19 December 2008

The Richest Man in Town

Wendell Jamieson’s essay, “Wonderful? Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life” reminds us that It’s a Wonderful Life (a film I truly love) is a masterpiece of dark cinema rather than a corny, cheerful holiday flick. Sure, there are corny bits, but it’s as much based in reality (albeit "heightened" reality") as it is fantasy. As Jamieson points out,

It’s a Wonderful Life” is 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 is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.

In nearly every respect, George Bailey is “everyman.” He is generous and kind to a fault, but he’s also frustrated by closing opportunities and repressive expectations based on “honor.” The moments when George’s self-control shatters, when his anger, shame, and fear break through that kind demeanor, are chilling—and recognizable. Shouting and shaking Mary before their kiss? The blow up at the kids? Smashing up the living room corner that represents his burst dreams (per the model and the architectural drawings)? The assault on Uncle Billy? This is a cheerful holiday film?

Although we sympathize with Mary, the children, and the poor old fool, Uncle Billy, we recognize George’s fears and frustrations. We might well recognize George’s suicidal tendencies.

Sure, no angels-second-class will come down to rescue us, and it’s probably a stretch to assume that our friends and neighbors would spontaneously donate $8,000 to rescue us from apparent financial malfeasance (in today’s climate, those people would likely string George up). But the film is a redemption story, and George’s redemption is that every one in town (sans old man Potter) acknowledges his lifelong sacrifices and confirming that he has made a difference in their lives. A presence rather than a non-entity. The film reminds us that, regardless of our wealth or education, our lives touch and enrich each others’. This is why the film has achieved such a vast, persistent audience—because we relate to George, and because the film affirms that we matter.

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