Topanga Seed (Ch. 21)

Levi had gone to see Santa Claus: Christmas Warrior the day it opened to the public at the TCL Chinese Theater—which, to him and many, would always retain its original name, “Grauman’s Chinese Theater”, regardless of whatever corporation owned it. Despite Damien’s dread over the film, Levi had enjoyed the movie, inasmuch as he could, given that the man on the giant IMAX screen was a man he knew and every time Damien came on-screen, Levi almost did the same in his seat.

He noticed that he couldn’t so much enjoy the movie as try to understand how that actor playing a pre-obesity and pre-white haired Christopher J. Kringle was the same person he spent so much time with. It was so surreal and yet real. He only noticed how beautifully shot he was. Unlike the few movies he had seen Damien in—he had avoided many of them as he found it troubling to watch a movie where Damien died, had a disease, or suffered a breakdown, effectively wiping about ninety percent of Damien’s films off Levi’s watch list—this film glamorously and flatteringly lit and shot him in every frame. No wonder even that problematic racial stereotype of a snowman, voiced by Kevin Hart, referred to him as “one hot cracker!”; Damien looked better than he ever had on-screen. (Most of his films were serious affairs where his movie-star looks had to be downplayed to not overpower his thespian ambitions.) Levi feared that, by the end of the packed matinee screening, thanks to the sight of his bedmate looking so good on-screen, he’d have developed a Santa Claus fetish. “Do you happen to have a red suit trimmed in white fur?” he feared he might one day ask all future sexual partners, in that same tone any normal, sexually healthy adult might otherwise shyly ask, “Do you happen to have a closet that doubles as a torture chamber?” or “Do you happen to have a midget friend who could sit in the corner and masturbate while we fuck?”

“I liked it!”, Levi texted Damien before the credits finished rolling, reassuringly adding, “So did the audience.”

It was true, not just some ego-comforting prepositional phrase or dangling participle or whatever grammatical error it was he had just made. The audience at Levi’s matinee had laughed and gasped in what seemed to be all the right places—not that Levi himself could be an impartial juror. Too caught up in admiring his. . .could he call Damien “boyfriend”; it felt like he could but maybe that term was too much, too soon, too possessive?. . .he may not have been the best judge as to which scenes intended which reactions. But it seemed like the audience was enjoying it; maybe not so much the youngest of children, for whom the film did lack some action and sometimes slowed down with too much talking. But when Levi could extract his personal from intertwining with the cinematic spectacle on-screen, it seemed far from the disaster Damien’s opinion had portrayed it as.

“You’re sweet.” Damien texted back from his three-hour in-home workout session with his trainer, which was about two-and-a-half hours longer than Levi cared to ever spend at the 24 Hour Fitness near Sunset and Vine. “Have you seen the reviews? I wish I hadn’t.”

“How bad could the reviews be?” Levi thought. The audience members he overheard as they made their way up through the red and gold Chinese-themed auditorium, under that grand golden chandelier, through the costume-decorated lobby and out into blinding sunlight of the tourist-packed courtyard, had been laughing fondly with the others in their party. “That scene where he meets the Snowman?” was followed by a cry of “I loved that part!”, and “Okay, now that’s my new favorite Christmas movie!” answered by, “I know! Move over Elf!”

Thinking Damien was possibly being neurotic—something Levi, being (technically) psychotic, was not going to be judgmental about—he searched for reviews online as he waited in his psychiatrist’s waiting room later that afternoon. Those reviews were proof, he decided, that really mean people become movie critics or Republicans.

“Remember a few years ago, when Conservative Media tried to convince people that Christianity was under attack and that there was some kind of war on Christmas?” one review read. “There wasn’t—but there should be a war against Christmas movies as bad as Santa Claus: Christmas Warrior.”

“Eek. Now, true that’s just MSNBC’s Entertainment reporter, but still. . .” Levi thought. “That’s just not nice.”

At least the LA Times gave his sweetheart a back-handed compliment or two: “Damien Lanchester (A Shadowy Forest) follows up his masterful role in the summer’s The Quiet Seaside with this baffling turn as a pre-Claus Santa. Lanchester is good and his performance is broadly charming. But the film surrounding that performance is strangely lifeless. There’s no wonder or whimsy. Even in a fantastic sequence where Lanchester’s (maybe too) hunky Santa Claus imbues a team of reindeers with the ability to fly, there’s a feeling that it’s a highlight without anything else to equal it. That this sequence occurs less than halfway through the plodding film is not a good sign.”

The assholes at Fox News were rather succinct: “The best thing about the stupidly titled Santa Claus: Christmas Warrior? It eventually ends.”

The New York Times critic was somewhat more polite: “Just as it remains a mystery how Damien Lanchester lost the Oscar a few years ago for his heart-breaking performance in Excuse My French to the forgettable, mediocre, and consistently inept Alan Strandlin, it will probably always remain a mystery as to how a serious actor like Lanchester is given yet another bad mainstream film to star in. Wasn’t it bad enough when he was teamed up with Reese Witherspoon in Hold the Dress?” It actually was, Levi secretly agreed. “But to have him play a handsome Santa Claus in an underwhelming, badly-plotted big-budget, CGI tentpole? What an utterly baffling bit of casting.”

Levi stopped reading The Chicago Times review at, “A word of advice to Damien Lanchester: Stick to movies where you act opposite actors and not characters added in post-production.”

“The distraction in the film is Santa Claus himself, Damien Lanchester.” Levi tentatively read more of the Entertainment Weekly review, “The dependable and charming actor is shot like 80’s beefcake throughout, most noticeably in several shirtless scenes which feel uncomfortably out-of-place in a children’s movie. The word ‘hawt’ is applied to his character not once, twice, or even three times, but as a running gag, elicited by everyone from a librarian to a blizzard-trapped bus driver to an unfunny Snowman character. (The Snowman, voiced by Kevin Hart, is another problem: a white-faced throwback of the worst kind to the days of Stepin Fetchit and Amos & Andy with a flurry of—surprise!—homophobia.) A scene where hunky Santa, mistaken for a stripper at an otherwise G-rated albeit man-hungry bachelorette party, almost loses his trademark red pants, is particularly moronic.”

Levi felt protectively for Damien. He had thought that scene was hysterical—a throwback of sorts to the physical comedy of Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby—and, it shamed him to admit now, playfully sexy.

People Magazine was blunt in its damnation. “It’s always a shame when an actor as likeable as screen chameleon Damien Lanchester gets a bad part. It’s tragic when that bad part is in a big-budget, opens-everywhere-today release like Santa Claus: Christmas Warrior. If you need a Christmas movie fix, there’s a few hundred other Christmas movies to see before torturing yourself with this joyless chestnut. And if you’re unfamiliar with the art house icon Lanchester, he’s had parts in twenty-two films at this point; of those, I highly recommend the other twenty-one.”

They were awful. He felt horrible reading them. Even the complimentary ones were harsh. The Boston Globe added on: “It should have been a slam-dunk: Christmas. Santa Claus. The story behind how he got all those flying reindeers, created a toy shop in the North Pole, and found the woman who would become Mrs. Claus. All those possibilities and an Oscar-caliber actor in the starring role. Sadly, the reindeers are only slightly more believable than those from the Rankin-Bass stop-motion Christmas specials, the elf-workers at the toy shop are unfunny with their labor union jokes and frightening in their ugliness, and no child wants to see Mrs. Claus as a young, shy–and horny–librarian. And as for Santa himself? Damien Lanchester proves himself adept at comedy, action, and larger-than-life charm. But he can’t make a cinematic winter wonderland out of this sloggy slushfest.”

ABC’s Good Morning America—the hosts of which had air-kissed Damien’s ass on-screen just last week–sniped, “Santa Claus: Christmas Warrior can’t make up its mind what it wants to be. Is it a children’s film? Mostly. Is it an action film? Only in parts, like the crazy, climactic first race to get presents all over the world; the film’s only wildly fun moment. Is it a 1960’s sex comedy? Yes. But. . .why? Who needed to see a battle of the sexes, ala Doris Day and Rock Hudson, between Fiona Drake’s future Mrs. Claus and Damien Lanchester’s future Santa? To say nothing of the sly but frequent innuendo about (naive and hot) Santa’s package?”

Levi had been having a good day. But, protective of Damien and as shamed as if he had been in the movie himself, he could feel—like some kind of osmosis, maybe, or transference of gloom—the blues Damien was feeling. And so, just as Levi had learned to pop certain pills from his myriad of medications to push a little mood boost, he decided he’d pop a pill of cinematic sorts into Damien’s mouth.

Reviews from Fandango.

 

***

 

“Here,” Levi said, placing a few 8×10” photographs before him when they were seated at their table at Geoffrey’s. Damien had been down when he had pulled up to Levi’s building, but, seeing Levi waiting for him, a smile had broken across his facial glacier, happiness had been slightly abloom in eyes otherwise occupied by gloom. Their ride from Hollywood to Malibu had been comfortable as they rode up and over the curves and twists of Sunset Boulevard into the oranges and lavenders of the sunset over the ocean. The two filled the ride with their wordplay, their joking, their recounting of their individual days, one tamed by pills, the other tamed by his dismay, but both happy to be with one another. Now, seated outside as the sun set across the Pacific, painting the waters and waves gold and orange and pink (somewhere, that setting sun was rising but Levi couldn’t remember geography enough to determine where) Levi watched Damien’s reaction to the photos. On each glossy was a reproduction of the Santa Claus: Christmas Warrior lobby poster, over which Levi had pasted rave reviews from posters on Fandango.

“Oh my God! I LUV this movie! I can’t wait for it to start streaming because me and my friends will be watching this all day, every day!” – CardiBfan645434

“As a married woman, I feel strange writing this but if Santa Claus looked like Damien Lanchester, I’d stay awake by my chimney all night long!”– KentuckyLover

“OMG. Go see Santa Claus, Xmas Warrior. So funny!” – JeffreyMcCartthy

“Who are these people?”, Damien asked, grinning but confused.

“The public,” Levi explained. “People who post on Rotten Tomatoes and Fandango.” Seeing Damien didn’t get his intent, he explained, “They’re the ones who buy the tickets, go see the movies, and who, at the end of the day, decide if a movie lives on or not. The critics just say things. The people decide if it’s a winner.”

As if receiving a critical reminder, Damien nodded his head and grinned.

He chuckled and read to Levi, somewhat proudly, “’You guys! Best Christmas movie ever! It’s so fun’ Fun? Good. . . ‘and makes you feel like a kid again!”

“I had to correct her typing,” Levi explained. “She spelled ‘you’ with just a ‘u’ and it’s with its. I couldn’t handle it. I’m anal that way.”

Damien beamed at him and read aloud, “This is the rare film that can make even this curmudgeonly old man feel like crying. It really transports you back to that sense of wonder you had when you were a child.’” Damien seemed touched. He read on, “The sequences where Santa teaches the reindeer to fly will bring tears of joy to your eyes. Damien Lanchester makes you feel the wonder of that amazing scene.”

“I agree, by the way,” Levi said, punctuating his words with a flash of his white smile.

“These are so fucking sweet” Damien told him, reading the others.

“I just wanted to make sure you knew people believe in you; we can toss them in the trash on the way out. I just wanted to cheer you up.”

The waiter placed Damien’s martini and Levi’s sparkling water on the table. Damien apologetically asked him to come back later for their orders.

Damien leaned across the table toward him. “First off, you always cheer me up. You do. And as for these? I’m keeping them. They’re sweet. And I needed the reminder that maybe the critics—and I—are wrong. Maybe it is a good movie.”

“I think it is!” Levi cried, defensively before adding for levity, “I have taste too, you know. As you can see by my out-of-date clothing and my unsafe apartment in a neighborhood overrun by transsexual prostitutes and drug dealers.”

“Hush up, you,” Damien laughed, pretending to smack his face the way Track often pretended to smack Damien’s when Damien teased him. “If you like it, it’s a masterpiece.”

“Opinion reached and verdict rendered.”

“But, tell me. . .” Damien asked, “Who believes in you? What I mean is. . .you’re going through some serious things. Learning to deal with your illness. Taking care of your friend—the blind one. Putting up with me–and my self-pity, which I promise you is a temporary thing. I’ll be fine once I’m back to work on that new film this spring. But who gives you your ‘you can do it’ pep talk when you’re down?”

Levi shrugged his shoulders. As if to say what he could not: Nobody. No one encouraged him. Only him. Encircled by one-sided friendships, he was alone in many ways.

“Me, I think.” He finally said.

Damien examined him from across the table. And then stood slightly and kissed him.
Levi had never been kissed in public before. Growing up in Atlanta when he had, that had been a taboo thing. Even nowadays, even in the most liberal of places. . .it wasn’t without threat of violence or ostracism. As out as he had been—openly gay since a teen, intolerant of intolerance–no one had ever wanted to hold his hand in public or kiss him in public. So the very act of being out in that regard had never been tested. But he leaned into Damien’s bussing of his lips. Accepted it. Embraced it. Fuck the world. He loved that kiss.

“I’ll try to be that person,” Damien promised as he sat down. “You really are something, mister.”

Levi smiled shyly under the compliment. To break the happy silence, he said, “Hastings.”

“Hmmm?”

“Hastings. You called me ‘Mister’ but forgot ‘Hastings’. Mister Hastings.”

Damien chuckled. “Mister Hastings.”

“Nice to meet you, Mister Lanchester. This very long first date we’ve been on for a month or so has really been the best time of my life.”

His levity was rewarded with Damien telling him, “It’s been the best time of mine as well, Mister Levi Hastings.” He raised a toast and their glasses chimed together. “Thank you for coming into my world.”

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