Sunday, 11 December 2016

It’s A Wonderful Film

Attaboy, Clarence
'Tis the season of Christmas iconoclasm. One of the staples of this festive contrarianism – alongside “Scrooge was just a smart businessman doing the best for his clients!” – is the negative take on that Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life.

For those who haven’t seen it, the film follows the life of George Bailey, a native of the small town of Bedford Falls. Bailey is clever and ambitious, and has big dreams of moving to New York, travelling widely and forging a career in architecture. But after his father’s sudden death, he reluctantly takes over the family business, a rackety building society called the Building & Loan, realising that if he does not do so it will be subsumed into the empire of the grasping slum lord Mr Potter. Later George sacrifices his honeymoon savings to keep the B&L solvent during a run on the banks. Later still he turns down a well-paid job with Potter that would have fulfilled his dreams of travel.

Meanwhile, his old schoolfriend Sam Wainwright strikes it lucky in New York and becomes rich. His brother Harry, who chose to leave Bedford Falls after their father died, becomes a decorated war hero, receiving a medal for preventing a kamikaze attack on a troopship. George remains behind, working hard at the B&L and marrying his sweetheart Mary, but living a quiet, frugal life. We see signs of his disappointment and frustration as he approaches middle age, but those feelings come to the surface when Mr Potter takes advantage of George’s eccentric and forgetful uncle Billy to make it appear that George is guilty of false accounting. George starts to despair of his life, fearing that all his efforts have been for naught and that life would be better if he had never been born, and decides to kill himself so that his wife and children will receive his $15,000 life insurance.

An angel - Clarence - intervenes, showing George what life would have been like without him. Harry is dead, killed in a childhood accident because George was not there to save him; so, consequently, are the hundreds of men on board the troopship. George’s old boss Mr Gower, a pharmacist, is a broken man after serving a prison term for manslaughter – because a young George was not there to prevent him from making a fatal dispensing error.

In this George-less universe Mary and his mother are lonely and embittered. Potter dominates the town. The once peaceful Bedford Falls has become the seedy, brash and violent Pottersville. The working-class families whom George helped to buy their own homes are still poor and badly housed. Eventually George begs Clarence for his old life back, and returns to that life to find that the town has rallied round to replace the missing money. Sam Wainwright sends thousands of dollars. Harry Bailey shows up, skipping a party to commemorate his Medal of Honour and toasting his older brother as "the richest man in town". In the closing shot, George looks at the inscription in a book given to him by Clarence: it reads "no man is a failure who has friends".  

Not everyone finds the film inspiring. Some critics focus on the socially conservative worldview that informs the portrayal of Pottersville, arguing that in fact the lively nightlife and edgy bars of the alternative reality are preferable to the staid, orderly Bedford Falls. To some extent, of course, this is a matter of taste; I will say only that while the bourgeois virtues are not the only virtues, they are still virtues.

Another school of commentary about the film questions its status as a warmhearted celebration of life, suggesting that it is actually a dark tragedy, a portrait of an individual crushed and worn down by the demands and trivialities of parochial life. The man who was going to transform the world with his architectural schemes becomes a glorified bank clerk in Nowheresville, frustrated and unhappy, scrimping and saving in a dilapidated house while real life goes on elsewhere.

This seems to me to be a one-eyed view of the story, to say the least. I am reminded slightly of a bizarre attack made on Brief Encounter some years ago by the journalist Johann Hari. That film, which shares one or two thematic threads with It’s A Wonderful Life, ends with the two main characters deciding to break off their fledgling but unconsummated affair and return to their respective spouses and children. Hari suggests that this decision to place family, duty, morality and promise-keeping above personal fulfilment should be seen as “squalid stoicism” and a sign of mental illness. Whether Hari actually believed this, or was seeking to epater la bourgeoisie with a “daring” show of contempt for conventional morality, this is a profoundly wrong-headed analysis that misses the point of the film almost entirely.

Similarly I find it hard to understand people who see George Bailey’s life as primarily and fundamentally tragic – as distinct from having tragic elements, as most of our lives do. Of course George has unfulfilled dreams, forgotten ambitions, secret sadnesses about opportunities not taken. But which of us does not? Is there anyone who can read without at least a small pang of recognition Eliot’s lines in “Burnt Norton”: Footfalls echo in the memory/down the passage which we did not take/Towards the door we never opened?

There is a moving scene in the film Master And Commander when Captain Jack Aubrey, reading the funeral service for the dead midshipman Hollom, says that “The simple truth is, not all of us become the men we once hoped we might be.” This is indeed the truth. But failing to become the man you once hoped you might be does not mean that the man you have become is a failure. George Bailey's life is in most important ways a life of great nobility, despite his disappointments (and his very real faults - the scenes where he gets into a rage with his wife, his children and the children's teacher are genuinely disturbing). He has been a kind and loving husband and father, a devoted son, a loyal and generous friend, a benevolent employer, and a fair and honest bank manager. He is not rich or successful in worldly terms, but his world – the little town of Bedford Falls, NY – is an immeasurably greater place with him in it.  George has excelled in the heroism of everyday life. How does Clarence distract George when he is about to jump off a bridge? By leaping into the water himself, confident that the courageous but beleaguered George will snap out of his funk and save him. 

When the big moral decisions come, George tends to get them right. Staying in Bedford Falls, saving the B&L with his honeymoon savings, turning down the job with Potter; every time George puts others first and himself last. Now the sceptic might say that these decisions are not made from pure selflessness, that George acts at least partly and perhaps mainly from fear of social ostracism in the (supposedly) stifling and judgmental atmosphere of Bedford Falls. Maybe this is true – though I’m not convinced – but if we are to withhold praise from good deeds until we are satisfied that they were performed from entirely unmixed motives, we won’t find much to praise in anyone’s actions, human nature being what it is.

In any case, George does risk social opprobrium to do the right thing on at least one occasion, giving a gift of money to the town vamp Violet, an old acquaintance, when she is near the end of her tether. And the heroic rescue of Clarence mentioned above can hardly be ascribed to social pressure. 
The “wasted life” analysis of George’s life seems to operate on the assumption that personal happiness is the chief goal of life. But this is a rather large assumption, very far from self-evident and in need of supporting argument not mere assertion. I wonder whether people who see It’s A Wonderful Life as a tragic film perhaps lean towards a utilitarian critique of George, viz. by remaining in a small town to help a small number of people, when he could have benefited thousands or even millions by building bridges and skyscrapers, he has made a moral error or miscalculation. If so, this is to misunderstand the nature of moral imperatives.

We do not – cannot – have identical positive moral obligations to everyone in the world. By positive obligations I mean the moral imperatives relating to things we ought to do for others, as distinct from those relating to things we ought not to do to them, e.g. the prohibitions on stealing and swindling and killing are universal negative obligations, things I shouldn’t ever do to anyone, whereas there is a separate class of moral duties that concern things I should do, e.g. support my family, friends and neighbours, which are more limited in scope. If we did have identical positive moral obligations to everyone in the world, if for example every child had the same claim on my money and time as my own children, moral reflection would become paralysed and useless. Limiting the focus of our positive obligations is the first step in serious moral thought. In Bleak House, Charles Dickens created the memorable grotesque Mrs Jellyby, who neglects her own needy family and neighbours and spends all her time and energy on poor people in faraway Africa. From a certain rationalist point of view (what is nowadays called effective altruism), this makes sense: everyone counts equally, so it’s morally better to raise a family in Africa from grinding poverty than it is to help your own kith and kin escape mere “ordinary” poverty.  

George Bailey, however, is absolutely right to think that his direct and clear moral duties to his family and his neighbours, real people with whom he is involved in existing networks of love, friendship and reciprocity, outweigh a theoretical and indirect obligation to (possibly) increase the wellbeing of distant and unknown strangers. It is not the case that everyone is invariably an equally-weighted bead on a vast abacus; if everyone is my neighbour, no-one is my neighbour. I remember being quite sad when I read some years ago about an American politician who had given up teaching in her home town because she felt that she wasn’t making enough difference teaching "only" twenty or thirty children at a time.  

In his essay “On Certain Modern Writers And The Institution Of The Family”, GK Chesterton makes this point:

“We have to love our neighbour because he is there…He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident.”

Chesterton develops the point with his argument that being part of a family is good moral training because it places you in a situation that is not of your own making, alongside people with whom you did not (and perhaps would not) choose to live. Sir Roger Scruton, in his The Meaning Of Conservatism, is another writer who uses the family as an example of a place where we learn to live with bonds of love and obligation that we ourselves did not choose but by which we are bound nevertheless.

One final criticism of It's A Wonderful Life that deserves a little brief pushback is the charge of sentimentality, i.e. the suggestion that the film encourages easy, excessive or misdirected emotion. There is undoubtedly a fair bit of schmaltz present, but at heart it is a morally serious film. You might even say that it is a morally serious film disguised as a sentimental one, in contrast to a good many films which are the exact opposite. Woven throughout the story of George Bailey is the recognition that we cannot have all the good things we would like in life, and so our ambitions and loves must be ordered and prioritised correctly. The realistic portrayal of the sometimes steep cost of doing the right thing also suggests a high level of moral seriousness.

George succeeds as a man by committing himself to the concrete and the particular and the near, by putting others before himself. He understands, even if he could perhaps not articulate, the mildly paradoxical truth that sometimes to make a difference as an individual you need to let go of attachment to yourself.

Not everyone can or will or should be a George Bailey. But the world needs at least a few of them.

1 comment:

  1. I watched this with my son this pm as a Gaudete treat. We were both moved by the heartwarming ending. 10/10