Sunday, December 28, 2014

the soft glow of electric sex

Sticking your tongue where it probably shouldn't be. Fantasizing about how much your teacher likes you. Fantasizing about being the savior to everyone around you. Just another day in the life of an adolescent boy.

Yesterday was serious. Today—not so much. Unless, of course, it is.

A Christmas Story is a coming-of-age story for Ralphie Parker. As mentioned in the commentary track (and as should be obvious to anyone watching the movie) the one throughline of the film is Ralphie's pursuit of the Red Ryder BB Gun. I've written before about the "cowboy" as the "quintessential man's man" and that comes into play here again. Ralphie, on the brink of not being a child anymore fantasizes about being a cowboy (and also about being a spy, given the Little Orphan Annie decoding bit, but maybe that scene isn't to be taken so literally... more on that below). Ralphie seeks a phallic symbol he can use to demonstrate his manliness. There is not even much of a reach between the literalness and the metaphor; the film climaxes with Ralphie exploding into violence after an open display of emotion, effectively combating the feminine (emotion) with the masculine (violence).

Sidenote: Scut Farkus, of course, wears a coonskin cap, placing himself visually already in the camp of masculine. He also wears a leather jacket, as does his toadie Grover Dill, whose costume resembles the member of a biker gang in a "fifties" film.

Separate from the violence, there are two other scenes that point to Ralphie's path through puberty. The first is acknowledged (indirectly) by Director Bob Clark in the commentary track. The second is, I'm pretty sure, original to me.

First—the lamp.

Clark suggests the lamp represents the Old Man bringing pornography into the house. In his narration, adult Ralph specifically refers to the lamp as "electric sex." No wonder Mother seems threatened. Her husband has brought sex into a house with two young boys. Ralphie and the younger Randy are both fascinated by the lamp. Ralphie immediately reaches out to touch it, sliding his hand up toward the point where—and you may not notice this since the leg is only briefly seen without the shade—the curve of the severed leg's butt begins. His mother stops him and he narrates: "My mother was trying to insinuate herself between us and the statue." This is whatever the opposite of Oedipal complex would be, I suppose. The threat separating Mother from son is the intrusion here. The lamp.

(Clark also suggests that that stenciled lettering cutting off at the edge of the case so it says HIS END UP instead of THIS END UP was deliberate. Whose end?)

The Old Man wants to put his "trophy" on display, much like an older man going through a mid-life crisis with a younger woman at his side. The lamp is his younger woman. And, when he goes outside to look at it from the street, Ralphie touches it again. Mother stops him again. And then, he puts his hand on it again at least three more times, briefly before Mother sends him away to the radio.

The thing is, she sends him to a girl. Little Orphan Annie. But, the key here is that Annie is inaccessible. Mother has pointed him toward an unattainable female instead of this new, more sexualized arrival. And, the movie cuts to a schoolday, Ralphie fantasizing about his teacher. It is not sexual, of course, but puberty is confusing. Sexual ideas get mixed up with nonsexual thoughts. Ralph not only wins his teacher's approval but that of his entire class. They literally hold him up as the exemplar of greatness.

Before Ralphie comes back to Little Orphan Annie, Ralphie has another notable coming-of-age moment, being tasked to help his father change the tire. Ralphie isn't much help, of course, but he has a separate coming-of-age moment with his "F dash dash dash word" moment. Saying that word is something reserved for the adults—we know Ralphie learned it from the Old Man, Schwartz' mom knows he learned it from the Old Man, but Mother does not make that connection; the point is the Old Man is allowed to say it because he is an adult.

(Sidenote: the mother tastes the Lifebuoy soap. Roger Ebert, in his review calls this one of "many small but perfect moments" in the movie. He argues, "There is a real knowledge of human nature beneath the comedy" in moments like this one. The human nature on display is Mother trying to connect with a son she is losing to adolescence.)

On to Little Orphan Annie. There is a secret message to what happens here in Ralphie's "first secret meeting." Ralphie goes to the bathroom to be alone, "the only room in the house where a boy of nine could sit in privacy and decode." Decode is, of course, code. As he works the cylinder of the decoder toward payoff, adult Ralph tells us "it was coming easier now." Mother and Randy wait at the door, and Ralphie gets angry, defensive about being in the bathroom. "I'll be right out, Ma. Gee whiz," he says the first time. Then, "Alright, Ma, I'll be right out." Then, "I'll be right out, for crying out loud." Each response louder than the one before. Meanwhile, adult Ralph narrates: "Gee. Almost there. My fingers flew. My mind was a steel trap. Every pore vibrated. It was almost clear. Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!" Then, the energy is lost, the payoff not as great as he had hoped. For years to come, Ralphie will try to get that energy back again and again. He leaves the bathroom "to face the world again, wiser." He has taken another step to becoming a man.

The next scene, though, Ralphie is having milk and cookies in the kitchen. His mother is holding him to his childhood as best she can. And, that is when she goes into the living room to break the lamp. She wins this round. But, she will lose the war. Ralphie will get older, no matter what she does.

(Meanwhile, Ralphie is rejected by his teacher and she becomes the Wicked Witch of the West—classic adolescent behavior: the girl who rejects you is, of course, not a normal human. And, Mother is there dressed as a court jester to support her. This rejection, of course, leads to the violence I have already mentioned.)

Mother does not tell the Old Man the details of Ralphie's fight, of course. That acknowledgement would make Ralphie's adolescence more real than she wants it to be. She has also created a new secret bond between herself and Ralphie, cementing his place as her little boy a little longer, the Old Man and his attempt to bring sex into the house a failure. And, Ralphie is left turning to Santa Claus; he is stuck being a kid a little longer so he can ask for a way out of his childhood--that Red Ryder BB gun.

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