A Christmas Story and non-linear viewing

As many of you probably know, TBS has an A Christmas Story marathon every Christmas, playing the film over and over for twenty-four hours. One of my uncles always leaves this marathon on all day, so whenever I’ve gone over to his house for the holiday I’ve caught bits and pieces of this movie all in a jumble throughout the day. The was the way in which I first saw the film, which probably gave my mental representation of it a bit of an unusual structure. I think, however, that the material from which the film was adapted make it particularly well-suited for this sort of non-linear viewing.

A Christmas Story is based on several short stories by Jean Shepherd, most of which were published in the collection In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash; Shephard also provides narration for the film. Shepherd first became known as a radio personality shortly after World War II. He also did standup comedy, mixing (often quite cynical and curmudgeonly) observations about day-to-day life with nostalgic storytelling. The story included in Harrison’s collection, “Red Ryder Nails the Hammond Kid”, began as a part of Shepherd’s standup routine, and it reflects this in its conversational, free-associative voice. In her introduction to “Red Ryder”, Harrison describes Shepherd’s oral storytelling style as jazz-like in its tendency to deviate from the main theme; Shepherd “told tales with detours, chuckles, repetitions, pauses, riffs, and stories embedded within stories” (467).

“Red Ryder” tells the story of a boy who sees an ad for a BB gun in a magazine and decides that he wants one for Christmas. It begins with a framing story that seems to give the narrator a reason for telling the particular story he tells—the narrator encounters a woman with a button protesting violent toys, which prompts him to recall the gun he received. Although the plot does have a somewhat Aristotelian arc (which carries over to the film), the narrative consists largely of musings about primary school, belief in Santa, and consumerism that give it something of the effect of a monologue.

One thing that this sort of associative framing does is enable the storyteller to relate a story to a particular occasion. We’ve talked about repetition and variation a few times, but one type of variation that we haven’t talked about much is the sort that is possible in oral storytelling—every time someone tells a story, they can tell it in a slightly different way to suit the particular moment and their particular whims. Although the possibility of this sort of variation is something that’s generally lost as we move from oral storytelling to recorded media, perhaps playing a movie in the background all day shifts things a little bit back in that direction. I’ve had pretty much enough It’s a Wonderful Life for a lifetime, but I am less sick of A Christmas Story, even though I’ve probably seen about the same amount of it. I think this is because of the different way I have encountered it. Dipping in and out of a film as the day goes on creates a different experience each time (albeit within certain bounds), and provides a new frame for each bit of the film that one actually watches.

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