Since its release in 1983, Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story has not only become one of the classic American Christmas movies but one of the classic American movies altogether. Just 15 minutes into the film, it is particularly easy to see why: It portrays an idealized past America that only exists in the minds of people who grew up in it and filtered it through their nostalgia goggles. A 1930s America in which black children and white children share the same classroom in the same school and no effects of the Great Depression can be seen; no homeless people or unemployment lines in sight, and no spending worries when it comes to Christmas. Indeed, at the end of the film, the father (Darren McGavin) remarks upon the huge pile of wrapping paper left at the foot of the tree, in which the youngest child idyllically sleeps.
While idealizing one’s past –or indeed present – in cinematic and televisual works of fiction can present a number of problems, the whimsicality of A Christmas Story’s pre-WWII Cleveland finds justification in its placement through the eyes of child protagonist Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley). Ralphie stands in for author Jean Shepherd, on whose book “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash” this film is based. Though Peter Billingsley is present in almost every scene, he vocalizes very little of Ralphie’s thoughts and feelings. Most of those are provided by Jean Shepherd himself, fondly recalling the various troubles he went through that Christmas season in his relentless quest to get a Red Ryder BB gun.
This provides an interesting perspective on the unfolding events: Just about everything is seen from the point of view of both a 9 year-old boy and his older self, yet there is no fundamental difference of approach between the two. Older Ralphie rarely ever uses the potential benefit of hindsight to see these events in a slightly different light. He just smiles reminiscently at himself, his family and his friends, informs the audience of what was going on in his head at precise moments – such as his first attempt to convince his mother to get him the toy or the cathartic moment he finally stands up to bully Scud Farkas (Zack Ward) and gives him a bloody nose – but never does he give any kind of deep insight into his mindset at those times that he couldn’t have had then.
This is the very definition of nostalgia, and the fact that it happens to be childhood nostalgia allows the audience to give the film’s whitewashed romanticizing of history a pass. The film not only recreates a sentimentalized environment as a child would perceive it, it fully adopts that child’s point of view, right down to soft-focus-shot daydreams and wide-angle lens views of a disgruntled mall Santa Claus.
It is this perfectly assumed lack of critical distance that distinguishes it from Federico Fellini’s 1973 masterpiece Amarcord, of which it is reminiscent due to its colourful characters and episodic format. While it is precisely Amarcord’s political acuity – its casual but caustic observation of the rise of fascism during Fellini’s childhood – that made its affectionate characters resonate more than Bob Clark’s less personal film (he was born 20 years later than Shepherd), both share a capacity for transporting their audience to an immaterial place that exists only in the author’s memory yet never loses a sense of emotional authenticity.