When people think of the holiday season, watching classic Christmas movies always comes to mind. For this project I chose to watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation precisely for this reason. What a better way to kick off the season than with such an enjoyable movie? This movie has always been a large part of my family’s celebration, so when I saw that it was coming to Kirkhof, I had to see it. My family constantly has it running during the holiday season, and we will quote scenes from it year round. Watching it in theater was a completely different experience for me, and I enjoyed seeing the reactions of those around me.
This festive comedy was released in 1989 and features Chevy Chase as the main character who wants nothing more than a perfect Christmas with his family. Unfortunately, he can’t catch a break and runs into problem after problem as his ideal Christmas plans unravel before his very eyes. The film walks a fine line between relatability and hilarity. It’s very easy to put yourself in Clark Griswold’s shoes as he experiences failures and frustration, but the viewer can’t help but laugh at the numerous misfortunes he experiences throughout the film. Nearly every scene found in the film plays into both of these feelings. One of the best scenes to showcase this is perhaps the opening one. This scene features the Griswold family on a road trip to pick up their family Christmas tree. A rough looking truck pulls up behind them and is getting on Clark’s nerves with its aggressive driving. Clark decides to challenge the other driver and gives him a piece of his mind. Driving, especially during the holidays can be frustrating, and this scene really gives the audience something to relate to. Comedy is also found in this scene featuring wild driving and dangerous antics that are portrayed in a humorous manner. These sentiments continue into the next scene flawlessly as the family walks through the winter landscape in search of a tree. The complaining from the Griswold children, Rusty and Audrey, offer both relatability and humor. The audience can step in both of their shoes relating to their own childhoods. As the film goes on and we meet the family, we start to see familiar character tropes. The irritable step mother, the insensitive uncle, and so on. This choice of stereotypical family figures gives the audience a way to look and laugh at these people that they most likely have in their own lives. By doing this, the film creates even more relatability and provides an out for the audience through the comedy of the situations. The movie’s choice to focus on Clark and his experiences during Christmas is an excellent way to personify the typical underlying feelings of the holiday season. One of Clark’s many excellent quotes really helps to emphasize these feelings.
“Where do you think you’re going? Nobody’s leaving. Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We’re all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here. We’re gonna press on, and we’re gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye. And when Santa squeezes his fat white ass down that chimney tonight, he’s gonna find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse.”
This particular quote shows Clark’s simultaneous desire for a perfect Christmas and his deteriorating sanity as he deals with all the misfortunes he’s been dealt. His dreams of perfection are something that nearly everyone can relate to. We all want the best outcome for situations and never want things to go wrong. Life comes at you fast, and you can’t always predict or stop what’s going to happen. Clark experiences this in the most extreme manner when everything that can go wrong goes wrong. This gets the best of him, as one would expect, and he lets his emotions get the best of him. This outburst ties in to the overarching ideas of relatability and humility, giving the audience something to relate and laugh to.
Many film techniques are utilized throughout the film to emphasize character emotions and for comedic effect. Close ups do an excellent job of both. One such example is when Clark is plugging in the power cable for his enormous collection of Christmas lights and decorations adorning his house. Nothing happens the first few times but on the final try, it works. The camera slowly zooms in on Clark’s astonished face, incorporating the audience into his excitement and joy. Another well utilized film technique is the wide shot. Wide shots can be found throughout the film, bringing meanings to scenes. The beginning of the film gives the audience a great wide shot of the Griswold family walking through the snowy forest. This particular choice in shot gives the viewer the feeling of being far away from anything else. By creating this feeling, Clark’s determination and need to find the perfect tree is really cemented. He is willing to go through great lengths to make his Christmas the best he can. Perhaps the best use of the wide shot, however, is the unveiling of the Griswold family Christmas tree. Once it is cut open, branches shoot out every which way, breaking windows and lamps and taking up a huge portion of the room. The camera cuts to a wide shot of the family standing next to the tree emphasizing the true size of it. By using a wide shot over any other shot here, the audience gets the idea that Clark may be getting in over his head, and he might not be able to handle the holiday if just the tree gave him this much trouble. Film techniques such as wide shots and close ups really give this film more life and bring the audience into the Griswold’s home. Creating these feelings for the viewer are what really set this movie aside from others in terms of a classic Christmas film.
It was excellent to start the holiday season off with such a classic movie. Being able to watch it in an unusual environment really enhanced the viewing experience for me. I was able to see how unfamiliar people viewed the movie and saw aspects that I had missed in previous viewings. Seeing this movie in a theater really helped with the experience. Noticing the reactions of others in the theater combined with viewing it on a big screen helped me see these once unnoticed details. The greatest advantage if you will to viewing in a theater is how much more on display all the film tricks can be. Camera cuts and movements are displayed on an enormous scale, drawing you into them as if you were in the world of the film. This is very noticeable when compared to viewing on a T.V. or computer screen. Being in a theater really shines a whole new light on the film being viewed. I was very excited to see National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation in a theater as I have such a positive relationship with it, and I was glad with my decision. This film was an excellent see in theaters, and I recommend it to anyone who has the chance.