Moving Pictures
Dec 22, 2010, 05:20AM

A Christmas Story's Enduring Appeal

Yes, once again, there'll be a 24-hour marathon on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day. Relax, America. You'll get your fill.

A christmas story movie 01.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

A Christmas Story is kind of like a McDonald’s Happy Meal: it’s tasty, familiar, vaguely nauseating, and contains little to no nutritional value. Grudgingly or not, you’ve surrendered to the inevitable Story cable marathons every damned holiday season for as far back as you remember. This year will be no different, another tour of the 1983 classic’s many attractions: the extrapolation of the “triple-dog dare,“ the evil, sulfurous basement furnace and the swear-word dispensing dad who pummels it, the mom with the horrendous Little Orphan Annie hair mop, the gorgeous-gam-in-a-fishnet lamp, the narrator’s unrealistic yearnings for an “official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock,” that crummy Ovaltine commercial disguised as secret-agent covert action, the little brother packed so tightly into winter wear that he can’t move his arms, the climactic, “fudge-as-fuck” eruption, the surreal Christmas Day feast of beheaded Peking duck.

Whether you’re watching it for the first time or the 500th, there’s absolutely nothing to be learned from this not-quite-Norman Rockwell-esque, 1950s period piece—except, perhaps, that one shouldn’t affix one’s bare tongue to metal poles in near-arctic temperatures. There is no artfully-smuggled positive message underlying to the humiliations that be speckled, cherubic Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) suffers at the hands of bullies, educators, and society at large. Story’s a romp and little more, a somewhat edgy precursor to more daring teen comedies that would follow later in the Reagan Administration.

Here’s why I think audiences keep returning to the movie: even as Story feels unvarnished and real in a way that most children’s fare doesn’t, there’s a heavy dose of nostalgia for a bygone, small-town American way of life that resonated upon the film’s release and gnaws harder on the innate, pre-suburban impulses that lie within the modern consciousness today. Ralphie and his buddies? They walked to school! From home. When Ralphie’s family goes out in this movie—to buy a Christmas tree, to catch a parade, to what was probably the only Chinese joint in town open on Christmas—everybody dressed to the nines, because that‘s what people did back then. In this movie, the principal characters knew all of their neighbors, were too dense not to overcrowd electrical outlets, and overloaded their mammoth Christmas tree with chintzy crap; when boys swore, mothers washed their mouths out with soap, which can probably get you arrested and your kids stuck in foster homes today. Then, on the flip side of mores that seem alien to us now, Story wasn’t afraid to demonstrate—insist—that the world is essentially a cruel, crude place, even when life is supposed to be grand and full of joy. The impending anniversary of Jesus’ birth or no, bigger, stronger kids are still going to rough you up because they can, the department store North Pole can still represent a special brand of Hades, bull-headed relatives will still gift you abhorrent shit you’d as soon burn as stash in your closet, authority figures will still insist that wanting something so badly that it’s the only thing you can babble nonsensically on about is wrong—even if, as in the case of Jean Shepherd, that longing eventually equates to a sweet screenwriting-credit payday and cinematic immortality. That admixture of the strait-laced, pre-urban nightmare and the casually, indifferent profane lend Story its giddy kick—that, and the fact that all of us, young and old, ache for the season of lights to knock us for the same high-flying, haymaker loop Ralphie finds himself struggling to survive.


Register or Login to leave a comment