Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Movie It's a Wonderful Life

As the holiday season is upon us all once again, I find myself trying to look back upon the last year, reflect, and try to come to some logical reasoning for the events and experiences of the past year. My wife and I have just recently (16 months now) returned to live in Australia, to be nearer to her family, as well as raise our own. Life has a certain slower rhythm to its pace here “down under” and we are glad to be here again.

As I am sure many of you would agree, moving house has its unique way of turning your life upside down, things get misplaced, things are broken, and unfortunately items get lost. This is frustrating enough when one moves across town, interstate, or across the country, but let me assure all of you, when one puts their life in a 53’ container, and ships it to a new hemisphere.......well, it’s a whole new ballgame my friends.

Because of the hot housing market here in Australia, we waited almost a full year until we purchased a home. This allowed us time to suss out the important details such as schools, nearby shops, public transport...etc. It also meant that we did not “see” our belongings (except what came aboard the plane) until July of this year. Needless to say, we had our own little Christmas in July, just with familiar gifts. Amazingly, nothing, not a thing, was damaged or broke in the shipment. This was a happy moment.

With the holiday rapidly approaching, we have just in the last week unpacked the last of the boxes labelled “Christmas”. As we reacquainted ourselves with the ornaments, stockings and other trappings from decoration land, I came across our copy of the Frank Capra classic “It’s a Wonderful Life”, usually I would wait until Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day to watch this classic tale, but being curious and impatient, I slid it into the laptop and watched attentively. After it ended, I began to think....why has this film supplanted all other holiday stalwarts, including, The Grinch, Charlie Brown, and A Christmas Carol as the standard bearer for our viewing pleasure?

As a tale of redemption, it is no better than so-so; the revelation that George Bailey’s world was better off with him in it has none of the social message or the moral urgency of Scrooge’s ghost-bed conversion. The whole angel gets his wings message is at best, silly. And while the actors involved all play their roles quite adeptly, this still does not explain the almost mythic stature the film enjoys. It seems that Christmas, after Christmas, one finds themselves tearing up almost on cue, without knowing why? I suppose one could take the angle that the film is an anti corporate parable. Without George Bailey and the community conscious building and loan, the overbearing Mr. Potter may have well turned Bedford Falls into a soulless company town. But I doubt that people respond to this movie as a protest against takeovers.

I think the movie’s success lies in the toast that George’s brother Harry, momentarily home from the war, raises to George as the townspeople have come to help him out of his money problems. “To my brother George,” he states. “The richest man in town.” Clarence, the angel, adds an unnecessary celestial message about no man being a failure as long as he has friends, in case we don’t get it. But the key moment is the toast, because while it appears to pop up from out of nowhere, it has been building steadily through the picture. Just when George thinks the world has abandoned shows up to declare its love for him.

This I think is what the picture is truly about. The subtle and casual surprise of friendship. It is easy from time to time to go along clouded by the suspicion that we are alone in this world. Then, every once and a while, we are proved wrong. Friends appear at our door, an invitation arrives in the mail, and we are saved. This reversal of emotion is as blindsiding as it is moving, especially at this time of the year when the deserting light can leave us alone in the dark. Suddenly all seems right, suddenly, it’s a wonderful life.

Going back through the picture, with the exception of Mr. Potter, nobody acts remotely poorly to another at any time. They do what friends are supposed to do, which outwardly, is not all that much. Most noted writers have tried unsuccessfully to define friendship because, unlike romantic love, the emotion is basically undemonstrative; it is hallmarked by the things we do not do—betray, belittle, be harsh. When it does manifest itself, we usually do not see it coming, which is where friendship gets its power—from the slow, cordial, dance of ordinary life.

A parallel can be drawn in relation to George Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte” each item in the painting seems to have an existence independent and outside of the whole picture, which eventually they will compose. We gasp at the picture, not because we do not expect it, but because, while expecting it, we somehow cannot believe it. So hard it is to trust our dreams of life being whole and beautiful that we focus on the particles, as paltry, and wintry as they are. When life seems to come together from time to time, we find ourselves under the same spell, we knew it could happen, but somehow we cannot understand how it did. Call it the suspension of belief.

For those of you reading this back in the USA, the past few months have been about troublesome things; unemployment, a turbulent economy, political teeth gnashing, the threat of terrorism. But most of us live in bits of small talk about nothing much, the accumulation of which, when well intended, staves off the cold.

So there’s our George, standing by the piano with his family while his friends close ranks around him, and Harry breaks through the crowd to say a few words. Gets us every time.

merry christmas from australia!

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