“Mothers know nothing about creeping marauders burrowing through the snow toward the kitchen where only you and you alone stand between your tiny, huddled family and insensate evil.”
Lines like this one, muttered by narrator Ralphie Parker, who tells the story of his most memorable childhood Christmas, are what give such compassionate life to what many consider the most funny holiday film ever recorded. In it is a ripe concoction of saccharine and cynicism, deftly touching on the mindset of youth while enfolding in it a sort of enigmatic irony. We all know what it is like to be child, we all know just how absurd and precipitous the turns in a child’s stream of conscious can be. Yet, despite, our familiarity, we find it difficult to quantify and difficult to explain.
Hence, the enigma.
So, as Ralphie thinks on how slighted he has been because of his mother’s denial to him of the one present he wants the most—an official Red Rider carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle (with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time)—he can’t help but imagine himself if he actually had that rifle. A hero he would be, certainly, and oh, how his mother would see it. Hence, she would get her retribution, and come to him on bended knee, admitting that he was right to want (and need) the gun.
There is another scene, not unlike this one, where Ralphie imagines the swift rebuke of life’s justice against his parents for not knowing better. As he sits with a block of Lifebuoy soap in his mouth, he imagines a scene in the not-too-distant future when his parents, now empty-nesters, open the door to let him into their home after a long respite. As he enters their home in sunglasses, feeling his way past obstacles with a walking stick, the two parents realize that their son has gone blind. What could they have done to spare him of this awful doom? What caused their firstborn son to lose his sight? “Soap…poisoning”, Ralphie mutters, and his parents wail in agony, knowing that all of this is their fault. The camera then lingers on Ralphie’s smirkish smile, and the vision fades back to reality. The smile on Ralphie’s face remains, though the Lifebuoy is still working its bitter magic.
I’ve long noticed that kids see suffering as a sort of rite of passage. They hate pain, they hate sickness, and they hate punishment, but they love the attention that those things bring. Maybe it’s, to them, a sign of maturity, or maybe just a way to get noticed. Either way, Ralphie is able to endure the vile taste of the red bar of soap in his mouth merely through imagining the joy an even greater pain will bring.
Hence, the irony.
These subtle observations of youth are brilliantly written and narrated by Jean Shepherd, a talented humorist and radio personality whose career spanned several decades. Shepherd had a way with words, and used them to “rail against conformity” in his attempt to comment on life (this according to a Publisher’s Weekly review of Eugene Bergmann’s biographical work on Shepherd). It is this attention to detail, even years removed from preadolescence, that gives life to this movie’s comedy.
Jerry Seinfeld is known for saying that comedy lies in details. There’s the well-known sequence in his eponymous sitcom when his character places a Tweety-Bird Pez dispenser on Elaine’s lap before the start of a music recital and Elaine can’t stop laughing throughout the whole number. There is no joke here, just a profoundly specific detail that triggers an almost unexplained reaction.
It’s Shepherd’s ability to linger on these Pez-dispenser-like details that makes this movie so funny. Consider how long the movie spends talking about a bawdy lamp, or under-prepared turkey, or bunny pajamas that do nothing to contribute to the plot of the story at all. Rather, they lend a hand to specificity that is at once relatable. There’s the special emphasis on the type of food that Ralphie’s little brother refuses to eat, or the nuances of the difficult dialect of dares among kids. There’s even the period-specific obsession with the newest cultural sensation, The Wizard of Oz. After all, Jean Shepherd could have spent a whole bunch of time talking about the flavor of the soap, but he instead decided to describe it for what it was: Lifebuoy, not Lux or Palmolive. Details, not generic descriptors, give life to a movie that is, for all intents and purposes, about life. And that is exactly the theme that ran through all of Shepherd’s works: there was a reflection on life, its ups, its downs, and its consistency despite its fluidity.
This is why I consider A Christmas Story to be worthy of its place in my list of the greatest films of all time. Few films do such a fine job of showing what a family looks like, trapped in time, specifically relating to a culture once-known and now sort of foreign. This is where the film acts specifically as a “Slice of Cake” to us, the viewers.
Working against the background of these details, the actors in the film do fantastic work. The movie didn’t cast superstars, though the pair that played Ralphie’s nameless parents (they are billed as “Mother Parker” and “The Old Man Parker”), performed their parts like superstars. Melinda Dillon, who played “Mother”, had roles previously in Slap Shot and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Darren McGavin, who played “The Old Man”, was best known as detective Kolchak in the television show of the same name. The two embrace the characteristics of their roles perfectly, concerned less with parental motives in actuality and more with how those motives are interpreted through the eyes of children. The moments of altruism or compassion are certainly noticed, though unfortunately they can seem drowned in moments of demand, stress, or punishment. Often, more is made of punishment than is rightfully deserved, and the two parents can seem more gruff and strict than they likely really were. But, in those moments when the gruff masks are shed (and, even when they remain on, for that matter), McGavin and Dillon shine.
That the movie’s plot and even it’s characters are seen through a child’s eyes is one thing that makes this movie last so long; there’s a universality to the undeveloped personality that spans nations and times. In his analysis of Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon, legendary film critic André Bazin called it the greatest children’s film ever made. A children’s film, because it was about the world as seen through the eyes of a child…it’s a movie about children, not just for children. In this regard, A Christmas Story is a children’s film, even if its jokes are more for adults than children, and even if it is not as stare-inducing as, say, the most recent Pixar film.
This is why, even if the two main adults of the film are brilliant, the performance de résistance belonged to Peter Billingsley for his role as Ralphie, the film’s main character. His performance, though often not considered in the conversation, belongs in the conversation for best child performances in American cinema, particularly since 1980. Billingsley was brilliant as the slight nerd in grade school who wanted more than anything to have the newest Red Rider BB gun…and, as the movie goes on, we start to realize that it’s probably because it’ll make him seem like more of a man. For a young boy around Christmastime, the time ideally made for the young, who wanted to be respected by his father, Ralphie has forces of youth and aging pulling at him for both sides. This conflict is reconciled in his quest for the BB gun, and is stunningly captivating for such a simple comedy. Billingsley would never get a big role like this again, though a well-earned bit part in Elf (a new Christmas standard, it seems) and taking the helm as director of the recent Favreau/Vaughn flick Couples Retreat have taken him into the new millenium.
It is a testament to Bob Clark—an overlooked directorial talent out of Canada who won many a Genie award for his work in film—that this movie encapsulates a specific atmosphere that perfectly encapsulates what 1940s middle-America felt like. Like American Graffiti from a decade earlier, A Christmas Story is one of those few period films that feel more authentic than desperate, never once straining to accentuate the culture and time it was attempting to represent. Too often (consider the recent television successes Mad Men and Downtown Abbey), filmmakers make the fact that the film is a period piece the central focus of the movie or show. This becomes problematic in more ways than one. First, the movie becomes a comparative exercise between the era it represents and the era in which it is viewed. This is a hallmark of progressive propoganda and pollutes film with politics that are either uninformed or overblown, taking away from any opportunity to give real art to the film. After all, you only have so much time to give the viewer something of value, and wasting time by focusing on polarity is not the way to it. Second, putting period at the focal point of a period piece puts the film at risk of failure: stray ever so slightly for historical accuracy, and you may destroy the entire point of the picture. Beyond that, people become more in tune with the costumes and the regalia than the actual story or artistic motive of the movie’s maker. It becomes a virtual museum tour rather than a work of art.
A Christmas Story succeeds as a period piece because it does none of these things. As a matter of fact, you never feel like you are in 1940…the thought never crosses your mind. Now, don’t get me wrong. It does not feel modern. It just feels…comfortable.
As a matter of fact, it feels like it belongs perfectly in the stylistic oeuvre of its era. Bob Clark has never been considered one of the Hollywood New Wave (or “New Hollywood” group—a group that I will be writing about more in the future), but this contribution to early 1980s cinema fits perfectly in the works of directors that have been included in the movement: directors like Robert Altman, Mike Nichols, George Lucas, and Sidney Lumet. The Robert Altman similarity deserves the most mention. While I do not pretend to say Clark was as good as Altman, I do see a distinct stylistic similarity between the authenticity of his A Christmas Story and the sort of authenticity that runs through Altman’s cinema.
Altman was talented at showing a world that worked independently of the camera. Rather than being a party to the goings-on of the story, the camera worked as an ignorant observer, peeking in on an already established mise-en-scene that was part of an already created world. This is the authenticity of A Christmas Story. The Parker family is as real as our own, existing within a complex world that is not restricted—in time or space—by the boundaries of the frame. It shares the same sort of visual grittiness as many Altman classics, and is filled with convincing and mendacious acting performances. Shepherd and Clark’s decision to focus on minutiae is at the heart of this preexistence, and is the preeminent reason why its existence post-release has remained so eternal (or, at least, perennial) in nature.
But, in the end, the family exists to tell the story of a real, true, happy, secular Christmas. It exists to comment and chuckle about all the dramas—real and imagined—that surround this happy and chaotic season. It’s mostly cynical, but delightfully heartwarming; and, at all times, it’s funny. It is funny because we all connect with it, even if we never wanted a BB gun from Santa Claus.
And we all, in the end, find the greatest of Christmas satisfactions when we hear those final lines from Jean Shepherd’s narration, as Ralphie’s younger self is falling asleep after an eventful Christmas day:
“Next to me in the blackness lay my oiled blue steel beauty. The greatest Christmas gift I had ever received, or would ever receive. Gradually, I drifted off to sleep, pranging ducks on the wing and getting off spectacular hip shots.”