Ah, Christmas, when America gets to unwrap its beloved, politically incorrect present. When more and more things qualify as guilty pleasures, and involve more and more guilt, Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story does neither. Therein lie this movie’s unabashed beauty and our desire to welcome it back more heartily every year.
Only liberals could not love this movie — and undoubtedly do not — but no matter, it is now a classic and untouchable. A simple story, wonderfully and meticulously told, it follows nine-year old Ralph Parker’s tunnel-vision Christmas pursuit of a Red Ryder BB-gun. “Ralphie’s” memorized rapid-fire entreaties to Mom, teacher, and even Santa himself are met with the same patronizing retort: “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
Interspersed are subplots, each as rich and entertaining as the quest itself. Like the main plot, they are short stories from Shepherd’s collection about growing up in northern Indiana. Together, they make A Christmas Story folk art, a gorgeous patchwork quilt of Middle America Americana.
Made in 1983 and largely overlooked, this movie has since been replayed countless times — including for 20 years running nonstop for 24 hours during one day around Christmas.
Why have Americans come to make so much of seemingly so little?
The Depression? The movie’s setting offers no nostalgia for it. Few viewers now remember it and fewer still remember it fondly.
The childhood portrayed? It is hardly realistic — no one’s is so full. And much of it is cringe-inducing hard knocks. Our remotely similar episodes we would rather forget than relive.
Not even finally attaining the gun. Perhaps we too momentarily held the Holy Grail of our desire, but most of us can only take satisfaction from the quest not the conquest.
I venture America’s ever growing love affair with A Christmas Story springs from the movie’s increasing separation from political correctness. Shepherd himself would revel in this, as any perusal of his books confirms. However, we need look no further than the movie: All its elements are politically incorrect.
The title alone reveals it. Today, it would have to be A Holiday Story, in order to be inclusive.
The movie’s central subject is a gun. The very reason Ralphie wants the BB-gun is the danger it exudes. Even the author, narrating as an adult, still feels his adrenaline surge despite the years.
There is also the fight. Scut Farkas, the bully, and Ralphie do not “dialogue” or reason out their differences.
Of course, there is the notorious leg lamp. Symbolizing victory to his Old Man, (and bad taste to his mother), it is electric sex symbol to Ralphie.
Then there is the Chinese restaurant, where the waiters butcher Deck the Halls’ fa-la-la-la-las and then a duck at the table.
Do not forget Ralph getting a C+ on his theme. There is no grade inflation to soothe self-esteem issues in Warren G. Harding elementary school!
Finally, there is the family itself. They constantly bicker. To know you, would be to loathe you, if you took them at their words. And it goes well beyond words — the pinnacle being Ralphie sitting in the bathroom with a cake of Life Buoy soap in his mouth.
No, America does not love A Christmas Story in spite of its politically incorrect elements, because that is all there is. And this leads to the obvious conclusion: America adores this movie because of those elements. America’s infatuation only grows deeper as political correctness encroaches further.
Breaking out of the saccharine straitjacket of self-censorship, this movie sends today’s taboos crashing like a bull in a china shop. And America goes blithely along for the wonderfully liberating ride.
Political correctness and this movie are diametrical opposites. It is symbol versus substance. Political correctness is all symbol, continually creating new ones in order to overturn conventional substance. It is a contrivance — merely means to an end. When it uses humor in spite of itself, it always uses it in spite.
A Christmas Story is all about substance over symbol. No symbol is off limits for its skewering humor. However, it is all good-natured, which all the characters in the movie — and we in the audience — innately understand. Beneath its jesting rejection, it embraces the true substance.
There is nothing contrived here. Ralph cherishes his Old Man, who comes through despite being the one person never asked for the gun. The mother and father obviously love each other deeply, despite the leg lamp — and its “accidental destruction.”
Increasingly pressed on every side by political correctness, America increasingly looks for releases. None is better or more thorough than this movie. As the need for escape grows, so does America’s love for this little movie.
A Christmas Story has become to America what Ralphie’s BB-gun was to him. Told we are not supposed to want it, we want it all the more. Like Ralphie, we do not want it simply to be contrary, we simply want it.
Closing the movie, Shepherd, narrating as the adult Ralphie, says, “Next to me in the blackness lay my oiled blue steel beauty. The greatest Christmas gift I had ever received, or ever would receive.” America knows the feeling.
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