Mood Movies: It's a Wonderful Life
posted by Paul on 1/08/02
Whenever I'm bored, harrassed or just needing a measure of escape, one of the best remedies is to watch a movie. It's a singular experience that, for some reason, gives me a sense of perspective and lifts me out of my self-inflicted/irrational doldrum. I'm sure that other people have different, healthier strategies to raise their mood, and while a brisk walk or a quick read can offer momentary respite, nothing on an artistic level beats a good movie.
There are certain movies that inspire me, that I can enjoy repeatedly, and that offer me a range of emotions - mostly positive. These are what I like to call "mood movies", and it takes one hell of good movie to induce anything more than reasonable entertainment and an occasional viewing. Truth be told, there isn't a wide range of movies that effectively raise the bar; competent and interesting, sure, but thought-provoking and consistently entertaining?
The benchmark, as far as I'm concerned, has to be whether a movie can continue to entertain and inspire you; great works should offer up new treats everytime you see them. "American Beauty" was a fantastically crafted movie and its themes are still pertinent, but I feel that it loses something with every viewing. We know the twists, we've experienced the ride, so we're less inclined to be enthralled next time. This is the fine line between very good and great movies, and although I've covered a few of my favorites here, I'll occasionally run a feature called "mood movies". These are the movies that not only raise my mood, but raise the cinematic bar. My first "mood movie":
"Honey, why don't you jump into bed? Little Bailey wants to venture into your Bedford Falls!"
"Every time you hear a bell ring, it means that some angel's just got his wings."
What can we conclude about "It's a Wonderful Life"?
Some movies exude a simple elegance, one that only lifts your mood, but actually inspires you to become a better person. Few works are blessed with this unique attribute, fewer movies can be enjoyed upon repeated viewings - often, when the mystery of the plot is unveiled, the cracks begin to show. Consider contemporary Hollywood's usual output of uplifting or message movies. More often than not, the end product is hokey, schmaltzy or strikes an embarrassing false note. Alarmingly, "It's a Wonderful Life" is different - alarming because a post-War movie, made when censorship was so rife, is actually as revelatory as any movie of its kind produced in subsuequent eras.
It's rare that a movie about angels and the goodness of life will strike such resonance in this modern era of consumerism and cynicism. These days, we're all so wrapped up in ourselves and so self-concious, that anything that isn't self-referential or cynical is viewed with a level of disdain. The internet era shuns anything that borders on sentimentiality, and while many efforts are shallow and manipulative, "It's a Wonderful Life" escapes these pitfalls. Not only will it make you feel good about life, it will actually inspire you to be a better person, and that is a rarity.
I first caught "It's a Wonderful Life" on Christmas Eve 1997. I'd heard and read a lot about it: How it was a staple in the Christmas television schedules, how it was uplifting and an American treasure. With all the praise, I knew I had to watch this movie. I expected to be disappointed, since older movies tend to age quite poorly. To my surprise, I found the praise heaped on this movie very deserving. With a simple story, great acting and characters about whom you really care, it's hard not to fall for its charms. Instantly, it became as one of my favorites, and a tonic whenever I need a lift.
Now, I feel it's important to acknowledge that this doesn't deserve the "Christmas movie" tag. Christmas movies are movies that have Christmas as their primary theme; this simply uses Christmas, a traditionally family-themed season, as a backdrop. Family is important here, and the deeper themes are humanity and ambition. Do we really need to fulfill our big dreams in order to have lived a fulfilling life? What constitutes a "wonderful life"? The protagonist, George Bailey, is a good man who has put his dreams on hold in order to aid the dreams of those closest to him. He is a smart man with lofty ambitions. He wants to move away and study, as any young man in his position would do. His small-town home of Bedford Falls, a cosy place where everyone knows and likes one another, restricts him. There, the working-class are content with their lot, but Bailey feels that his wings have been clipped. Bedford Falls is a curious town, probably the only town to be completely free of crime and to have only one cab driver (one who actually speaks English, no less) and a police officer who isn't corrupt. It's easy to see why George might want to leave.
A series of events conspire to keep him there.
The movie harks back to an idealized time when family values weren't something to be exploited on tacky talk shows, and when human decency existed on a large scale. It's debatable whether that was ever the case, but Bedford Falls represents a sort of Heaven on Earth. For one thing, it only seems to have one unmoral character (the cold and miserly millionaire, Potter). Potter represents everything that is wrong with consumerism - he is greedy and doesn't care about anything but money and power. Bailey is the antithesis, a hard-working individual who helps out his fellow man and stays in Bedford Falls not for the profit, but because he feels he has a duty there. His duty is to take over his father's business and to stop Potter from corrupting the town.
"I myself was once a swinger of birches."
Bailey also has a duty to marry the woman who has loved him since they were kids - Mary, a woman who does everything but beg Bailey to hook up with her. The movie shows Bailey from an early age, how we worked hard and helped others at the cost of himself. Saving his brother from drowning in ice came at the cost of losing his hearing, and although he always admired Mary, he feared that hooking up with her would stifle his future plans. Love, however, cannot be contained and George Bailey does marry Mary (the phone scene is brilliantly acted and could serve as a lesson in how to frame sexual tension).
"I have ENORMOUS body parts!"
The questions here are still very important. Is it better to embrace love, or strive for individualism? George settles for the family life, but would he have been better off travelling away and living a new life? The movie shows how much comradeship is important - karma plays a part. If you give, you'll get in return. George is a respected figure, but he isn't very adventurous. He plays it safe, and isn't even tempted by the hottest girl in town (being that there are evidently only two girls in town ; one nice, the other a vixen).
"You can't fool me, Christina Aguilera."
Sure, he may be a valuable human being but when all his money is taken from him by Potter (in a fiendishly simplistic manner) , he thinks about taking his own life. To George, life has amounted to a big disappointment. He did not get to experience his dreams - his sacrifices dictated that he couldn't even enjoy a honeymoon without his friends getting involved - and he wound up, as Potter explained it, "worth more dead than alive". Money plays a big part here, and George's loss amounts to a lot. It has the potential to ruin his future and his good name.
"Anyone up for a spot of hide the sausage?!"
Regret is common to all of us. We all wonder where we'd be if we chose the road not taken, or adopted a different approach in a given situation. I'm not sure whether we have a set path, or whether we'll get there no matter what decisions we make. It's scary, too, to think that one decision or wrong turn could alter our whole life path. Here, an angel shows George that, despite his regret and sadness, he actually did have a great life and made a big impression on those around him. This is the uplifting part of the movie, for it shows that one man can make a difference. This is a definite argument for community - a community without George is one that is bitter, Potter-owned and money-orientated. The problem with these scenes, however, is that they only show what would have happened had George not been born at all. The better question would be: what would happen had George followed his dreams in his youth? After all, by that stage, he would have saved his brother (who would have drowned in the ice had George not rescued him) and done a lot of good. Is that not enough?
"You think you have problems?! Look at the shit I have to wear"
Jimmy Stewart is brilliant in this role. It's not that he plays the part well, he is the part. You believe that he is George Bailey, and it would be nice to think that such a character exists. When you watch this movie and compare it with modern interpretations, the biggest difference is that Stewart doesn't seem to be acting. The movie, although touching on the supernatural, seems incredibly natural and Stewart is one of the most natural actors you'll see. Not one line rings false.
Overall, the movie seems to argue that as long as you're a good person, and treat others well, then you have lived a very good life. The end scene, verging on schmaltz, will undoubtedly raise your mood. Potter, refreshingly unavenged, lives on, and we are to presume that although he is content in his misery (which he sees as comfort) , realization will dawn later on. Bailey, on the other hand, realizes that he does have the more important things in life: a selfless nature, a family that adore him, good friends and the support of a whole community. Those qualities might be a little redundant these days, but the sentiment is certainly a great one to take away. Consider that for all the money they cost to produce, big-budget mammoths like "Pearl Harbor" and "Titanic" failed to deliver a single character about whom I could care, Hollywood could take a lesson or two from movies like this. You can try to blow our minds with eye-popping special effects, but the affects of a truly emotional and worthwhile story come at less of a cost.
AOL IM: paulwdfans