Monday, November 26, 2007

My Christmas Dissertation

Rituals of Manhood in A Christmas Story

Over the past ten years, something remarkable has happened to a movie which was little regarded upon its release in 1983. A Christmas Story has overtaken such venerable classics as It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street to become an iconic and almost ritualistically-watched holiday film. Unlike those earlier films, products of the years immediately following World War II, it does not delve into sentimental or supernatural themes, nor does it attempt to define the "true meaning" of Christmas. Directed by Bob Clark, best known for the Porky's movies, and acted by a good but hardly stellar cast, the movie seems slapdash compared to the earlier films, filled with anachronisms and continuity errors, and perhaps critics were right to dismiss it. Why, then, has it acquired such a following, as attested by numerous stage productions, a line of tree ornaments, and the ultimate tribute of a parody commercial for Cingular?

Despite its title, A Christmas Story offers little comfort and joy to culture warriors intent on rooting out perceived insults to the Christian holiday. For the Parkers, a lower middle class family living in an industrial suburb of Chicago around 1940, Christmas is a wholly secular event marked by a tree, presents, and a festive meal. The film's religious content is limited to a few fragments of music, mostly on the radio. In fact, "Christmas" provides familiar cultural shorthand for the real story of the psychosexual tensions that threaten the nuclear family, tensions which are exposed and temporarily resolved in the course of this most family-centered of American holidays.

Ralphie, age nine, is at the beginning of his quest to grow up, break free of the Mother, and challenge and even overthrow his father, known as The Old Man. Mother, for her part, struggles to keep him within her orbit and in a condition of innocence, specifically, the sexual innocence in which all middle-class American children are assumed to exist. The Old Man, we will see, is strong enough to act as enabler and role-model in this struggle, even though it must end with his vanquishing by the son. Adult Ralph narrates the story from his perspective, with minimal nostalgia and sentimentality.

"You'll shoot your eye out!" is the film's repeated refrain, both terrible in its implication and comical in its hyperbole, the "classic Mother block" intended to keep Ralphie from gaining possession of a symbol of masculine potency, a Red Ryder BB Gun. He dreams of protecting the family from danger, supplanting the position of his father. The Old Man, however, is a formidable figure of exaggerated masculinity. The sole breadwinner, he also protects his family from the cold by doing epic battle with the furnace, emerging from the cellar covered in soot as if he had fought a dragon. Only he can replace fuses and change tires ("quicker than a jackrabbit on a date," says the narrator, invoking a symbol of prolific sexuality); only he can express himself fully and profanely, without self-censorship, raising verbal obscenity to an art-form. He prides himself on bargaining shrewdly for the best Christmas tree and, when his younger son refuses to eat, threatens half-seriously to push food down his throat with a plunger. Through "mind power" he wins a perfectly ludicrous yet shockingly frank lamp in the shape of a woman's fishnet-stockinged leg and displays it in his front window as a trophy and a challenge. Needless to say, Mother hates the suggestion that she is no longer the sole representative of female sexuality in the household.

Mother will prove equal to this challenge. The house is her domain to control and to rule. The younger son, Randy, is wholly in her control, unresistingly so. She swaddles him against the cold until he is helpless. She allows him to eat like an animal, to The Old Man's visible disgust. When he seeks the womblike protection of the space beneath the kitchen counter, she calmly serves him milk there.

Ralphie is restless at home and has formed social bonds with his friends Flick and Schwartz. He is the only character who wears glasses, introducing a crucial theme of visual impairment; he sees as through a glass darkly, and knows that dire punishment will result from damage to his glasses. He and his friends explore different ways of being male. In the film's most famous episode, Flick accepts a "sinister triple dog dare" to place his tongue on a flagpole in freezing weather. For this act of symbolic fellatio he is punished with pain, humiliation, and abandonment by his friends. Later, the three are accosted by two older boys who represent social deviance with their violent behavior and weird coloration (one has yellow eyes, the other has green teeth). They demand submission, forcing the younger boys to address them with the title of an older male relative ("Uncle!). At a critical moment -- his glasses have been knocked off -- Ralphie turns on one of the boys and beats him while imitating The Old Man in uttering a stream of obscenities. Although a single "dirty word" had been his undoing, Mother actually rewards him for opposing the dangerous deviance represented by Scut Farkas. She bathes his face, takes possession of his glasses, and protects him from the wrath of The Old Man.

The leg lamp mesmerizes pre-pubescent Ralphie -- he reaches up to stroke it, but Mother "insinuates" herself between them and steers him to "somebody's favorite radio program." This proves to be "Little Orphan Annie," the story of a girl who never grows up. (In the original comic strips, Annie is drawn without pupils in her eyes, underlining the visual trope of the film.) Ralphie, presumably with Mother's cooperation, has obtained a "decoder pin" with which to penetrate Annie's "secret circle" and learn her secret. But Annie is no threat to Mother's dominance. Ralphie rushes to the bathroom (the secret heart of the house) to complete his quest for knowledge. Even here, Mother's voice can be heard demanding that the room be returned to its proper use. His masturbatory act is unsatisfying, for Annie's secret is worthless ("A crummy commercial!").

Mother sets another detour on the road to manhood when she sends him to help The Old Man change a tire, which she has never done before. There is potential danger from highway traffic, and The Old Man would rather do it himself, but she sends him anyway, and before long he has uttered the most unforgivable of obscenities, the one which signifies knowledge of copulation. For this he is punished with a bar of soap in his mouth (once again in the bathroom) and then falsely accuses Schwartz of teaching him the word. Ralphie thus compounds a verbal slip with a far more serious moral failure, as we hear the hapless Schwartz being beaten by his mother. (By contrast, Flick had refused to name those who dared him to tongue the flagpole.) Mother has asserted her control and sends him to bed to sleep, and nothing more -- there are to be no activities "under the covers" tonight. Ralphie fantasizes, with some satisfaction, of a future when he will go blind from "soap poisoning." (Blindness was an often-cited consequence in lectures against excessive masturbation.)

Mother's double is the teacher Miss Shields. Ralphie attempts to "seduce" her with a basket of fruit and a theme extolling the virtues of the gun he covets. But the response is the same: "You'll shoot your eye out." No woman will expedite Ralphie's rite of passage. His next attempt brings him to a male figure of theoretically unlimited power.

In the remarkable department store scene, Ralphie puts his case to Santa Claus, "the man himself." Characters from The Wizard of Oz appear, but they are counterfeits of counterfeits -- actors impersonating the actors who appeared in the MGM film of 1939. The Old Man deflates their performance with hearty vulgarity, calling it "the wizard of ass." Ralphie learns that the line to see Santa is much longer than he thought. (It is Jean Shepherd, "Adult Ralph," who points this out, addressing him as "Young man...hey, kid!" Which is he?) Like a questing knight, he must resist interaction with two females, the actress portraying the Wicked Witch and a girl his own age. The girl wears strange goggles which burlesque his glasses, and tries to make polite conversation, but he must concentrate on reaching his goal before time runs out.

The encounter with Santa (the Wizard of this particular Oz) is a nightmare. Santa is clearly a tired impostor surrounded by sexually ambiguous "elves." His "Ho ho ho" has a manic edge. Hoisted onto his lap, dizzy and confused, Ralphie cannot remember the one thing he must not forget. When all seems lost he manages to crawl back and blurt out his request, but the response is a laconic "You'll shoot your eye out, kid," and a boot descends on his face. He awakens beside his brother in a pile of fake snow. Oz represents another dead end on the road to maturity.

The film naturally reaches its climax on Christmas morning. Mother makes several last-ditch attempts to preserve her power over Ralphie. She forces him into a pink bunny costume made by an aunt who has mistaken his age and gender and has even gotten the holiday wrong. "You look like a deranged Easter bunny," roars The Old Man. "Take it off!" While he gratefully does so, she enacts a symbolic castration by depositing a bowling ball in her husband's lap. "Thanks a lot!" he responds in a eunuch-like falsetto. The ball is bright blue, and he will never use it, for to do so would invite the same social ostracism Ralphie would face if his friends saw him in the bunny suit. In this world there are limited ways of being a "real man." The Old Man offers Ralphie a sip of wine, and Mother blocks him. But her power is waning.

When it seems that all is lost, The Old Man points out a package concealed in a corner. At last, Ralphie takes possession of the sleek, phallic rifle. "I still say those things are dangerous," Mother protests, but The Old Man counters, "I had one when I was eight years old." The house is still her domain, however; he is to use it only outdoors. And in the yard, through an improbably series of ricochets, Ralphie does indeed "shoot his eye out," but in the most positive way. His glasses, symbol of limited childhood vision, are destroyed, but he receives only a small wound on the cheek. Like the Norse god Odin, who gave an eye for wisdom, Ralphie at once sees a way out of his dilemma by blaming an icicle and gaining sympathy rather than punishment. For the last time, Mother takes him to the bathroom to be bathed and comforted.

Mother's power has been fatally weakened. She leaves the door open, allowing the neighbors' dogs to invade the house and steal the family's dinner. The Old Man is equal even to this catastrophe, however; with impressive dignity he orders the family to dress and takes them to a Chinese restaurant. The final act of symbolic castration is a purely comic one, as the owner chops off the head of a roast duck while the family roars with laughter. In the closing scenes, peace descends, at least temporarily, upon the Parkers. The parents watch the falling snow, and Ralphie lies in bed holding his gun and dreaming of the feats he will accomplish with it.

Whatever its cinematic qualities, A Christmas Story is a study of the anxieties of childhood and manhood as they will forever be experienced by characters at once commonplace and mythic. Whether or not Jean Shepherd was fully aware of these themes when he wrote the story, it is surely the secret of the film's hold over us.


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