Monday, November 28, 2011

'A Christmas Story' Open Thread

  What did you think?


  1. These are just some hasty thoughts thrown down. I'll have more to say later.

    I had not actually watched this movie before, just caught various snippets of it here and there, so as I sat down to watch it the other night I initially thought it a tad silly, with all the noisy, whinny children and blobs of slop portioned out for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The first thing that actually caught my eye were all the great rides that people had brought in for the filming. This movie was filled with great cars from the thirties and late forties. (Some may ask, what about cars from the early forties? The answer is of course, we didn't make any cars from 1942 through 1945, as all the manufacturing had been converted over to war production. So if Randy Travis wants to keep singing about his Dad's car from 1944, all I can say is the car must have been a Willie's Jeep. Not really a nice ride, but I digress).

    I followed along dutifully enough, until I reached the scene where Ralphie received his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring and sat through the whole show just to get the secret message Annie had for her special listeners. As he worked out the message, and discovered it to be "Be sure to drink more ovaltine", the stunned and disappointed look on his face and realization that he had been played were perfect, and this show just had me. The battle of the minds over the "major prize" was fun, especially so in realizing that the prize the dad was so proud of winning had actually only been won with the off hand answer given to him by his wife. And though he ended up losing the battle (no surprise there), he took it well I thought. And as the show rolled along they all warmed to me. I loved learning that the dad was not the scary, angry cussing man we at first had seen, but in fact was a man who delighted in his family.

    Good stuff.

  2. And when the mom wants to distract him, she just starts asking him about football, never really caring what the answer is. Too funny!

  3. All Spoilers, all the time.

    "Lovely, glorious, beautiful Christmas, around which the entire kid-year revolved."

    With that frank admission, we're off, into a kid-world of hope and fantasy and angst, interwoven with Jean Shepherd's narrating from his own semi-nostalgic writing.

    A couple of things have become obvious to me, thinking about this movie as a film, rather than as something I do once or twice every Christmas season. One: I have a greater tolerance for silly than many people. OK, I'll admit it: I like silly, if it's well done silly. (Although I prefer to think of it as my Appreciation Of The Ridiculous.) How to define "well done silly" eludes me at the moment, but part of it might have to do with Two: I saw this for the first time a little over twenty years ago under the perfect conditions -- late-night long-flight punchy, beginning a weekend with dear friends, expecting nothing but to be happily engaged for the next 48 hours. I loved the movie, and it's quite possible that my enjoyment of it was partly due to the mood I was in, and subsequent viewings are touched by that initial impression.

    But I know it's more than that, because I was in the same kind of mood the first time I saw Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and though that has a few memorable bits and some enjoyable wackiness ("Strange things are afoot at the Circle K"), the second time I watched (most of) it I was in a far less indulgent mood, and found myself wondering why I had been so amused the first time around.

    Hmm. I'm not sure how I got here. ANYway, I love the Everykid's view of efforts to extract what he desires most from a world that adults dominate and control (with the occasional lapses which allow the barbaric chaos injected by other, tougher, generally larger, and obviously less domesticated, kids.) Suggestive material planted where a parent would come across it; immediately regretted introductions into conversation; schemes to gain the support of other adults. None of it works, of course. There are always plenty of grown-up reasons we shouldn't have what we long for.

    And while the great Christmas-present campaign is a seasonal imperative, the constant in a kid's life is the never-ending struggle to Stay Out Of Trouble -- even if it means betraying a friend, abandoning him to a frozen flag pole, or to a mother determined to purge That Word from his vocabulary.


  4. Continued:

    I like the way we are slowly shown sides of the characters beyond the taken-for-granted roles they play in young Ralphie's life. I tend to enjoy The Old Man primarily as an object of ridicule -- until he wins me over when he doesn't obliterate Ralphie on the spot for "the Queen Mother of dirty words," and we see more of his reasonable, affectionate side in his later scenes. The Mother seems very drab, very lifeless, at first -- but her goofy efforts to get Randy to eat (a scene funny for its sheer awfulness), her entering into the boys' wacky version of "Jingle Bells," her critical intervention between Ralphie and the paternal rage he fears after "The Scut Farkus affair, as it came to be known," (and its heavily witnessed stream of obscenities), all made me love her as a mom.

    Ralphie is such a wonderfully drawn character -- portrayed partly through the performance, partly through the character's thoughts we get from the narrator. He is far from a perfect child; he's not even always a sympathetic character. But he seems real, and complicated; a normal kid that can be pushed too far; a good kid, who does love his family, and recognizes that they love him.

    A kid who daydreams. Geez, I have no idea what the normal amount of daydreaming is that a normal kid does (and I prefer not to dwell on it... ), but I totally identify with Ralphie's mental detours, conjuring up melodramatic scenarios featuring himself as either victor or victim -- both equally gratifying. The fantasy sequences are such a hoot, deliciously ridiculous as vignettes -- and realistically ridiculous as childish imaginings.

    And so many wonderfully ridiculous scenes of "real" life: the drawn-out battle over the Major-Award, soft-glow-of-electric-sex-gleaming-in-the-window, lamp ("You used up all the glue on purpose!"); the even longer war between The Old Man and the furnace ("In the heat of battle, my father wove a tapestry of obscenity that, as far as we know, is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan."); the truly dreadful department-store Santa, the ultimate thwarting in the BB gun campaign (sobs rise from the children below, reeling from their visits with Santa, then "You'll shoot your eye out, Kid," and that big boot coming down... ); the Christmas dinner at the Chinese restaurant, with the Fa-ra-ra-ra-rah-ing and the mom giggling hysterically and the duck "smiling" at them.

    And there are some tiny kids-are-funny moments that always make me chuckle, like Ralphie checking the mailbox to see if his Decoder Ring has arrived, and then leaving behind the mail when he goes into the house, and the scene with all the children in the class giggling, preparing to surprise their teacher with their novelty lips, even knowing they will be immediately confiscated.

    But the narration really makes it, I think, partly because of the insights we get, but at least as much because Shepherd's writing is so wonderful, and such a delightful juxtaposition to the on-screen antics.

    Also, I like the music. ;)

  5. Yes, very well said Cathy. You know, I think I always avoided this movie as it seemed like such an anti-Christmas kind of show, but as you allow it to unfold you have a real feel for the world that Ralphie inhabits, and there at the end, as he drifts off to sleep, his younger brother holding his Zeppelin and Ralphie clutching his Red Ryder Carbine-Action Range Model Air Rifle, I was totally in the warm glow of well remembered, well loved Christmas' past. Good stuff.

  6. Well, should we try The Family Man for this weekend? And still we have yet to hear from Cathy on what show she would like us to do.

  7. The first thing you have to realize about this film is that is was made in 1983. The second is that the film was designed from the start to be a "classic"--at least to the new cable market always hungry for new material--especially Holiday fare with exclusive rights to be had. And Ted Turner did exactly that. Now those are some pretty heady goals and one would guess that the odds are pretty long. But to me, the film hit its mark. A big reason for that is the inspired casting of Darren McGavin, who immediately conjures up "classic TV" in my mind. I don't think he ever made a show I didn't like. So I did not have to wait and see how Mr. Parker turned out in the end--I knew he would be what I wanted. Melinda Dillon--fresh from Close Encounters was more of a gamble for this period piece. But she plays the part well and understated and she uses her little scenes to steal your heart. Did you catch her snickering in the background when Darren McGavin is fixing his lamp? And tasting the Lifebuoy herself? The biggest thing that the film makers understood was to keep this piece in the late Forties completely and not let
    70s and 80s anachronisms creep in. How wonderful it was to see a film where the Spielberg worldview didn't reign--kids as the only intelligent ones who know better than adults/adults as bumblers filled with bad ideas and prejudices. This movie slipped through. The only thing I would change is the first two scenes with Peter Billingsley. I can't hear a single word of his dialogue. I know he was supposed to be excited and speaking a mile a minute, but what they put up is unacceptable. And since it's at the beginning, I wonder how many people turned it off right at that point. Their loss.

    I appreciate this movie for what it is. I don't consider it the best movie ever made and I certainly don't force myself to see it multiple times each Christmas season. But if it's on, I certainly consider watching it. I went to see it at the theater when it was in first run to send a message to Hollywood to consider Darren McGavin in the future. It didn't work, but most of my plans don't.

  8. 'Sent a message to Hollywood...' they would have done well to pay closer attention. Thanks for watching these shows with us. It's pretty fun, really.

  9. Not that I feel sad for Darren McGavin, mind you. He won the lottery in life with Kathie Browne in 1969, not too long after this picture was taken.

    She could at least have considered my proposal.

  10. I'm very psyched for The Family Man -- that photo is too cute.

    And I don't want to rush anything, but I like this planning-ahead business, so I'll put in my nomination now for While You Were Sleeping as the next show.

    Fun is good. :)