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Entries in Christmas Story/A [1983] (1)


A Christmas Story (1983)

This Thing Which Tells Time

A Christmas Story is not a perfect holiday film because it spawned tons of merchandise, became a perennial twenty-four hour cable sensation, or introduced a wealth of quotes and iconography into our pop consciousness. No, Bob Clark's loving homage to kid-dom is flawless in every regard: a tight, well-told, expertly shot nostalgia trip that has nothing to do with the era it portrays--and everything to do with wrapping author Jean Shepherd's uncanny insights into innocence in a bow-topped, foil-wrapped box of joy.

If, due to either age or ignorance, you haven't seen the movie yet (and are reading this review for some reason) I ask that you A) come back after you understand why "fudge" is hilarious, and B) don't begin your Christmas Story adventure with the TBS marathon. It's cute and all, but some things are sacred--and breaking up Ralphie Parker's (Peter Billingsley) quest for a Red Ryder BB gun with commercial breaks is not only the height of irony (considering his revulsion at a cleverly disguised Ovaltine ad), it's bona fide sacrilege.

For the uninitiated, this beloved Christmas classic takes place in the 1930s and hinges on a socially awkward kid's desire to con his parents into buying him a gun. Okay, the execution is far more heartwarming than that, but let's face it: Ralphie can often be seen spacing out in the middle of conversations, escaping into a rich fantasy world of guilt tripping adults and shooting people; not to mention his pummelling of the school bully (Zack Ward), in which he nearly takes another boy's life while screaming profanity in a white-hot rage. But I imagine that's what drew Clark to the material. After all, this film rounded out a decade in which the director also brought us Black Christmas and Porky's.

I'll give you a moment to wipe up that eggnog.

A Christmas Story is definitely a product of its era, the golden period of the early-to-mid-80s when kids' movies crossed the bridge between too-cute pap and too-knowing pap. For one glorious moment, adult filmmakers zeroed in on a voice that the youth of America could believe in. Pictures like A Christmas Story, The Goonies, Explorers, and others simply let their young subjects relate to one another the way they would in real life; they captured the mischievousness, cruelty, and thinly veiled nervousness that accompany all rites of passage. These movies weren't button-pushers like The Bad News Bears, and they narrowly avoided the too-wise-to-be-believed Macaulay Culkin/Olsen Twins era that, to some extent, still persists in a mutated form today.

For me, what makes Ralphie's adventures (and what is the film, if not a series of vignettes that coalesce around the prized Red Ryder?) so relatable is the fact that he was perhaps modern cinema's prototypical geek. As a child of the 80s who thought he was Luke Skywalker, I could totally understand this kid's tenuous grasp on reality. Shepherd, Clark, and co-writer Leigh Brown nail that odd security-blanket relationship some children have with pop culture. In a world where peer pressure can lead someone to abandon a best friend to the merciless hands of a bully or the icy embrace of a flag pole, who wouldn't seek refuge in a cowboy fantasy, or even the radio exploits of Little Orphan Annie?

Another selling point is the film's infinite rewatchability. Like all true classics, the personal significance of A Christmas Story evolves with each passing decade. As a kid, I responded to Ralphie's obsession over a toy (my holy grail was a Soundwave action figure with all the transforming cassette animals and attendant snap-on weaponry); in my twenties, I realized just how subversive the filmmakers were in spinning a kids' yarn that painted children as genuinely weird ("Iiii liiiike The Wizard of Ooooz!"). Now, as a dad, I can totally relate to Ralphie's parents: on one hand, I side with Melinda Dillon's refusal to let Ralphie play with a BB gun, for fear of him hurting himself or someone else; on the other, I love the look on Darren McGavin's face as he directs his disappointed son to the last big present behind the desk.

Sorry, as you can tell by now, I'm incapable of writing a traditional (much less coherent) review of A Christmas Story. Clark's film is such a part of my life that even seeing it on the big screen for the first time a few weeks ago offered little in the way of insight--aside from how nice it was to appreciate the movie the way its creators intended. Many of us can recite the screenplay backwards and forwards, and have seriously considered buying a replica leg-lamp or two in the past decade (the boldest of us have).

It is paced perfectly, performed superbly, and has one of the greatest final moments of any Christmas film ever--transitioning between a couple of exhausted but highly contented parents sharing a glass of wine in front of their decked-out tree in the dark, and two little boys cuddled up to their shiny, new instruments of imagination. It's a beautiful, warm-blanket of a wish-fulfillment fantasy guaranteed to become your childhood memory of choice--even if, by some freak accident, you didn't see the movie until later in life.