Thursday, December 6, 2012

A CHRISTMAS STORY: Blu-ray (MGM/UA 1983) Warner Home Video


In retrospect, Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story (1983) stands at the crossroads of the traditional holiday movie; the antithesis of more stately and warm-hearted films like Miracle on 34th Street and White Christmas, it nevertheless manages the proverbial ‘feel good’ with its quaintly delicious spoof and satire of our collected childhood memories that, at least in hindsight, seems to have ushered in our current crop of generalized debasements; Christmas and the holidays reconstituted as just another silly excuse to exacerbate the ridiculous (Jingle All The Way) and the mundane (Deck The Halls). 
A Christmas Story, however, is not so far gone down this rabbit hole; its comedy expertly balanced alongside its culturally flawed sentiment – infectiously blended and serving the story and the audience well; talking down to neither and making holiday traditions seem real, if marginally disingenuous. Indeed, A Christmas Story is one of ‘yours truly’ most cherished movie memories. I’ll digress a moment for a personal story. I can recall so well how my father promised to take my mother and I to see A Christmas Story when I was eleven, only to have a nasty blizzard descend upon our city the night we were supposed to go to the theater, itself located inside a cavernous shopping mall. My father, a stubborn man, refused to give Mother Nature the upper hand.
So we inched from our home to the mall in a white out (a considerable distance) only to discover that the seven o’clock show had already been sold out. With the mall closed, lights dimmed (except for those gorgeous bowers of twinkling garland they used to hang overhead) we sat in the darkened lobby for two hours with about fifty other people; many of them college students who on an impromptu whim broke into carols – encouraged the rest of us to sing. Imbued with the spirit of goodwill, the theater manager instructed his concessions stand to give everyone free drinks and chocolate bars. It was a magical experience, capped off by this delightful film. I dare say that at eleven I would have probably found most any film delightful. But A Christmas Story truly deserves this honor. I’ve visited it many times since, and the warm fuzzy feeling I have for it remains firmly intact.    
Derived from the rose-colored memories of writer Jean Shepherd, who co-wrote the screenplay with Leigh Brown and Bob Clark (itself based on Shepherd’s ‘In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash’) and lovingly narrated by Shepherd himself, A Christmas Story is the story of little Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) who, as an adult muses about the year he dreamed of, and received, his very own Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. It’s an imperfect memory at best – one buttressed by a curious balance of whimsy and wit, and infused with sublime irony in Ralphie’s infrequent ‘dream sequences’ that rewrite the truth about the world around him – Hohman Indiana circa the late fifties.
Mom (Melinda Dillon), of course, is dead set against her Ralphie owning a gun, mirroring the sentiment of everyone else, including Ralphie’s teacher, Miss Shields (Tedde Moore) whom Ralphie has a modest crush on, but who practically fails him on his Christmas essay, and the rather demonic department store Santa who also informs Ralphie that he’ll poke his eye out with the weapon. But usually stern Dad (Darrin McGavin) might be more receptive to his son’s request, having just won a slogan writing contest for the Nehi Bottling Company; the grand prize - a fish-netted stocking leg lamp.
Ralphie’s luck goes from bad to worse when he is clobbered with a rather large snowball thrown by school bully, Scut Farkus (Zack Ward) and his friend Grover Dill (Yano Anaya). Only Scut has picked the wrong day to tangle with this wallflower. Tired of being the passive ‘good boy,’ Ralphie snaps and takes out his anger and disappointment on Scut, beating him to a pulp and much to everyone’s shock and amazement. Tearful, but still angry, Ralphie fears retribution at home, but finds mom intently sympathetic – even covering for him at the dinner table.   
On Christmas morning Ralphie experiences dismay at receiving socks and rather garish ‘bunny’ pajamas as presents from a beloved aunt. He searches everywhere for the BB gun, but only after being coaxed by his father does he discover his most cherished gift actually waiting for him beneath the tree.  Regrettably, the pre-Christmas prophecy comes to pass. As Ralphie takes dead aim at a paper target perched on top of a metal sign in his backyard the pellet ricochets, hitting Ralphie in the cheek and knocking the lens from his glasses. Ralphie makes up a story about an icicle falling from the woodshed to conceal the specifics of his incident. But while Mom treats his wound upstairs the neighbor’s dogs burst into the kitchen, devouring the Parker’s Christmas turkey.
Forced to regroup at the last moment, Dad takes the family out to a Chinese restaurant for duck. Unfortunately, the bird arrives with its head intact. When Dad tells the waiter that he cannot carve the duck because “it’s staring at me” the waiter pulls out a cleaver and beheads the bird in their presence to accommodate him.  Mmmmm. Yummy! Returning home, Ralphie lays in bed with his trusted Red Ryder at his side, Sheperd’s narration explaining that of all the gifts of all the Christmases he remembers as a boy this was the one he forever cherished as the best. 
At its core, A Christmas Story is all about that childhood satisfaction that comes when one truly gets what they wanted for Christmas – a universal message that perennially rings true. But there is plenty more to admire in the film. Like Meet Me In St. Louis, A Christmas Story is an episodic tale of the American family. But this time the sanitized recollections are revisited by an adult narrator, looking back on a simpler time with fond affections, an ounce of sweetness, and a perceptive, though more than slightly skewed taste for embellishment.
Who can forget the incident where Ralphie’s fellow classmate Schwartz (R.D. Robb) is challenged to test the theory that his tongue will stick to the school’s metal flagpole, only to realize in a panic that it does?  Or the riotous way Dad mispronounces the word ‘fragile’ marked on the crate containing his leg lamp as “fra-gee-lay”, thereafter assuming that his gift has come all the way from Italy? Or the moment when Ralphie discovers his ‘secret decoder pin’ from the Little Orphan Annie radio hour is nothing more than a shameless promotion for the show’s sponsor – Ovaltine? Or perhaps best of all – the instance when Ralphie learns the ‘F’ word while helping Dad change a flat on the highway, experiencing the full brunt of its fallout by having his mouth washed out with soap once he gets home. Collectively, these vignettes make A Christmas Story lovably obtuse.
Yet, they also draw attention to the sincerity of the moment, rather than the innate comic value in the situation. We laugh because of that verisimilitude, not the stupidity in the exercise. Later holiday spoofs like Christmas Vacation, Mixed Nuts and Funny Farm mislay this invaluable lesson about making a holiday themed movie: that to be a true to the spirit of Christmas the movie also needs to be more than a series of outlandish pranks and gross caricatures about tradition and family. It requires genuine heart. A Christmas Story has that intangible asset in spades. The proof is in the film.      
Warner’s Blu-ray is imperfect. A Christmas Story was never meant to look razor sharp. But this 1080p rendering exhibits some genuine flaws that seem inexcusable to me. First up, colors have severely dated. Film stock is partially to blame herein. Reginald Morris’ cinematography was also meant to have a careworn postcard look to it – a snapshot from another vintage. But that doesn’t mean we should settle for faded colors, piggy pink flesh tones and grain that continues to look less than film like. I suspect WB hasn’t gone back to the original film elements for this hi-def incarnation, but used the same tired video files quelled from their 2 disc DVD and merely bumped that 720p signal to 1080p.
Most studios have engaged in this flawed engineering, erroneously believing that the consumer won’t notice the difference. But you can’t help notice it, particularly with film elements already in a troubled state to begin with. Eastman stock 1980-89 represents a terrible manufacturer’s blunder that has since resulted in a decade’s worth of movie heritage decomposing at an alarmingly faster rate than it ought.  
But Warner has only marginally cleaned up this print. We still have age related artifacts riddled throughout and certain scenes looking incredibly soft. The DTS mono is about what you might expect. It isn’t bad, but I just wish WB would take their time with catalogue titles from here on in. There’s no economy in doing things wrong the first time, or even the second. In A Christmas Story’s case, WB has had three different DVD incarnations to look back and improve on. They haven’t done their homework on this Blu-ray.
Overall, I have to say this was a fairly disappointing disc to revisit. It doesn’t represent the texture or quality of the original film well at all and did absolutely nothing to enhance my appreciation for the movie. Extras include Jean Shepherd reading excerpts from his story and a documentary originally produced for the 2 disc DVD in which the various child stars – now all grown up – muse about their memories and the enduring impact the movie has had on their own lives. There’s also a pathetically worn theatrical trailer and a very benign trivia game to wade through. Judge and purchase accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3
EXTRAS
2.5

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