Random Friday Question: Why 'A Christmas Story'?
As a deacon in the Church of Jean Shepherd--the radio storyteller who inspired generations of extraordinary characters to reveal their deepest thoughts over the airwaves--I have always had mixed feelings about the cable cult movie "A Christmas Story." The charming yet wonderfully subversive 1983 movie about nine-year-old Ralphie Parker and his quest for a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-Shot Air Rifle was just one of Shepherd's countless tales about Flick, Schwartz and the old gang of kids in Hammond, Indiana.
"A Christmas Story" threatens to replace "It's A Wonderful Life" as the classic holiday movie that bears endless repeating on TV and in the hearts of a generation of Americans. But for Shepherd fans, there's something a bit frustrating about seeing one of the great raconteur's lesser works become such a touchstone for so many people, while his best work goes largely unknown and unappreciated.
As I travel around the country talking to audiences about my book on radio and the transformation of American pop culture, I am ever surprised by the number of people who have a secret passion for Shepherd's stories, who spent untold hours over several decades listening to Shep on the radio, even if he was based in New York City while they were growing up in Maryland, Ohio, Florida or Missouri. Shep's magic managed to skip right over the boundaries of local radio. His seemingly casual mix of nostalgia and anti-establishment rage against the conformity of American life made him a hero to radicals and softies alike.
For years, TNT has broadcast the movie in 24-hour marathon fashion every December, building the love for Ralphie and his deliciously dysfunctional family. This week, astonishingly, both the kid actor who played Ralphie, Peter Billingsley, and the movie itself were right up there in the top ranks of searches on Google.
Reproductions of the risque leg lamp that plays a key role in one of the most hilarious passages in the film are now a commonplace gag gift, selling briskly at $39.95.
"Christmas Story" nostalgia has turned into an industry, with actors from the movie now appearing at the various Cleveland area sites where parts of the flick were filmed. Last weekend, there was even the first convention opening the "Christmas Story" house to the adoring public.
So, why "A Christmas Story"?
Aside from the fleeting success of Shepherd's 1970s PBS series, "Jean Shepherd's America," this movie is really the only place in the pop culture where Shep's unique and quintessentially avuncular yet slyly conspiratorial voice is easily available. He not only wrote the story, he narrates the film, and does so in his classic manner, seemingly off the cuff, yet with remarkable finesse and timing. The way he laughs, the way he builds up images of the American myth, only to turn around and demonstrate just how empty and vapid those myths may have been, delivers the messages of the 50s Beats, the 60s rebels and the 70s self-actualizers all without any visible anger or malice. Shepherd makes dissent and discord safe for popular consumption. His is not a Christmas story of the Bing Crosby-Jimmy Stewart ilk. Though there is a department store Santa, and a deep love of snow and the nuclear family, Shepherd's holiday peaks with a desperate resort to a Chinese restaurant for Christmas dinner.
The old certainties and expectations are never secure in Shepherd's world. Father really can't fix the furnace. Mom really isn't much of a cook. The little brother doesn't get his fair share. But this is not the revolution come to the homescreen, either: The bullies get theirs, in the most deliciously non-PC manner.
And always, the outsider triumphs, for in Shepherd's world, we can love all of that great American hokum and we can love the opposition to it, too, because we're standing along the edge, on the fault line, with him, with the great storyteller, the man who launched a generation of ironists.
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