12.24.2009

it's not a wonderful movie

Here we are on December 24, and I haven't written the annual wmtc I Hate Christmas post!

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.

16 comments:

Amy said...

Although I don't share your hatred of Jimmy Stewart, I have always found the appeal of this movie interesting. It really is a pretty depressing message: settle for the life you have and be grateful for it. And I always hate when he yells at his daughter for playing the piano, even though she was incredibly annoying!

Fortunately, you would not find that it is played over and over like it was for several years. During that period, the film was without copyright protection, and so every and any TV station could broadcast it. Then someone cleverly recaptured the copyright on the underlying story and now has the exclusive rights to the film. (I forget who.) So it might be safer for you to turn on your TV these days!

L-girl said...

Thanks, Amy - very interesting!

TV is best left off this time of year, anyway. All the Xmas specials, twice as much advertising, the perennial Xmas news stories... ick.

The original Grinch is always good, but that's about it for me.

L-girl said...

So if someone got the rights to the underlying story, do they also have the rights to the various remakes based on IAWL? There was that movie with Marlo Thomas, for example: It Happened One Christmas.

redsock said...

The original Grinch is always good, but that's about it for me.

Only the first 20 minutes or so, until that exact moment he realizes he should be nice -- isn't he suspended over the cliff's edge? Then the movie zooms to its heartwarming ending like his sleigh down the mountain side to the village.

It's not that I'm simply a grouch who wishes the Grinch would be grinchy forever -- although I am and I do (though he should treat his dog better) -- but the story loses all of its humour and vitality. Bah.

L-girl said...

How The Grinch Stole Christmas is definitely funnier and livelier when he's mean. Slithering around stealing the toys is a terrific scene - so perfectly slimy and mean, just the right amount of kid-scary shivers.

But I do like the whole movie. I don't find the happy stuff at the end sugary or sappy. For me that's the special Seuss touch. He could be heartwarming without sappy (for me).

Amy said...

I am not familiar with the licensing of the other remakes and how those rights are controlled. But generally speaking, if a movie is based on a pre-existing story or novel, even though the movie will have its own copyright, no one can use the underlying story/novel without permission, so the Marlo Thomas remake would have to have been made with permission from the copyright owner of the story. In fact, in the case of a remake, the creator would likely need to get permission to use both the underlying story and the original movie if the remake borrows elements from the movie that were original to the movie (as opposed to coming from the underlying story).

There is a US Supreme Court decision involving another Jimmy Stewart movie (Rear Window) involving just this issue. I can go on and on about this stuff if you want me to...

L-girl said...

That's up to you! You're welcome to if you like. :)

I love Rear Window, saved by Hitchcock and the gorgeous Grace Kelly. I wish Jimmy Stewart wasn't in it, but the movie is so good, I can tolerate him.

L-girl said...

And thanks for the info. It's interesting.

L-girl said...

I just turned on the TV for the first time today. IAWL is on 4 channels. And HOLIDAY INN is on another 3!!!

ARGHHHHHHHHH

Amy said...

Huh, do you get NBC on four channels? Apparently only NBC has the broadcasting rights at least in the US. Maybe others got rights to broadcast in Canada??

It is also on here, but only on NBC.

As for Rear Window... Stewart and Hitchcock bought the movie rights to the story It Had to Be Murder from a third party which had obtained them from the author Woolrich. Stewart and Hitchcock made Rear Window, assuming that they had the rights to use the story for the whole copyright term (56 years back then, divided into a first term of 28 years and a renewal term of 28 years).

Woolrich had agreed to assign the the original and renewal terms to the copyright, but he died before he could renew. His estate inherited the renewal term, and then the executor of the estate sold the rights to the story to an opportunist named Abend for a bargain price. Abend then sued Stewart and Hitchcock and others for copyright infringement when Rear Window was broadcast on TV without permission.

The SCt ultimately ruled in Abend's favor, saying he owned the renewal term in the story free and clear and that even though the movie had been made with permission during the original copyright term, it could not be broadcast or shown in theaters without getting permission from Abend, the new copyright owner of the story. Because Woolrich had not lived to renew, his heirs were not bound by his original contract to sell the renewal term.

Abend ultimately made a settlement with the movie's owners and obviously made a lot of money from his clever and cheap investment in the story. When Christopher Reeve remade Rear Window after his accident, Abend was one of the named producers on the film.

tornwordo said...

SO funny for me. I have never been able to watch it. Oh I've tried on many occasions, how can one not as it is broadcast incessantly each year. But I can't even get through the first half hour before getting bored and switching to something else. Glad to know I'm not missing much. Hope your holiday is warm and fuzzy. (Love the multi part author posts too!)

johngoldfine said...

Funny coincidence, l-girl: Jean and I were watching 'Shop Around the Corner' yesterday. I'd forgotten how obnoxious Jimmy Stewart's character was, but, then again, the last time I saws the movie was sometime in the late fifties....

L-girl said...

Amy, I don't think any of the stations were NBC. We do get some US stations via cable, but this wasn't one of them. Thanks for the info re Rear Window!

Tornwordo, thank you, and to you as well! And no, you're not missing anything. :)

L-girl said...

John, I don't know that movie, but Stewart's presence may explain why.

M. Yass said...

Hey L-Girl:

I was starting to get worried you'd gone soft on me and that I wouldn't see your annual Christmas post. I feel exactly the same way, especially since I had to celebrate it with annoying, hardcore fundie family members. My 15-year-old cousin was trying to "witness to" and "save" me by parroting feeble, fully debunked arguments about evolution being junk science. Fortunately, my mum has to work tonight so I had to get her home so she could sleep.

With that, I extend to you my best annual wish:

Merry Fucking Christmas!

L-girl said...

No way! I'm still hatin' on the whole "holiday season". I don't even know why it is a holiday season, except for the religious folks who ought to celebrate their religion IN PRIVATE!!

Yours sounds particularly gruesome. Best wishes for getting through it with your sanity intact.