Saturday, December 24, 2011
Day 25: A Christmas Story
"In the heat of battle, my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan."
Nostalgia weaves its way through all of our lives. Just the other night while watching Midnight in Paris, there were several conversations about both the power and danger of nostalgia. It holds a powerful sway over our memories and makes things retrospectively seem sunnier. The good tends to outweigh the bad in our memories of everyday life. We all have deep, dark, nasty shit in our past that we can't sunny up, but it makes the not-so-bad times that much better in our minds. Bob Clark's 1983 film A Christmas Story based on Jean Shepherd's awesomely titled short story "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash," resides firmly in the halls of nostalgia.
Bob Clark directed one of the most successful R-rated comedies of all-time with 1982's Porky's. 1983 found him releasing both that film's sequel and A Christmas Story, an odd one-two punch. Diversion alert: It's widely accepted by me that there are only three directors in history who achieved the feat of directing two masterpieces in the same year: Victor Fleming in 1939, Mel Brooks in 1973 & Francis Ford Coppola in 1974. It's hard to call A Christmas Story a masterpiece, but it has undeniably woven itself into the tapestry of American Christmas traditions. I would go so far as to say it is the most widely beloved feature length Christmas film, and is second in people's minds only to the Rankin-Bass animated specials of the 60s and 70s.
The film tells the story of young Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), the prototypical American boy of the early 1940s who has but one wish for Christmas. He's put all his eggs in one basket, and all he wants for Christmas is a "Red Ryder carbine action 200 shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time."
Anyone who's ever had one wish for Christmas like this forms an instant empathetic bond with Ralphie and shares in his single-minded desire for the gift of his dreams. I imagine this phenomenon isn't exclusive to those who celebrate Christmas, but for the purposes of relating to this film, it helps if it was a Christmas gift that you coveted. For me it was The Masters of the Universe Slime Pit, and Christmas morning 1986 I got the shit out of one! It's probably the most vivid Christmas memory for me, and anyone who shares in that experience can't help but get caught up in Raphie's plight.
His mother (Melinda Dillon), father (Darren McGavin), teacher, and even Santa Claus himself warn Ralphie that he'll shoot his eye out if he gets one. This becomes the cock-blocking maneuver that every adult in Ralphie's life seems to use in justification of not letting him have one.
I think that the film's firmly rooted love of the time period and pre-WWII nostalgia is what gives the film its almost universal appeal. It's not a great film, it certainly wasn't well received upon its original release, critically or commercially, yet it has endured somehow. It has a unique, for its time, understanding of childhood and depicts what it's like to be a kid so well, it almost seems made by kids. Every adult in the film is aloof, overbearing, or some combination of the two. Its style was mimicked almost immediately by the television show "The Wonder Years," which also captured the American childhood experience very deftly, but it owes its very existence to the style created by Clark and Shepherd. Having Shepherd himself do the narration is a stroke of genius and his asides throughout the film are incredibly well observed, pithy and often hilarious.
I wonder what it's like seeing this film for the first time at my age. I wonder if it's as instantly captivating as it was when I was a kid. I think it's a film that needs to be latched on to in childhood. The young at heart would be endeared to it as well, I imagine, but I came of age in the perfect time with this film. There was no over-saturation of the film as there is now (thanks a lot Ted Turner). My VHS copy was taped off of HBO by my dad, and is missing the first seven minutes or so. I remember watching the dvd for the first time about 10 years ago and being floored by the fact that there were scenes I hadn't seen before.
Nowadays, all you need to do is pop on the tv any time in the month of December and you can see Flick getting his tongue stuck to a flagpole, or the waiters in the Chinese restaurant butchering Deck the Halls, or Ralphie in his pink bunny suit. The film is a part of the fabric of our lives in this country now and is almost impossible to see intact from beginning to end for the first time now. I don't know if this is a good or a bad thing, but it's certainly been built up by the masses to be a whole lot better than it actually is. But isn't that the whole power of nostalgia in the first place? If you haven't seen it before, I hope you enjoy it. If you don't, give it a year and try again. It's almost impossible not to find it charming at the very least.
I have no idea what tomorrow's film will be, but I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas.