For many of us the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life is, for better or worse, inextricably bound to the yuletide season. Growing up I was subject to the annual revisiting of the film and, surreally, it was even running on the hospital TV the Christmas eve that my wife went into labor with our son who finally graced us with his presence on Christmas day, forever transforming the holiday into a celebration of life itself in my family.
Of course, the part of the film that always makes people cry is when George is saved by the incredible generosity of his neighbors in Bedford Falls who flood over to his house bearing cash to keep him from being arrested for bank fraud after his Uncle Billy loses all the money from their building and loan business on the way to deposit it.
As cultural historian George Lipsitz has pointed out, It’s a Wonderful Life, is part of a postwar film wave that began to redefine American freedom as free enterprise: “the freedom to own more commodities, to experience upward mobility, and to form nuclear families built upon male authority and female domesticity.”
George’s “great goal” in life is, according to critic Dana Polan, to “build suburban housing for workers. If he fails, workers will sink into amoral depravity; but if he succeeds the whole community will live decently and harmoniously.”
His foil is the “villainous capitalist,” Mr. Potter, who owns the bank and most of the town and “puts his own greed above the general interest.”
Thus, while this Christmas fairy tale gives us an orgy of sentimental good feeling, it still contains some of the old class tensions of the thirties. Lipsitz argues that this film and others like it “open up old wounds and air out social tensions in order to contain them.” He also observes, however, that this is a dangerous ideological move as the problems introduced may not be easily resolved depending on the perspective and experience of the viewer.
What has always struck me about It’s a Wonderful Life is not the nobility of George’s quest to suburbanize his working class neighbors but the unexpected potlatch at the end. Potlatch, of course, is the Native American tradition of giving away or destroying property at a ceremonial feast with the expectation of reciprocity. It was a kind of public distribution of property, irrational by the logic of capitalism. For George’s neighbors it means rushing to give away their last cent to save him. When they do so, the community is redeemed and we weep.
In the film we are always struck by this completely unrealistic surrendering of competitive individualism and narrow self-interest in the service of communal bliss. This sentimental moment’s power lies in its ability to shatter the taken for granted logic of the marketplace and expose our deep yearning for things that can’t be bought: rootedness, community, a sense of being part of a greater self. In this way, It’s a Wonderful Life is deeply subversive.
One of the other things that always struck me about this film is the way that it serves as a kind of impossible utopian backdrop for our collective pain. It reminds us of everything we are not. Jimmy Stewart’s redeemed family haunts our broken families. His wonderful neighbors stand in stark contrast to the strangers who cut us off and flip us the bird in the mall parking lot after our depressing search for bargains. In the real world, Mr. Potter wins and Jimmy Steward pays for the mistake of his absent-minded uncle by going to jail while the folks he was trying to save get foreclosure notices from a faceless bank rather than a cartoon capitalist.
These are the poles we vacillate between in the political unconscious of American Christmas.
Sick of the unfulfilled promise, Henry Miller rejected the world of deferred hope for a different formulation. In The Time of the Assassins he says of the poet Arthur Rimbaud that he exhorted us to “create a new vision of heaven and earth, to begin afresh, to let the dead bury the dead, to live as brothers in the flesh, to make Christmas on Earth a reality. And repeatedly we have been warned that unless the desire for new life becomes a living conviction for each and every one of us, earthly existence can never be more than a Purgatory or a Hell.”
But, this year, amidst continued hardship leaving nearly half of all Americans either in poverty or counted as low income, I am also reminded of something Naomi Klein said to the protesters at Occupy Wall Street: “My favorite sign here says ‘I care about you.’ In a culture that trains people to avoid each other’s gaze, to say, ‘Let them die,’ that is a deeply radical statement . . . Let’s treat this beautiful moment as if it is the most important thing in the world. Because it is. It really is.”
So let’s take the lead from George’s neighbors in It’s a Wonderful Life and trade away false hope and the dead world of things for Christmas on Earth, this living, breathing moment. Merry Christmas, dear reader.
My “Under the Perfect Sun” column will return sometime in the New Year.