By Cinesnark | Think Pieces | December 23, 2015 |
By Cinesnark | Think Pieces | December 23, 2015 |
It’s that time of year again, that time when we all tacitly agree to participate in a great lie, but one that brings comfort and joy to people around the world. We all agree that this is a time of magic and mystery, when a peeping tom in a fat suit can bugger reindeer on the roof and drop toys down the chimney, and that in this magical season it’s OK to lie to children and tell them that life is wonderful and not an existential nightmare of loneliness and disaster that ends when you die. When you do you die? Who knows! Could be right now!
The great lie is, of course, that the 1946 Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life is an uplifting tale of kindness rewarded by kindness, and that true riches come from friendship with a bunch of fucking morons who don’t know how banks work. For some asinine reason we’ve agreed to let this movie into our homes every holiday to lie to us and make us feel good that we’re trapped in the unending cycle of alienation, remorse, and eventual death that is this thing we call we “life.” If George Bailey can overcome his realization that his life is pointless and he is an ant just waiting to be ground into cosmic dust by the inevitable march of time by singing songs with his idiot friends, then surely we can make it through one goddamn family dinner, Janet, just hold it together for once will you?
It’s a Wonderful Life bombed when it was released in 1946 because 1946 people were made of iron forged in the blood fires of their enemies. They didn’t need the comforting pap of a god who would send a shitty, second-rate angel to trick you into accepting your lot as a drudge. But over time we have decided to embrace It’s a Wonderful Life and have become complicit in its lie that friendship and children you can’t afford are enough to stem the unending horror of existence. But really It’s a Wonderful Life is a turd movie meant to convince you to stay in your dumb hick town and give up on your dreams. It’s a shit volcano spewing poisonous diarrhea lava all over the middle class aspirations of America.
Throughout his life, from childhood on, we see that the only desire George Bailey has is to leave Bedford Falls and travel the world and also build things. George wants to do “something big, something important,” and his dad immediately starts discouraging him, preferring him to stay at home and run their shitty savings and loan company. Mary, the girl who loves George unconditionally for wholly unknown reasons, also wishes for George to stay in town, because no one actually supports his dream of upward mobility self-betterment.
This is the incipient lie at the heart of this movie—no one actually wants George to be happy on his own terms. The longer George stays in Bedford Falls the more miserable he becomes—not even Mary’s devotion or his brood of wiener kids can alleviate his depression and despondency. The message of It’s a Wonderful Life is not that friendship is magic, it’s that decent people stay in their lane and remain miserable so that their fucked friends can keep being irresponsible leeches who survive on the misery of the George Baileys of the world.
Clarence the angel shows George a vision of Bedford Falls had he never been born, and in this alternate reality the town is called “Pottersville,” after the evil, money-grubbing tyrant who is actually just a shrewd businessman. Sure Mr. Potter is an asshole, but he’s also a man of modernity, who envisions Bedford Falls as a proper city, and not a ramshackle collection of addlepated halfwits who live on credit and only own houses because George is running a Ponzi scheme at his savings and loan. He’s selling homes well below market value to people who can’t otherwise afford them, and he has no liquidity in his business (when there’s a run on the bank, he can’t actually pay out anyone’s account) because he uses everyone’s money to keep financing risky loans for other people. Isn’t that how the housing market crashed in 2008?
Pottersville is an analog for Manhattan, a nightmare place with neon distractions, dancing girls, smoking, jazz, and hard liquor. George is horrified by this vision of depravity—but it’s also a bustling city, capable of supporting numerous businesses large and small, and there’s enough traffic to keep Ernie the cabbie occupied, unlike in Bedford Falls. But this is bad! Don’t go to the big city! Never mind all the commerce and opportunity, decent people don’t want to be there! Stay in your shitty small town where there’s not enough work!
It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t encourage kindness, it encourages mediocrity and sameness. Don’t strive for more, it says, don’t pursue education and adventure. Don’t dream, don’t aspire, don’t want, and certainly don’t achieve. The achievers in the film, Sam Wainwright and Harry Bailey, are not inherently bad, but they’re not as good as George. Sam is generous, but vulgar, and Harry is a hero but he’s also just one more person who screwed George over by not staying in Bedford Falls so that George could go to college, too. Self-made Sam and heroic Harry ought to be the aspirational figures, but no, George is the gold standard of humanity, he’s the one we’re supposed to want to be, even though all he’s actually doing in Bedford Falls is perpetuating a system in which no one can actually get ahead and everyone lives in crushing debt.
So Merry Christmas, everyone, ring a bell and give another asshole angel a pair of wings for convincing the rubes that really, they’re happy where they are and it’s better to never dream or aspire to anything more than being a cog.