A Family Challenge at the Multiplex

Humorist Brian Unger notes a spate of movies this holiday season that challenge traditional assumptions about sexuality. He worries about how this will affect the annual tradition of deciding which movie to see as a family during the holidays.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And now to the business of Hollywood and the Unger Report. This holiday movie season brings a variety of eccentric and controversial themes to the multiplex and, with it, some tricky topics to the holiday dinner table. Well, Brian Unger has a plan.

BRIAN UNGER reporting:

Around this time, my family is busy preparing for Christmas traditions: the gift giving, the midnight candlelight service, the feast on Christmas Day. These activities all require methodical, logistical, mathematical, wardrobe and dietary considerations just shy of a royal wedding or a Super Bowl halftime show. Now despite the thoroughness of my mother's planning, which begins in August, someone receives a gift they didn't want, someone refuses to venture out into the subzero cold to hear a sermon and someone infects the entire family with a cold virus. Amidst the hurt feelings, inconveniences and expectorating, there is joy in just being together, trapped inside a house with nowhere to hide.

And through the years, no one activity has been more carefully planned than what movie we'll see as a family at Christmas. We pile into several cars and drive to the mall, not because we're seduced by the Hollywood marketing apparatus but because we're sick of talking to each other and tired of staring at my brother's labradoodle. Bottom line: We require fresh oxygen and a couple of hours of darkness in which nobody speaks, our silent night. This week phone calls will be made, e-mails will circulate: What movie should we all go see this Christmas?

Now my folks have come a long, long way since their undergraduate days at Bob Jones University, BJU, where they met, married and missed the entire phenomena of The Beatles and Elvis. Proof of that will come this week, as will awkwardness when my mother asks, `Do you want to see the gay cowboy movie or the one about the Irish transvestite?'

(Soundbite of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe last night.

UNGER: Back in the 50s, the most heretical pop culture my folks confronted besides Elvis was Tommy Connor's "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." In that 1953 tune, Mommy kisses Santa underneath the mistletoe. She even tickles him underneath his beard. All the while, Daddy is asleep upstairs. A generation later, Jake Gyllenhaal is spooning with Heath Ledger under the Wyoming stars. He even tickles him underneath his pants all the while their wives are asleep, figuratively.

Besides "Brokeback Mountain," our families and millions like it will debate other movie offerings this holiday: the transvestite-themed "Breakfast on Pluto," the transgender-themed "Transamerica," the bisexual-themed "Dying Gaul" and the in-cold-blood-soaked "Capote." These films are consistent with my family's past viewings at Christmas: "Apocalypse Now," "Raging Bull," "Schindler's List," the DVD of "Scarface" and "Bad Santa." We've sweated through war, genocide, cocaine trafficking, alcoholism, physical brutality and sexual assault. Then we go home to turkey salad sandwiches and spiked eggnog.

Either there's something wrong with my family and it's need to seek out the perverse, violent and criminal at Christmas, or this time of year movies tend to challenge convention and explore the forbidden and the taboo. But here's the good news. We've reached a family consensus: It's the gay cowboy movie, and then it's back to the ranch where Mom sits down at the piano and leads us in "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." And that is today's Unger Report. I'm Brian Unger.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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