All The King’s Men
By Linda Dubler, Creative Loafing

Kitsch alert! Worshipper at the shrine of Elvis, fans of unabashed bad taste, followers of pop culture take note – there’s still time to catch a screening of George King’s mind-bending new video “Ten Thousand Points of Light,” which screens at 10:30 p.m. on Friday, July 26 and Friday, August 2 at IMAGE Film/Video Center, 75 Bennett Street. It’s a wry, understated and terrifically funny look at the Townsends, a suburban Atlanta family who, every holiday season for eight years, transformed their Stone Mountain area brick ranch house into a meteoric blaze of Christmas lights. Know as both “the Christmas House” and the “the Elvis House,” the Townsend’s home was visited yearly by vast numbers of people, many of whom viewed a trip to the land of a thousand tchotchkas as an annual pilgrimage.

The tradition was begun by Granny Margaret Townsend, a bejeweled matriarch with frosted green fingernails, a deadpan manner, a full-blown Elvis obsession and a talent for covering every available inch of wall, floor and counter space with shining, blinking, glittering, shimmering junk. Exterior decoration was carried out by her son, an affable, generous man who wore a gun beneath his nylon windbreaker, just in case visitors got seriously out of line. A granddaughter, whose hair color and marital status changes several times over the course of the video, took an active part in touring folks through, (apparently to keep her flirting skills in shape), as did an assortment of aunts, nieces and other family members.

King, who sees the Townsends as TV-addled, mainstream eccentrics who are possessed of extraordinary community spirit, captures some priceless moments, beginning with an early interview in which Margaret Townsends opines: “Christmas and Elvis go together. Nothing will take the place of Christ. But Elvis was a good man; he was good to everybody,” Graceland has clearly had an impact on the Townsend’s aesthetic, as has the Cable Shopping Network and Family Circle-style craft projects (my favorite’s the nativity scene made of white chocolate, brown chocolate, and graham crackers, with the baby Jesus modeled out of marshmallows.) Tasteful and devout alike have decried the commercialization of Christmas, but in their wildest dreams they could never have envisioned the “Fantasy Room,” in which tinsel and blinking lights complement countless icons of the earthly King. On the soundtrack, strains of Tennessee Ernie Ford crooning “How Great Thou Art” completes the equation between the Savior and the Pelvis.

What did the Christmas/Elvis House mean to visitors, and why did they mourn its final season last year? King elicits some revealing comments from the patient folks who lined up until 10 p.m. on weeknights, weekends till midnight. One Atlanta artist compares he place’s sensory overload to the Sienna Cathedral, claiming that her contact lenses clouded over when she first walked through the door. Other spectators praise the unity of the Townsend family and their extraordinary generosity (admission was never charged). “Southern hospitality has really gone to the limit here!” is how one lady puts it. And of course there are those who revel in things like the Santa toilet cover and the Elvis hand towels. If I didn’t know King better, I’d swear that he planted the Elvis button-wearing nun who, informed that the Townsends have decided to end their decorating frenzy as of 1990, exclaims, “Thank God I had a chance to see it!”

Ten Thousand Points of Light could have come across as a bad-tempered, Letterman-style trashing of working-class values and rituals. Instead, it’s a sly portrait, shadowed with hints of the surreal, that strikes a perfect balance between affection and awe-struck disbelief.

July 27, 1991