‘Tis the season to crack out all them Blu-rays, hunker down with some peppermint-flavored cream-based grog, and sink into a mild delirium watching Christmas movie after Christmas movie. Like horror fans do with slashers, many Christmas movies get a “pass” from audiences by dint of their content alone; many viewers don’t really care that the Christmas movies on The Hallmark Channel are of low quality and perhaps poorly-written. They only care that said films have a lot of Christmas iconography and a lot of goopy warm emotionalizing.
It’s also the time of year for the usual standards. It’s a Wonderful Life is now and ever shall be the best and most reliable of all Christmas standards, but many are in the popular rotation, several of which will be screening at the New Beverly at the end of the month. You have your Santa Claus: The Movies. Your Scroogeds. Your Die Hards. Your Black Christmases. And, of course, you have A Christmas Story, Bob Clark’s 1983 film about a young boy’s Christmastime experiences in small-town 1940s America.
A Christmas Story almost instantly became a go-to Christmas movie for many people. The film is funny, and it speaks to a lot of what the average white American has been experiencing around Christmastime for decades. The film has become such a well-worn standard that TBS regularly shows entire marathons of just the movie, over and over again, over the course of Christmas Eve. You can turn on the TV, and dip in and out of A Christmas Story as you go, very much the way one would nurse a strong eggnog.
But here’s the thing: A short consideration of A Christmas Story reveals that it is not the feel-good family comedy that it’s reputation would belie. The film is acidic and deeply cynical about Christmas, consumerism and the 1950s family unit. It’s about childhood cruelty and how children long for the shallowest of things. In many ways, Bob Clark was seeking to make an anti-Christmas movie, one that sought to undo a lot of the warmth proposed by flicks like Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life. Clark’s film – very much like his Black Christmas – seeks to tip the sacred cow of Christmastime. It looks at the warmth that everyone remembers from their Hallmark-Channel-induced haze, and calls shenanigans.
Ralphie (Peter Billingsley, now a successful Hollywood producer) is a brat. In the 1980s, films about bratty kids began to come out in droves (The Goonies, et al), and Ralphie is no exception. He’s bright-faced, picked-upon, and prone to mistakes, but he is no innocent moppet. He is given to bouts of rage and violence, he’s not a good student, and he kind of hates his family. Jean Shepherd narrates the film as an adult Ralphie looking back on his youth, but his Garrison Keillor-esque voice might serve as the most ready example that this film is meant to play as satire. Shepherd intones good feelings, but it serves as a juxtaposition to the acid and down-to-earth misery of the characters.
The central joke of A Christmas Story, then, is to contrast the halcyon dreams of Christmases of one’s childhood, and the dirty, object-grubbing, bickersome realism of an actual American household. It did for Christmas movies what The Simpsons was to eventually do to the American sitcom: take a form that took its power from nostalgia and wholesomeness, and introduce below-average people into the mix. People who were incapable of the perceived easy happiness of a previous generation. A Christmas Story is an exposé. Those old memories were perhaps not as wholesome as your remember. Santa was not jolly. He was a nightmare.
Those who celebrate it remember the magic and joy of, at least once, of receiving that one magical Christmas gift that we ached for all season. What’s the central toy of A Christmas Story? A gun. Ralphie wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. He wants a tool of violence. Ralphie, as I said, was already a violent kid, and savagely beats a bully until the bully bleeds into the snow. Ralphie is warned frequently that the gun will be too dangerous (go ahead and say the line of dialogue; you know it), but he wants it anyway. This is not a toy that is meant to bring him a simple joy or a bout of childhood play, but the means to do violence. When the gun actually does inevitably harm him, he quickly abandons it. When his mother asked what happened, he doesn’t cry out that he was wrong to want a gun, but instead lies. Although the filmmakers play the moment for laughs, there is a dark streak to this. A Christmas Story is very much about a young child honing his in-born ability to lie to his parents.
This is a very real portrait of childhood, of course – who didn’t lie to their parents at least once? – but that realism is antithetical to Christmas movies. Bland 1940s virtue is nowhere to be seen, and run-of-the-mill deception has taken its place.
In short, Bob Clark claims, openly and with no small amount of dark humor, that any authenticity assigned to “The Christmas Spirit,” whatever that may be, is a sham. Christmas is about humiliation, struggle, and awkward family life. The American household is not a place of protection and warmth, but of favoritism, perverted dads, and spiteful mothers. Plans always, always go awry, and nostalgia is a lie.
Which is why it’s so strange that A Christmas Story should, in itself, be considered a nostalgic classic. It has become the very thing it sought to satirize. It’s the same thing that happened to “classic rock.” At one point, classic rock was about rebellion and freedom from an older generation. In the modern day “classic rock” is listened to as a form of comfort. The edge is totally gone. A Christmas Story is, even to this day, a edgy, dark comedy that deconstructs nostalgia, but it’s enjoyed by many audiences as a nostalgic classic.
So when you come to The New Beverly on one of the Saturdays when A Christmas Story is playing, try to appreciate what the film is as a whole. Appreciate that A Christmas Story may function as nostalgia, but that it is also more sly and more subversive than it might first appear. Bob Clark wasn’t tossing off cheap sentiment. He was kicking cheap sentiment in the face. He was being punk. And Christmas, he argued, could use more punk.