“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 it’s technically a Christmas film. Movies like this are appealing because they don’t focus specifically on Christmas elements, elements which often feel oversaturated and overly optimistic. Not everyone wants a preachy holiday film about good will towards mankind. As I mentioned in my introduction to Christmas movies, “It’s hard to listen to a preachy Christmas speech when everyone in the film is a millionaire who lives in a huge house and whose biggest problem is finding their Christmas spirit”. Some audiences just want a Christmas tree to get knocked over in the background of a lengthy action sequence. That said, why do filmmakers reference Christmas when their film which has nothing to do with the holiday? Is it purely monetary, just so they can release the film during the holidays? Do they hope that viewers will rewatch the film every December? That leads to another question: would these films be the same if we removed the jolly aspects?

I call this the ‘background Christmas’ phenomenon, as it’s when a film shoves holiday stuff into the background of its scenes or narrative, so it never feels particularly relevant. One could write this off as a money grab, and that is probably true for many of these films. I think, however, that these background elements are extremely noteworthy, as they create either intentional or unintentional commentaries inside these films. My reason for thinking 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.”

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang features Christmas decorations in many of its scenes, but they are only briefly referenced. 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 predominantly known as a crime thriller, one which satirizes the action genre while also 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. 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. Audiences have a specific understanding of Christmas because there are so many films which tell us what Christmas should look like. It doesn’t matter if your Christmas doesn’t look exactly like it, you are still prepared to see Christmas a certain way when going to the movies. 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 and troubling about the characterization here 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 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 different, compared to 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 without free will, but that noted, 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, and so its humor is meant to be insulting and crude. 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 that is 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 incredibly 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 and almost gets away with it, despite having an affair with this woman. However, as Harmony later mentions, Harry is 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 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 transforming it into vengeful violence, thus giving it meaning. 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 a woman’s body. 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 endured. It’s a reoccurring theme which, I would argue, enters 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 the woman he has been trailing and her guest. The woman is worried about getting caught, worried that she has done something terribly wrong. The man assures her that he has spoken to their boss, and she will never have to worry again. Then he shoots her, and as she collapses to the ground, she sees a distraught Harry under the bed. 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, maybe because he didn’t do anything to save her or maybe because he realizes in that second that her last thought would be being silenced. First by her killer and then by this total stranger. She doesn’t get to speak even as she dies. This brutal scene stayed with me long after I watched 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 makes this horrible moment it even more distinct is that “Blue Christmas” plays in the background. This is one of the few scenes which doesn’t include any Christmas decorations, making this classic Christmas song stand out. It is 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, even though that is what manufactured this idyllic concept. It must be remixed and changed to suit LA’s landscape.

It’s off putting that LA’s Christmas is so distorted because Hollywood created our very notion of a traditional Christmas. 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. This is done so the women in the film aren’t responsible for a violent act, and the 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, suggesting that trauma continues beyond the events and people 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 foregrounds 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, versus everything else it jokes about, and genuinely wants to raise awareness about it. Is it successful? Not really. Does it feature many overly sexualized male gaze moments? Yes, uncomfortably so, but the film tries to criticize this gaze by using it, again not always successfully. Is it still a hilarious and somewhat poignant film? Absolutely.