Sunday, December 25, 2005
One of the hallmarks of great art is that it appeals to people from many belief systems. Like everyone, I have always loved Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life--I remember first becoming disenchanted with a longtime girlfriend after she told me she "preferred the Marlo Thomas version." (I should interject here that I really can't take people who make value judgements about people solely based on their choices in movies, music, etc. But Marlo Thomas? Good Lord!), and I've always thought it a more or less apolitical work of art. It has Capra's trademark liberal populism, but its essential values are the small-town American virtues that the Left hates passionately. I've always thought that these two political viewpoints essentially cancelled each other out, leaving It's a Wonderful Life as that rare thing, a politics-proof film.
Except when the Left won't leave it alone. I'm not exaggerating. Here's Gary Kamiya in Salon, amplifying my point about the Left's intolerance of Life's small-town values:
The gauzy Currier-and-Ives veil Capra drapes over Bedford Falls has prevented viewers from grasping what a tiresome and, frankly, toxic environment it is. When Marx penned his immortal words about "the idiocy of rural life," he probably had Bedford Falls in mind. ("Pottersville Rocks!")
The point the film is making here is that cultures can be changed by the smallest things. Looking slightly into the future, we notice that only a few years separate the Manhattan of, say, Breakfast at Tiffany's from the Manhattan of Taxi Driver and its squalid, degenerate, Pottersville-made-real landscape.
Pottersville is pre-Giuliani New York, and I can't imagine any sane person preferring it.
David Mamet hated the film for its endorsement of "good capitalism" in the form of George Bailey, as opposed the the "bad capitalist" Potter.
And this, it seems, is as close as Hollywood can get to the notion of an equitable distribution of wealth: the reliance upon a person of character in a position usually occupied by the heartless....the American ethos of accumulation, agglomeration, merger, all in the name of freedom of the individual (unrestrained capitalism, individual choice, lack of government intervention, etc) ensures that labour must be oppressed. And it was in those Reagan years that It's a Wonderful Life replaced Casablanca (1942) as the unofficial Favourite Film of America - the fantasy of the compassionate conservative. the last line dealing with the plot, is George's brother's toast. Upon restoration of order, George is saved by the intervention of a rich friend. He is apprised of the community's love, and his brother Harry toasts him: "To my brother George, the richest man in town."
We are, of course, to understand the toast as metaphor, but we should perhaps note our unremarked acceptance of the metaphor of happiness as wealth.
This kind of shrill, humorless imprecation is a hallmark of the Left, and is greatly revealing. The materialist cannot understand the concept of "Man does not live by bread alone." And a metaphor of "wealth" that would be obvious to a child is, to the materialist, a "gotcha" moment.
Randall Fallows attacks the film for its conservative gender roles. He observes that in the alternate universe's final reveal, the audience (perhaps recalling the final reveal in Dickens's Christmas Carol, the terrifying Ghost of Christmas Future)anticipates something truly awful involving George's wife Mary:
We are expecting a horrible revelation. After all, Clarence readily shows George that without him his brother would be dead, his uncle would be committed, and his former employer a homeless beggar; yet he is supposed to shield George from what happens to Mary, as though her "old maid" status is far worse than the other misfortunes. George is horror struck when he sees her as a librarian, dressed in gray, with no makeup, and wearing glasses for the first time in the film, a caricature of the career woman - asexual, drab, without humor or compassion. In short, Mary's life has no meaning outside of the role that he can provide for her.
I hardly know how to respond to this, except to observe that there is absolutely no area that the Left won't inject identity politics into.
I eagerly await the Muslim fundamentalist interpretation of the film, which would likely feature very different criticisms. I can't watch the high-school dance scene early in the film without thinking of Sayyid Qutb (the father of modern Islamic fundamentalism) and his horror at watching a church dance in Colorado in 1949. ("They danced to the tune of the gramophone...The atmosphere was full of desire.") The Islamist, ever terrified of female sexuality ("The American girl is well acquainted with her body's seductive capacity," noted Qutb) would have hated Pottersville, but would have approved of the asexual alternate-universe Mary (with the addition of the proper head scarf, of course).
All of this forces me to make some notes as to a political interpretation.
More than anything, the movie is an essay on the transformative power of individual human life, and you can't get around that. Now obviously, George is saved at the end by the collective action of the townspeople, but that's hardly the point. The money, which is such an obsession to Mamet and the other lefty critics of the film, doesn't matter at all to George: "I'm going to jail. Isn't it wonderful?" The point is that life matters.
George, at heart, is an Ayn Rand superman:
"I know what I'm going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next year after that. I'm shaking the dust of this insignificant town off my feet and I'm going to see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Coliseum. Then I'm coming back to college and see what they know . . . and then I'm gonna build things. I'm gonna build airfields. I'm gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high. I'm gonna build bridges a mile long."
One can easily imagine Howard Roark from Rand's The Fountainhead saying these lines. But Capra is interested in what happens when this sort of belief is mugged by reality. Rand's great flaw is the relentless materialism she shares with the leftists she hates, and It's A Wonderful Life is, Mamet's criticisms notwithstanding, strongly and passionately anti-materialistic. The choices George makes are less important than the lives he touches and improves, without trying to, simply by being alive. It's the sheer, overarching optimism driving this film--its final line is "We'll drink a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne"--that drives lefty critics insane.