Thursday, December 24, 2009

Eyes not shot

It's December 24, and that cable channel has already begun its marathon showing of A Christmas Story, the film which has become our Official Holiday Classic in the twenty-odd years since its unheralded release. I am always a little surprised that the National Rifle Association doesn't protest its subtly anti-gun message, pointing to twelve showings in twenty-four hours as proof of sinister socialist-liberal indoctrination. Maybe it's too subtle for the gun lobby, which tends to see the world in primary colors, like a target. But their stated belief that only private gun ownership will keep us safe and free is embodied in Ralphie Parker's fantasy of protecting his family from burglars with a Red Ryder BB gun. Of course, he gets the gun at last, and the first time he pulls the trigger, he manages to shoot himself in the face. He also breaks his glasses and has to pacify his mother with phony tears and an outrageous lie. Far from making him safe or free, the gun has made him Glenn Beck.

Ralphie is the fictional version of Jean Shepherd, the writer and radio genius who died in 1999. (That's him in the department store sequence, directing Ralphie to the end of the Santa line.) Shepherd cultivated the image of a man's man -- amateur pilot, car expert, sport fisherman, ham radio enthusiast, and a proud member of the Playboy family of writers. But I cannot remember hearing him talk about hunting or target shooting. All his stories of guns and fireworks are set in the Indiana of his childhood. It is not clear what Shepherd's army experiences were, or why he was discharged in 1944, but he seems to have lost his taste for shooting things and blowing things up.

Part of A Christmas Story's appeal is its ruefulness about getting what you want, only to have it bring you within an inch, literally, of irreversible disaster. In a few hours, all over America, real Ralphies will unwrap real guns under the tree. A small percentage of them may be tempted to aim them at bullies, or girls, or the teacher who gives too much homework. So perhaps it's not a bad things if, while they open their gifts, the TV in the corner chants, "You'll shoot your eye out, you'll shoot your eye out."

Merry Christmas, gang.