The vestiges of the arcane, lazy pastime of channel surfing may still have some worth in the modern world. This ritual is the ancestor of all the clickholes, wiki-wormholes, and browsers that scroll on into infinity, allied in their eerie ability to suck the life straight out of our eyes as we burrow deeper into the pitch-black recesses of information exchange. Surfing the airwaves is the original mind-numbing media vortex, in other words. But, with channel surfing, you are overtaken by each successive wave, dropped in the middle of an uncertain and off-kilter environment and forced to find your bearings. Your journey is not linear and it is not coherent. It’s one of several reasons I stubbornly remain tethered—to subject myself to the obsolete wasteland, and bask in the irreducible inanity of the cable television experience.
The holiday season is a particularly odd time to conduct this exercise as networks and marketers scramble in a saturated and aggressive marketspace. Every year, it’s fascinating and chilling to witness the quickening of the quagmire; and it’s ever faster and longer and more exacting. I was flipping-through the cable channels recently and I came across Jingle All the Way on the Disney Channel, as is customary this time of year. But, what caught me off guard is the askew, borderline-aggressive nature of the commercial interruptions on this children’s cable network. This is no recent development and no new tactic, connecting back to the very advent of the televisual form, at minimum, and stretching through and beyond the battleground of program-length commercials in the 1980s, which apparently silently rages on. Commercials are generally assertive by design; they pull you in with random spikes of annoyance and persistence; it’s to be expected. Children’s networks are another beast entirely. They are, for lack of a better word, assaultive to uninitiated eyes; the effect is hypnotic and shrill at once.
Christmastime is a self-fulfilling onslaught in its own right. Combined, it’s a storm of hallucinatory madness. Much different than the already stimuli-forward attacks throughout the rest of the cable world, here, the cuts are faster, the pace is rapid-fire, and the boundaries between programming bumpers and product advertisements all but dissolves—this particular terrain is also replete with vexing “Proud Sponsor of Disney Channel” quandaries. It’s a disorienting maelstrom designed to confuse the brain and meld together impressions. The persistence of overlaps and the speed creates multilayered associations and connective implications stalking just under the surface, uniting program with merchandise and vice versa to better indoctrinate and exploit still-in-development cerebella. It sounds cynical and paranoid, but it is truly a bizarre and nonlinear monster to behold. Cohesive, short, simple narrative arcs are eschewed in favor of pure stimulation that rattles the brain stem.
This turmoil stirs up and around two perennial holiday films—A Christmas Story (which is literally played on a continuous loop multiple times each December) and the aforementioned apex/nadir of this holiday-havoc phenomenon in film-form, Jingle All the Way—and, by association, a spectrum of yuletide inquiry. Taking these as bookends, in the intervening 13 years between the two movies, the holiday world descended into an unsettling, unstoppable fusillade of conflicted consumerism and cruelty, and it’s been mesmerizing. In popular culture, the holiday season is perpetually portrayed as an epic gauntlet—a period of duress that needs to be weathered. It is something that people survive rather than enjoy. Scientifically speaking, the composition of your average holiday romp is roughly 89% inferno, 8% alcohol-consumption, 3% cheer, at best. At the end is sweet release, relief from obligation and expectation and ritual. These two films follow this template, and, between them, the trajectory moves us toward gluttonous excess, pitiless frenzy, and post-humanism.
In traditional holiday movies—just stick with A Christmas Carol as the default template—the protagonist learns the “true” (deeply buried, ostensibly sublimated) meaning of the holiday—giving, sacrifice, family, kinship, peace, harmony, goodwill, all that mush. In the postmodern holiday of Jingle All the Way, all these requisite notes are filtered through various mediated contrivances. The ultraviolence, sap, and interchangeable parts mark Jingle All the Way as a post-Home Alone holiday film through and through. Jingle All the Way stretches the competing impulses of A Christmas Story, running itself in opposite directions, upping the violence and the saccharine tendencies, and tearing in the middle, all to depict the attempt to fulfill one piece of a component of a larger cultural tapestry. The effort to reward ratio is so far askew it becomes utterly ridiculous, then it just keeps going. Jingle All the Way follows the same map as A Christmas Story from an inverted, discomfiting perspective—the child sidelined and the adult caught in the maze.
I like to think of Jingle All the Way as a mutant version of A Christmas Story, where the charming eccentricity is clubbed to death by conglomeration, and where nostalgia gives way to cheap frivolity—an x-mas calculation crafted in “Asian-sourced equivalent”-plastic. It’s a perfect storm of poorly-calibrated nastiness, hyper-excessive synergy, and ultraviolent-slapstick, creating a wormhole of holiday self-referentiality—a soulless product engineered for mindless consumption and about consumer excess (as Nathan Rabin put it, one of “the most mindlessly-kinetic, over-the-top, just plain batshit-insane Christmas movies ever made…that accidentally depicts the yuletide season as a Kafka-esque nightmare”). Ralphie’s reflex-request for a Red Ryder BB gun in A Christmas Story set the baseline for this feverish descent. His rapid-fire plea included mention of “carbine action,” “shot range,” “a compass in the stock,” and a “thing which tells time”—a level of fixation that signaled identification and communion with branding. The ever-present trademarked header hinted at the mentality and the source of these hesitant-then-go-for-broke spurts. It must be a Red Ryder. Why? Because, we assume, it’s the best. How do we know? Well, it was probably advertised on the radio, or in a pulp serial, or in a glossy periodical, or in myriad department store windows, or by other neighborhood kids, and they said so.
Schwarzenegger’s son, Jamie, in Jingle All the Way, follows in Ralphie’s footsteps. Near the beginning, he too spouts off, verbatim, the commercial pitch for the Turbo Man action figure of his dreams. On the surface the similarities are unmistakable, but some wrinkles give way to a fundamental nothingness behind the recitation. His heart is just not in it the same way—it’s more wooden, inorganic, spontaneous, and includes extraneous fine-print disclaimers like “accessories sold separately” and “batteries not included.” It’s as if he’d been watching it on repeat all day and this is simply his vernacular now, it’s not a lived-in desire with cultural baggage. This is the end game scenario. This is the intended effect of marketing saturation. And, whereas Ralphie’s prize is touted for its precision, accuracy, and craft, the Turbo Man “doll” is the opposite—a “thing” reduced to its ultimate meaninglessness. Turbo Man is frequently called-out for its plastic-essence and compared with identical-but-lesser cohorts, highlighting the absurdity of the ensuing chase to achieve it.
Ralphie’s quest was symbolic and culturally specific; Jamie’s (by way of Schwarzenegger) is bankrupt, rote, and mandated, and en route to this totem he is, importantly, fully dislodged from the process of acquisition. Turbo Man is a detached version of the BB gun, a powerful force for righteousness experienced by proxy through scripted imagination rather than wielded by the user. Even in flights of fancy, the scenario’s vary significantly—Ralphie places himself in slight fictional scenarios where he stands up for justice and law and order. In Jingle All the Way, these fantasies are either conflated in the television and the viewer/imaginer is a bystander rather than an integrated participant, or they are mostly comprised of squabbles over who will play whom.
Jamie’s fixation is regressive rather than formative; the child is reduced to a corporate mouthpiece, and the effects ripple out to the whole of the setting. By association, his desires are disposable, artificial, and mass-produced placeholders; and there is no internal monologue to follow. The speed, the cadence, the flow of the ads are mimicked with greater precision; the forms and the rhythms that bend reception of these bites of information are intuited, digested, and embedded deeper in the brain. Both films reinforce these tactics as distinct and identifiable styles by acknowledging our own faculty discerning and deciphering these patterns. A Christmas Story messes with this, altering and degrading Ralphie’s Red Ryder campaign. And, the adults are largely bemused and unfazed, replying in turn with another patented retort. The juxtaposition of the heightened intensity of the commercial/marketing sloganeering and the low-key-but-stern slough-offs highlights the particulars of both ends of the spectrum and shows how these work in tandem to create balance and progress. In Jingle All the Way, the commercial pitch echoes throughout the world and only gains intensity.
Ralphie’s is the journey of youth in A Christmas Story, and it is appropriately put in quotations, placing nostalgic distance and intimate reflection in equilibrium. Ralphie strives to attain this unattainable totem but also for clarity and control and adulthood. The narrator looks back with clairvoyance but also a degree of longing for the past, expressed in pantomime, reliving scenarios where his former self tries to cut through the fog of childhood—the security of his spectacles and his eyes is a major motif all the way through, mind you. It’s that classic relatable paradox of aging and it gives the object of his desire greater significance. The gun pointedly represents a stride into adulthood and responsibility, a handle on danger and tousled masculine symbology.
Jingle All the Way is far more cynical, and it spins many of the same themes for evil. Turbo Man is a McGuffin-prize at the center of the storm. Even when the film does make a point (Mailman Myron: “Man, where have you been? Don’t you watch TV? We are being set up by rich and powerful toy cartels…They spend billions of dollars on TV advertisements and then they sit there and use subliminal messages to suck your children’s minds out.”) It goes out of its way to undermine itself. Masculinity and the ever-thinning barrier between the fantastic (childhood) and the mundane (adulthood) are far more mediated and confused, and overlap to the point of hyperactive inconsequence.
True to the boost in garishness, the economic class has elevated in Jingle All the Way to some fantastic, artificial idyll. It’s a world flattened into a board game—hardworking/withdrawn patriarch, large house, nagging-but-doting housewife, spoiled-but-non-threatening child, nosy, villainous, probably-unhinged neighbor destined to be bettered—whereas A Christmas Story is more filled with open-world decision-making. And it’s set in a thoroughly working-class milieu—rough-around-the-edges, insouciant, feared/respected father, loving and quietly-scrappy mother, hillbilly neighbors, and vehicles, electric systems, and furnaces on the verge of breakdown, etc. The nuclear dynamic is integral to the holiday framework but is increasingly rickety and untethered to the point where, in Jingle All the Way, blue-collar eventually becomes synonymous with villainous—Sinbad’s mailman in league with the various workers that thwart and mock progress in the Christmastime labyrinth. When they are trampled by a stampede of well-dressed last minute shoppers, it is comical.
In the end, this is literal: the mailman is forced into the role of grotesque, booed supervillain, the masses at the parade standing in for us as the audience and our instinctive and guided affiliation with the superhero. Strangely though, throughout, their tactics in pursuit of the toy are identical in their ruthlessness; their determination is equivalent, but their resources are not, and eventually costuming contradicts and spins this contrast backward. In this respect, the only thing that separates the superhero from the supervillain is the regalia, so the aesthetics that entice us and signal our reading take center stage. Working backward, this rocky framework was set up all along—the universe acting against our “hero,” but in strangely simple, trivial, and superficial ways, just enough to guide our affiliations and to counterbalance deeper instincts and closer readings.
True to this template, insidious, parasitic myopia is embedded in the family dynamic of Jingle All the Way, in opposition to the lasting impressions of regrets and memories that pervade in A Christmas Story, and hang over the past, present, and future of its world. In Jingle All the Way, minor shortcomings in keeping up with the tedium outweigh the rigors of modern existence; petty minutia consumes the sweep of life. The shallowness of both this dynamic and of the Christmas present pursuit ends up ping-ponging our empathy, and it never quite stabilizes. It’s a film that is fatally, fascinatingly, irrevocably imbalanced, opening insights that never really resolve or are totally contradicted, becoming more mired and more surreal the further along it goes. The illogic of the film is that slavish devotion to capitalism and consumerist ritual is both the problem and the solution, and the manic intensity almost sells it. Arnold is locked in a recursive, synergized, carnivalesque nightmare—complete with Turbo Man brand extensions—but so is everyone else, and this hellscape is simultaneously phantasmagoric and affectionately syrupy. Jingle All the Way exists primarily in the shattered wasteland of adult holiday knowledge but indulges fantasy in extremis, to the point of total deterioration and regression.
A Christmas Story, on the other hand, rhapsodizes on the concept of transition, crafting a liminal moment which ushers Ralphie into a reality that is wiser and more grounded, if a bit less hopeful and fantastic. A Christmas Story strikes a remarkable balance: from Ralphie’s vantage, the wondrous and magical potentials of the holiday season are open—hope abounds even when setbacks and bum luck rear up and the grim reality of the world seeps through—but, he is also on the cusp of greater, perhaps bleaker knowledge. Hope, solace, and wonder never completely die; they are just contained and contextualized. Fantasy does factor heavily in A Christmas Story, but it is significantly mediated. The Wizard of Oz sits in the background, fittingly enough—the ultimate symbolic tale of the veils of fantasy and the smoke-and-mirrors of power and stability, all pulled through multiple nested layers of artifice. Ralphie’s story too provides a peek behind the curtain, starting, of course, with the omniscient future-self narrator who indulges and curates in equal measure.
But beyond that device, Ralphie is prone to flights of fancy, frequently drifting-off past the harped haze of daydream and into marked-artificial alternate realities that abide heightened characterizations and actions and tangents, corralled in the frosted corners of the frame and the drifting mind. Sped-up motion reminiscent of old reels, archetypes, and genre tropes—westerns, keystone cops and robbers, melodrama—approximate reality at a remove, squaring his perspective rather than tangling it. The tone and style of these fantasies and the mediums they spring from—film, serial magazines, radio programming—are pinpointed referents that inform memory but don’t dictate it. The slipstream between the media world and the life of Ralphie’s mind is always clear and there is a breadcrumb trail back. And the distance between reality and fantasy is widening not collapsing.
In Jingle All the Way, Arnold has to traverse the fantasy world of the cultural collective unconscious, and he is inevitably subsumed in mimesis; in fact, there’s likely no reality in this universe to begin with, just plastic figurines. Despite being set purely in an adult plot and worldview, the world is elastic and cartoonishly hyperviolent. By the end, in the theatrical and excessive climax, he achieves some absurd, refracted, narcissistic ekstasis where he accepts his fate and his place in the machine. He becomes Turbo Man on multiple levels. He is now inextricable from his son’s object-desire, with direct access to the gadgets spouted by his spawn at the beginning of the film. This fusion with the fantasy superhero literalizes the dissociation and projection that dominates the son’s, and by extension his generation’s, worldview. His father becomes the fantasy object he obsesses over with all the requisite, reductive signifiers included—hulking masculinity, spandex, a staged black-and-white battle between good and evil, et al.
Of course, in the end, these are products about products, mass media movies about consumerism. The more holiday films try to wrangle the bombastic capitalist excess of Christmastime in America, the more they succumb. It’s their respective takes on the escalation of this year-end phenomenon that unites them on a warped and unsettling continuum. At the far end of surreality, a point we firmly live on the other side of, Jingle All the Way indulges the whitewashed delusions of the clean and user-friendly narrative arc, orbiting it around a creature—and a society—molded by marketing, his perspective guided and fitted, his brain cast to the proper, plastic, mass-produced shape, then extrapolated out to deform the world. That Schwarzenegger is hurdled back into the didactic mode of heavily-armed action hero is farcically grandiose, fitting, absurd, cartoonish, and perverse all at once. If that doesn’t summarize modern holiday spirit, I don’t know what does. He is become product—the cycle is complete; the battle is over.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.