It's a Wonderful LIfe

6 Degrees of Film: A short response to the “It’s a Wonderful Life” critics

Let me start with this: It’s a Wonderful Life is not a long-winded, melodramatic & manipulative tear-jerker. There are life lessons to be found in Frank Capra’s entire body of work. And considering the times in which this film, It’s a Wonderful Life, was conceived and made, this movie stands the test of time. The movie was made after the country had been through a Great Depression followed by the second World War.  I have seen it at the movies and at home, and the film is not long-winded, but cathartic as we watch the action unfold. The critic, Emily Strong from Salon, is bothered by the fact that this is an unabashedly Christian message of sacrifice. But if you are not religious or a Christian, the life lessons are still there. The Character of George Bailey Some of Capra’s work has been called “Capra-corn’ for a reason. There may be a hook or device that is too cute for some. However, if you are going to look at this story from the vantage point of a Morality Play, then the character of George Bailey is even more important as a hardened, beaten-down and cynical, broken man. That is where we see him when the action moves forward. She complains about the ‘contrived and increasingly satirical levels of suffering’ that are inflicted upon George. And they only lead to two possible outcomes: Offering personal sacrifice or allowing people to suffer. The Community of Friends came through for George In her estimation, the outcome that saves George’s life is reached only because of his ‘constant selfless deeds.” The critic also overlooks one small factor. The ending of the film is predicated not simply on the selfless deeds and moral fortitude of the character, George Bailey, but the fact that the community raised the money to keep him out of jail. The rich friend was ready to send limitless supplies of cash to George, in order to help his friend in a jam. George’s actions helped to save the lives of hundreds who would have died because he saved his brother’s life as a child. The Domino effect: How our lives can enrich others These are not small issues to overlook. The point being, the domino effect can create ripples that transcend our own life and are even part of the balance of the Universe. If we allow it to go into the order of infinite possibilities that may be found, the ideas can play out in multiple scenarios. The point the film was making was about ways our lives can enrich others. The Christian element is there for all to see. I’ve even written an article about it. However, the human element is even more to the point. And finally, the American element is something that is played out over the course of the film. Don’t forget Pottersville!   Strong didn’t really mention Pottersville. And the idea that “The Little Guy,” the one Capra lifted up and extolled over the course of his career, is the front and center character of this movie. That is something that should be central to any analysis of this film. Speaking of multiple universes and outcomes, the reality of a Pottersville is something that can be found in the current and global crisis of Income Inequality. We see this played out in ethical and moral outcries from millions of ordinary people across the planet. That is certainly not a contrived idea. The notion that those who have power can manipulate and control others is overlooked by Strong.   Subsequently, the idea of profiting from  other’s misery, as is apparent with the living conditions in the alternate reality of Pottersville, is also unmentioned. That small detail is never addressed by this Salon critic. She is bothered by the emphasis on George Bailey’s “selflessness.” Yet George is shown as being cranky and disillusioned, and plainly bothered by his own stifling lifestyle.  He makes no bones of feeling ‘stuck’ with no escape. Many in years since this film was made, have felt trapped by bad marriages. They’ve been disillusioned through bad working conditions, and have felt obligated through family illness and loyalty that becomes stifling. There is no dearth of possibilities of where this plot can lead. The Cockeyed Optimist in us all And the very fact that so many have remade this classic film, and so many have identified with it, are signs that this film is going to outlive its critics. Naturally there is some schmaltz and contrived “Hollywood” trappings in this movie. However, the timeless appeal has roots in the universal nature of the triumph of the “Little Guy” and the American notion of rooting for the underdog. This is what carries the day in It’s a Wonderful Life. And I believe it’s partly because we see that the cockeyed optimist, innate in the American character, as an integral part of a film that is universally beloved.

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Advent Tales: Rounding of the Circle with Christmas stories we love

During this last week of Advent, the different stories and verse that have been shared are coming together to give a complete picture of the Advent season. It is about the time we spend in reflection and looking back on our past lives. And when we see that there are things that we need to forgive and to forget, it’s a time to look deep inside our souls and to build the strength we need to let things go. As with the story shared in our first week, the Zen Koan called “Crossing the Stream” tells us we need to stop carrying a burden of guilt, shame or anger and let it go. Week Two: The Tale of Another Donkey We can look at the tale of the first Advent Family, Mary & Joseph, traveling to Bethlehem in a different light. This young married couple had very little in the way of earthly goods, yet they possessed the strength of character and moral fortitude to stand up for justice and to protect those weaker than themselves. In this story, it’s an abused donkey who finds love and courage to carry the Holy Mother as she prepares to give birth in Bethlehem. And all those who have rescued animals can identify with the lasting love and adoration that is found in these blessed animals. The Treasures we store In week three, we are asked to seek a true definition for the treasures in our life.  We find that those things that we store up inside our hearts and souls far outweigh the goods and the baubles that attract us each year. Those material goods are sometimes referred to as ‘earthly pleasures.’ We find that those things that last are what we consider to be priceless. The treasures we store up for Heaven are things we do to help others and how we choose to live our lives and treat other people. Those are the things that matter. The Movies: Messages of hope & rebirth for the Holidays And finally, for those who love movies as I do, there is in this final week a look at the different messages from the beloved films we watch each year. A Christmas Carol talks of the same treasures we talked about in week three, as the ones that were prized by the character of Scrooge. And the ghost of Jacob Marley warns Scrooge, and all of us, that those things we store up in our rooms and closets will not be of value when we are gone from this earth. It’s a Wonderful Life gives us a feeling of redemption which is part of the Christian Faith. A rebirth each year, with the celebration of Jesus’ birth, is also a part of the look inside our own lives where we see what we have meant to other people. The word “Friendship” from George Bailey’s life also means fellowship and community. These are the things that are of value in his life. For films like Christmas Vacation we laugh at all the misadventures of the bumbling Clark Griswold. But his true motive is pure and selfless. He wants to have an old-fashioned family Christmas to give to others and to share the joy of the Christmas season with his family. As for the Miracle on 34th Street, even a young Natalie Wood is seen as a cynical version of an every-child, one who has been conditioned to see things as they are. We can acknowledge that it was a hard world for all children and adults who lived through a Great Depression and a frightening world at war. Therefore, this film entailed all that is great and good about believing in miracles that can occur. The message is timeless. If we do believe, and if we not only have faith, but perseverance, then we can prevail.  And as is often the case in today’s world, we can find our dreams come true. With lots of hard work and some lucky breaks, determination and youthful dreams may come together to create a miracle or two. And finally, there’s the beloved TV cartoon tales of Christmas. We can acknowledge that the Grinch is somehow a cartoon version of Scrooge, with a cute and lovable dog named Max. But the Charlie Brown Christmas is unique in its depiction of another set of cynical children, those created through the eyes of Charles Schultz. It’s the character of Charlie Brown who bemoans the exploitation of the Christmas season by commercial interests. And we know he speaks for a good number of those who believed, in the sixties through the present, that Christmas has lost its true meaning with commercial exploitation and 20th Century marketing. But little Linus quotes Scripture to give Charlie Brown a glimpse of the true meaning of Christmas. It’s from the New Testament in the Book of Luke 2: 8-14. Linus talks about the field of shepherds who are visited by angels who tell them not to be afraid. That the tidings are of ‘great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in Bethlehem, a savior which is Christ the Lord” And with all things that tell a great story, there’s a rounding of the circle as they put actions to words when they surround a forlorn little Christmas tree with love.  That small tree may represent the poor and the broken among us. The children tend it with determination and care, and then form a circle of love that brings the drooping tree to new life. It’s a fitting end to a type of message that surrounds the season of love and giving. We can talk and we can preach and suggest and cajole ourselves into believing in the Christmas Spirit. But surrounding us is the world as we know it. We can make it a better place if we choose to do so. That’s the message that we put forth in each of our Advent Tales. Merry

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