Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Pitiful, Dreadful, Wonderful Life of a Classic Film

Christmas is here with a vengeance and with it, the annual denunciations of It’s A Wonderful Life, a movie that wound its way into the cultural slipstream in the early 1980s and has never left it. This year’s popular denunciation can be found here in the NY Times.

It’s a great review by Wendell Jamieson, who calls the film a “terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It’s a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away….”

When reading this, I thought to myself that Jamieson is spot on – It’s a Wonderful Life truly is a dark and foreboding film, though remarkably uplifting at the end. To me, it’s a tribute to the filmmakers that a film about the relinquishment of dreams can provide such inspiration and hope.

Jamieson also thinks that Pottersville, with its strip joints and gambling halls, would not only be a more fun place to live than Bedford Falls, but “would almost certainly be in much better financial shape today.”

Here, we disagree. Las Vegas may be a great place to visit, but I personally don’t think the strip is a great place to raise a family. And he may want to check out the economic health of the gambling capital of the nation: in 2006, Fortune Magazine placed Vegas in the “dead zone” of the nation’s housing market – two years before the crash.

Or read today's story in Reuter's about how the Wynn casino is faring in the current slump - the news is not good.

Clearly, gambling and strip joints aren't really the cure for all economic ills.

Jamieson was a Clash fan when he saw It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time, courtesy of a high school teacher who screened the film for him and other students in 1981. And despite the angry persona he had donned in high school, Jamieson became a fan of the film – and today still gets chills at the end of the movie. But he’s convinced that most people love the film for all the wrong reasons. “Because to [Jamieson,] It’s a Wonderful Life is anything but a cheery holiday tale.”

And that’s precisely why I love the movie. I agree wholeheartedly with Jamieson that it is anything but cheery; it's a story about sacrifice, about committing to family at the expense of one’s dreams. It’s a story about taking a stand against the Trump of the time without the motivation of a financial payoff.

George Bailey had a tough life, a “pitiful, dreadful life,” according to Jamieson, and yes, the life was miserable and difficult, but most lives are lived, as Thoreau noted, in quiet desperation, and that's most likely the reason for this film's popularity, the idea that a life lived caring for others can be rich and fruitful.

It's also a revolutionary movie, by American standards. In traditional American mythology, we tend to revere the rich Mr. Potters, our Waltons, Rockefellers, Pullmans and Trumps, though delighting in their foibles. George Bailey's life careened off track early and never again veered in the direction of his dreams. It's rare to lionize the chump, but that's what this movie did to such success.

Jamieson’s review is cheery in a wholly unexpected way. In researching for the review, Jamieson interviewed Frank Clark, the district attorney for Erie County in New York, to better understand the ramifications for having an $8,000 shortfall on the books.

According to Clark, despite the friends who donate to the cause of George Bailey’s missing funds at the end of the film, George Bailey would still be liable for the original $8,000 loss and could easily be sent to jail for the misdeed.

And I think about the all bankers who lost a few billion dollars from the company books when they turned the real estate market into the biggest craps table in the world, and I think a jail sentence for such behavior would be a wonderful thing indeed.

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