December 25, 2013

THE SINCERITY OF THE STORY-TELLING PUTS PAID TO THE CYNICISM:

The Largely Forgotten, Cynical Genius Behind A Christmas Story : Jean Shepherd was an icon in his time. Now he's not. What happened? (CHRIS HELLERDEC, 24 2013, Slate)

Shepherd's famous wit soured into pessimism as he aged, too. During one of his last radio interviews, according to a Time column published soon after his death, he repeatedly dismissed his radio years as "just another gig." (In an essay for Slate, longtime fan Donald Fagen guessed that Shepherd "succumbed to that very real disease of self-loathing.") At the very same time that A Christmas Story was growing into a latter-day cultural phenomenon, Shepherd was downplaying the bulk of his career. He sarcastically criticized his "night people"--the late-night devotees who listened to his wild, rambling stories--and disavowed radio as little more than a stepping-stone to television and film. To borrow his favorite slur, Jean Shepherd had become a fathead.

Mercifully, A Christmas Story doesn't share even a smidge of that cynicism. The movie embraces all of Shepherd's warm humor--tinged by the horror of childhood, of course--without any maudlin sentiment. Perhaps the movie outlasted the man because it's bigger than he ever was, an ideal way to tell the stories he created decades earlier. It takes the greatest parts of Shepherd's routine--his inimitable wordplay, the way he measured his voice to match a story's mood, that friendly chuckle--and enhances them with on-screen magic. "The Old Man" and "Ralphie's Mother" are ever-present in Shepherd's work, but as played by Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon, they're brought alive in a way they couldn't be in print or on the radio. That's what makes A Christmas Story special. Just as Shepherd narrates the movie as an adult, director Bob Clark presents it through the eyes of a young boy. This allows for a depth to Ralphie's naïve viewpoint, while also making gags out of the things he doesn't understand. When The Old Man wins a "major award"--a crude lamp shaped like a woman's leg, which he won for reasons unknown--Ralphie lingers in front of it, smitten by the "the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window." It's a bizarre mixture of adult temptation and childish fascination, and it epitomizes the movie's conflicted, nostalgic perspective.

The differences between A Christmas Story and Shepherd's stories are largely insignificant, for what it's worth. If you listen to "Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid," you'll hear some many of his best lines. If you read In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, you'll see that the movie is basically a collection of vignettes, inspired by his funniest work. The effect is clear: Without Jean Shepherd, there would by no Christmas Story--and the movie resonates so strongly because he had a unique talent for making his audience feel like his stories were their own. "You can tell a story about anything," he told an interviewer in 1971, "but the only stories that have any fidelity, any feeling, are stories that either did happen to you or conceivably could have happened to you."
Posted by at December 25, 2013 8:09 AM
  
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