"Helping children be better is relatively easy. Fixing broken adults is a lot harder."
With these words, Rob Figley, the "Swinging Santa", gets at the heart of what I Am Santa Claus is about.
The film chronicles the year of five men who perform the beloved mythological holiday hero, Santa Claus, during the Christmas season. Their lives revolve around this eagerly anticipated time of year, those precious two months essential to their financial and emotional livelihoods.
With honesty and respect (and a great sense of endearing humor), director Tommy Avallone doesn't simply give viewers a glimpse behind the proverbial curtain, he gently holds the curtain open for you and invites you into a fascinating Santa Claus-themed world populated by fascinating individuals.
Not only will you walk away from the film with a deeper understanding of the practicalities of life as a Santa (these men spend their days like anyone else; they look for work, they try to pay bills, they have long-distance relationships, they support their families, they meet at conventions, and they struggle to get contracts from agents), you will walk away with a deeper understanding of humanity, and why the Santa Claus character is such a universally beloved, inspirational idol.
The film opens with children describing their understanding of Santa Claus, and then the rest of the film slowly deconstructs that understanding so as to ultimately rebuild it.
One of the primary reasons the film is so effective (and genuinely touching) is that it practices what it espouses by not passing judgment on these men, even some of the more "controversial" Santa Claus performers. The film also doesn't pass judgment on those viewers who might be resolutely against a homosexual man performing the Santa Claus character. Instead, like a truly excellent documentary should, and in keeping with the fundamental purpose of the film and Christmas itself, I Am Santa Claus gives a voice to everyone. If the film is making an argument for any particular stance, it’s arguing for an open mind and an open heart.
Santa Russell Spice (a delightfully craggily man whose relatable financial woes melt away when he discusses what Santa represents), gives voice to an inevitable sect of the audience by taking issue with the idea of a gay Santa or a swinging Santa. He's open-minded enough to listen to the other side, or tries to be, but obviously struggles with the notion. Watching his internal conflict, his attempt to reconcile his discomfort or uncertainty with the knowledge that Santa represents universal love and universal peace is one of the film's most interesting scenes. How can one believe that Santa Claus is for everyone while also thinking he shouldn't be played by a gay man? There's a fundamental hypocrisy in this thought-process that could lead to an awakening in an individual if honestly examined.
Russell's conflict is one that many viewers will likely have. Even the most liberal-minded person might struggle to accept the idea that a Santa Claus performer frequents a sex club with his wife or that a Santa Claus performer takes photographs of himself for the Bear Community.
And this is where the effectiveness of the editing helps craft a compelling argument for keeping an open mind. Rob Figley, the "swinging Santa" and a source of controversy within the Santa community itself, walks viewers through his "sex club", humorously pointing out that there's "no nudity at the buffet" and that he prefers to call "the orgy bar" the "group observation bar".
As someone who considers himself incredibly open-minded and equalitarian, even I was somewhat befuddled by this revelation. It is, at the very least, hard to process the idea that a man who plays Santa also enjoys watching live, group sex. The two concepts could not be further removed from one another (and the film inevitably convinces you that the sexual lives of these men have no bearing on their ability to accurately portray Santa or inspire children).
Following this examination into Rob’s sex-life, the film brilliantly allows Rob to open up about how he was inspired to help others after seeing his brother struggle with a sexual-identity crisis before dying of aids. We see that Rob, and all of these Santas, are more than just a sexual preference or a proclivity that is typically regarded as odd or not socially acceptable. We see these men are motivated by something truly benevolent.
We see ourselves in these men. This is an inescapable truth of the world in which we live, and it’s a truth that frightens many people who aren’t fortunate enough to realize their commonality in all beings. Few documentaries so excellently embody the universal nature of existence, and I Am Santa Claus does so in a subtle, skillful fashion, commenting on the very nature of life on this planet by simply and honestly examining the lives of men who dress up like Santa. Even the title itself embodies the enlightened soul, the simple, but powerful proclamation "I am" and "I know what I am." Viewers will also have to say the title of the film when they discuss it. "I am Santa Claus". In this way, they too become Santa, the universal spirit of peace and love.
“Everyone’s got a personal life,” says Frank Pascuzzi, who had his name legally changed to Santa Claus.
Frank’s introduction is thoroughly enjoyable, waltzing into the DMV to get his name changed to “Santa Claus” on his license, joking around with other patrons. It’s remarkable to see the way typically standoffish Long Island strangers react to a man who looks like Santa. People let their guard down. They know intuitively the person they’re talking to is a performer, but they can’t help but allow their inner, emotional child to inform their reaction. People soften. They become warmer, better people at the sight of Santa.
Frank/Santa explains in his first talking head segment, “I’ve come to learn that my Santa Claus personae is nicer than Frank. He doesn’t argue as much, he doesn’t get aggravated as much as Frank did. And I think in the beginning, I wanted to hold on to the Frank character to be able to blow off steam. But I don’t want to blow off steam. I want to just be the person that I want to be.”
Self-actualization is an essential component in the film. These men, who represent the aforementioned “broken adults” find salvation, and ultimately their most honest self, by becoming someone else. This is the story of any performer or artist who needs to transform themselves or inhabit the skin of a different character so as to access, in a way that is almost inexplicable and wonderfully ironic, who they really are as a human being.
This process is most clearly represented in “The Santa Rookie”, and the producer of the film, Mick Foley.
The use of juxtaposition serves the film’s various purposes, and the introduction of Mick Foley is one such smile-inspiring editing flourish.
“I think anyone could be Santa if they have Christmas in their heart,” says Santa Bob, acting as a transition into music and imagery that will be instantly recognizable to a pro-wrestling fan. We see Mankind tumbling off the Hell in a Cell, Cactus Jack dropping his elbow to Sting, blood and barbed wire ring-action, and then, finally, a peaceful, gentle Mick Foley sitting on his couch.
Pro-wrestling fans will likely be surprised by the parallels between professional wrestling and Santa Claus performance.
Mick goes in search of a famous Santa sage named Santa Dana Caplan to learn more about the art of Santa performance, and he ends up at a small, Christmas-light-adorned house on Santa Lane in Grayscale, Illinois. The glee in Mick’s eyes as he speaks to Santa Caplan is inspiring. He listens so intently, and with such energy that one sees why he’s been such a successful creative force in his life. The near-desperation with which Mick asks to try on some of Santa’s special cologne is the desperation of an inspired artist, a childlike need to bring imagination into reality.
As I listened to Santa Dana, I was immediately reminded of the incredibly specific pro-wrestling lessons Stone Cold Steve Austin offers on his Podcast.
“Trim your nose hairs, because the kids are looking up at your nose, you know?” says Santa Dana. “Don’t let a kid straddle your legs…don’t eat anything that gives you gas…don’t wear any overpowering colognes, I always wanted to smell like a chocolate chip cookie.”
These lessons reveal the intricacy of a craft most people take for granted or never even consider. These Santas go to great lengths to sell you the fiction of Santa Claus, just as a pro-wrestler or painter or poet or filmmaker attempts to sell you on a different, but comparable emotional and mental state of being.
“Can you tell a fantasy and look like you’re telling the truth…the whole thing is believability,” Santa Dana explains, who greeted Mick by referring to him as "Michael Francis Foley".
“How much does that sound like what we do,” Mick says to fellow wrestling legend Roddy Piper. "Suspending disbelief to where you are capable of doing things that you could never do.”
In revealing the specific similarities between pro-wrestling performance and Santa performance, I Am Santa Claus demonstrates the inevitable unifying principle of all artistic mediums or forms of performance (once again, in keeping with the theme of universality).
“They hurt themselves for the craft,” one man says to Mick when Mick’s considering bleaching his hair.
When Mick finally does bleach his hair and put on his custom-made Santa suit, the film ascends to a place of transcendent joy and beauty. His transformation (beautifully scored with a choral version of Carol of the Bells) is remarkable, the camera eventually settling on his Santa-made-over face. “Ohhh, ho, ho, ho,” he chuckles in a jolly baritone. In this moment, you believe Santa Claus is real.
And you believe it because, very simply, Santa is real. He represents an intangible truth within the human soul. Our need to take that intangible truth and give it shape in the form of Santa, or any of our beloved fictional characters, is one of our greatest, most benevolent human traditions.
And you believe in Santa even more because you watched the painful bleaching, shaving, cutting, and grooming process. It is an earned transformation, a testament to the resonant nature of the character, but also the performers who must “hurt themselves for the craft”.
Mick’s reverence for Santa and the Christmas season pervades his story, as well as a soft, but pointed sense of irony and humor.
“What does Santa do with his hands when he greets people?” he asks, both in amusing, but genuine fashion while he sits in the chair for the first time before he meets children. Pro-wrestling fans will find it especially rewarding to see Mick joyfully accept the humbling role of Santa rookie, eager to be the best he can possibly be.
Mick’s story culminates in one of the film’s most touching scenes, where he arranges for Santa Frank to appear at his home on Christmas Eve and surprise his children. So as not to spoil the scene for you, I will simply write that Mick’s final words in the film will make even the most hard-hearted individual tear up.
A lesser documentarian and a lesser performer would have focused entirely on Mick Foley’s journey considering Mick’s legendary celebrity status and producer credit.
But Mick and Avallone graciously and intelligently share the film equally among the Santas, so that you become invested in everyone’s story.
It’s less a documentary about Christmas, or even a particular mythological character, and more a film about the lengths to which human beings will go so as to embrace their most honest self, and simultaneously connect with other human beings. Such is a valuable examination, and a process everyone should experience. The film proves that the enlightenment of the individual self can lead to the enlightenment, and betterment, of the human race.
Each of us aspires to become exactly who we are supposed to be, and to be accepted for who we are. That search can take us to some strange, unexpected, and even frightening places.
And sometimes it means putting on a big red suit and making others smile.
Thank you for reading.
Merry Christmas to all…and to all a good night.
Thank you again for reading! You can buy I Am Santa Claus at all the usual outlets, and you can also watch it on Netflix.
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