Friday, 21 December 2007

It’s a Wonderful Life… or is it?

‘Frank Capra… in my estimation is the greatest of all American directors, a man so beautiful, so forgiving, so democratic, so damned talented, so full of life and energy that his films patrol the imagination of America today’. John Cassavetes

As you settle down this Christmas to watch Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, remember that you are not watching a sentimental or light-hearted film, but a film about a desperate man, George Bailey, in irreconcilable conflict with the full range of social, bureaucratic and discursive conventions conspiring to thwart his hopes for self-expression and self-realisation; a film which depicts a ‘wild-eyed’ dreamer relentlessly frustrated and disappointed, who goes from one crisis to the next, suffers one wound after another, until his sense of defeat and estrangement is so great that he wants to kill himself.

This, at least, is the interpretation of It’s a Wonderful Life provided by Raymond Carney in his book, American Visions: The Films of Frank Capra, which touts Capra as a ‘poet of suffering and tragedy’ and aims to rescue his films – which include other classics such as American Madness, Forbidden, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Ladies of Leisure, Lost Horizon, It Happened One Night, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Mr Deeds Goes to Town and Meet John Doe – from accusations of ‘sentimentality’ ‘corn’ and fatuous celebrations of the American Dream, and establish him in a tradition of artists – such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, William James, Edward Hopper and John Cassavetes – who examine the conflict between what American society offers and what it delivers, the gap between imagination and reality in which alienation exists, who are advocates for the man or woman who dares to dream or desires too much, and defenders of the visionary individual battling against systems, ideologies and cultures out to repress, control or crush passionate impulses and creative energies.

The phone scene (in the above video) gives a good idea of the almost unbearable emotional strain and tension that Capra makes George Bailey endure in It’s a Wonderful Life, the turmoil and suffering that permeate the film and which not even the film’s notoriously ‘happy ending’ can heal.

Indeed, in relation to the ending, Carney says that even though George doesn’t commit suicide and seems to have found renewed reason to live thanks to the love of his family and friends, he has gone through too much to be so easily redeemed or reintegrated into society.

‘Capra wants us to know that George Bailey's life is wonderful – not because his neighbors bail him out with a charity sing-along, and certainly not because of the damnation of his life with the faint praise embodied in Clarence [his guardian angel's] slogan, "No man is a failure who has friends," but because he has seen and suffered more, and more deeply and wonderfully, than any other character in the film.

‘This Cinderella, unlike the one in the fairy tale… is returned to the hearth… [but] with no future possibility of escape and with only the consciousness of what has just been lived through in the preceding dark night of the soul as consolation – [although] that, Capra argues, is enough. The adventure of consciousness that George has lived through in dreamland is greater than any of the romantic adventures he has talked about going on – but it is at the same time only an adventure of consciousness.’


Stavros said...

This is a very well done post. I've always liked American films of the 1940s, especially Capra's work. Perhaps it was a simpler time when people still had a good grasp of the basics.

My interpretation of this movie is a little different. I think George Bailey's redemption had more to do with his realization that his life was not a failure. That he had made a difference in the world.

We live lives of quiet desperation and go to our graves with the song still in us according to Thoreau. Bailey was at the end of his rope and considered himself an abject failure when in fact he was a resounding success of a man.

john akritas said...

I mostly agree with you, about Capra trying to point out to George that success and creativity in life don't have to be measured in terms Potter, Sam Wainwright or Violet would appreciate, but in terms of building a family, being honest, just and generous, a good husband, father and member of the community – but I wonder if George, stuffed full of dreams, to travel, be an architect, rich and all the rest of it, would really see the success Capra has in mind for him as 'resounding'.

Also, the reason Cassavetes in many ways takes up from where Capra left off is because he asserts that all the things Capra defines as 'success' in life – which Cassavetes concurs amount to success – are even more difficult to achieve nowadays than they were in Capra's time and that in today's society the man or woman who dares to dream or desires too much has often got nowhere to go except inside himself – meaning a modern George Bailey would be even lonelier and alienated than he was in 1940s America – and that even the family is, often, no longer a safe-haven for the individual but another place where he – and particularly she, in Cassavetes' films – is put upon and suffers spiritually – as happens in Woman Under the Influence and Lovestreams.

Anyway, there's a lot going on in all of Capra's films – and not just in It's a Wonderful Life – which, even though they were made 60-70 years ago, tell us more about ourselves and the societies we live in, than the nonsense Hollywood throws at us today.

Hermes said...

I do not think you will have much chance of convincing Americans of the Tragic interpretative framework. Many still believe they live in a land of boundless plenty where technocratic science can provide all the solutions to life. However, as they continue to suffer defeats and they realise their God does not really care about them, nihilism is gradually setting in and seeping through all aspects of life.

john akritas said...

Well, Hermo, the genius of the Greeks was that they had no fear about holding up a mirror to their societies and describing and living with exactly what they saw. No other societies before or since have had the bravery to do this. America – and not just America, but all of the West nowadays – runs away from itself. Anyway, Carney is explicit about misinterpreting Capra and overlooking the more troubling aspects of his films:

‘Capra's 1946 masterwork, It's a Wonderful Life, is often cited as conclusive evidence of his Saturday Evening Post vision of life, when in fact the reason it can still bring tears to a viewer's eyes is the toughness of the vision of experience. Rather than treating life as one long Thanksgiving dinner of togetherness and contentment, Capra focuses on the cracks in the facade of the happy-face American way of life that Norman Rockwell, Gary Bauer, and the publications of the Heritage Foundation conveniently paper over. Rather than cheerleading for "traditional values," Capra exposes the repressions of small-town American capitalism, and the spiritual emptiness of the Protestant work ethic. He shows us the emotional and imaginative bankruptcy of Chamber of Commerce systems of value and the hollowness of the American culture of acquisitiveness.’

And the reason Cassavetes had such trouble getting his films made was because his vision was too awkward for American audiences and critics to deal with.

Hermes said...

Interesting. I do believe some of the Westerns were great Tragic films like The Seachers. That was a Greek film. Today, the American masses (and increasingly the rest of the world) can only I watch one type of film. Witness how the directors of the classic Australian comedy The Castle had to alter the ending to make it more optimistic and less bitter when they exported it to the US?

I watched Atonement on the weekend. Not bad. It may struggle to make money in America. I have not read the book which is meant to be superior. I liked the subtext i.e. the collapse of the English upper class.

john akritas said...

Westerns, at their best, are indeed a form where tragic and other Greek themes have been explored to excellent effect; although, of course, the genre – with a few notable exceptions, mainly involving Clint Eastwood – has been dormant for some 35 years, which, again, tells us about the deterioration of American culture, its fear of seriousness and self-interrogation.

I don't know much about Atonement or Ian McKewan. I'm afraid I just don't share the English obsession with their caste system; although at least the film seems to show, at some level, an English willingness to look at themselves instead of pandering to Americans' twee versions of what England and the English are like – which is what English films are mostly about nowadays, when they're not depressing, self-indulgent, self-loathing, kitchen-sink atrocities.