I haven't found the season too oppressive this year, mainly because I'm so happy to be on my winter break from school, and have had very little contact with the so-called holiday spirit. I did have to hear the dreaded seasonal muzak while doing some errands, but mostly I've been in my own lovely Christmas-free bubble.
It helps that I don't turn on the TV. Back in the days before we could watch whatever we wanted whenever we wanted, my least favourite part of the Christmas season was the endless repetition of my least favourite movie in the world, "It's A Wonderful Life".
My loathing for this movie is partly fed by my extreme dislike of Jimmy Stewart. I grew up watching old movies, and I've had a nearly visceral disgust for Stewart probably since age 8 or 9. He's been in some excellent films, but for me any movie is marred by his ridiculous voice and pitiful, one-note acting.
But my hatred of "It's A Wonderful Life" goes way beyond Jimmy Stewart's irritating drawl. It's supposed to be the classic "one man can make a difference" movie, illustrating that we touch people lives in ways we will never know. If the world is a better place because of our presence, then everything we do does matter. Nice message, right? Sounds like something I should get behind.
But why does George Bailey want to end his life? Why is he so despondent, and what if an angel hadn't visited him? Because they usually don't, you know. When people tumble into the abyss of despair, seldom does an angel appear to pull them out. When dreams die, as George Bailey's dreams did, either we painfully construct new dreams, or live without dreams, or give up. When life sucks, some outsider telling us that really our lives are just peachy and wonderful does not usually brighten our day.
Beyond the saccharine and the treacle, the plot has holes wide enough to drive a Hummer through. Come on, am I the only person who thought Pottersville - the alternate-reality town that would have existed if Bailey had never been born - was a cooler, more fun place than Bedford Falls? No! Turns out I was not. Wendell Jamieson, who wrote this essay, loves the movie, but insists it's a different movie than most people know.
"It's a Wonderful Life" is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.
I haven't seen it on a movie screen since that first time, but on Friday it begins its annual pre-Christmas run at the IFC Cinema in Greenwich Village. I plan to take my 9-year-old son and my father, who has never seen it the whole way through because he thinks it's too corny.
How wrong he is.
I'm no movie critic, and I'll leave to others any erudite evaluation of the film as cinematic art, but to examine it closely is to experience "It's a Wonderful Life" on several different levels.
Many are pulling the movie out of the archives lately because of its prescience on the perils of trusting bankers. I’ve found, after repeated viewings, that the film turns upside down and inside out, and some glaring — and often funny — flaws become apparent. These flaws have somehow deepened my affection for it over the years.
Take the extended sequence in which George Bailey (James Stewart), having repeatedly tried and failed to escape Bedford Falls, N.Y., sees what it would be like had he never been born. The bucolic small town is replaced by a smoky, nightclub-filled, boogie-woogie-driven haven for showgirls and gamblers, who spill raucously out into the crowded sidewalks on Christmas Eve. It's been renamed Pottersville, after the villainous Mr. Potter, Lionel Barrymore's scheming financier.
Here's the thing about Pottersville that struck me when I was 15: It looks like much more fun than stultifying Bedford Falls — the women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night. If anything, Pottersville captures just the type of excitement George had long been seeking.
And what about that banking issue? When he returns to the "real" Bedford Falls, George is saved by his friends, who open their wallets to cover an $8,000 shortfall at his savings and loan brought about when the evil Mr. Potter snatched a deposit mislaid by George's idiot uncle, Billy (Thomas Mitchell).
But isn't George still liable for the missing funds, even if he has made restitution? I mean, if someone robs a bank, and then gives the money back, that person still robbed the bank, right?
There's only one good thing about "It's A Wonderful Life". Bing Crosby isn't in it. As my grandmother used to say, things can always get worse.