How to Survive a Horror Movie: 2013 Edition
Winter's Tale leaves you a bit cold

It Really Is a Wonderful Life

The end of It's a Wonderful Life has been seen so many times that it has become a cliche. Everyone tears up at the end. It's the hokey ending that solves all problems in one beautiful bow, the sort of thing that never happens in real life. It's the Christmas Miracle, enshrined in black-and-white.

Or so groused Norm (George Wendt) from his barstool in Cheers, complaining that during the many times in his life he's been in trouble, no one ever came to his door with a sackful of cash to bail him out.

It's a Wonderful Life has its flaws of logic and characterization. For all of Mary Hatch's strength and self-assuredness in the original timeline, where is it in the alternate timeline? Are we to assume that her intelligence and resourcefulness came only from her time with her husband, when she certainly showed it long before she became Mrs. George Bailey? Instead of using her college degree to something greater than shushing people at the library or even marrying the three or four men that were chasing her, she becomes - horrors! - a spinster, fainting and fearful.

Is it logical that the good people of Bedford Falls would have become a seedy crowd of rabble-rousing drunkards without a Bailey Building & Loan? While privation and grief would certainly change a person, is it likely that every single resident would become an angry, suspicious, hateful wretch? Maybe, maybe not.

I can live with these problems.

Sure, there are plenty of folks who take issue with Mr. Potter. He gets away with $8,000, essentially framing George Bailey for his own accidental embezzlement. For the record, $8,000 in 1945 has the equivalent buying power of $103,586 in 2013. That's a big hole in the accountsSaturday Night Live solved that one for us: five minutes after the movie ends, they said, Uncle Billy remembers what happened to the moeny and the whole crowd storms over to Potter's mansion to beat the hell out of him. Catharsis.

But this movie is more than the Frank Capra Vaseline-on-the-camera-lens glorification of small-town American life that popular culture has made it out to be. Watch carefully before you dismiss it as candy-colored nostalgia, folks. The people of Bedford Falls are not perfect.

Mr. Gower did, in fact, come close to killing a patient while drunk. The bank president and Building & Loan trustees kowtow to Potter and essentially hand the town over to him. The friendly citizens were all too quick to turn on the poor Baileys when they thought their money might be in jeopardy during the Depression - anyone else want to smack the guy who insists on his $242 when it's clear that everyone is in a jam?

George's brother Harry marries well, goes off to his perfect, upwardly mobile life and reneges on his promise to George. Mary plays more than a few manipulative games to "catch" George. Sam Wainwright is obnoxious and full of himself. Uncle Billy... do I even need to say that Billy should never be in any kind of financial position of power or influence? I think he went on to found Ameriquest.

Even our hero George, when faced with the final adversity, takes it out on his family in harsh, hurtful words and a fit of temper. He expresses resentful regret at marrying and having children, which is about the worst thing a father can say. He is a drunk driver, crashing his car into a tree in a sodden stupor, lucky not to kill himself or anyone else. And he selfishly considers suicide to avoid the consequences of this latest crisis, despite the pain it would cause his family.

But it's that very depth of character that makes this movie real. Small towns are never populated with saints. There is ugliness and cruelty and selfishness, the same as in large towns and cities, except that everyone knows the names of the richest man in town and the guy behind the counter at the local drugstore.

Modern American cinema has made an entire subgenre out of displaying the two-faced darkness of suburbia, whether it's for laughs (The 'Burbs), or ennui (American Beauty) or outright horror (The Stepford Wives, Arlington Road, most of Stephen King, more than I can name).

Once upon a time, I could enjoy It's a Wonderful Life for the beauty of Frank Capra's vision, for the what-if of a vision letting you see what life would be like without you, for the incredible and nuanced performance of Jimmy Stewart. Playing a man from his youthful exuberance to the crestfallen young man to the exhausted father to the bitter man on the brink of suicide, and back again: I am floored by Stewart's portrayal every time. Sometimes we forget that cliches always begin with something amazing and memorable, so good that it is repeated and imitated over and over and finally lampooned into meaninglessness.

But at my age, it's Norm on his barstool who comes to mind as I watch the money spill out on the table in George Bailey's living room. Norm, who grouses into his beer that no one ever came to his rescue. You see, there have been times in my life when I was dire straits, financially and personally. I have felt helpless and alone. Haven't we all? That's the real universal truth: we have all been George Bailey at some point, trapped not by the circumstances of our birth, but by the very things and people we love.

And yet the town shows up, with a (metaphorical or literal) sackful of cash.

It's not really the money that brings tears to our eyes. It's the whole town, gathered in one room, celebrating the impact one man has had in their lives. It's the sense of a community banding together around one of its own, not out of pity, but out of joy and friendship and charity in the true sense of the word. Together we are more than any of us could be alone.

My one regret is that I was never able to gather my personal angels into a room, playing carols on the piano and drinking wine. My angels, like yours, are scattered across the country. They are the people who turned over ten dollars to the Kickstarter for someone's dream, the people who sent so much money to a writer trying to pay for his son's lifesaving surgery that he had to beg them to stop, the ones who boost the signal, who clean the house, who collect the coats and deliver the presents.

But rest assured, somewhere a bell rings for them. If Clarence is right, no man is a failure who has friends. That makes me the richest woman in town. And if you stop to think about it, about all the people whose lives intersect with yours, who care about you... your riches are counted there, too.

A blessed holiday to you, and all those whose lives you touch.


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