Friday, December 19, 2008

"It's a Wonderful Life"s Ironic Title

I didn't see "It's a Wonderful Life" until I was in my late 20s. Why? First, who wouldn't be turned off by the title. It sounded cheesy and sentimental in the worst way...a holiday movie way.

I vividly remember watching it for the first time. I was at my mother's house over the Christmas holiday, and I watched it with my wife and my mom. I sobbed.

I didn't sob, though, because it was so heartwarming. I sobbed because it reveals a great truth about finding comfort after the idealism of youth is gone. Every time I watch it, I cry when I watch George Bailey rage against the death of his dreams, then come to realize that joy is to be found in the moment, not in the future.

Writer Wendell Jamieson feels almost the same way I do. He points out how the film, far from being a celebration of the Christmas spirit, is really much darker than that.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.

I haven’t seen it on a movie screen since that first time, but on Friday it begins its annual pre-Christmas run at the IFC Cinema in Greenwich Village. I plan to take my 9-year-old son and my father, who has never seen it the whole way through because he thinks it’s too corny.

How wrong he is.

Jamieson exaggerates the darkness of the film (those "small-minded people" end up having big hearts) but his point, that IAWL is a much more subversive film that it seems on the surface, is hard to dispute. Jamieson goes on to point out other ways the film has been misconstrued by modern audiences, and his article is flippant, funny and enlightening. Read it in its entirety here.

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