Shepherd/Truffaut

Criterion Project, Day 3 : The 400 Blows

There is an uncanny resemblance between Truffaut’s classic, “The 400 Blows” and Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story”. Both films deal with the charming mischievousness of school boys, taking a personal look at their “criminal” behavior as mere childhood curiosity, adventure, wonderment. Both are ultimately very good-hearted children that get caught up in the vagrancies of youth.

Origins : Both are autobiographical tales, and both deal with the writer’s burgeoning love of what they do. Ralphie’s tale is based around his burgeoning love of radio storytelling; Doinel is only truly happy and at peace when his parents, in their only visible moment of lovingness, take him out to the movies and for ice cream. A Christmas Tale is narrated as one would a radio play, which was ultimately the origins of the film; The 400 Blows amounts to a history of film up until that point, including a scene that is lifted entirely from Jean Vigo’s “Zéro de Conduite”. Both self-referential and historically referential, Truffaut’s film ushered in the self-awareness of the french New Wave movement; this genre clearly infiltrated it’s way into the depths of film-making, so much so that A Christmas Story references Truffaut’s masterpiece continually, without making a “big deal” about it.

Christmas : The time of year plays a crucial role in A Christmas Story (obviously), and less-so in The 400 Blows. None-the-less, both take place during a time of year when there is a false sense of familial stability, excitement, and joy for young boys. I believe the time of year is, though not crucial to the story arch, symbolic for Truffaut.

School : The rowdy classroom scenes are nearly identical, with the oblivious teachers being over-run by hi-jinks and behind-their-back shenanigans.

Essays : Both stories have turning points centered around attempted “good behavior” with papers — that are dismissed by the unawares teachers. Ralphie’s assignment, “What I Want for Christmas” is horribly dismissed when he writes eloquently about a B-B gun. Doinel’s final attempt at good behavior is dismissed as (falsely) plagiarism, when he writes quite beautifully about Balzac. Both characters are crushed after unusually genuine attempts at good behavior and school work. And the blame falls squarely on the teachers, who don’t understand them, and are clearly oblivious to their honest intentions.

There are more, too, but I’m rushing to pack my bags right now to go play some shows in Virginia. I’ll take the next few days off, and be back with 47 Ronin on Sunday night.

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