Thursday, December 12, 2013

"A Christmas Story" is a Boy's Story

New Christmas movies seem to have that lame Hallmark quality to them. Christmas movies seemed to move from family fare to now mom and aunts making cookies and then eating cookies with a cheeseball Lifetime movie set in December on the whole time event. Despite the programming on women's cable television, Christmas is not just about the "Christmas Shoes" schmaltz. Sometimes it is about guns and sex like in "A Christmas Story". Women and men like that classic flick about Ralphie and his crazy family's one special Christmas. Ralphie remembers that Christmas for all of the things that happen in it, but what chance is it that one Christmas has every odd event that his Christmas story contains. This is a fictional depiction, but below that surface of goofy pranks and schoolyard drama is the story of a kid leaving behind youth and growing up.

Beneath the kid obsessions is a step by step path from boy to little man.

1. Ralphie fantasizes about his teacher falling for his essay on the bb-gun. Teacher has sexier attire on than she does in real life with cliche romance movie music in the background.
2. Ralphie is enamored with the leg lamp.
3. Ralphie stands up to the school bully and beats the crap out of him, swearing like a sailor as he fights for himself.
4. Ralphie's mom covers for his cursing at the fight, and they have a new understanding from that moment on in his words.
5. Ralphie finally gets to help his dad fix a flat tire.
6. Ralphie says the F word in an adult style exclamation to losing the nuts during the tire scene.

After all gifts are unwrapped, an important scene takes place. Ralphie is sitting with his parents as they drink some wine. In a serious tone, his dad offers him a swig of his wine glass. It is a bit joking because the Old Man plays things so daddish in the film, but Ralphie reacts with a "yes". He wants to engage in that sacrament of the adult world. Ralphie is down about not getting everything. The Old Man points out one more gift. It is obvious from mom's reaction that dad bought it for Ralphie himself. This is dad's gift to Ralphie. It is the BB gun. While Ralphie might still believe in Santa, the gift that dad hid is a gift of man to young man. The gun is the symbol of growing up as throughout the movie Ralphie has been warned he will 'shoot his eye out'. It is in his hands now.

This is why the Christmas Hallmark schlock does not appeal to men but a lot of guys can sit through "A Christmas Story". For a movie set in a vaguely 1939-1949 period, it has staying power. The staying power comes from the basic family dynamic at play and Ralphie's experiences. Every guy went through at least one, if not all, of the above listed moments at that Ralphie age (8-12). The first time your dad asked for help from you, swearing, learning that your mom is not a dominating figure but someone who might understand you and help you as you grew up, sex and a fight are all events in the progression from little boy to young man. A man from a two parent home went through all of those markers and feelings over that time period, which the movie so wonderfully distills into less than two hours of celluloid. You watch it not just for the entertainment but for the shared experience.

1 comment:

Mike said...

I experienced a similar type of nostalgia the other day watching the John Hughes film Uncle Buck. Granted, it's not technically a Xmas movie but it is shown an awful lot during the Thanksgiving through Xmas period and I think most people would associate it with that time of year.

Two things that stuck out to me when you contrast with more modern movies: 1) the nuclear family is intact and functional and 2) there is a 'father knows best' quality that is virtually absent from films today. Uncle Buck basically has his niece's boyfriend pegged from the start and later on is proven right. His niece makes his life difficult the whole time but is contrite in the end and realizes that beneath all the gambling and smoking, her uncle is a regular, good guy who deserves respect.

As you alluded to, it’s that basic family dynamic and shared experience that give the films staying power. John Hughes’ other holiday films (the great Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and Home Alone) were excellent at showing the frustrations of day-to-day family life and not always getting along but in the end conveying an appreciation for the family. A big contrast from harried single mom social worker/PR exec/corporate lawyer getting everything she wants for Xmas because she’s so fabulous.