Some Sunday Stuff: December 23rd.

Merry Christmas Eve’s Eve! If you’re still doing last minute holiday shopping/ cooking/ cleaning/ running ragged, I understand! I spent the hours before my mom-in-law flew in from Trinidad on Friday literally scrubbing tiles, walls (look, I’m not sure how or why, but walls by doorways collect an ungodly amount of dirt over time), and sinks. I had on the thick yellow gloves and all, Friends. 

Even more telling, I didn’t even put up the Christmas tree until Wednesday, less than a week before Christmas, making this year the latest I’ve ever done so. I’m not quite sure what happened. Thanksgiving came around, and for some reason after making a pine cone turkey and hanging artificial autumn leaves on the piano and flatscreen, I just stopped. It’s like I got stuck in the fall, and by the time I was ready to replace the pumpkins with poinsettas, over half the month was over. But, eh, at least it finally went up. 


This dude and his hair were almost as ever-present as Jennifer Aniston and her “Rachel”. (Image: screencap)


Upward and onward to our first topic: how Smooth Jazz took over the 90’s. From Vox:

 night before still copy

Still from The Night Before Christmas (1905) (via Reel Rundown)


Next up, this piece from Sarah Nour at Reel Rundown on the first ten Christmas movies in recorded history going all the way back to the nineteenth century!:


1. Santa Claus (1898)

The first time Santa Claus appeared in film, it was in a silent British short directed by George Albert Smith, who pioneered the practice of film editing and the usage of close-ups. He also worked as a stage hypnotist and psychic, which influenced his use of special effects.

In the film, two children eagerly wait for Santa Claus by the fireplace, but are ordered to go to bed. While they sleep, Santa comes down the chimney and leaves presents for them. In the end, the children wake up and discover their presents. Transitions between these scenes are done with jump cuts, superimposition, and double exposure, which were new at the time.

Michael Brooke of BFI Screenonline describes Santa Claus (1898) as “a film of considerable technical ambition and accomplishment for the period.” The film shows the children sleeping on one side of the screen while Santa lands on the roof on the other, which Brooke says is “believed to be the cinema’s earliest known example of parallel action… [The] result is one of the most visually and conceptually sophisticated British films made up to then.”

2. Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost (1901)

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) is one of the most adapted books of all time, having been made into films, stage plays, TV specials, and parodies. The first film version was Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost (1901), which was adapted from a stage play written by J.C. Buckstone.

The director, Walter R. Booth, was a magician before he began making films. He specialized in “trick films,” which were designed to showcase special effects that were innovative at the time. In one scene, a ghost’s face is superimposed over the door to Scrooge’s house. In another, Scrooge closes the black curtains over his bedroom window, and flashbacks to his childhood are superimposed over the dark space.

Though the original film’s running time was six minutes, only three minutes have survived. This was the first film to ever contain intertitles, though Booth believed that the audience would already be familiar enough with the story that the use of intertitles could be minimal.

3. The Night Before Christmas (1905)

The Night Before Christmas—also known as ’Twas the Night Before Christmas and A Visit from St. Nicholas—was a poem first published anonymously in 1823, and later attributed to writer Clement Clarke Moore. The first film adaptation of the poem, The Night Before Christmas (1905), was directed by Edwin S. Porter and distributed by the Edison Company.

Lines from the poem appear in intertitles throughout the nine-minute film, which alternates between scenes of Santa Claus at the North Pole and a family putting their children to bed. When Santa takes off in his sleigh, a panoramic shot is done over a painted backdrop, with a model sleigh and reindeer miniatures being pulled on a string.

Interestingly, the film contains a scene where the children engage in a pillow fight, which was not part of the original poem. Pillow-fight scenes were common in Edison Company films, as they added some crowd-pleasing slapstick humor.

Bezbozhnik u stanka US 1930 copy

1930 print from the Soviet Bezbozhnik u Stanka magazine, showing a lynched Black American hanging from the Statue of Liberty. (via Wikipedia)


To see some very cool and very old clips of these films and the rest of the list, read on here. Now let’s jump over to Jelani Cobb at The New Yorker with a history of Russia’s long interest in targeting African Americans with propraganda:


During the Cold War, Soviet school curricula highlighted the exploitation of black people as a prime example of both American hypocrisy and of the rapacious nature of the capitalist system. During the Great Depression, African-Americans were invited to live and work in the Soviet Union, as a means of escaping the privations of Jim Crow. A few hundred accepted the offer, and some of their descendants still live in Russia. Yelena Khanga, a black Russian television personality and a granddaughter of one of the black “sojourners,” an agronomist from Mississippi named Oliver Golden, noted in a memoir that the Soviets, while legitimately interested in the knowledge of these African-Americans (they were skilled workers and professionals), were not unaware of the value of appearing to upstage the United States on matters of race. In 1932, the Soviets invited a group of black American artists, including the poet Langston Hughes, to Russia to make a (never-completed) film about American racism called “Black and White.” Communist publications in the United States hired black writers and advocated for racial equality. Many, if not most, of the black civil-rights leadership of that era had at least glancing contact with the Communist Party of the United States. In the Soviet Union, the relationship was, however, as vexed as any other between an exploited community and the state. In 1937, when Lovett Fort-Whiteman, one of the first black recruits to the American Communist Party, ran afoul of the party bureaucracy in the U.S.S.R, where he had been living, he was arrested and was eventually sent to the gulag, where, two years later, he died from malnutrition. The novelist Richard Wright, who was closely aligned with the American Communist Party early in his career, rejected it bitterly during the Second World War, convinced that it was merely using black people to its own ends. Yet so intertwined were Communist and Soviet interests in matters of racial discrimination in the United States that the subject has spawned an entire subfield of African-American and Cold War history.

That propaganda tradition of the old Soviet Union came back into view this week, after the Senate Intelligence Committee released two reports on attempted Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election, which highlighted how those efforts targeted African-Americans. According to one of the reports, produced by experts at the social-media research firm New Knowledge, in conjunction with researchers at Columbia University and Canfield Research, the Internet Research Agency, a company based in St. Petersburg, “created an expansive cross-platform media mirage targeting the Black community, which shared and cross-promoted authentic Black media to create an immersive influence ecosystem.” The I.R.A., which is owned by an ally of Vladimir Putin, posted more than a thousand YouTube videos relating to Black Lives Matter and police violence. It created thirty Facebook pages directed at African-Americans that attracted more than a million followers. It created knockoff accounts, such as Black Matters, and outright false ones, such as Blacktivist, to amplify content that was primarily intended to sow dissension. Communist ideology, of course, was no longer part of the equation, but attempting to undermine American authority was: one objective appeared to be planting concerns about Hillary Clinton and racism as a means of depressing the black vote. Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, told me that activists had noted an uptick in fake content on social media but assumed that it was just standard Internet nuisance. “My suspicion was spamming, and not ‘Holy shit, another government is trying to influence the results of the elections in the United States,’ ” she told me.

Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican Presidential nominee, once observed that foreign policy is what a nation does at home and domestic policy is what it does abroad. This was essentially the message of civil-rights activists in the middle third of the twentieth century. Racism, they argued, may have succeeded in maintaining a racial hierarchy in the United States, but it was also a tremendous liability in international affairs. In 1931, Walter White, who had just been named the national president of the N.A.A.C.P., wrote an article for Harper’s magazine about the intervention of the International Labor Defense, the legal arm of American Communist Party, in the Scottsboro trial, in which nine young black men were falsely accused of raping two young white women on a rail car in Alabama. Racial show trials were commonplace in the South, and each of them, he suggested, offered the party a bounty of propaganda opportunities. Later civil-rights figures, such as Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed to the ways that racism undermined American authority to the benefit of the Soviet Union. As the historian Mary Dudziak writes in “Cold War Civil Rights,” the Supreme Court Justices who decided Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, did so with the full knowledge that the audience for their ruling would be not only in Mississippi but in Moscow.



The Most Famous Mop Topped Quartet, The Beatles, unwrapping some gifts quite cheekily. (photo source

Read the whole thing here. Hey, do you know about the annual UK tradition of the Number One Christmas Song battle? Okay, well, I didn’t. From the Hit Parade podcast:


In the U.K., the No. 1 song the week of Christmas is a big deal. The media breathlessly cover the contest, and there are even wagers placed on what song will reach the top of the charts as pop stars and record labels jockey for position. While there are patterns to the kinds of songs that tend to do well in this perennial sweepstakes, often the winner is a fluke: Everything from Queen to the Flying Pickets to Bob the Builder has taken the crown. It was even parodied in the smash British Christmas comedy film Love Actually—and one year in the late aughts, the British public rebelled en masse against a music-TV impresario, making a statement with the unlikeliest Christmas topper ever. But in an age when songs sell less than they stream, and hits tend to snowball, will the sun set on the fluky British Christmas No. 1 empire?


To listen to this episode, go here. And finally, today’s song is the 1958 Christmas hit, “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” by The Chipmunks and David Seville, also known as one of Z’s favorite songs. I hope you have a wonderful and relaxing Christmas.


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