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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Francis Ford Coppola Presents William S. Burroughs' The Junky's Christmas
Francis Ford Coppola Presents William S. Burroughs' The Junky's Christmas
Koch Vision // Unrated // November 7, 2006
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Bill Gibron | posted November 7, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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The Product:
Christmas can be tough for those on the margins of society. While sheltered suburbanites worry about light displays and satisfying their children's unhealthy fad fascination with gifts, the unfortunate and forgotten simply mark off another day from the calendar and continue on with their limited existence. In 1952, author William Burroughs had the chutzpah to challenge the standard silent night nonsense just beginning to brand the season. He did so by attempting to create a competing vision of what outsiders see as Yuletide cheer. In his story The Junky's Christmas, Danny, a despondent car wiper, sees December 25th as just another struggle in scoring smack. What happens next gives the entire holiday ambiance a healthy slap into reality. In 1993, this sensational story was turned into a terrific stop motion animated film by director Nick Donkin. Now, just in time for the annual stampede to the department store, Koch Vision is releasing a delightful DVD containing this craven cautionary tale. For many, it stands as the perfect remedy for a reality overloaded with too much selfishness, and not enough selflessness.

The Plot:
This DVD actually contains three short films, each one between 20 and 25 minutes in length. While the Burroughs piece demands the most attention (and is the best, frankly) the remaining pair are equally enigmatic. From a narrative standpoint, here are the stories – or suggested stories – being told:

The Junky's Christmas
After spending three days in jail, a hopeless heroin addict is desperate for a fix. As he wanders the streets of Manhattan on Christmas Day, he eventually scores the necessary drugs. But then he's confronted with a quandary – serve his own needs, or help out a kid whose worse off than he.

A young boy befriends a strange man living in an abandoned iron works. Over time, the child discovers that the lonely ex-sailor is pining for the sea – and hoping to return to it in a homemade submarine crafted out of an oil tanker train car.

Traveling Light
Via interpretive dance, a couple comments on, and condemns each other, over the obvious flaws in their relationship.

The DVD:
It's a shame that, with the rare exceptions of Tim Burton and the animators at Aardman, the use of stop motion puppetry to realize cinematic visions is almost extinct in the field of entertainment. Cynics view it as sloppy and choppy, while those who favor CGI argue over its lack of fluidity and invention. But for anyone who grew up in the '60s and '70s, who spent countless Saturday afternoons marveling over painstakingly crafted creations like The Mad Monster Party and George Pal's Puppetoons, the herky jerky aspects of the artform provide a potent waft of nostalgia. Thanks to VH-1 Music Films and famed director Francis Ford Coppola, one of the Yuletide's more mischievous gems gets a long anticipated DVD release. Conceived from his short story, and also narrated by famed Beat scribe William S. Burroughs (noted for his avant-garde novel Naked Lunch and numerous collections of eccentric fiction), The Junky's Christmas would, at first, seem like nothing except a gimmicky take on the standard seasonal sap. For some reason, people prefer their tales of Christmas spirit laced with as much saccharine and syrup as possible. Like that crappy cranberry gel that passes itself off as a proper festive side dish, a lack of confrontation and reality seem perfectly acceptable to the millions who make merry during the mandated celebration of materialism.

Maybe it's the whole "Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men" concept. Perhaps a populace swimming in unnecessary debt and media fueled consumerism don't want anything antagonist to spoil their Joyeux Noel. Or it could be that nothing aside from Burton's whacked out combo of Santa and spooky has ever dared to differ from the general, genial Xmas tone. But The Junky's Christmas is indeed dissimilar. Close in tone to that crazy classic The Nightmare Before Christmas, director Nick Donkin uses some amazing monochrome cinematography and a style that successfully meshes stop motion with limited live action, and manages to make a twisted take on those black and white Centaur Productions that played on local TV stations (Chicago, especially) during the months of November and December. But there's nary a Suzy Snowflake or Hardrock, Coco or Joe to be found here. Instead, Donkin allows Burroughs' eloquent words to shine a light on those for whom a holiday is just another mark on life's difficult calendar. Our so-called hero Danny, an addict sweating bullets and struggling not to steal, has a face riddled with more emotion and expression than some human actors. Using odd angles, nods to German Expressionism, and just a smattering of necessary color, Donkin creates the perfect cure for the omnipresent eggnog hangover that seems to stifle everyone during the season.

In his own idiosyncratic way, Burroughs reminds us that the effects of Christmas are not exclusive to one class of people. Indeed, the main message of this remarkable mini-movie is that miracles are not necessarily measured by how holy or helpful they are. In some cases, its enough that people in pain connect – even if its on a small, superficial level. Oddly enough, it's the same sentiment that flows through the other two shorts on the DVD. Ironbound is one of those arcane urban allegories in which grown men live in abandoned tanker cars, little kids run ramshackle over a desolate metropolitan vista, and oceans undulate like remarkable blankets of soothing liquid love. Using the songs of Joe Jackson (from his ode to insomnia, Night Music) and the evocative backdrop of a rotted out factory, director Mitchell Walker easily evokes his otherworldly ideas. The ending is especially moving, with the performances all around anchoring what could have been cloying or clichéd. It's the same thing with Traveling Light. Moreleigh Steinberg's dance-filled daydream about relationships in freefall will be difficult for some to appreciate (the mostly modern dance is very insular and odd), but the brilliant cinematic mood created by the director helps us over the slightly strange nature of it all. In combination, Light and Ironbound supplement and complement The Junky's Christmas. They act as non-Noel evocations of strikingly similar beliefs.

The Video:
Though two of the three productions here are presented in faux letterboxed, non-anamorphic versions (Ironbound is the only 1.33:1 film here) the overall image quality provided by this transfer is excellent. Junky looks great, its balance of shadow and light kept perfectly in check. Light tends to have a few flaring issues, but this could be the result of the harsh environments (desert locations, sprawling cityscapes) employed throughout. Ironbound, on the other hand, possesses a wonderfully evocative look, with browns balanced out by the stark scenery surrounding the action.

The Audio:
Standard Dolby Digital Stereo is all we get here, and it works, for the most part. Burroughs's pseudo Southern brogue benefits from the mix, since his cracked, conversational delivery needs as much clarity as possible. The music – Jackson's in Ironbound, various Van Morrison tracks for Light – is served well by the sonic situation here, but one could imagine a more evocative aural experience via a multichannel remaster.

The Extras:
Sadly, Koch Vision does not provide a single bonus feature. Some information on the filmmakers, or a commentary track giving the artists a chance to discuss their work would have been nice. In fact, for off-title entities like these, it's almost mandatory.

Final Thoughts:
Brilliantly conceived and executed, The Junky's Christmas deserves to be an annual antidote to all the hype-filled hooey that overloads our guilt-laden festival circuits and causes us more trauma than tidings of great joy. Highly Recommended for its inventiveness, and for the chance to see a literary hero like Burroughs celebrated instead of shunned, those who consider themselves beyond the commercializing concepts of the holiday season will definitely enjoy this smart, sharp treat. Others may balk at its skid row realities, but the main message is still loud and very clear – you don't need a holiday to be a human being. In combination with the other dazzling short films offered on this disc, Francis Ford Coppola Presents William S. Burroughs' The Junky's Christmas is an excellent DVD package. Even without the necessary complementary material, this is still a wonderful presentation of some deserving outsider efforts. You will definitely want to deck the halls with boughs of Burroughs after partaking of this unusual slice of stop motion magic.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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