Soundtrack: The Offspring — Americana

Tonight’s post takes its cue from the periphery of a discussion about unimaginative criticism over at the God of the Machine, in which Aaron saw fit to characterize It’s A Wonderful Life as a “good/bad” movie. I replied, of course, that it’s the greatest movie of all time–and you can’t get much more good/good than that… At which point Colby Cosh (who’s been added to the blogroll, by the way, mainly because he blogs about Diplomacy–which is a good/good game) broke into the discussion to opine that Capra’s film is actually “great/bad”. Upon reconsideration, I was inclined to agree with him… Meanwhile, AC Douglas demanded to know what kind of “subtleties” could possibly lurk within the heart of a film that he no doubt considers nothing more than a holiday circus for the plebes… (and you can just tell from his tone that he thinks we’ve all been taking way too many hits from the pop culture bong)

So, what’s special about IAWL? Well, Forager and I had a fun discussion of Capra last month (in which we agreed that George Bailey had a better than even chance of going postal someday, and I argued that Capra’s endings aren’t endings at all but “wrap parties”–we were also on about “eye-level aesthetics” at that time) and you might want to take a look at that, but tonight I want to discuss a part of the film that we didn’t get to–the Pottersville Sequence, a neglected item in the catalogue of great film noir.

The definitive book on Capra is Ray Carney’s American Vision … It’s more than just the only decent book ever written about the greatest of auteurs, it’s one of the finest works of scholarship I’ve ever read–my understanding of American culture owes almost as much to Carney as it does to Perry Miller. Believe me, that’s the highest praise I could possibly muster…

Carney’s broad take on the film is that it “documents the painful, slow, difficult, unending labor of wrestling the smallest impulse of personal genius into some marginal, minor, inevitably flawed and unsatisfactory practical representation.” (sounds kinda like this blog…)

On the subject of Pottersville (which he calls Nighttown), Carney writes:

the episode… makes explicit the issue that has been implicit in the whole preceding film: the consequences of the surfacing of energies that cannot be placed or represented in the forms of conventional life or Hollywood family film lighting, photography, dialogue, dramatic progression, or narrative eventfulness. What was walled off into isolated moments in the preceding narrative and contained by the narrative and social ceremonies that surrounded it eventually bursts all social and formal walls erected to control it and emerges enlarged, deformed, disastrous… George Bailey finally breaks free of the society that has hedged him round up to this point in the film, just as Capra breaks his own film free from the family drama organization of the preceding narrative… The dreamland sequence moves the viewer into a world of visionary ineffability and emotional intensity. Pictures and music replace words and dialogue. Operatic and melodramatic outbursts of intense feeling replace gradual, chronological, sequential narrative exposition. Low-key lighting effects, expressive close-ups, and emotionally powerful orchestrations communicate imaginative disturbances that have no social form of expression in the previous film or in George Bailey’s ordinary life. (417)

I think the man’s got somethin’ there, but, naturally, having seen the film at least fifty times in the past 15 years or so, I’ve got some thoughts of my own to offer on this subject…

Early on in his chapter on the film, Carney dismisses James Agee’s oft-invoked characterization of IAWL as merely an updated version of Dickens, and of course he’s right to do so, because Agee was blowing off both works, and his “critique” is worthless (I like Agee–Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is fascinating–but not when he’s in snark mode, as he generally was whenever he discussed Hollywood product)–but I think Carney makes a mistake by not looking at the genuine continuities between the two pieces, the better to understand where they diverge. Here’s what I mean. (a lot of this stuff is adapted from my first novel, actually):

First question–does the Pottersville sequence accurately depict George Bailey’s world, minus George Bailey?

Certainly not.

So what’s the point of it then? It gets clearer if we look at the film in its’ context as a modernist work, instead of as smiley-faced shock-therapy… Now, generally modernist solipsism festers in the scum pools of memory and imagination, or affects a glow of originary impact. The Pottersville Sequence is unique–a murky flight from experience set ablaze by its’ own contradictions. An illustrative comparison can be drawn between Geroge Bailey and Thurber’s Walter Mitty, a superficially similar character. Both men are trapped in the gerbil-wheel of the Protestant Ethic and yearn for release. However, where Mitty projects a daydream wonderland onto his drab surroundings, Bailey abstracts himself from reality and casts himself in a neon-lit film noir cliche. He drifts through Pottersville as an enigmatic stranger, clashing with the shades of characters he has known and helped, ravening for just one look of recognition.

Contrary to the criticial consensus, George Bailey is not an “everyman” but a god–an immanent one. The fabric of Bedford Falls is held together by his divine presence. “Pottersville” is the negative image of an impossibility–a creator lost in a creation that could not exist without him.
The sequence is a classic of American existentialist expression–an inversion of Emersonianism, or rather, the product of an Emersonianism that has lost faith in itself (sort of like Hart Crane did–right Aaron?). The whole world remains compartmentalized in a corner of the subject’s mind–only now it’s a dark corner.

It’s often argued that Capra merely rewrote Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for a more democratic age, making the clerk a hero and the miser a fixed referent; but there’s very little logic in this comparison. The protagonists face fundamentally different problems. The agents of Scrooge’s “conversion” come unbidden to force him back into society. Bailey, on the other hand, feels crushed by the weight of his relationships, and prays for some reassurance that his sacrifice has not been in vain. Scrooge’s ghosts show him that a joyful world awaits just beyond the confines of his isolation chamber. Clarence confirms that George’s reality, wothout George, would be a nightmare.

Compare the X-Mas present stave of the Carol to Pottersville–they differ drastically, although they purport to represent the same thing: “reality” untainted by the subjective presence of the protagonist. Clarence tells George: “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. And when he’s not around, he leaves an awful hole.” Meanwhile, in a key scene, Fred explains to his guests that “the consequence of [Scrooge] taking a dislike to us, and not making merry with us, is, as I think, that he loses some pleasant moments, which could do him no harm. I am sure he loses pleasanter companions than he could find in his own thoughts.” There is so much less at stake for Scrooge’s world. It has a substantiality that Bedford Falls lacks. Even the Cratchit household, despite its’ poverty and Tiny Tim’s illness, functions autonomously, with enough agency left over to fuel a gratuitous toast to the old miser. These objects pull Scrooge into their orbit. George Bailey, on the other hand, is a sun on the verge of supernova…

I’d better go! I’ve got reading to do!

Good night friends


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