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December 20 , 2009

The Holly King


Holidays with the Hancocks of Beverly Hills: too many presents, too much booze, a lot of tears. Youngest son Carson, now a documentary filmmaker, recalls those times with survivor's fascination, curiosity and some obsession: what is it with Christmas? The result: a documentary on the history and the current state of Christmas, by way of visits to his surviving family members. When his film goes nowhere, it's up to a friend to not only describe but retell the film frame by frame. "The Holly King" is truly the book of the movie, and a sometimes funny, sometimes serious, sometimes satirical look not only at the holiday season, but also at the emblems and excesses of our culture today and its place in history.

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What starts out as a jackass mockumentary, "Why Do You Hate Christmas?" becomes a wildly sprawling exploration of the Christmas holiday itself, how it's celebrated today and how his mother, his sister and his brother are living out theeevents and choices in their lives.

After an animated segment on the the early church and its holidays, reminiscent of Terry Gilliam and Michael Moore, Carson visits his mother Dianne, once a successful caterer to the stars, now retired to the gated community Hosanna Hills, a wealthy Southern Californian enclave built and developed according to the next wave in evangelical mega-church luxury, evangelocalism, a cross between DIY craftmaking, Shaker communities and Whole Foods.

The next year, it's on to a visit to his sister, Shannon, the one time rrriot girl and soft porn photographic muse once known as Tillie Harm. Having retired from a life of wasted glamor, Shannon now lives on a rural farm, making cheese and holding costumed solstice parties with her Neo-Iron Age earth-sculptor husband Ken. This years party intends to unveil Ken's latest eco-installment, the Solstice Alidade, a North American Stonehenge. Never mind the overcast weather: tractor lights will work.

Finally, a trip to see his brother, Humphrey, the oldest. A runaway when Carson was younger, Humphrey lived on the streets in Seattle among anarchists and squatters, angry and revolutionary. When a tragedy strikes in the squatters camp, he goes to Peter, the innovative priest who ministered to the street kids. When Peter dies, however, Humphrey has no place to go with his grief but the neo-monastic order, Mashipan. Founded by the radical Father Archibald Solano as a sanctuary for lapsing priests, Humphrey is invited not as a believer but as the true non-believer, the questioner of faith, the holly king. His affect on the brothers – and sisters – of Mashipan leads to the complete reawakening of the monastery and its mission of engagement with the world. Carson's visit with his brother is a step-by-step retelling of his brother's remarkable journey.

The Holly King is not the usual Christmas story. It is a surprisimg, funny, unexpected tale that covers a lot of ground: the dying cult of Mithras, the TV Christmas special of reality show/Jersey Shore-like star Pootie, the hallucinatory Wilde Jagd, Yule goats in Rio, Monty Python-like animated sequences, anarchists and squatters, gated Christian communities, Neo-Iron Age earth-sculptures, sleighs made of reindeer bones, Industrial Revolution couture, theorboes, devotional art lend-lease programs with the Vatican, lapsed monks and their secular monastery. In the satiric vein of Catch 22, David Foster Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Leyner, "The Holly King" asks the question, Why is there Christmas?

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