Wednesday, 1 December 2010

A Christmas Story (USA, 1983)

To Americans, my suggestion that, one Christmas, they should watch A Christmas Story will seem as unnecessary as the suggestion that, one Christmas, they should send cards or exchange gifts. In the US – where, during the festive season, the film famously plays on one cable channel 24 hours a day – A Christmas Story is an institution. In Britain it is almost unknown. Ask a Brit if he’s heard of a festive failure like Jingle All The Way or Scrooged or Christmas With The Kranks and he’ll probably tell you’ve he’s seen it several times. Ask if he’s heard of A Christmas Story and you’ll likely be met with a pause, eyes that narrow into a searching expression and, eventually, a question about whether that’s the one that’s something to do with the Nativity.

It isn’t anything to do with the Nativity. It isn’t anything to do with any of the traditional Christmas stories, and certainly not the traditional Christmas movie plots. There’s no sub-Scrooge miser who calls working lunches on Christmas Eve but is soon reformed by the faith of one sweet-eyed little girl toting a snow globe; there’s no race to reunite a fractured family; nobody steals Christmas and nobody has to save it. There is only a boy, a believable, lovable, flawed every-child, who urgently wants from Santa a certain toy – an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time’ – and is told by every adult to whom he appeals that, if he gets one, he’ll shoot his eye out.

Between meeting him sometime during Advent, and leaving him sometime on Christmas night, we experience with this boy, Peter Billingsley’s Ralphie Parker, many of the tests and joys and absurdities of small town childhood – and each of the ostensibly unremarkable episodes constructed around them is more magical, and more genuinely connected to the spirit of Christmas, than any amount of CGI-infected sequences showing previously hard-bitten New Yorkers joining hands and making Santa’s sleigh fly by just believing in him so damn hard.

Why the film is scarcely seen in Britain – and why, indeed, it isn’t considered a classic the watching of which is integral to any properly conducted Yuletide – is a mystery I cannot solve. Perhaps it is ‘too American’ … but that can’t be right. Certainly, A Christmas Story is entirely and unmistakably All-American, but it’s All-American in the welcoming, comforting, universally appealing way that Peanuts or Forrest Gump are All-American – not in the incomprehensible and off-putting way that homecoming queens or hotdog-eating contests are. The film isn’t just a slice of American pie: it’s a feast of human experience.

What astonishes most about A Christmas Story is its accuracy. I’m assured, by articles I’ve read and conversations I’ve had, that every detail of its period setting is perfect (even though its period is deliberately unspecified). The brands, the clothes, the manners, the streets, the school and the interior decoration are all, apparently, just as they were in towns like Hammond, Indiana during the 1930s and ‘40s. I have had notably limited experience of towns like Hammond, Indiana during the 1930s and ‘40s, but I think I would have known how accurate a reflection of them this film presents even without being told. Every large and important element of this movie – the characters, their interactions, their emotions and motivations – feels so right it simply follows that all the smaller and less significant details are equally exact.

This shouldn’t suggest that A Christmas Story is dully realistic. In fact, it’s enhanced by pronounced cartoonish qualities. Ralphie’s father – who works ‘in profanity the way other artists might work in oils and clay’ – constantly screams obscenities, but these are heard only as streams of innocuous nonsense. And they are subsequently very much funnier than it would be hear Mr Parker (or ‘The Old Man’, as he is known) actually say ‘fuck’ to a furnace.

I don’t believe that Jean Shepherd – the raconteur on whose semi-autobiographical writings the film is based – ever visited, as Ralphie does, a department store Santa Claus who kicked him in the head when he took too long to say what he wanted for Christmas. I don’t believe that any children have ever visited a department store Santa who kicked them in the head when they took too long to say what they wanted for Christmas (not even Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa does that). But I believe totally that thousands of children have seen shopping centre Santas who were so gruff and efficient they might as well have kicked children in the head once their allotted moments in the grotto were over. As such, the scene, while no doubt factually inaccurate, is entirely true.

The characters in this movie behave the way people – not characters in movies – behave, and because of this we truly experience things from their points of view. Many good films – particularly good Christmas films – excel at making us empathise with one character. (Generally, we see everything from the perspective of the little boy who just wants his spoilsport parents to believe that the odd old man he’s befriended really is Father Christmas. We can see he’s Father Christmas – why can’t they? We see nothing from the perspective of those loving, sane, parents who are concerned about the intentions of the probably predatory, and most definitely deranged, white-bearded weirdo hanging around their only child.) Some films, special ones like A Christmas Story, make us able to empathise with two characters at once – and not just within the same movie, but within in the same moment.

As Roger Ebert wrote in his original review of the film:

‘When [Ralphie’s father] wins a prize in a contest, and it turns out to be a table lamp in the shape of a female leg in a garter, he puts it in the window, because it is the most amazing lamp he has ever seen… I can understand that feeling. I can also understand the feeling of the mother… who is mortified beyond words.’

This is the key to A Christmas Story. When I watch it I’m Ralphie, looking up at his mother, hotly, painfully desperate to have that Red Ryder rifle – but I’m also his mother, looking down, disapproving, wanting Ralphie to get his gun but knowing that, if he does, the aforementioned ocular injury is almost inevitable. I’m The Old Man wanting to show my lamp – the Major Award I’ve always known I deserved – to the world from my window, and I’m his wife wanting to smash it to powder. I’m the kid who doesn’t believe that tongues really get stuck to frozen lampposts and I’m the kid triple-dog daring him to prove it.

Christmas is, at its best, about empathy. And Christmas movies, at their best, allow us to empathise. They connect us to characters, like us and utterly unlike us, across time and across oceans. Great Christmas movies make us feel more human, and make us want to be more humane. And A Christmas Story is a very great Christmas movie indeed.