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Blogvent Day 9 – The Junky’s Christmas (1993,USA)

09/12/2011

Directors: Nick Donkin, Melodie McDaniel         Starring: William S. Burroughs (narrator)

I think it’s fair to say that on my quest to find Christmas films with a difference that this may well be the oddest offering yet. An animated rendition of a Burroughs short story (first published in his book Interzone in 1989) narrated by the author, it’s the story of heroin addict Danny The Carwiper who finds himself turned out of jail on Christmas day after a seventy two hour stay, penniless and “junk sick”. Danny’s first priority is to scrape enough money together to score some heroin and rent a room to shoot it up in and so immediately sets about some attempts at petty larceny. When this fails to generate enough cash he resorts to other methods to get his hands on some morphine from a doctor but when he finally finds himself in a position to finally take his medicine he is faced with a particularly Christmassy dilemma. If you don’t want to find out what that dilemma is, don’t read any further, there are some spoilers up ahead.

Visually the film has the style of those claymation/puppet animated music videos of the nineties (Nick Donkin would later go on to direct the video for Alice In Chains’ I Stay Away which I have included below) and it captures the deserted Christmas day streets of the less savoury parts of New York wonderfully. The stylised characters lend the film a feverish aspect, appropriate for the withdrawals Danny is suffering. There is something a bit ugly and otherwordly about them which fits the story perfectly. Personally, I love this style of animation and have often bemoaned it’s decline in the face of CGI. Even in a short film like this you know there have been hundreds of hours of real human work put into it, rather than measuring it in “rendering time”.

The big strength of the film is the story itself though and how it plays with our preconceptions of drug addicts. Just the use of the word “junky” in the title carries enough negative connotations to turn you against Danny from the very beginning, even before you start piling on any of the snapshot experiences you may have of drug addicts in real life into the mix. My day job being in retail I have plenty of stories about run ins with addicts who are stealing to feed their addiction and so it’s difficult for anyone to elicit any sympathy from me for junky-kind in the face of the theft and the threats of (and actual) violence that I associate with them thanks to the limited context of these encounters. Burroughs, himself an invetirate drug addict, manages to challenge these expectations with The Junky’s Christmas, a story that doesn’t shy away from the fact that crime is an almost inevitable side effect of the addiction but which manages to balance it out by showing it is not the sum total of addiction, that Danny still has some semblance of humanity about him.

It’s this fundamental humanity that really makes this a proper Christmas film. In the final scene, finally holed up in a seedy boarding house with his syringe full of morphine and getting ready to inject himself and put an end to his withdrawal sickness Danny is disturbed by agonising groans from the neighbouring room where he finds another man in agony from kidney stones. No doctor will take him seriously, believing that he is only after drugs and so Danny, embodying the compassion, generosity, seflessness and love for his fellow man that we as a society have embraced as the true spirit of Christmas, gives the man his only hit to relieve his pain, giving himself over to his own misery in the process.

For such a stark tale it is surprisingly heartwarming and is flecked with touches of dark humour both in terms of the narration and the animation. Burroughs was a firm believer in writing about what you know and his long history of drug addiction shows through here, especially in the casual tone of his narration as he describes the minutiae of day to day life as a junky. For insight I would put this up there with David Simon’s revelatory and despairingly grim book The Corner (a non-fiction account of a Baltimore neighbourhood ravaged by drug dealers and addiction) and it has definitely reminded me of the importance of thinking about the broader picture before rushing to judgement based on a handful of specific people and moments. Odd it may well be but it is definitely worth seeking out and has bundles more Christmas spirit than most of the stuff they usually show on the telly at this time of year.

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