Christmas Vacation and Buster Keaton: The Frame is the Universe

The world is the frame

Anyone who had been following my visual deconstruction and film theory posts over the years should have noticed that I have not written anything in the past two years. My friend and mentor in the art of visual rhetoric, Scott Eric Kaufman, passed away after a long illness, and I decided to take a year (or two) off, in deference to him. - Jeff

This is a moderately quick deconstruction of a particular comedic element in a “new classic” Christmas movie.

Buster Keaton and the World of the Camera

As seen in the excellent film theory series Every Frame a Painting, Tony Zhou explains in Buster Keaton: The Art of the Gag that Buster Keaton’s gags only make sense because in his world, if the camera can’t see it neither can the characters on screen. This leads to amazing gags like this:




Buster can’t see the line of people hiding behind the first person because we can’t see it. It makes no sense in the context of our world, but makes perfect sense in his.

Clark Griswold has no peripheral vision ; whatever exists in the frame doesn’t exist until it’s in front of him

Chechik sets up a similar world in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation; Clark Griswold can’t see anything that we can’t see – or, at least, he can’t see anything not visible to him in the frame. In the opening sequence, the Griswold family is travelling into the hinterland of the American Midwest to pick up a Christmas tree. With Clark behind the wheel, a large logging truck looms large in the background:


Neither Clark nor Ellen see this, even though it should be painfully obvious that it is approaching them throughout their shot/reverse shot interchange:



By this point, the truck should already be casting shadows into the Griswold’s car, as it moves beside them. We know that this road is a parochial two-lane road, so the logging truck is attempting to pass the Griswold’s car…


… eventually completely obscuring our voyeuristic view of the Griswold’s car from the other side of the road.


Ellen, the vestige of sanity in the Griswold house, becomes aware of the truck as it’s direct in front of her sightline. (I still can’t bring myself to insert SEK-type laser lines, but I’m sure that everyone gets the gist of this.)


The truck now occupies the entire space to the left of the Griswold’s car…


… and even a young Johnny Galecki notices the truck from the back seat.


Clark, however, cannot see anything that he can’t see in the frame, so he looks to the side (and in front of the car, where the truck is clearly visible to everyone else)…


… and moves the car into an impossible position underneath the logging truck.


Only now that he shares the frame with the truck, which looms over him, can he see the predicament he’s in.


Clark’s frame is the world’s frame

Another example of Clark being unable to see outside of the boundaries of the frame in a Keaton-esque manner comes from the introduction of his brother, Eddie. Clark has just succeeded in lighting up the family Christmas tree (although arguably more the work of his wife Ellen, realizing that an obscure switch controls power to the tree); he stares in wonder at his accomplishment in total frontality. This is his moment, and he’s framed in the center of the shot.


His family runs to congratulate him …


… and we switch the camera view 180 degrees so that we can see the expression on his face as he basks in his triumph and his love of the holiday. Clark moves down the line of assembled people, greeting each one and exchanging pleasantries, as he clearly saw them all gather in the previous shots.






Clark reaches what should be the end of the line, and lingers on the last family member. Notice that he has been moving from left to right, and has been able to see every family member as he approaches them.


We flip 180 degrees again. This time, it’s not for Clark’s benefit, but for our’s. We have no idea who this additional person is or what his importance is to us.


Clark enters the frame with him so that we can see that he intentionally moved down to greet him – but we don’t see his face…


… and neither does Clark. Because we couldn’t see him, Clark couldn’t see him.


Until he could because within the confines of the frame, he was visible to the character; then it’s back to shot/reverse shot comedy.



(All images are presented under fair use guidelines – all frame grabs are property of Warner Brothers, Hughes Entertainment, or any other entities who hold copyright on this film. They are presented for exclusively educational purposes.)