December 22, 2008

Is it a Wonderful Life?

The holidays seem like as good a time as any to deconstruct one of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Not that I have the time for it, but fortunately those dutiful reviewers at the New York Times do.

My favourite critic, A.O. Scott, starts his video review/retrospective of It's A Wonderful Life by saying, "Everybody knows this movie as a uplifting, heartwarming holiday tale, but if you look at it again a very different kind of picture emerges. It's a Wonderful Life is a dark disturbing fable about greed, exploitation, misery and disappointment."

Elsewhere, in an article entitled, Wonderful? Sorry George, it's a Pitiful, Dreadful Life,
Wendell Jamieson offers a similar analysis.

"Lots of people love this movie of course. But I’m convinced it’s for the wrong reasons. Because to me It’s a Wonderful Life is anything but a cheery holiday tale. Sitting in that dark public high school classroom, I shuddered as the projector whirred and George Bailey’s life unspooled.

Was this what adulthood promised?

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."

He goes on, in some detail, about the prescience of the movie, given the current financial collapse of the banking system, and the waning livability of small towns like the film's centrepiece, Bedford Falls.

And while I've always felt many of these things while watching the movie, as I do with E every Christmas, it was interesting to see this negative sentiment in print. It almost felt like sacrilege.

But as A.O. Scott concludes his thoughts he, like us toward the end of the film every time we watch it, turns sentimental.

"And this, I think, is the secret to this movie's enduring appeal: Every year around Christmas time we can gather around the televison and watch it with our friends and families and go visit a lovely place called Bedford Falls, a small American town where everyone looks out for one another. It's a welcome, if temporary, respite from the greed, exlpoitation and meanness that we face every day here in Pottersville."

Posttersville, of course, being the hell on earth Bedford Falls would've become if not for George Bailey.

And while Jamieson's piece is far more cynical than Scott's, he nonetheless ends on a sacchrine note.

"It’s something I felt while watching the film all those years ago, but was too embarrassed to reveal.
That last scene, when Harry comes back from the war and says, 'To my big brother, George, the richest man in town'? Well, as I sat in that classroom, despite the dreary view of the parking lot; despite the moronic Uncle Billy; despite the too-perfect wife, Mary; and all of George’s lost opportunities, I felt a tingling chill around my neck and behind my ears. Fifteen years old and imagining myself an angry young man, I got all choked up.

And I still do."

As do I.

December 19, 2008

Does Winnipeg Really Exist?

A little Hollywood validation for those of us who need it.