Deck the Halls is the new Fitzcarraldo

Deck the Halls is a wacky Christmas movie that aims for and falls short of the comedic heights of a Roadrunner cartoon. Danny DeVito and his wife are neighbors from Hell, loudly moving into their home late at night. Matthew Broderick first meets him as new neighbor DeVito is reaching to steal the newspaper from his front step. By the time he walks away, DeVito has his newspaper and mug of coffee.

DeVito decides to leave his mark on the world by making a Christmas light display on and around his house, bright enough to be visible from space. The noise and nuisance upsets traditionalist Broderick's holiday season. Hijinks and hilarity are sure to follow, you'd think.

Compare with Fitzcarraldo, about a man who wants to leave his mark by building an opera house in a small town in Peru. In order to do that, he has to haul equipment and building materials by steamer through miles of jungle, past unfriendly tribes. He employs natives to physically lift the steam ship over a mountain with a system of ropes and pulleys. Werner Herzog wrote and directed this true-ish story about the obsessed Fitzcarraldo, putting himself and others in danger for fleeting, ephemeral rewards. The danger and ephemeral rewards describes both men, Herzog as well as his subject, because in order to film it, Herzog really employed natives to lift the 340-ton steamer intact over a mountain, without special effects, and directed the steamer to run through dangerous rapids that resulted in injuries to three of his film crew1. The real life Fitzcarrald was at least reasonable enough to disassemble the ship before transporting it over the mountain.

So if you accept the hype that it's a movie warning us about the dangerous obsessions of madmen, then Herzog is warning us about himself and others like him.

Now if you can stand to, watch the fifteen minutes or so of behind-the-scenes dvd extras on Deck the Halls. This guy spends ridiculous amounts of time and money and effort on stringing and synchronizing Christmas lights, to attract attention to himself. He loses his job and almost loses his wife to his obsession, as does his competitive neighbor. Then together they rediscover the True Meaning of Christmas, allegedly.

As with Fitzcarraldo, the amazing thing in Deck the Halls is the story behind the story, the obsessed people who created a story of obsession. It's impressive that they covered a house with 14,300 LED nodes to turn the roof and front of the house into a low-res video display. It's impressive that they kept energy usage for all that down to 7,150 watts of energy, "the equivalent of four average hair dryers"2. It's somewhat impressive that they created the illusion of Massachusetts winter in the middle of summer, although that's nothing new.

I'm always amazed by how much time and money goes into film building sets. In this case they built two largish houses. Presumably they didn't finish or dress out every room in both houses, and they could sell the houses after filming, but it still seems amazing to construct entire houses for less than two hours of silly film. I guess if you built two houses for two hours of real families living in them, you wouldn't gross $35 million domestic.

Here comes the ludicrous display of obsession for meager rewards: since Deck the Halls is all about outdoor lights, sixty percent of the film takes place at night. To gain more time filming the houses in darkness, they constructed a tent 300 feet long, 60 feet high, covering both houses and some of the surrounding snowy lawns. The kind of temporary structures used by the military for airplane hangars.

In order to make a funny movie about one man's obsession, creating an ostentatious display of Christmas lights that could be seen from space, the makers of this movie created that ostentatious display, plus they built two houses and covered it with a military-grade airplane hangar tent, so they could capture 93 minutes of Danny DeVito phoning it in.

If it all plays out like Fitzcarraldo, I can't wait for the multiple documentaries, biographies and autobiographies of John Whitesell and how he realized his mad dream of filming Deck the Halls. Woulda been a lot funnier with Klaus Kinski though.



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