, the inhumane curmudgeon taught human feeling at Christmas, has sort of fallen out of fashion, but then, in our cultural climate, that's really not a surprise, is it?

Several films exist in the lower reaches of the streaming services that cleave hard to at least one and often more of those formulae, and sometimes Names will appear: Sonequa Martin-Green wasted inexplicably and horribly as the second fiddle love interest for a guy who once voiced a cat opposite Paula Abdul in a movie about Finding Christmas Love and an independent radio station Saved For Christmas (Holiday Rush (2019)); Danny Glover, easing into his role as the Cool Person's Morgan Freeman ever since he played the President in 2012 (2009), appears to have done a Christmas movie every year for ages, but Christmas Break In (2018) has a smart, resourceful little girl abandoned in her school at Christmas and defeating a couple of Comedy Hoods with the help of Wise Janitor Ray (Glover) and on the way teaching her parents a lesson in responsibility, which is a film you've seen before, even if you haven't seen this one.

Few films cleave so hard to the formula, however, and yet are so very, very strange as Pottersville. Saved for Christmas. Love Found. Also, the Sasquatch. And furries.
A tall man named Maynard (the wonderful Michael Shannon, always worth watching) is the owner of the general store in ailing small town Pottersville along with coworker Parker (Judy Greer, usually great but not with a whole lot to do here). He is a very nice man, the sort of man who gives unlimited credit to financially struggling members of the community. But he’s a quiet man. “You need to get out, Maynard, breathe some life,” says local trapper Bart (Ian McShane, who long ago exorcised Lovejoy and now does Grizzled Old Tough Guy like no one else), who presses a bottle of moonshine on him. And then Maynard comes home from the store early to find wife Connie (Christina Hendricks, reliably brilliant with what she's given to do, but not really given a whole lot) canoodling in his house with Sheriff Jack (cinematic treasure Ron Perlman). Dressed as a cartoon bunny and a wolf (although the costumes are pretty crappy).

They are furry fetishists, you see, and Maynard, not being a furry, will never satisfy his wife. In despair at his marriage being in ruins, he goes back to the shop and gets completely wrecked on Bart's moonshine.

And then, off his everloving face, Maynard finds a gorilla suit, the furriest thing he can find, and goes on a bestial rampage around town. He wakes up in the morning with only the vaguest memory of the previous night. And the town filled with reporters because there's been a Bigfoot sighting, caught on film.


Brock Masterson (Thomas Lennon), a guy from cable TV who hunts cryptids, comes to do a special. “There's a rumour going around there might be a Sasquatch in these parts,” he says, immediately appending, “Follow me on Twitter.” It serves his purposes to lean into the idea that there is a Bigfoot, because of course he never finds anything really, but it makes good TV.

With the help of Sheriff Jack and grizzled local trapper Bart, they seek to find and capture the legendary Wild Man. Maynard, although he initially tries to come clean, realises that everyone is really into having a local Bigfoot. There will be tours. T-shirts. Mugs. Baby onesies. This, Maynard reasons, is the closest the town's going to get to financial solvency, and so he reluctantly decides to go through with it and Save Christmas by… staging a Bigfoot hoax.

Only Parker seems to say what seems obvious: it's someone pretending to be Bigfoot and when he gets caught, he's in trouble. And it's only Parker who works out that it's Maynard.

Maynard will eventually Find Christmas Love with Parker. His hoax is exposed eventually, and he incurs the wrath of the town, but he is forgiven. Although Connie's interest is rekindled, because fursuit, Maynard lets her go. Brock Masterson, a colossal jerk because he's called Brock Masterson, is humiliated and his career wrecked. Bart is droll and unbothered.

A Bigfoot Museum is built.
The whole thing is pitched as a CHRISTMAS! MOVIE! It's a snow-draped, fairy-lit Christmas card of a movie. The dialogue is stilted and the performances are for the most part in broad strokes, from Judy Greer's Soft Focus Lovely Human Being, to Ian McShane's platonic ideal of the Laconic but Twinkly Wilderness Guy, Christina Hendricks's Small Town Vamp and Thomas Lennon's Fake Accented TV Diva. Michael Shannon is not known for comedy, but let me tell you his “Wait. Did I? No. Oh. Oh no. Oh shit” face is genuinely a beautiful thing to watch and he is delightful in it.

But it leans so hard into CHRISTMAS! MOVIE! that it winds up in a really uncomfortable place.

It's about a Bigfoot hoax saving Christmas. It's about social media and cable TV ruining us all. And the town is called Pottersville. In festive classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Pottersville is the name of the town in the alternative world that doesn't have Jimmy Stewart in it, the town where capitalism won. Where, consequently, misery, greed, addiction and animal lust defeated affection and kindness.

But Pottersville is all there is. Capitalism won. And the Christmas Movie is an artefact of capitalism. It's a cash grab, a reliable festive meal ticket. I'm not going to dump on Danny Glover for doing a Christmas movie every year, because the man has to work. But there it is. It's a product that nonetheless often has a message that pretends to undermine the system that produced it, but it only pretends.
While adopting the trappings of a conservative, traditional Christmas Movie, Pottersville does something very different. It is a comment on these movies. It can't be otherwise: there's an actual honest to God scene where a kid cries out “Merry Christmas, Bigfoot!” and we have a bonkers scene where the hunters stumble across a crowd of erotically gyrating furries rubbing up against each other in their Squatch Watch.

Pottersville's world is the Bizarro World opposite of It's a Wonderful Life, the world where George Bailey never lived. Sometimes you have to take the tourist buck. Sometimes people have fetishes and desires that ruin things. Sometimes marriages cannot be saved. There is no hope that Connie and Maynard will patch it up, right from the beginning. And OK, there's a sentimental ending, but it's all skewed and weird.

There are about half a dozen Internet reviews of this movie that describe it as the worst Christmas movie ever made. They are half right. Because this movie undermines the idea of the Christmas movie. It is terrible at being a Christmas movie because Christmas movies are nearly always terrible, monuments of capitalist hypocrisy that fake human affection and moral decency for the sake of the bottom line.
Parker: It turns out that you didn't have to become Bigfoot to save this town. It turns out you saved it a long time ago by just being you. 
Look at that line. Look at it. There is no way that this is a line that works outside of a bad Christmas movie. No one talks like this. It is the most false of morals, the emptiest of sentiments. But then, that's what the Christmas movie is. It's what it does. It's a commercial construct with a commercially constructed moral.

Look back at where this film is set. At what this film is called.

This movie is not called The Christmas Cryptid, nor is t called How the Bigfoot Saved Christmas. It is not called I Saw Mommy Wearing Sasquatch Paws. It is called Pottersville. It is named after the quintessential point of narrative collapse in the quintessentially Christmassy Christmas movie. It is explicitly the place where the Christmas movie goes very, very wrong, and it is not an accident.

The farcical parade of improbable developments in Pottersville makes far more sense than many other Christmas movies because Pottersville is a Christmas Movie world haunted by the spectre of the real. It's a world where everything is fake, and run by greed and desperation, where lasting happy endings are as elusive as the Sasquatch himself. You want a Christmas movie? Really? Here, have one, says Pottersville, for all the good it does you.