Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Christmas Story of Ritual and Repetition (Ideology?)

How does ideology work in media? The single tightest high-wire act I walk when I teach media is to negotiate the distinction between the fact that films, television shows, etc., are deeply ideological, and the seemingly opposed beliefs that these ideologies often work in contradictory ways and that such ideologies aren't really "transmitted" anyway.

At the risk of contradicting my other work on cinephilia, so little actually happens ideologically at the "inception" of a media text--when it is first made, when it is first experienced. At best, what happens is that the conditions for ideology may begin to shift, the potential that later on new ideological possibilities will begin to develop as much around a text as within the text itself (even while a text's contradictions feed and perpetuate those possibilities).

An unthinking (not mindless, just unthinking) repetition seems to be the key.

Bob Clark's A Christmas Story was a financial disappointment when it was first released to theatres 25 years ago. I know I didn't see it in theatres. It opened prior to Thanksgiving, and had largely passed by the time, ironically, Christmas came a month later in winter 1983.

But that wasn't the end of the Story. The eventual success of A Christmas Story isn't the tale of a film's theatrical life. Its a thoroughly televisual journey. My earliest memories of the film were of an obscure family film that I watched on cable as a child, probably only a couple years after it first appeared in theatres. I enjoyed it, because I got (some of) its humor, and I could empathize with the need for the one special toy.

But I also watched it over and over because it was always on. Then I watched again the following year, and then the next. Then after a few years, I was watching it several times during the same holiday season because it was broadcast several times during the season. The repetition culminated to the point of its greatest intensity--24 hour marathons on TBS.

For a while I had no interest in owning it, because I was only interested in watching it during the holidays, and I knew it would always be on TV anyway--that's when I would see it. The ritual of watching it was completely inseparable for me from the holiday itself, and vice versa.A Christmas Story became a classic not because it is a very good film--the content, the initial experience, is not irrelevant, but secondary. It became a classic because it became a part of a ritual larger than itself.

My own experience was hardly the exception to those among its emergent fandom. I watched it probably a dozen times over the span of 7-8 years before anyone came along and called it a "classic." By then, I accepted the statement as is--"of course, its a classic." Not because I had ever thought about its status before, not because it was socially-agreed upon, but because it had always been there on my television.

There is a certain kind of socially-constructed aura around the film now. Its a holiday classic now, because its always been. Its on TV not because its the holidays, but because its always been on TV. I get excited when I hear it will be on again less because its my favorite holiday movie and more because I always do get excited.

What is its ideology? What explains its appeal? Well, nostalgia, of course. But what about it? The film itself is a nostalgic look at a (illusory) white, middle class, Midwestern 20th Century life. No doubt that nostalgia (representational nostalgia) appeals to many who imagine having lived that childhood. But its also an insightful deconstruction of that nostalgia--Dad's a pervert, Christmas dinner is ruined, Ralphie's quite the potty-mouth, Santa's a creep, kids suffer through endless embarrassment, bullying, humiliation, etc. The film appeals to contradictory audiences which may embrace, and reject, nostalgia for a period that never existed.

But there is also the nostalgia I personally feel for the past--not for the 1940s as simulacrum, but for the 1980s. My childhood. That co-exists with the film's own critique of nostalgia. I never question that, nor what the film is "about." At some point, ideology begins to "naturalize," no matter how illusory it was to begin with. And when it reappears, we are ready for it. Its past success is its own justification, even if the film was rejected theatrically in the beginning. Now, its self-generating. Now it just is.


Sarah said...

Oh man, A Christmas Story is one of the few films that I practically have the dialogue committed to memory. It sounds like we discovered this film in the same way: as young children watching it on cable. For me, it's a classic because it made me laugh like crazy (and still does), and I could relate to Ralphie's issues with being misunderstood.

What's your favorite line? Here's mine: "My father weaved a tapestry of obscenities that, as far as we know, is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan." LOL!

I made a huge error in my previous post. Sorry about that!

Scott Balcerzak said...

Interesting post.
A Christmas Story has its own nostalgic meanings in my family, on various levels. My mother saw it as related to her childhood in a Northern city. Yet, its viewing every year is now related to my own childhood memories. I kind of adopted her nostalgic cinelove for the film.
Is there such a thing as generational nostalgia transference?
As you maybe have gathered from my post on my MST3K love on Mabuse, I've been thinking about my own personal autobiography and media-love lately. I think your Bond-love posts have sparked that interest.

jason sperb said...

Part of its ideology, too, I should have mentioned was of course the naturalization of consumerism. So obvious, that even I neglected to mention it above.

jason sperb said...

I can see the correlation to the Bond film posts. Part of what I was trying to articulate in the autobiographical approach then was that "generational transference," which you discussed. My parents' nostalgia for the 60s Bond transferred to me in the 80s.

In general (and this is deeply tied to my diss, although more implicit as a theme throughout the project), I've been fascinated lately by the ways in which the possibilities of a film's reception can intensify, rather than dissipiate, over time, due to nostalgia, convergence, ritual and recycling. Disney films, Bond films, Christmas films---all seemed tied into these "generational" issues ("generational" in many different senses of the word, familial, technological, critical--I think you might have hit on a great metaphor there).

Sarah, I think my favorite line is when the Dad tells Mom "you were always jealous of this lamp!"

But my favorite scene was when Ralphie discovers in the bathroom he had been ripped off by Little Orphan Annie.

Scott Balcerzak said...

Favortie Line:
"Randy lay there like a slug! It was his only defense!"

Favorite scene:
Ralphie's fantasy of his teacher's reaction to his essay. "A + + + + + + + +" and then being carried around the classroom by his peers. Sigh ... it and the ultimate letdown always cuts close to home, even, I must admit, as an adult scholar.

John said...

I grew up listening to Jean Shepherd weave his fabulous narratives on WOR radio in NYC. To me, 'A Christmas Story' represents a near-perfect visualization of the characters who populated Shepherd's world. My grown children still watch the show during the holidays, as do my wife and I. It has provided a window on my childhood to my kids, since my early years were pre-television and pretty much like Ralphie's.