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.

15 comments:

litdreamer said...

One of the best, I'd say. Great review.

My shortlist for great Christmas movies (in alphabetical order): A Christmas Story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and It's a Wonderful Life. A Charlie Brown Christmas is a little preachy for me, and I haven't seen (gasp!) any of the Miracle on 34th Street movies.

rtm said...

I've never seen this one despite having lived in America most of my life. Though I'm not born and raised in the US, I'm accustomed to what most Americans (well the secular ones anyway) consider what Christmas to be about... santa, scrooge, presents, etc. and NOT the Nativity Story (which I think is what this season should be about). In any case, nice writeup. I shall give this one a watch.

Scott Jordan Harris said...

Thank you both for your kind comments.

@LitDreamer: That's a great shortlist: they'd make a lovely Christmas season on a TV channel. Both version Miracle of 34th Street are well worth you checking out. Would be interested to hear your thoughts on them!

@rtm I think to have persuaded an American to watch A Christmas Story for the first time would be an ever greater honour for me than to have pointed a Brit in its direction! I doubt you'll be disappointed with it.

litdreamer said...

I actually think there are three versions of A Miracle on 34th Street floating around, Scott. I shall try to see the first one, at least, which I've only seen snippets of.

Last year, I got to see It's a Wonderful Life on the big screen, on Christmas Day. Highly recommended for anyone who gets the chance: http://wp.me/pXUpa-13

Donald said...

I first saw this movie on a rare snowy the day in the week before Christmas. With the first shot, it took me straight back to my childhood, opening up a flood of memories.

I remember the feeling the same uncontainable excitement as Christmas grew ever closer, progressively losing the ability to sleep with each passing day. Lying in bed on Christmas eve, balefully awake in the dark, trying to think of ways to force myself into dreams so that Santa would have time to deliver the goods. Then, somehow, at around 3:00 AM, after what seemed like a grand total of 46 seconds of "sleep," waking up and thinking, "Did he come?" Then laying there for a torturous eternity thinking, "Is it time to get up yet? Would mom and dad get mad if we got up now? WHY, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, IS EVERYONE STILL SLEEPING!"

And then, convincing myself that I could maybe just take a quick trip to the top of the stairs for a sneak peek...

And it never failed. There through the rails of the banisters I would see that, yes, Santa had come, and that he'd left piles of loot before the tree in shiny gift-wrapped packages that he'd somehow found the time to sign personally.

I never did figure out how Santa managed to do that so quickly.

rtm said...

Well your excellent writeup is quite persuasive :D

Totally agree with litdreamer that It's A Wonderful Life is an absolute must-watch for Christmas... or any season for that matter. I actually just saw it fairly recently and was so moved by it. They don't call that one a classic for nothing!

thehoppermemo.com said...

What a wonderful review. A Christmas Story missed becoming my favorite Holiday film simply because of release time. I was an adult when it appeared and two of my three children were playing sophisticated early teens and the third thought he was an adult 11 year old. Your review, however managed to elicit a particular memory, namely the Department Store Santa. I remember as a child always looking forward to my visit with him and so did my kids. Curiously, as I look back on the memories, we all bought the premise that the chap in every New York City Department Store actually was a legitimate Santa or at the least his representative from the North Pole. Thank you for this experience Scott. I enjoyed it very much.

Scott Jordan Harris said...

@LitDreamer Well, there are four in total I believe! The two I was referring to were the 1947 and 1994 cinema release films, but there were two TV movies made in between the original and the most famous remake.

Quite a number of people prefer the 1994 remake to the 1947 version - but the original is definitely the place to start if you're only going to watch one. Let me know what you think of it! :)

@Donald Thank you for such a wonderful, personal comment. I'm honoured you shared it on my blog. A Christmas Story is, I think, one of those very rare films that actually recreate in us something on the feeling of being a child at Christmas, rather than simply make reference to it. It's very special indeed.

@rtm: Thank you again! Words come easily when one has such a great film to write about. I add my voice to yours, and LitDreamer's, regarding It's A Wonderful Life. When I first decided I wanted to become a serious film fan, I went to the local Woolworth's and bought one classic film on video. It was It's A Wonderful Life, and I doubt I could have found a better gateway to cinephilia.

@thehoppermemo Oh no... thank you! What a wonderful comment. I'm touched I could help bring back such a lovely memory. The Santa scene in A Christmas Story is just perfect.

BadWolf said...

consider it added to my Christmas list of movies to watch.

Scott Jordan Harris said...

@BadWolf: I'm very glad to hear it. Let me know what you think!

rashid1891 said...

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Victor Morton said...

I'd give this essay a C+ ...

And you'll poke your eyes out

dumbricht said...

Christmas movies are special because we are reminded of them every year. Other favorite movies may go years in between viewings. But Christmas movies always come back. It has probably been years since I last viewed "A Christmas Story" in its entirety, but it is so ingrained in me that just the mention of the title makes me smile. It is like a beloved family member visiting for the holidays, the joy is in knowing it is there. Thanks for the words on a great film.

(other Christmas movies that evoke similar feelings for me are "White Christmas" and "Christmas Vacation")

Scott Jordan Harris said...

@ Victor Morton – A C+? My mum got to you, didn’t she? And after I gave you such a lovely basket of fruit…

@ dumbricht – Thank you so much for your comment. You’re right about Christmas movies. They live in the memory in a way no other films do.

lynne Jordan said...

I never saw A Christmas Story until last year! Everyone thought I was kidding! But I missed it all of these years and had never even heard of the phenom cult like following of it... it's a mystery to me too...