First, a confession: Until last week I had never seen A Christmas Story. I had heard all the references that tend to crop up around this time of year, with people around me tossing jokes around like “You’ll shoot your eye out!” and something about a leg lamp, as well as sticking tongues to flagpoles. And until last week I would laugh mildly, vaguely knowing what they were talking about but secretly, shamefully, knowing that I run a movie review web site but had not seen Bob Clark’s timeless Christmas masterpiece.
But no more! Having finally laid witness to the tale of young Ralphie and his quest for a Red Ryder BB Gun, I not only finally understand all the jokes and references, I also understand why this movie really deserves its status as a tried-and-true classic. It’s not just about a boy who wants a present, it’s a tale that captures the essence of childhood in a simpler time when computers, internet, and even things like thermostat-controlled furnaces in homes were the stuff of far-flung science fiction. Young Ralphie has a Norman Rockwell existence: two married parents, one younger brother, an elementary school close enough to walk to, and a big radio in the living room that fills his head with stories of Annie Oakley adventures. Sure his parents argue, there’s bullies at school who torment him and his friends, the family car is less than reliable, and he gets into trouble for swearing, but the idyllic Americana on display here is indellibly vintage, and I would wager that anyone, whether kid or adult, could find something with which to identify in this (dare I say it? Yes, I do!) charming little movie. And its the way in which this exaggerated tale of childhood perfectly captures its subject matter that raises it above so many similar movies and into the realm of American film canon.
The story is delightfully simple: Grinning, wide-eyed Ralphie wants nothing more than a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas, and will do anything to make it happen. He tries to drop hints to his parents, writes a theme paper about it for his teacher, and waits for hours in line at a department store to meet Santa and tell him personally. But Ralphie’s quest is a backdrop for which the idea of childhood longing and imagination, as well as a loss of innocence, are beautifully played out. From the moment he lays eyes on the BB Gun in a store window, the thought of owning it consumes Ralphie–he dreams of saving his family from a band of marauders, and wistfully listens to radio programs extolling the virtues of the heroes of the Old West, knowing that he could join their ranks if only he was presented with the small-gauge Excalibur he so desperately wants. But like many things we all long for, it lies just painfully out of reach, though that leaves him perpetually undaunted, and like Quixote, he will continue to chase after his Red Ryder windmill despite the futility of such a gesture–what with every adult in his life telling him that such a prize would doubtless render his biological ocular instrument duly incapacitated.
Because the story is narrated by a grown-up Ralphie, recounting those events of his childhood, the entire movie is populated with exaggerated caricatures: an out-of-touch father who screams profanities when things don’t go his way, a mother who almost literally smothers her offspring with overbearing gestures of caretaking, a teacher who obviously had no childhood herself and exists only to soullessly pound requisite educational materials into her pupils’ skulls full of mush, a yellow-eyed schoolyard bully…and so on. In fact, much of the movie reminded me of a live-action Calvin and Hobbes comic. Ralphie’s overactive imagination magnifies people to ridiculous proportions (his teacher, he imagines, nearly swoons over his A-grade writing assignment. His parents and brother hail him as a conquering hero as he defends the house against would-be robbers with his new BB Gun), but isn’t that how we all remember life when we were kids?
A Christmas Story isn’t perfect, but rarely does a movie so perfectly capture the essence of what it’s like to be a kid.
Last 5 posts by Simon R.
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