More of my foreword to the book:
My family and I watch bits and pieces of the Christmas classic each year between other holiday activities, maybe once or twice sitting through the whole thing, knowing what comes next, enjoying it and laughing as if seeing it for the first time, right down to the film’s final scenes. Ralphie and kid brother each happily in bed with his favorite present, and the parents sharing an affectionate moment, scenes that might well have been mandated by the film studio: nobody wants to see a family movie about Christmas, our happiest season, end under an anti-nostalgic cloud. On our TV screen, left on for most of the day, A Christmas Story will start anew in a moment, almost endlessly, during that twenty-four hour orgy of delight, and it will be there next Christmas Eve again when we participate in our pleasurable ritual, our reaffirmation of our happy past and hopes for the future. We, my family along with millions of others, smile contentedly and laugh all over again — all is right with the world. That’s entertainment….
To repeat the irony that’s symptomatic of Jean Shepherd’s career, most people who love the film don’t even know who he is. Shepherd’s most ardent fans consider his decades of radio work to be his supreme achievement, and they also appreciate A Christmas Story as a worthy masterpiece — it not only comments with humor on human experience, but it is sublime, chock-full of life’s petty afflictions and heartwarming joys. Thankfully, Caseen Gaines’ book, while giving us the lowdown on the making of the film, and all that surrounds it, will also increase knowledge of that insufficiently recognized American genius, Jean Parker Shepherd.
Even without my extensive foreword, this book has far more about
Jean Shepherd than even the most enthusiastic fan could have hoped for.
Excelsior, Caseen Gaines!
Breaking the narrative barrier in A Christmas Story
In watching most movies the audience suspends disbelief that they are looking at flat, moving images on a screen–they somehow, in some sense, accept it all as “real.”
We’re all familiar with the unusual narrative strategy in ACS, in which Shepherd narrates the entire movie from the perspective of Ralphie as an adult remembering and describing the action that took place one Christmas season. Shepherd/narrator here is an artificial construct that somehow changes our normal perception of that flat screen–he convinces us that the moving images are his vision of what happened when he was a kid. We don’t even give it a second thought.
We’re drawn into his narrative technique, accepting its unusualness as our reality for this movie, beginning to end. And then there is one moment where, having accepted the reality Shepherd has us wrapped up in, it’s broken by another artificiality. It’s a moment we also seem to totally accept and participate in–we’re drawn into the action by Ralphie (in our perception, he’s a-real-person-within-the-screen’s movie-world). When he tells his mother that not the BB gun, but a falling icicle, broke his glasses and nicked him so close to his eye, she’s convinced–and he looks straight at us, the audience, and smiles at us conspiratorially as Shepherd the narrator whispers, “I had pulled it off!” A character in a movie looks at the audience, drawing us into the movie’s world? (Sorta like the TV sitcom where George Burns, as he frequently did a bit in front of a theater curtain before the main story starts–talks to the audience in that theater which we’re shown, and which makes his monolog more believable–and he’s mainly talking to us, the audience at home watching it on our television.) The scene with Ralphie does not give us this rationale for believing this break in the screen’s convention.
“I HAD PULLED IT OFF!
It works! We’re not even aware of the trickery!
Maybe because we’re already so much a part of the movie-world Ralphie is in.
We (Ralphie and us) love having put one over on mom!