The things I subject myself to so all of you can be aware of the existence of archives and archivists...
I've been very upfront in past articles about not being the biggest fan of romantic movies, or at least not the intended audience for them. Don't get me wrong, romance is fine but it's not the genre I gravitate towards when looking for something to occupy my time. There are too many tropes that boil my blood and it's very rare for a movie or tv show to transcend or utilize those tropes in an interesting way.
But it's never come up (because why would it?) that I'm even less of a fan of your run-of-the-mill Hallmark/Lifetime movies. If the tropes of a typical romantic drama or comedy already viscerally upset me, these movies easily put me into a rage-induced fugue state. The writing's terrible, the acting awkward, and the story, if there is one, usually revolves around a woman devaluing herself so much that she falls for the first man who gives her a compliment. Now sprinkle in some milquetoast Christmas nonsense and you've got yourself a whole other genre of annoyance.
I don't like them, is what I'm getting at. So the fact that I watched an entire Hallmark Christmas movie probably qualifies me for sainthood.
Christmas at the Plaza is a 2019 Hallmark movie written and directed by Ron Oliver, starring Elizabeth Henstridge as Jessica Cooper, an "archival historian" tasked with creating an installation for New York's Plaza Hotel about Christmas and the hotel's history with the holiday. The movie also stars Ryan Paevey as Nick Perrelli, a man with no discernible characteristics except he loves decorating for Christmas - and only Christmas - while creepily pursuing a woman he knows has a boyfriend and has weird ideas about people who study history. There are also supporting characters like Reginald Brookwater (Bruce Davison), a bellman with a tragic past, Amanda Clark (Julia Duffy), the worst boss, and Jessica's best friend Cassidy (Karen Holness), a Black woman with no last name who is only invested in her best friend's love life and wears a Christmas elf outfit for 75% of her scenes.
I. Have. Opinions.
Let's start with the first bit of nonsense. In the first two minutes of the movie, Jessica introduces herself to Reginald and says she's an "archival historian" who'll be working at the Plaza on a grant from The University (it's never named) funded by the hotel to research Christmas. Then this exchange happens:
Reginald: You have a very impressive title.
Jessica: I'm not as important as it sounds.
Because "archival historian" isn't a thing. It's two professions smushed together that amounts to the screenwriter only being concerned with the fact that she works with old stuff. Also, did you catch that she doesn't have a high opinion of herself? Well buckle up because that self-deprecation spiral continues for the whole. Damn. Movie.
We then meet Jessica's boss for the duration of the project, Amanda Clark. This woman is a real piece of work. She takes Jessica to the archives, which is later confirmed to be in the basement of the hotel because of course it is, and shows her a relatively full room of shelves full of boxes, binders, and what can only be described as stuff. Amanda explains that all of the records are "pre-internet" so nothing has been digitized or thrown out but she's not sure how far back the files go. She then tells Jessica that it will be her job to organize and catalogue the collection while creating a Christmas-related exhibit that needs to be completed in less than three weeks.
Okay, first of all, I did a Google search and the Plaza opened in 1907. I then went to the actual Plaza Hotel website and the Timeline begins in 1883 when construction started on the first Plaza Hotel. So that means the hotel archives should have 136 years of records and artifacts. There, I did the work for you, movie. And given the general layout and size of the archives, as shown by the movie, there's no way the space we see is capable of housing and preserving records going that far back. If this movie wanted to attempt to make sense, then Jessica would be working in a building separate from the actual hotel - most likely the corporate headquarters - where a portion of the records are stored in-house and the rest kept offsite.
But I don't get to live in a world where this movie makes sense.
Second of all, what is this constant surprise expressed by Jessica about the scope of work for the project? You don't get grant money without knowing the stipulations behind what you can and can't use the money for. The grant would have also included a deadline for the project completion, so Jessica shouldn't be gaping in abject horror at her relatively short timeline. Also, academic grants take months to approve, so none of the things Amanda is saying should be eliciting shock from the archival historian. The second Jessica stepped into the hotel she should've already understood the work she's being funded to do, the state of the archives, and her deadline.
To her credit, Jessica tells Amanda that to properly categorize and inventory over 100 years of records would take more than a year. Amanda doesn't seem to care and that's the last time it's ever spoken about.
This is still in the first ten minutes of the movie, by the way.
Anyway, once the shock wears off, Jessica asks Amanda what type of exhibit she's hoping for and Amanda tells her, "A Christmas story." I do love it when people are unhelpfully vague in holiday movies. Oh, and Jessica will have to come up with it herself.
To which Jessica says, "I'm not really a story person. I deal in facts."
Have you ever wanted to punch a movie in its face?
Jessica - Actually, no, let's talk to Ron Oliver for a second. As I mentioned before, he's the writer and director of this movie and seems to be the voice behind a lot of the Hallmark Christmas movies. He's written and directed at least 10 Christmas-related TV-movies since 2015, but his IMDB filmography is chock full of Hallmark/Lifetime threadbare excuses for movies and tv shows. His nickname is also listed as "Big Daddy" so do with that what you will.
So when I say I want to punch the movie in its face, that's because of Ron Oliver and his decision to make the female lead a Joe Friday, "Just the facts, ma'am" stereotype of a character. This is the laziest way to write because it puts no effort into understanding the historical or archival professions.
Historians and archivists are storytellers. If you don't believe me, then go pick up a non-fiction book in the History section of your local bookstore or check one out from the library and prepare to be amazed by the way historians weave the facts they obtained through research in an archives into a 200 page narrative. And I've said it on this website dozens of times, but it still bears repeating: archivists are just as involved in the construction of historical narratives.
Furthermore, storytelling is one of the main reasons people study and pursue history as a subject! How else am I going to get my family to appreciate the research I do if I can't bring it all together and talk for five minutes about Sybil Ludington's midnight ride that was overshadowed by Paul Revere due to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's rhyming scheme?
But Ron Oliver would rather the audience focus on the historian stuck in the past and afraid of the future trope so Jessica can see the error of her ways once Nick Perrelli comes along to "challenge" her ethos. And by challenge, I mean he says one snarky line, the camera cuts away, we're told how upset Jessica is, and he apologizes in the next scene. Seriously, whenever these two argue it lasts all of a scene change. This movie doesn't understand drama or stakes.
Oh, I should've mentioned, Nick, the Plaza's Christmas decorator for the year, is assigned to help Jessica by Amanda. Again, movie, that's not how anything works! Nick already has a job that he's presumably being paid for a completely separate Christmas-related thing. That doesn't make him qualified to assist in an archival endeavor especially when he damages materials within a minute of getting the assignment. And I'm pretty sure the grant should've allowed for Jessica to select students from The University to assist.
Ugh, I'm losing my mind over this less-than-90 minute monstrosity!
Moving on to preserve what's left of my grey matter!
As Nick and Jessica painfully rage-flirt, we learn that Jessica has degrees in anthropology, urban archeaology, and social geneaological studies. The third one is made up. It doesn't exist as an academic discipline, but the movie and Ron Oliver want you to think it sounds plausible enough to make Jessica look like she knows what she's talking about. Why she didn't just say geneaology, I'll never know. Weirdly, I didn't hear her say she has any degrees in history, which one might acquire if they call themselves an archival historian. Maybe. I have no idea since archival historian isn't a profession.
We never learn what position Jessica holds at The University either. Is she a professor? Librarian? Does she lurk in the shadows waiting to pounce on unsuspecting academics? I don't know! She's a void unto herself! She only exists at this exact point in time for this one purpose before The Doctor shows up to send her back from whence she came!
Now you might be wondering what angle Jessica takes for the exhibit. Well, after doubting herself, almost quitting, and then finding inspiration through the male characters, she decides on chronicling the bespoke tree toppers made for the Plaza's Christmas tree every year since the hotel opened. For what it's worth, that's actually an interesting point of focus for an exhibit. Unfortunately, that's still 112 years of tree toppers, finial d'arbre as the characters keep calling them because it's such a common term, to locate and gather information for the installation. Especially since Jessica wants the artists who made the tree toppers to be featured.
But silly me, I forgot this is a Hallmark movie, so of course Jessica is saved in her search for tree toppers when she lays eyes on a box labeled "December 1975"! Never mind the painstaking work of doing an inventory, she can just pull boxes that tell you they're from December of Year X and all will be well. It's not like the boxes would be mislabeled or the contents of said boxes might include records for things other than December. That's never happened in the history of boxes on shelves in archives ever.
I think the real kicker for me is when we see that the research and exhibit are coming along fine until Jessica realizes that she's missing the finial d'arbre for 1969 (nice). Like any professional, she presents her findings and a report on the exhibit's progress to Amanda, but when Boss of the Year sees that the Riddler has hidden the tree topper where no one will find it, she all but tells Jessica that the installation can't happen unless she has ALL of the tree toppers. Because missing one out of 112 years of decor would somhow make the Plaza look unprofessional.
I - I don't even know how to respond to that. First of all, how dare you? Second of all, how fucking DARE you?! Jessica has worked within a truncated timeline, received barely any help from a doe-eyed decorator who's unnervingly interested in her, and has literally had faculty at The University laugh at her for her academic pursuits, but one missing tree topper is a blight on the pristine record of the Plaza?
If Jessica Cooper were a real person, she would be justified in NOPING out of this situation entirely.
But Ron Oliver needs her to still be here and tepidly fall in love with Nick, so she stays. It all works out in the end because it had to and they get the missing tree topper from its original artist, Reginald the bellman! I'm sure you were surprised. The exhibit opens and Jessica gives a generic speech about Christmas and history:
Christmas is a time for celebration but also - maybe - a time for reflection, too. Not just the history of all of this but the history of all of us. These beautiful decorations are an important part of the holidays. But I don't think it's the decorations that make Christmas memories. It's the decorating. It's the coming together to put up a tree, hang some lights, make cookies, even sing Christmas songs. Sometimes badly. I guess what I'm trying to say is: it's not just what we do that makes the holidays special. It's what we are to each other. And it's what's in our hearts that makes us all a part of the history of Christmas.
Yadda, yadda, yadda, she and Nick get together and Christmas is saved or whatever.
I'm gonna go drink some Christmas whiskey.