Wednesday, December 27, 2017
Dreams of Bedford Falls
It's A Wonderful Life is my favorite film, which is saying something because I've seen lots of films. This year the film seems particularly poignant. In my mind It's A Wonderful Life has always been paired with The Bicycle Thief, both because they are closely contemporary and thematically synonymous. The protagonists of each film, George Bailey and Antonio Ricci, face the same crisis: they become reduced to pieces of capital. Antonio's value is subsumed in his stolen bicycle, George's in the insurance policy he offers to Mr. Potter.
The Bicycle Thief (Spoiler Alert) resolves tragically. Antonio never recovers his bicycle, the final shot shows him and his son, swept along in a crowd, yielding to the streetcar plowing through the teeming urban masses, symbolizing the inevitable displacement of human labor by machines. It's A Wonderful Life is of course the inverse of The Bicycle Thief, unless one ends the film at the point that George is standing forsaken on the bridge, contemplating suicide- then the two films would be virtually identical.
A lot of Capra's films seem to work that way- Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington- they build to a crushingly tragic ending that then gets reversed through fantastic circumstance. His quixotic optimism has always felt uniquely American to me. But so has the tragic ending nested within each of those stories. Capra understood that American capitalism, like industrial capitalism worldwide, had the capacity to dehumanize individuals, tear apart communities, and erode families.
In this respect his message in It's A Wonderful Life corresponds very closely to that of The Bicycle Thief. In The Bicycle Thief, Antonio Ricci transits from one source of support to another in search of aid. He entreats the state, the community, his family, his friends, the spiritual powers (in the form of a local holy woman)...all to no avail. These are all the groups and institutions that George feels abandoned by as he stands on his bridge of sorrow (and all come to his rescue in the party scene at the end in which Zuzu hears Clarence's bell ring).
There are a number of ways to read the divergence between the two films. One could argue that Capra is shilling for the system- offering people a saccharine fantasy to lull them into complacency about the soulless destructiveness of the market. But that has never seemed persuasive to me. If Capra's goal was to anesthetize, the scenes in Pottersville would not be so jarring or so true-to-life. The most upsetting thing about the juxtaposition is that the people of Pottersville are the same as the residents of Bedford Falls, only organized differently.
This seems to be Capra's point- we might all wish that we live in Bedford Falls, but we all know on some level that we live in Pottersville. Or rather, each community in America is both Bedford Falls and Pottersville at once. In every city and town there are those for whom state, family and community are working, and those for whom they are not, and the scope of each condition is contingent on the choices we make as individuals and as a society. Moreover, the better choices in that regard *require* optimism. As Americans the freedom our institutions grant us for expression, commerce, and conscience are potentially a blessing, but they also entail peril- pessimism overindulged can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As FDR said, in our liberal democracy the greatest thing we have to fear is "fear itself."
So that is the message I take from It's A Wonderful Life this holiday season- not that we used to live in Bedford Falls and we are slipping into Pottersville, but that both have been with us all along, and that the duty to work for one and against the other has never changed. Yes, at the moment there are a lot of people (one particularly orange-tinted) out there spreading fear and malaise, but that doesn't change the fact that it remains a wonderful life, and it is a virtue to keep listening for Clarence's bell. Happy New Year's to all. I may run into you in Pottersville, but I'll be looking for you in Bedford Falls.