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A Christmas Story (1983)

by on 2010/12/14

I never saw A Christmas Story in its initial theatrical release.  I caught it in reruns and, even then, never cared for it much.  I don’t know that I could identify a pivotal tipping point.  It didn’t “just happen” all of a sudden, all at once.  Slowly over the years, it’s worked its way into my soul.

Filmed in part in Toronto, it looks and feels like my childhood.  Ironically, the very quality making it common years back now makes it a virtual time capsule, one constantly rising in value.  I see TTC Red Rockets, the downtown streets, and storefronts.  I remember Santa Claus parades, Simpson’s Christmas window, their whole-floor toy department, and coveting Big Little Books in the old Woolworth’s.

For eight year old Ralph Parker, the hero of A Christmas Story, the only thing worth coveting is a “Red Ryder carbine action two hundred shot Range Model air rifle, with a compass in the stock, and a thing which tells the time.”  Unfortunately (or not) his desire is thwarted at every opportunity — by his mother, his teacher, even Santa! — with the assurance that “You’ll shoot your eye out.”

Intense, bespectacled Ralphie represents a younger Jean Shepherd, the author of the original tales on which this film is based.  Shepherd also serves as the omnipresent narrator, guiding the audience through an era of Boys’ Life magazines, Little Orphan Annie radio shows, and The Wizard of Oz in its heyday.

Toronto, New York, and Chicago stand in for the 1940s’ Hammond, in northern Indiana.  Decoder rings are all the rage, soldiers window-shop with their sweethearts, and kids test theories in the playground, instead of looking them up online.

Ralphie imagines Mitty-esque diversions in which everyday frustrations are resolved with exaggerated theatrics.  The people in his life become bit players in his own heroic melodramas, set in the old wild west, with women in harlequin garb, or with bandits in stripes and domino masks.

Watching these sequences play out, I felt a twinge of innocence lost.  To hear a performer like Eddie Murphy talk of childhood disappointment, you’d conclude children want their parents to “get hit by a bus and die.”  For Shepherd, a valid response to punishment was fantasy.  When Mrs. Parker (literally) cleans out Ralph’s “dirty” mouth, he imagines their future guilt as he goes blind with soap poisoning.

Though I myself could not relate to such vivid hallucinations, I did see quite a lot of things that struck me as incredibly geeky:

  • a father obsessed with fixing his dodgy Oldsmobile;
  • a juggling of appliances to maximize output and avoiding breaking fuses;
  • a Sisyphean struggle with a noxious, cantankerous furnace;
  • a desire for acknowledged achievement;
  • and the fetishistic worship of a subversive totem, the Leg Lamp.

With his gag false teeth, decoder ring, and wished-for Red Ryder rifle, Ralphie is clearly destined to be a boy just as obsessed with his toys, a next generation geek in the making.  Which may explain in part my sense of identification with him.  Plus his experiences with bullies, the breaking of eyeglasses, being caught swearing, the entreaties to help his father . . . all of these and other moments struck me close to home.

I often thought throughout the film, “This shouldn’t work, but it does.”  I’m not entirely shocked it didn’t find an audience, at least not until the Eighties faded away.  It’s set in a time now so far removed, it’s nearly another world.  It’s episodic, with no midpoint or real arc.  Little kids are the prey, tormented by friend and foe alike, in a tale where turncoat liars can succeed.

A Christmas Story is a movie with no message, no justice or karma, of times held nonetheless in high esteem.  Vintage (North) Americana, bittersweet nostalgia, and affection for a life as real and imperfect as today.  Now, as then, geeks wrestled with their gadgets, families, and fantasies, malfunctioning and miraculous alike.

* * * *

Rated PG for mild language and violence

93 minutes

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