Directed by Bob Clark
A Christmas Story seems to be all about desire, mostly as it facilitates good ‘ol American capitalism. The story is set in what is often made to seem a simpler time, the 1940s. This is either pre-World War II or if it’s in fact set during the war the story, presented through the perspective of a young boy, ignores the war altogether. It has the same nostalgic charm as a movie like Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, Woody Allen’s Radio Days or John Boorman’s Hope and Glory. These films are all from the perspective of a young boy who as an adult narrates and recalls a series of mostly disconnected vignettes.
Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) wants nothing more for Christmas than a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. He wants it more than you’ve wanted anything in your life. It’s all he thinks and dreams about, but it’s off limits because of the fear that he’ll shoot his eye out (he nearly will).
Such a desire is the through line for the story, and it parallels his father’s own obsession with a woman’s leg shaped lamp that he wins from a contest I can’t recall. It’s not so much that the Old Man (Darren McGavin) particularly likes the lamp, just that he won it and goddamn it winning feels good.
Most of the story, again through Ralphie’s eyes, is a series of memories involving urban legends and painful lessons. They involve sticking your tongue to a frozen pole, dealing with bullies described as if they were werewolves, getting caught swearing and a Little Orphan Annie radio program which Ralphie will learn is nothing more than a way of selling more Ovaltine.
What Ralphie most strongly desires at the start is what can be bought and sold. He is, in other words, a model consumer. By the end he will come to appreciate the significance of a simple family dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and the film celebrates this unexpected freedom.
A Christmas Story is charming because of the ways in which it indulges these childhood fantasies, harkening back to our own delusions, fears and sense of wonder. Everything is made to be larger than life, with teachers turning into witches and acted out fantasy sequences involving Ralphie playing a John Wayne-esque cowboy or even just acknowledging the camera when he knows he’s pulled one over on his mother.
In many ways this doesn’t feel like a movie so much as memories implanted straight into my brain, a la Total Recall. Even the supposed “real” sequences feel fantastical, always leaning on the surreal in order to relate to a core emotion or memory we’ve all experienced.
There is a comically large roaming pack of dogs, cartoonish bandits, raccoon-esque bullies and an overly dismissive mall Santa. Everything is heightened, with the good becoming heavenly and the bad hellish. The smallest stakes are made to feel like life and death, and in the end, whether or not Ralphie achieves his goal, his biggest victory involves none of those fears or dreams, just a common dinner with his family in an empty restaurant.
Up Next: Searching (2018), Green Book (2018), White Rock (1977)