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As we all hunker in our bunkers this year, scarfing down microwaved turkey dinners and staring into the middle distance to Dark Side of the Moon, I thought it would be interesting to look back at Thanksgivings past to get some perspective.  COVID has given us plenty of time for reflection, and that’s rarely a good thing.

Happy Thanksgiving!I think we all have an idea of what Thanksgiving should be.  We don’t see it in reality, but it’s there in myths and legends, fed by advertising campaigns and old movies.  “Sure, my Thanksgiving is a dumpster fire,” we think, “but somewhere out there people are having a great time and eating noodle salad!” 

The fact that other people out there are normal is comforting.  It’s kinda like Bigfoot: you never see him yourself, but it feels good to know some grizzled prospector-type guy is out there with a flashlight and his phone looking for him. We want to believe.

Or so we thought.  I mean, what inhumanely torturous process turns cranberries into gelatinous slop anyway? Do we really know anything?

Turns out that the Thanksgivings shown in a lot of movies aren’t the romanticized versions from our advertising-addled cranium.  In fact, some have a downright horrible lesson, right there in front of us the whole time but we weren’t paying attention.

So crank that guitar rift, sit back and choke down that disgusting jellied cranberry sauce from 2018 as we explore some darker lessons Hollywood has secretly taught us about our favorite turkey day over the past 40 years.

Rocky (1976)

Plot: A punchy southpaw improbably gets a chance at the heavyweight championship title when the greedy and overconfident current champ sets up a bicentennial publicity stunt.  Along the way, he falls in love with a mousy pet-store worker and beats up her brother over the holidays.

Here Rocky explains things to his thug boss.Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) is a simple guy.  His modest education and inarticulate shambling give him a loveable charm and honesty admired by everyone around him, including the local loan shark who pays the brute a pittance to pummel guys who owe him money.  He works diligently on his craft taking massive beatings and doling out punishment at local boxing matches while working out at the gym and being taunted as an incoherent ape who will never amount to anything.

Enter Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the current heavyweight champion of the world and full-time jerk.  He’s got a problem: for some reason, he can’t find any other boxer on the planet to fight for the title during the contrived bicentennial publicity stunt he’s concocted to stay relevant.  Digging straight to the bottom of the barrel, lo and behold Rocky’s name pops up because he’s got a marketable name.

Yo AdrianMeanwhile Rocky has been eyeing the timid pet store clerk Adrian (Talia Shire) who works where he buys his turtle food.  She’s a “spinster” (almost 30!) terrified of men largely due to her abusive oaf of a brother Paulie (Burt Young).  Their relationship blossoms in the Philadelphian squalor like a single rose growing out of a heaping pile of elephant excrement.  Incidentally, this is the same way I’d describe the outcome of the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election.

It starts with Rocky showing up for Thanksgiving dinner at Paulie’s house, a modest dump where Adrian also resides.  Thanksgiving is a minimalist affair here, consisting of roast turkey and some unidentified stuff in a saucepan.  No, there are no holiday classics such as green bean casserole, candied yams, mashed potatoes with painstakingly established gravy, stuffing, or homemade pie.  Of course we don’t know what’s in the saucepan, but odds are it’s inedible.

Paulie subsequently takes the turkey, that Adrian worked on for hours and which constitutes fully 50% of the holiday dinner and throws it unceremoniously into the alleyway after tearing off a leg for himself.  This is Thanksgiving at Paulie and Adrians.  Incidentally, this is the same treatment – and I think I speak for the majority of Americans here – that I yearn for with the sitting U.S. President come January.  Biden earned that leg.  [NOTE FOR THE HUMOR IMPAIRED: THIS IS A JOKE.]

The pair decide to go out ice skating and then back to Rocky’s filthy dump in the prestigious D.M.Z. area of Philly.  They passionately kiss and the scene fades out, but we’re pretty sure she went “all the way” on a first date pouring additional class onto an already classy Thanksgiving eve.

You're still gonna lose.Meanwhile, as Creed dismisses this loser as an easy win, Rocky grabs himself a crusty new manager in Mick (Burgess Meredith) – a guy who’s treated him like stale feces the entire film – and begins an awe-inspiring training regimen that involves drinking raw eggs, abusing frozen beef and running up the stairs of the Philadelphia Art Museum.

Although plagued by self-doubt, Rocky trains hard and finally in the ring, gives Creed everything he’s got, resulting in Rocky losing the title fight with a triumphant roar from the crowd and victorious soundtrack.

The Reputation: A classic American tale of perseverance against all odds, fighting for your dreams in the face of incredible challenges, and keeping your humanity despite the indignities heaped on you by endless detractors.

Hidden Terrible Lesson: No matter how hard you try to overcome the odds you’re still gonna lose.  

Pieces of April (2003)

Plot: An estranged daughter desperately attempts to host Thanksgiving in her modest Lower East Side hovel for her vicious dying mother and dysfunctional family.

April is in over her head.April Burns (Katie Holmes) lives with her boyfriend in a cozy Lower East Side dump and is on pins and needles.  She’s agreed to make Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged family and has invited them to her place for the first time.  Her mother Joy – a treacherous and vicious woman wonderfully played by Patricia Clarkson – is dying of breast cancer, so this may be her last Thanksgiving. 

Still April’s prepared: she’s got a frozen turkey, some boxes of stuffing and other crap.  Neither she nor her boyfriend know what they’re doing, but they think they remember that you’re supposed to jam stuffing and an onion in the bird and do so, after picking the turkey up off the floor where they dropped it. 

A squirrel murder and then Santa's Village.Meanwhile the family is winding its way to NYC.  The photography obsessed brother (John Gallagher Jr.), who doubles as mom’s pot dispensary, keeps things awkward by snapping candidly embarrassing photos throughout this interminable drive.  Dad (Oliver Platt) slaps a smiley face on it all and tries to keep the peace, realizing this may be his dying wife’s final road trip.

Back in the city, April’s supportive boyfriend has sex with her then ditches to get a suit, leaving her with the cooking.  She pulls out all the things she’s been storing in the unused oven and click… click… click.  Nothing.  Turns out the oven’s broken.

Bizarre dog enthusiast Wayne in 5D helps, then doesn't.A tough enough problem in an apartment building with a competent maintenance staff, but insurmountable in this dump.  So she’s off to meet the neighbors in the increasingly desperate hope that one of them with a functioning oven will cut her a break and stop being a jerk.

She finds some helpful folks in this building full of eccentrics, including Eugene and Evette (Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Lillias White) in 2B who let her use their oven before they cook their own bird.  But she’s only got a couple of hours, so she needs to find another oven to use.  The “foodie” husband hassles her about her lack of cooking experience and she’s off to open a can of cranberry sauce and make “mashed potatoes,” which she savagely attempts to mash raw.

Meanwhile the family continues their trek to NYC and hits a squirrel on a back road.  They bury it in a simple, silly ceremony.

Tish in 4A offers to help next but the deal goes south when Tish (a vegan) suddenly realizes that April would be cooking a dead turkey in her oven and rescinds the offer on ethical and moral grounds.  So... why agree in the first place?  Didn't Tish know that cooking a turkey in her oven meant a dead turkey was involved?

Meanwhile boyfriend Bobby continues his search for a suit.  Instead of going to a clothing store he enlists the help of a buddy who has a great deal for him but jerks him around for hours.  Eventually his buddy takes him to a local thrift shop and he finally picks out a suit.

Bizarre dog enthusiast Wayne in 5D (Sean Hayes) is up next with a new stove.  He agrees to let her cook her turkey here before locking April out of his apartment for being mean to him.

Back on the road, mom (Clarkson) gets high on weed and seat dances.  Then she shares some photos of her missing breasts with grandma before throwing up in a gas station bathroom.

After spewing venom the whole film, mom and family smile and all is well!Back home, Wayne finally allows her to retrieve her still undercooked turkey after ripping off a leg for his dog as “compensation.”  She finally ends up in apartment of some Chinese immigrants who let her use their stove to finish the bird.

The family finally arrives at April’s apartment and promptly drives off to find a restaurant.  Mom and son have a change of heart and head back to April’s place, abandoning husband, daughter and grandma.

Eventually all arrive.  April’s gang plus the helpful Chinese family all share Thanksgiving.  Hurray!

The Reputation: A touching, playful holiday adventure featuring endearing performances and moments of human insight set against the familiar backdrop of a Thanksgiving feast.

Hidden Terrible Lesson: At least seventy-five percent of people will let you down when you need them the most.

Scent of a Woman (1992)

Plot: A grouchy, blind, alcoholic army colonel enlists a prep school kid to help him on a suicide mission over Thanksgiving.

Charlie is recruited into a holiday suicide mission in this heartwarming tale.Charlie Simms (Batman Forever’s Chris O'Donnell) is a poor kid at a rich prep school who answers an ad for a $300 gig over Thanksgiving.  He needs the dough to fly home to Oregon for X-mas, so he shows up to find out more about the job.  Turns out he’d be babysitting blind boozehound Lt. Colonel Frank Slade (Al Pacino) while his niece bails: not a great gig for sure.  After the (retired) Colonel pours creamy abuse all over his exposed soul, he agrees.  Hoo-ah!!  Hah!!!

Meanwhile his prep school buddies pull a humiliating prank on the headmaster which Charlie and another student (Philip Seymour Hoffman) witness.  The headmaster (perennial character actor James Rebhorn) bribes Charlie with guaranteed admission to Harvard to rat out the rich kids who did it.  He’s torn but thinks it over.

Here Hoffman reveals he's about 10 years old.He shows up at Frank’s place to babysit – a squalid shack on his niece’s property – only to find out they’re really off to New York City for some reason.  They check into the Waldorf-Astoria, a famously luxurious hotel inhabited by former presidents and an established location for many films, but thankfully never owned by Donald Trump.  Over dinner Frank reveals the plan to Chuck: they’re going to experience the high-life – wine, women and song – and then Frank’s going to kill himself.  Frank then eats some rolls and they soldier on.

Next day it’s off to Thanksgiving at Frank’s brother’s house (Richard Venture).  Unlike our other tales, this Thanksgiving table is overflowing with the classics: a spread worthy of Norman Rockwell’s brush.  Frank tells dirty stories, acts like an ass, and destroys Thanksgiving dinner like the hand grenade that took his eyesight.  After attacking Bradley Whitford for acting like a jerk – something Whitford perfected in The West Wing – the pair repair to their waiting limousine and back to the hotel.

What Thanksgiving is complete without a murder-suicide attempt?In the morning it’s time for weapon assembly training and, after some bonus abuse for Charlie, he tells the Colonel his dilemma back at school: to rat or not to rat, that is the question.  The Colonel advises him to squeal, they grab some drinks and Frank gets laid.

Next day Frank test drives a Ferrari with Charlie.  Driving while blind is probably illegal in New York, but our pair don’t let formality stand in the way of a good time.  They get busted and talk their way out of what must be a felony, and we solider on.  Back at the hotel, Frank suits up for his suicide and attempts to murder Chuck for being a rat, the position he’s been cynically advocating the entire film.  They struggle and Frank finally decides against the whole murder-suicide thing.  Hoo-ah!!

Franks speech gets Chuck off the charges.Back at school, Chuck and Frank attend the special disciplinary hearing about the dumb prank from Act One.  Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character – a weaselly guy – rats out the pranksters.  Chuck refuses to name names.  Frank gives a riling speech on the nature of modern leadership which causes the naïve disciplinary committee to exonerate Chuck of all charges.  Everyone cheers!  Hoo-ah!!!!

The Reputation: An Oscar winning performance by Pacino has made this a modern classic tale of dignity, honor, and experiencing all that life has to offer despite the hardships and misery.

Hidden Terrible Lesson: The guy in charge wins unless you publicly shame them into doing the obviously right thing.  (Or: It’s better to fly to Oregon than New York to get reliable help killing yourself.)

Illustratrions: screenshots


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