Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Christmas Story (1983) Tribute

This movie really doesn’t need an introduction, but I am giving it one anyway. A Christmas Story is director Bob Clark’s triumph. A pure tale of nostalgia that everyone can’t help but love, and I’ve never really seen anyone say otherwise. And it’s odd because this is, essentially, a film without a story or conflict. It’s like watching a scrapbook of old family memories, and surprisingly, comes out as one of the best Christmas movies you’ll ever see. Am I a few days late on this, now that Christmas is over? No, because Christmas is never over on Cinema Freaks!

Director: Bob Clark
Starring: Peter Billingsly, Darren McGavin

The first main selling point is Bob Clark’s directing. He does a great job of making this movie flow easy and smooth, and no matter what the subject matter, be it writing a paper in school or walking home and defending oneself from bullies, everything is given weight and gravity. Everything seems important, because to a little kid like main character Ralphie (Peter Billingsly), it is important – it’s life or death stuff. This is not a Christmas movie because it has Santa and snow and snowmen in it than a Christmas movie because it deals with family and memories, and Christmas is largely a time for memories that a family holds dear for years to come. There are so many humorous twists and turns here, from the infamous “leg lamp” debacle that the father is up in arms over...

to the infamous “Ovaltine decoder ring” tragedy... well as the mother’s “wash your mouth out with soap” thing (the scene where Ralphie envisions a future where he goes blind because of this is priceless):

And they just keep on coming. Everything in this movie is imbued with the greatest sense of whimsical wonder and off-the-wall energy, bouncing from topic to topic with little coherence because that’s the way a kid’s mind would really work, in a nonlinear fashion with little coherency. And it is wonderful. The whole thing is tied together with Ralphie's attempts at getting this toy rifle, which everyone keeps telling him "you'll shoot your eye out," and thus refusing him. If only they'd just give in and let him live out his fantasies of being the last old school gunslinger! Even Santa Claus doesn't give him what he wants.

The second selling point that makes this so good is Jean Shepherd’s voice-overs as adult Ralphie looking back on everything years later, and without this, even Clark’s direction wouldn’t be as spotlessly perfect for this. Shepherd’s voice is old and hoary but he is full of verve and excitement too, remembering times when the world seemed bright and colorful. We never see anything about where Ralphie is now as an adult, because it isn’t particularly important. He’s well-off enough to sit down and tell this story for us, and that’s all that matters. Everything is focused on the childhood, the looking-back, the nostalgia. Shepherd moves the movie forward and keeps us as excited as he is – he sounds interested, so we are interested. The kooky fantasies and daydreams are just icing on the cake, and they're all really vivid and funny in just how oddball they are. But every kid had these fantasies, or ones like them, and so they're instantly relatable and likable too.

Of course, this wouldn’t be as good either without the strength of the actors. Darren McGavin as the Old Man is brilliantly over the top and zany, the perfect overly exuberant dad who tries too hard and Melinda Dillon as the overly exuberant mom that worries too much are both a ton of fun and play off each other really well. Though I wouldn’t bet on their children growing up overly sane with how caustic they constantly are. But at least they’re not the kind of parents who would dress their son up in a pink bunny outfit…

Oh, well, I recall my statement. Seriously, how is that a good gift for a nine year old boy? Whoever sent that must’ve been high.

Peter Billingsly as Ralphie is also great, and has to carry many of the scenes by himself, which is tough for a kid – and he does a very good job, becoming at once likable and also having the typical kid stuff like selfishness and a short-sighted scope of the world…he hasn’t grown out of them yet and the movie is touchingly realistic for all that. The scene where he finally beats up the bully who’s been tormenting him all movie long is one of the best in the film. He beats the shit out of him and then breaks down crying. A touching and emotional moment.

And that’s what it really comes down to with A Christmas Story. It’s not a movie you can stick in one genre because it’s full of every genre, from comedy to tragedy and everything in between, because life can’t be pigeonholed into one genre. This is a film that covers all of it, from the good to the bad to the awkward; the touching and the zany; the wild and exuberant and the quiet and mellow. Christmastime is a time for family and memories that end up being something one cherishes, even the most cringe-worthy moments, because in the end it all ends up OK. A Christmas Story is like watching a family photo album come to life, and you get a lot more out of it than you would from a photo album with great direction, great characters, great performances…this is just an all-around stellar Christmas movie.

I don’t really have much to add with this, as it’s a classic and everything about it has pretty much already been said. There isn’t anything I can say that people don’t already know about it, but I’m posting this anyway as a tribute to one of the best feel-good movies around, and a true Christmas classic. I may not get to watch a ton of Christmas movies every year, but this one is always one I throw on. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out, and if you have, then you’ll be nodding your head in agreement with every paragraph of this. A Christmas Story is the kind of thing I’d be proud to find under my tree every year.

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