The New York Times called It’s a Wonderful Life Terrifying, Asphyxiating
I never thought of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart as a litmus test for ones world view. With the movie at #11 on the American Film Institute’s 100 best American movies, I thought everyone found it as charming as I did. Until last Christmas.
That’s when New York Times writer Wendell Jamieson’s published his jaded take on the classic, a story he finds to be a nightmare, where the values that triumph are saccharine and stultifying.
What? Are we talking about the same movie?
In case you haven’t seen it, in the movie, George Bailey gives up his dream of escaping Bedford Falls for great adventure and achievement, for something he values as a higher good–service to his family and providing the loans that allows the laborers of Bedford Falls to participate in home ownership. He marries the girl he has always loved, raises a family of four children, and when he is in real trouble, a good-hearted, but bumbling angel, named Clarence, along with all the people in the town, step forward to help him out of love, admiration and gratitude.
In fact, in this moment of personal crisis, he is given a view of an alternate universe, what his town would have been like if he had never lived-and he sees, that the sometimes frustrating sacrifices of his life have been significant, even redemptive, for his family and friends.
Jamieson didn’t see it that way. With a sneer at small-town American and Judeo-Christian values, he wrote, “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.”
Rage is a favourite word of this nation’s elites. They assume most of us are corroded and twisted with rage at our contracted lives-unless we are dedicated to the self-absorption that lets us triumph and prosper according to the strength of our own will, heedless of higher values. (Do I hear Korihor speaking here?)
He said, “The movie starts sappily enough, with three angels in outer space [not heaven, you note, but outer space] discussing George’s fate. Maybe that’s what turned my dad off, that or the saccharine title. I’m amazed they didn’t spoil it for me in 1981 [when I first saw it], but I may not have been paying attention yet.
For Jamieson, the idea that it could be a wonderful life is sappy? He insists that George (and by implication the rest of us) has a miserable, poor, dreadful life, and it is time to wake up to his plight.
“Soon enough, though,” he wrote, “the darkness sets in. George’s brother, Harry (Todd Karns), almost drowns in a childhood accident; Mr. Gower, a pharmacist, nearly poisons a sick child; and then George, a head taller than everyone else, becomes the pathetic older sibling creepily hanging around Harry’s high school graduation party. That night George humiliates his future wife, Mary (Donna Reed), by forcing her to hide behind a bush naked, and the evening ends with his father’s sudden death.”
I saw these movie scenes. They were a depiction of character and heroism, of jumping into an icy pond to save another, of standing up for what’s right even at personal cost. George was not a pathetic, older sibling, but a brother and part of a family that enjoyed being together, attending Harry’s high school graduation party for fun. When Mary loses her robe as she jumps into the bushes, he doesn’t humiliate her, but teases her affectionately.
What kind of take on life’s essential meaning transforms the scenes of a heart-warming story into the pathetic thing that Jamieson sees? The reason it is worth mentioning is this sorry New York Times article is a glimpse into a world view that is infecting America and the larger world.
We groan over moral decay; families that not only dissolve, but are never formed; pornography that pollutes the Internet and the hearts of too many Americans, easy casual sex that marks the dating life of singles who have no religious foundation. But behind all these symptoms of a world in commotion is that too many have lost sight of what is good and beautiful.
And when you are law unto yourself, there is only one good, whatever immediately pleases, feels good or propels you to triumph.
Sacrifice (unless it is proscribed by the government) is seen as oppressive and self-abnegating. The modern ethic suggests that ones highest aim is to stride as far and fast as you can, no matter whom you trample.
Jamieson wrote that Pottersville is much more attractive than Bedford Falls.
He said, “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.
“Gary Kamiya,” Jamieson continued, “in a funny story on Salon.com in 2001, rightly pointed out how much fun Pottersville appears to be, and how awful and dull Bedford Falls is. He even noticed that the only entertainment in the real town, glimpsed on the marquee of the movie theater after George emerges from the alternate universe, is The Bells of St. Mary’s.
“Now that’s scary.”
Ah, now, Wendell Jamieson, we get to the heart of the matter. Religion and all that flows from it, with its sense of higher good, moral absolutes and promise of more beyond this life, is what oppresses you most. It is scary.
And if that’s bad, consider how really awful it would be to live with an almost perfect wife. Cheerful in the worst of times, understanding when George is pained. That is terrible, indeed.
He continued, “I’ll do Mr. Kamiya one better, though. Not only is Pottersville cooler and more fun than Bedford Falls, it also would have had a much, much stronger future. Think about it: In one scene George helps bring manufacturing to Bedford Falls. But since the era of It’s a Wonderful Life manufacturing in upstate New York has suffered terribly.
“On the other hand, Pottersville, with its nightclubs and gambling halls, would almost certainly be in much better financial shape today. It might well be thriving.”
Jamieson is saying the world would have been better without George Bailey-and Harry Bailey who George saved,–and the ship full of soldiers Harry was alive to save,–and the four children George fathered,–and the people to whom he gave dignity through Bailey’s Building and Loan.-and a town where people stick together instead of live in isolation and venality. After all, they would have the easy, instant comfort of nightclubs and gambling.
Here’s the problem with points of view like those held by Jamieson. Most of us want to live in Bedford Falls, but there are too many who are busy creating of our society a Pottersville-shallow, sexual, materialistic and empty and they are trying to suck us in.