A Christmas Story

I never slept the night before. I do now that I’m older, and to be honest, it’s a relief, because there was always tremendous pressure in the waiting. The suspense, the way the noises coming from the living room downstairs don’t really sound like heavy boots scraping snow on the carpet, but maybe they do. Maybe they do. What the grown-ups always forget is that this whole process, starting when Mom takes out the Advent calendar—oh man, I really hope Jesus gets born again this year—and ending when she wishes me “Merry Christmas” before turning on the light on the 25th, is all terribly stressful for kids. Call it greed, call it avarice or rank materialism, but at some point wanting becomes needing, and the excitement stops being all that fun. Lying there, keeping mental track of the number of times I turned back and forth just in case there was some kind of limit, I’d keep my eyes closed very tight. And deep down, I’d be happy, but I’d be scared, too. Like, what if something went wrong? And what if it was my fault? 

Of course it was silly—I’m not saying it wasn’t. That’s why A Christmas Story is one of those movies that everybody loves, because it gets the silliness. A BB gun? Sorry, my bad: an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle. With a compass in the stock, and “this thing that tells time.” Pretty sweet, sure. But in a year or so, I’m betting Ralphie (the grade-school hero of Story, played by Peter Billingsley) is going to leave it at a friend’s house, or forget it in the closet, or under the bed. For most of the movie, the poor kid agonizes and pleads for the toy, and we know it wouldn’t kill him not to have it, but that doesn’t make his wanting any less sincere. Because Story also gets that when you’re a kid, there’s no real distinction between silly and serious; any moment can be the end of the world, and frozen flagpoles and four-letter words are sources of unimaginable danger.

Christmas was a reasonably big deal around my house, enough so that it’s taken me a while to get used to it not being a big deal now. There was the music (John Denver and the Muppets, Burl Ives, Bing Crosby, the Vince Guaraldi Trio—my mom also had a Michael Bolton CD of carols that was, um, lost), there were greeting cards. Every card we received was opened, carefully appreciated, and then taped to the doorframe between the kitchen and the dining room; sometimes I would dream of a line of cards running all around the house, lining the walls, rising in stacks, until we were buried under the goodwill of a thousand names I couldn’t remember. There was decorating the Christmas tree, a series of escalating arguments about tangled lights, misplaced ornaments, and the proper way to drape the garland, until everybody was sick of the whole thing and just wanted to lie down a bit. But the tree looked nice enough in the end. We’d always watch the same specials on TV, but as a family, we were never huge on holiday movies. Maybe that’s why I never saw A Christmas Story until now. 

Even if I hadn’t actually sat down and watched the whole movie, though, I’d heard enough about it to know the big gags. They didn’t disappoint. I loved Ralphie’s vivid fantasy life, especially his heroic standoff against Black Bart’s gang of thugs. The tongue on the flagpole wasn’t quite as funny, if only because I recently finished Infinite Jest, which has an absolutely vicious “flesh-stuck-to-cold-surface” sequence, so I had a hard time laughing because I was too busy imagining how much it would hurt. Still, the payoff, with the fire department and the cops showing up, and poor Flick (Scott Schwartz—we’ll get to him) being led away barely able to walk, was swell. Director Bob Clark (who also did the slasher movie Black Christmas, which would make for a freaky double-feature) plays things broad, and occasionally that broadness becomes shrill, but that’s in the movie’s favor, because the days leading up to Christmas are shrill. Everybody complains about it, but the shrillness makes those few quiet moments more important to hold on to, and if you manage to make it through to the holiday without killing or maiming or just breaking down completely, then the peace of the day feels earned.

I’ve been a fan of Darren McGavin ever since I saw the original Kolchak: The Night Stalker, an intermittently effective series (based off a couple of very good TV movies) that works mostly because of McGavin’s performance in the lead role. He generally plays bureaucrats and stuffed shirts in the movies, but Ralphie’s Dad is the exact perfect part for the actor, and he gives a rumpled-suit sort of performance that’s endearing without being soppy. Melinda Dillon is great as the mom, too, frazzled and semi-exhausted and prone to the giggles, and the actors have excellent chemistry. Parental figures in holiday movies tend to be benevolent, semi-inscrutable, and largely free of the ravages of personality, but McGavin and Dillon are both well drawn and relatable. No matter how terrified Ralphie is of them, they’re both just wonderfully trustworthy as the adults—occasionally ridiculous, but safe and comfortable like good moms and dads should be.

The kids are solid—Billingsley is sometimes hard to understand, but he gets the expressions just right, and he really has the perfect look for the character, this huge open face that’s Charlie Brown-ish in its vulnerability and despairing optimism. Ian Petrella, who plays little Randy, hits his marks and yells when required. And Schwartz… Like I said, before I saw Story, I knew some of the jokes and the premise. I also knew (thanks to the E! television network) that Scott Schwartz, whose mainstream Hollywood career peaked with this movie and the Richard Pryor vehicle The Toy, starred in a 1996 adult film called Scotty’s X-Rated Adventure. Adventure was, at least according to interviews, Schwartz’s attempts to get back into the mainstream. It doesn’t seem to be going well for him so far.

That’s weird, right? Because it seems relevant somehow, even though it isn’t. Schwartz is fine in Christmas Story, but he’s not hugely important to the film, and even if he was, the roles an actor takes don’t really comment on each other. But man, there’s just something so perfect about the symbolism. In real life, this is a sad guy trying to get back into the limelight (feel free to replace “limelight” with the orifice of your choice), but a part of my brain can’t help making the connection between the grinding, tedious mechanics of pornography and the grinding, tedious commercialization of the season. This is how capitalism works; there’s money in sex, there’s money in Noel and reindeer and chestnuts, and people will find a way to get the maximum profit out of both, reducing complicated, emotionally freighted interactions to the simplest, most direct forms. The reason why it’s so frustrating and dreary to have the holiday season inch another week closer to summer each year is that it turns what should be a positive excuse for intimacy and nostalgia into stimulus-response. 

The best Christmas movies—really, the only bearable ones at all—are those that acknowledge the alienating vibe that comes from all this merchandised goodwill. The intensity of Ralphie’s desires leave him vulnerable to all kinds of highs and crashing lows, and while there’s nothing tragic here, it’s not all white-washed delight. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being excited about getting gifts; for all the hand-wringing that goes on over it, it’s a perfectly fine tradition that works best when practiced in moderation. Story uses Christmas, and Ralphie’s air rifle obsession, as a rough through-line to hang together a series of sketches about family life in the 1940s. (The sketches are based on the stories of Jean Shepherd, a writer and actor who also provides narration for the film.) It’s a very easy movie to watch, because even when the gags aren’t perfect, a general feeling of cheery goodwill runs through every scene. And Shepherd and Clark know just how much to value the importance of presents.

A ways into the film, there’s a minor tonal shift. It’s nothing drastic, but up until Ralphie takes on the local bully, Story is goofy and loud and sort of decently ridiculous. But then the fight happens, and Ralphie freaks out and starts crying and swearing, and his mom comes and takes him home. And she’s so kind and gentle and loving with him, and so understanding, that everything goes soft and calm for a while. Little things like that really worked well against the bigger setpieces. Like when Ralphie gets the BB gun—the look of glee on McGavin’s face is terrific. And the ending: having Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant, before coming back home as the snow falls. If there’s anything to be grateful for in all the ads and the stress and the mindless, throbbing panic of so much of this month, is that things aren’t always crazy. 

I had high hopes for this essay, because I really do love this time of year. But every time I sit down and try and explain why, I always get stuck with a lot of predictable anecdotes and favorite toys. Maybe that’s just how it goes. It’s just—I believed in Santa Claus for a long time. And not sleeping the night before Christmas, it was like being on some kind of adventure, of finding a window into these section of life where anything was briefly possible, where all the failures and humiliations of the previous year might be tossed aside and there’d be some kind of magic that would hold the world together just a little longer. I don’t have that anymore. During the big holiday parade in Story, there’s a float full of characters from the Wizard of Oz, and that’s a joke for all the grown-ups watching. Because in the end, while the warmth and connections may linger, Christmas is all a show, all levers and dials and flashing lights. We spend as long as we can ignoring the Mom and Dad behind the curtain, but we always find them in the end. It’s not so bad, really. At least now I can sleep easier.

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