“It’s Christmas, You Know?”: Background Trauma And Christmas In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

CW (Content Warning): Kiss Kiss Bang Bang deals with child abuse which is discussed here

Have you ever met someone who claims that Die Hard is their favourite Christmas movie? Maybe Gremlins? These aren’t traditional holiday films, but they take place at Christmas, so doesn’t that make it a Christmas movie? I think these kinds of films are appealing because they don’t feature any traditional Christmas elements, elements which often feel too oversaturated and optimistic. Not everyone wants a preachy holiday film about good will towards mankind. Some just want a Christmas tree to get knocked over in the background of an action sequence. That said, why do filmmakers reference Christmas in a film which has nothing to do with the holiday? Would these films be the same if we removed these jolly aspects?

I call this the ‘background Christmas phenomenon’, as the holiday stuff is always in the background of scenes, and it never seems relevant to the plot. It is often suggested that it’s there for decoration or as a way to encourage viewers to rewatch the film during the holidays. I disagree, and my reason for that is the film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

“It’s Hard to Believe it was just last Christmas that me and harmony changed the world and didn’t mean to”

Like the films mentioned above, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang features Christmas decorations in the background and these are referred to very briefly. The characters technically meet at a holiday party, but because the film takes place in LA, it’s an unrecognizable and unconventional Christmas event. There is no snow and people are still wearing short sleeves. That isn’t what we traditionally picture as Christmas, so it’s easy to overlook that the film even takes place during December.

The film is generally recognized as a crime thriller which satirizes the action genre while still being a compelling mystery. You’ll note that Christmas has nothing to do with this plot, and most forget that it has these Christmas elements in the first place. But I would argue that the film’s Christmas theme is more than just a style choice. There is something strange, even sinister, happening to the film’s version of Christmas, something which furthers its commentary on Hollywood and innocence.  

The film deals with some deeply troubling subject matter and its humor is intentionally insulting and dark. To see Christmas in the background of these events is yet another disturbing thing in an already disturbing film. We have a specific understanding of Christmas because we have seen so many films which tells us what Christmas should look like. It’s thought of as something precious, innocent, and happy. That is not the case in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, as the film perverts Christmas by putting it into seedy environments and dangerous situations. What is interesting about this characterization is that the film compares Christmas with women and uses the holiday to criticize the sexual and emotional abuse done to women. Christmas often appears either on top of or around the women in the film. Harmony wears a sexy Santa dress, an exotic dancer dresses as a reindeer, we even see a sultry virgin Mary. The characters rationalize this by suggesting that LA is a distorted place which it distorts everything inside of it, and that includes people and concepts. This implies that Christmas has been warped by LA, which is why it looks and feels so different than a traditional or idealized version of the holiday. It’s been abused and transformed, which according to the film, is also what happens to women in LA.

I will say, it is extremely problematic to argue that the commercialization of Christmas also happens to women, as it implies that both are merchandise, but that said, I think that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang does so to make a broader commentary on the movie industry and our corrupt society. It often relies on stereotypes to poke at the very industry where these stereotypes come from. Its humor is meant to be insulting and crude. That said, I feel like the film isn’t particularly successful with this, as it tries to insult every kind of person and background, but it disproportionally falls on women because it is so interested in male characters. The film doesn’t feel comfortable talking directly about the terrible things done to women, and so, it uses Christmas as a metaphor for innocence and abuse.  For example, in one scene, Harmony passes out at a party and her date begins lifting her skirt. She is lying in front of a large TV which is showing a movie about Santa, the rays of which light up her face. It’s a creepy and terrible moment, but it is especially disgusting, or at least more visceral, when done in front of this old Christmas film. The shot collapses the abuse done to her onto the holiday film, making it a violation of her body and of this classic Christmas genre. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that her name is Harmony, as it’s pretty Christmassy. It is also poignant because Harmony cannot exist in this dangerous environment. Neither the concept of harmony nor the person (Harmony) is safe.

“By now you may wonder how I wound up here. Or, maybe not”

During a fight between Harry and Harmony, Harry argues that every woman in LA is “damaged goods”, which is obviously very sexist, but it also illustrates that the men in the film think of women as interchangeable objects. For instance, Harlan tries to switch his daughter with another woman. However, Harry is also unwilling to recognize is that he too is broken. All of LA is broken, not just women. Harmony suggests as much during her first encounter with Harry, as once Harry says that he feels badly about something, she replies, “Bad. You feel bad. Badly is an adverb, so to say, ‘you feel badly’ would be saying that the mechanism which allows you to feel is broken”, which pretty much sums LA. It isn’t that the city or it’s people can’t feel, just that their sense of real and unreal, actual emotion or stimulated/artificial emotion is totally warped. It is a land dominated by movies, worlds which feel real but are ultimately constructed. That is why the film centers around Christmas, as according to Hollywood, it’s the perfect holiday, but it rarely lives up to that expectation.

By the end of the film, Harry, Perry, and Harmony take a stand against senseless violence, by making it vengeful violence. The difference is that one was done for purely selfish reasons, and the other was done on behalf of someone. Both Perry and Harry are self-obsessed at the beginning of the film, Harry even abandons his partner after their robbery goes wrong. They show no guilt about killing men, but they get upset when they discover the body of a woman. Again, this suggests that women are sacred and innocent while men are perpetrators and deserve whatever happens to them. A lot of this stems for the film’s ongoing discussion about child abuse, which both Harmony and her sister went through. It’s a reoccurring theme which, I would argue, enters into the film’s depiction of Christmas. Both childhood and Christmas have been tarnished in the film, and as a result, the now adult women live in a bizarre marketed realm, where what is real seems false, and vice versa. Jenna believes her father is a famous actor because the truth is too difficult to accept. And then of course, there is the horrifying murder scene.  

We see Harry cowering underneath a bed, hiding from a woman he has been trailing and her guest. She is worried about getting caught, worried that she is done something terribly wrong. The man assures her that he has spoken to their boss and she will never have to worry again. And then he shoots her, and she collapses to the ground, looking right at a distraught Harry. As she dies, she murmurs slightly, threatening to give away Harry’s position. He reaches out a bloody hand and puts it to her lips, crying because he didn’t do anything to save her or maybe because he realized that her last thought would be being silenced by her killer and by this total stranger. It is a brutal scene which stayed with me long after watching the film. This image of the two on the floor, and the girl realizing there was someone in the room who could have helped but didn’t. What made the scene even more distinct for me was the “Blue Christmas” that was playing in the background. This is one of the few scenes which doesn’t include any Christmas decorations, but it does have a classic Christmas song. It is actually a remix of the original, which like the rest of the film, implies that traditional or idyllic Christmas cannot exist in a place like LA. It must be remixed and changed to suit LA’s landscape.

It’s rather off putting that LA’s Christmas is so distorted because our very notion of a traditional Christmas was created by Hollywood. This makes LA a contradictory space of real and unreal, fantasy and harsh reality. By showing Christmas in this light, the film suggests that what seemed like a traditional Christmas never existed in the first place. This additionally implies that the innocence associated with Christmas never really existed, it was just a marketing scheme. The women in the film also bought into this Hollywoodized message, as Harmony’s sister believed that her fake father was real and Harmony believes that she could become an actress, like so many others. “Blue Christmas” really summarizes this position, as it’s a melancholic song about being alone and realizing that the holidays aren’t the way they should be. The trees are blue, not green. I would go as far as to say the lyric “I’ll be so blue, just thinking, about you” could refer to that idyllic world, as the characters are looking for that world of right and wrong, but it’s no where to be found. The song’s presence in this horrible scene implies that the lyrics are the victim’s last thoughts, her last impression in the film, which is why the song stops playing after she dies. She never got the Christmas she dreamed LA would provide. It was all just a lie created to lure people in.

“Look up idiot in the dictionary. You know what you’ll find?
“A picture of me?”
“No! The definition of the word ‘idiot’! Which you are!”

The abusers are punished at the end of the film, but notably, not by the people they abused. I think this is done so the women in the film aren’t responsible for a violent act, so men remain the only tarnished ones. Again, this is problematic, but I am not sure the film really knows how to talk about these issues. It is certainly sympathetic, but it mainly just shows the issues without trying to resolve any ongoing systemic problems. There is a part of me which appreciates this, as it doesn’t oversimplify or try to tidy everything up by the end of the film by suggesting that trauma continues beyond the events shown. But then again, the film was created to explore a man’s perspective, and so it isn’t interested in solving these issues. It was created to satirize the action and noir genres, genres which are typically quite sexist. So, the fact that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is foregrounding a discussion like this is noteworthy, even if they do so in the background of scenes or through Christmas. It takes this subject matter serious and genuinely wants to raise awareness about it. Is it successful? Not really. Is it still a hilarious and poignant film? Absolutely.

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