Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Repeat After Me - It's a Wonderful Life

The other night NBC re-ran Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life for what I’m sure is its millionth iteration on TV. I decided to watch it once more with the question in mind: Could this be considered subversive? I don’t mean in 1946 when it was first released. That may have been true too. But I’m thinking about how this plays to a modern audience – or rather, how it might play if they really thought about it.

Consider Potter, the cold and hardened champion of raw capitalism. He is the Free Market without any softening elements to mitigate the misery that his evil greed will visit on Bedford Falls. Consider George Bailey, who sacrifices rather than maximizes personal self interest for the good of the community. The fate of the community depends on which vision prevails.

It’s this speech that got me thinking about this question.

GEORGE: Just a minute –– just a minute. Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You're right when you say my father was no business man. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I'll never know. But neither you nor anybody else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was . . . Why, in the twenty-five years since he and Uncle Billy started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn't that right, Uncle Billy? He didn't save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter. And what's wrong with that? Why . . . Here, you're all businessmen here. Doesn't it make them better citizens? Doesn't it make them better customers? You . . . you said . . . What'd you say just a minute ago? . . . They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait! Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they're so old and broken-down that they . . . Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about . . . they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you'll ever be!

George is telling story about someone who sacrificed his own needs for the good of the community.

It’s pretty clear that the ethic lying beneath IAWL is starkly different than the one espoused by Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, “The point is, ladies and gentleman, is that greed -- for lack of a better word -- is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms -- greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed -- you mark my words -- will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.” Of course Gekko is the villain of the film. It is an Oliver Stone film. But Roger Ebert reviewing the film at the time is right when he says: "Although Gekko's law-breaking would of course be opposed by most people on Wall Street, his larger value system would be applauded." And the “Greed is Good” line has become what the film is recognized for.

Google “Greed is good” and you will find a plethora of contemporary musings by conservative commentators. One college Republican organization posted the entire speech, a picture of actor Michael Douglas and the tag: "His character may have been a creep, but his speech was a 100% correct." That’s the “Moral Values” crowd for you.

And yet IAWL is a beloved holiday classic. And there’s a number of reasons why IAWL rocks no one’s boat even in these greed driven days. In fact, I contend, ultimately it could just as easily have been generated by W’s propaganda mill.

The film is loaded with ethical exposition scenes. Nearly every Gordon Gekko wannabe is let off the hook early on in a scene at the “old Bailey boarding house” (note the foreshadowing of the actual Bailey boarding house in the nightmare version of Pottersville). Peter Bailey is looking haggard:

GEORGE: I'm going to miss you, too, Pop. What's the matter? You look tired.
POP: Oh, I had another tussle with Potter today.
GEORGE: Oh . . .
POP: I thought when we put him on the Board of Directors, he'd ease up on us a little bit.
GEORGE: I wonder what's eating that old money-grubbing buzzard anyway?
POP: Oh, he's a sick man. Frustrated and sick. Sick in his mind, sick in his soul, if he has one. Hates everybody that has anything that he can't have. Hates us mostly, I guess.

Then later after Peter Bailey’s death at the meeting of the board of directors of the Bailey Building and loan:

GEORGE: Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you'll ever be!

Potter is sick, warped. He’s not like you. He’s Other. And he’s crippled to boot. (They didn’t have “differently abled” people in 1946.) What’s more, he regards you with contempt – like cattle. But more importantly, Potter is a thief. He doesn’t play by the rules. The whole plot hinges on the moment that Potter discovers that he’s holding the $8000 deposit that Uncle Billy absentmindedly hands to him in a folded newspaper. Rather than call attention to the mistake, he conceals it. And he knows what he’s doing. He knows it still when George confesses to losing the money to cover for Uncle Billy.

GEORGE (desperate): Please help me, Mr. Potter. Help me, won't you please? Can't you see what it means to my family? I'll pay you any sort of a bonus on the loan . . . any interest. If you still want the Building and Loan, why I . . .
POTTER (interrupting): George, could it possibly be there's a slight discrepancy in the books?
GEORGE: No, sir. There's nothing wrong with the books. I've just misplaced eight thousand dollars. I can't find it anywhere.
POTTER (looking up): You misplaced eight thousand dollars?
GEORGE: Yes, sir.
POTTER: Have you notified the police?
GEORGE: No, sir. I didn't want the publicity. Harry's homecoming tomorrow . . .
POTTER (snorts): They're going to believe that one. What've you been doing, George? Playing the market with the company's money?
GEORGE: No, sir. No, sir. I haven't.
POTTER: What is it –– a woman, then? You know, it's all over town that you've been giving money to Violet Bick.
GEORGE (incredulous): What?

And if stealing were not enough, he hits George where it hurts.

POTTER (sarcastically): Look at you. You used to be so cocky! You were going to go out and conquer the world! You once called me a warped, frustrated old man. What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk crawling in here on your hands and knees and begging for help. No securities –– no stocks –– no bonds –– nothing but a miserable little five hundred dollar equity in a life insurance policy. You're worth more dead than alive. Why don't you go to the riff-raff you love so much and ask them to let you have eight thousand dollar? You know why? Because they'd run you out of town on a rail . . .But I'll tell you what I'm going to do for you, George. Since the state examiner is still here, as a stockholder of the Building and Loan, I'm going to swear out a warrant for your arrest. Misappropriation of funds –– manipulation –– malfeasance . . .

The point is that no one watching this film, no matter how greedy, will see themselves in Potter. His evil has been relocated to sickness, corruption and dishonesty. This is same reason why the Gordon Gekko character has become something of icon for right-wingers of, shall we say, a certain age. Both Capra and Stone pull their punches. They give the greedy at heart an out.

But they’re not the only ones left off the hook, so too are the residents of Bedford Falls, and by extension all of us. By placing the determinant of whether the town remains the utopian Bedford Falls or descends into the dystopian Pottersville on whether or not there is a George, no one in town is held responsible for their fate. We are allowed to think in a vague way that the depredations of Potter slowly eroded the quality of choices available to the denizens of Bedford Falls until one day they look up and they’re living in debauchery, depravity – an urban environment.

What is missing from the following?

RANDALL: Tom . . . Tom, did you get your money?
TOM: No.
RANDALL: Well, I did. Old man Potter'll pay fifty cents on the dollar for every share you got.
CROWD (ad lib): Fifty cents on the dollar!
RANDALL: Yes, cash!
TOM (to George): Well, what do you say?
GEORGE: Now, Tom, you have to stick to your original agreement. Now give us sixty days on this.
TOM (turning to Randall): Okay, Randall. (He starts out.)
MRS. THOMPSON: Are you going to go to Potter's?
TOM: Better to get half than nothing.
GEORGE: Tom! Tom! Randall! Now wait . . . now listen . . . now listen to me. I beg of you not to do this thing. If Potter gets hold of this Building and Loan there'll never be another decent house built in this town. He's already got charge of the bank. He's got the bus line. He's got the department stores. And now he's after us. Why? Well, it's very simple. Because we're cutting in on his business, that's why. And because he wants to keep you living in his slums and paying the kind of rent he decides. Joe, you lived in one of his houses, didn't you? Well, have you forgotten? Have you forgotten what he charged you for that broken-down shack? Here, Ed. You know, you remember last year when things weren't going so well, and you couldn't make your payments. You didn't lose your house, did you? Do you think Potter would have let you keep it? Can't you understand what's happening here? Don't you see what's happening? Potter isn't selling.
Potter's buying! And why? Because we're panicky and he's not. That's why. He's picking up some bargains. Now, we can get through this thing all right. We've got to stick together, though. We've got to have faith in each other.

It’s stirring speech that stems the panic. But why did George need to give it? And if he hadn’t been there to do that, why wouldn’t we hold accountable Tom, Randall and even Mrs. Thompson for their decisions and the consequences? IAWL is based on an exceptionalism that locates causality for evil (and thereby also for good) in exceptional entities – the Devil (Potter), the Angel (Clarence) and the Savior (George). (I can’t resist pointing out the devil figure tempts the savior figure to take his own life in despair, he does but is resurrected by an actual angel.)

But we aren’t really meant to see ourselves in the townsfolk. What’s important about them is that they remain incidental and not accidentally become a source of accusation or indictment. It’s George we’re meant to empathize with. Like many of us, he sacrificed his youthful dreams to “do the right thing”. Like many of us, he feels disconnected and ineffectual.

So George is given a chance to see what the world would look like if he weren’t there to remind people that the welfare of the individual depends on the welfare of the community – which I admit doesn’t sound very W. But we’ve already seen how this ethic places no responsibilities on the members of the community. And there is no certainly no role for government. The only government figures are the bank examiner, the proximate cause of trouble, and the sheriff that comes to serve a warrant at the end, when it really doesn’t matter anymore. (I’m considering Ernie the cop more of a functionary than an official. But in any event he plays no significant role in community building. He’s present in Pottersville too.)

The W charity trope is one which locates the responsibility for helping those in need not with the community, not with the government, but with exceptional individuals, voluntarily sacrificing their own self interest for the good of others. One can almost imagine Bush Sr lifting his “Thousand points of light” from the film’s opening sequence.

We’re not really meant to think about this, of course, but what if there is no George Bailey for us? What if we’re left to our petty little selves? And in any event, even George Bailey isn’t really George Bailey. The mega-happy ending is the least true moment of the film, and that’s even after buying into an active and involved God, guardian angels and magically changing the timeline. If everyone was going to rally together at the end, then you don’t need a George. It’s a fantasy of course. We all have more impact than we realize. All of our sacrifices will be repaid when we really need it. For most of us, the impact and repayment fantasies are highly exaggerated. If we were to have never been born, our home towns wouldn’t descend into Pottersville. Nor would they show up in droves, cash in hand, to bail us out in a crisis. But these fantasies are meant to seduce us into thinking that we are George Bailey and therefore have no need to wonder about what would happen if there weren’t a George. Pottersville is the nightmare, it is unreal even within the context of the film. Bedford Falls is the “reality” we are asked to map over our own.

Okay, it’s just a movie, why care? Because its longevity tells us something about our culture. Wish fulfillment films tell us about what is missing in our lives. And for this film to have resonated for so long with so many people, there must be something fairly essential missing in our culture.

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At 6:48 PM, Blogger Bruce said...

Intersting take on IAWL. One of the reasons that it has become such a staple for hiliday TV was because nobody was holding the broadcast rights for years, so that it was cheap and easy to run for small cable networks. I'm fuzzy on the details but that's what I heard.

I feel that the "greed is good" crowd ignore the limiting effect that a sense of community has on the more hazardous effects of capitalism. Its another example of assuming that if a little bit of self-interest is good, then rampant greed must be better.

BTW, thanks for the link, you have a great site... I also liked your post about how the Bushies are trying to apply an old Cold War template on to a new War on Terror.


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