November 21st, 2008 by Ralphie
Bob Clark had a perplexing career in film.
The multihyphenate made one timeless, flawless picture that will run forever — 1983′s “A Christmas Story.”
He also made a whole lot of other movies. Some were successful (“Porkys,” “Porkys II”), some became notorious over time (“Black Christmas,” “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things”), and some were just plain stinkers (“Rhinestone,” “Baby Geniuses,” “The Karate Dog”).
How could the same guy who gave us a contemporary classic, a perennial holiday fave, also be responsible for talking tots and a Dolly Parton-Sylvester Stallone romance? Well, that was the peculiar, strangely endearing genius of Clark, friends and colleagues say in a new docu on the helmer.
“ClarkWorld,” produced and directed by Deren Abram, is set to bow Nov. 29 in Cleveland as part of a two-day, 25th anniversary salute to “A Christmas Story,” which was shot in and around Cleveland back when areas of the city could reasonably pass for the 1940 time period of the pic with only a little bit of dressing.
The movie about a 9-year-old Ralphie Parker’s determination to secure the Christmas present of his dreams — a Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle (aka a BB gun) — is so beloved that the house used as the boy’s home in the pic is now a tourist attraction and Cleveland is home to an annual “Christmas Story” celebration.
What makes “Christmas Story” so special? It starts with the source material, a story penned by radio humorist Jean Shepherd that so deftly captures the spirit of the season for a kid — the good and the bad, the crass and the commercial, the sweet and the saccharine, the nobody-understands-me angst and the nervous excitement that borders on madness as the Big Morning approaches.
Clark’s movie captures every bit of the sweetness and the edge in Shepherd’s story. Thanks to a stellar cast –anchored by Peter Billingsley as Ralphie and Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon as his parents — the movie can completely transport you back in time, not merely to an America on the cusp of World War II but to a time and a place that exists entirely out of time, but in our collective subconscious under the rough heading of “childhood.”
It works as a sentimental journey even if you didn’t grow up in the Midwest at a time when Dec. 25 was the “center of the kid universe,” as Ralphie puts it in the movie.
“A Christmas Story” means so much to my family that the news of their death hit me almost as hard as if it had been a family member. The senselessness of their loss makes it hard to watch the movie now without a lump of coal in my throat from the start. But we will still make a point of watching what my daughter calls “the Ralphie movie” over the Thanksgiving weekend to get us in the proper holiday spirit.
“ClarkWorld” does not dwell on the circumstances of Clark’s death. It is a celebration of a wonderfully irascible filmmaker who tried to make the movies as he saw ‘em and didn’t particularly care what the rest of the world thought, though he never got tired of hearing praise for “Christmas Story.”
(My husband and I had the pleasure of heaping some on Clark five years ago at a party and screening at the ArcLight to tubthump Warners’ latest DVD release of “Christmas Story.” After the screening, Clark led the crowd in a chant to convince Warners brass to give “Christmas Story” a theatrical re-release.)
Abram knew exactly how to capture the real Bob Clark because he worked with the filmmaker for a dozen years, as a production designer and in other capacities. They bonded after meeting at the offices of another indie film outfit, Crystal Sky Pictures, where Clark’s other son, Michael, was working as a p.a. and Clark was developing “Baby Geniuses.”
“Bob was a legend in the office,” Abram remembers. “Somebody was teasing him about having done ‘Rhinestone.’ I turned around and said that I actually kind of liked that movie in a weird way. Bob gave me half a glance and said ‘It takes all kinds.’ From that moment on we became close friends.”
For Abram, who is now based in Chicago, putting together the docu was a form of “therapy” for him after the blow of Clark’s death. The “ClarkWorld” preem is being held as a benefit for the Cleveland chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“Bob was my mentor,” Abram says. “We spoke just about every day, and it was just such a senseless, tragic loss. I couldn’t focus on any other projects that I was doing, and I started thinking that I should do something for Bob, and for myself, to work my way through this.”
Like its subject, the docu has a bit of edge to it, as it explores Clark’s “faults and demons” and his other work pre- and post-”Christmas Story,” Abram says. “But first and foremost we try to entertain the aud and tell Bob’s story.”
The 75-minute feature includes interviews with friends and colleagues, including Kim Cattrall (who was a Clark fave though she is not in “Christmas Story”), Jon Voight, Mary Steenburgen, Queen Latifah, Olivia Hussey, Richard Roeper and, of course, Billingsley, who gave Clark the performance of both of their careers in playing Ralphie in “Christmas Story.” (It’s not a stretch to say that Billingsley delivers one of the best moppet movie perfs ever. He is Ralphie, and without his greatness, the pic wouldn’t work.)
Abram (pictured above) financed the docu on his own, with help from Lyne Leavy, who was Clark’s right hand for years at his Film Classics production banner. They’re focused now on getting “ClarkWorld” onto film festival circuit. Abram also would love to see it run on Turner’s TBS and TNT, which traditionally run a 24-hour marathon of “Christmas Story” airings starting on Christmas Eve. (Steve Koonin, are you listening?)
Indeed, it was TBS’ frequent airings of the pic that helped give “Christmas Story” its cred as a classic. The movie had a short and unspectacular theatrical run in 1983 because it had the misfortune to be released by MGM during one of the Lion’s fallow periods.
But “Christmas Story” proves that a great film can’t be destroyed by an inept initial release. Nowadays, triple-dog-dares and “you’ll shoot your eye out” are part of the pop culture lexicon. (I also love: “A commercial?! A crummy commercial!” and “Fra-gee-lay” and “It’s a clinker!,” to name but a few.) And not that these things really matter but it’s super-high on every crix list of the best Christmas pics ever made (With all due respect to Frank Capra, it is the best Christmas movie ever made.)
“With a little luck we’ll get it into some film festivals and somebody will catch wind of it,” Abram says. He’s already talking to one producer’s rep about handling the project.
“My whole philosophy behind this project is, do something good and something good will come out of it,” Abram says.
Sounds like something Ralphie’s old man would’ve counseled — before he ran off cursing after the Bumpuses’ dogs.
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