My family watches a slew of movies every year around Christmas, and they’re always the same movies (in addition to this, Elf and Die Hard are in heavy rotation). I sat down to watch Christmas Vacation with no intent to write anything about it: I’ve seen it too many times, it’s a competently directed comedy, there are only so many ways you can block a cat getting electrocuted, and so on. But as is my custom, I glanced at IMDB to see who directed it. I’d never heard of Jeremiah Chechik, but this unfamiliarity was just the beginning of my journey to writing this post.
Christmas Vacation was Chechik’s first feature and, as I said above, it’s competent enough. There are some nicely done bits, such as a kinetic handheld as the cops arrive at the house, but on the whole it’s pretty workmanlike. The editing is much worse than the directing, with the aforementioned handheld routinely interrupted with dolly shots that kill the energy of the scene, and with almost every joke cut in shot/reverse shot. After learning more about filmmaking (and binging on The Chair and Project Greenlight this fall), it was interesting to see some limitations I probably wouldn’t have noticed earlier. For example, it’s clear they could never get the dog and the squirrel in the same shot. And why shoot the opening scenes with the Griswolds in the station wagon using rear projection rather than a process car, especially when the redneck truck clearly does not use rear projection?
Whatever – that’s what happens when you direct your first movie and don’t have a huge budget (or so reality TV implies). But here’s where it gets interesting: after Christmas Vacation, Chechik went on to direct sleeper hit Benny and Joon, and then twin bombs Diabolique and The Avengers (not that one). I never saw Diabolique, but I not only saw The Avengers, I paid money to see it in the theater (!) on opening night (!!). So I feel I’ve got a little skin in the game now. I want to know how did the director of Christmas Vacation end up helming a 60 million dollar wannabe blockbuster? Luckily, Chechik tells all, describing how not only Spielberg but also Kubrick (there aren’t enough parenthetical exclamation marks for this one) saw and loved his commercial work. Said commercial work sadly isn’t available on YouTube, thus further deepening the mystery.
I’m not sure what they saw, but it didn’t translate well in The Avengers. The best that can be said about that movie is that I now know of a book called The Gross by Peter Bart, which chronicles the making and marketing of 1998’s summer movies. Chechik describes The Avengers‘ failure in the interview, but he states several times how much fun the cast and crew had making it. Interestingly, this is something you routinely hear from the cast and crew of poorly received movies (with the exception of 2002’s Two Weeks Notice starring Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant: a friend of mine was a PA on it and said that everyone, down to the lowliest teamster, knew they were working on a piece of shit). I’m not saying everyone has to be miserable to make a good movie, but clearly everyone having fun is not the sole requirement for success.