Few thoughts terrify me more than my family waking up to a picture of me on B1 of The Ledger wearing an orange jumpsuit, head in my hands, waiting to talk to a judge. And I’m pretty obscure, as people go. I can only imagine what it’s like to be Michael Holley, ex-tycoon, ex-man about town, ex-political kingmaker. When power dies, and someone tosses its corpse into the water, the guppies become pirhanas with startling speed. The legal, social, and journalistic flesh-gnawing can be hideous, even if it’s theoretically deserved. And it can all happen to anyone of us, at any given time. It’s just a matter of the right circumstances meeting the right human failing.
I don’t know Michael Holley at all beyond the construction of him we used to write about – and helped build -at The Ledger. I talked to him a couple of times on the phone for stories, I think. I doubt he has any idea who I am. But, as a fellow human being, I hope, for his sake, when you strip away the houses and the money and the small pond influence, there is a Michael Holley not dependent on those things. I hope a core of people around him care about his well-being, not just what he once could do for them. I saw Holley at a Lakeland event a couple of months ago, just after it became publicly clear his dealership was facing ruin and that legal consequences could follow. In a room full of Lakeland luminaries, the aversion to him seemed palpable. (I’m a compulsive reporter and an analyzer of human nature. So yes, I was watching.) He looked very alone and uncomfortable, though he probably deserves enormous credit just for showing up and continuing to participate in his community.
Which brings me to It’s a Wonderful Life. I had intended to make this a “Stuff Billy Likes,” focusing on how this isn’t really the sappy, heartwarming Miracle on 34th Street movie you think it is. But, in the last week, I’ve read two reviews saying largely the same thing: In the New York Times here, and in the wonderful new conservative web site and blog collection, “Culture 11.” I’m beginning to realize maybe this isn’t such a keen insight after all.
The New York Times piece is particularly funny – pointing out that just because your friends give you money to replace the bank deposits the law wrongly thinks you stole doesn’t mean the law doesn’t still think you stole the money. George Bailey is still gonna get cuffed. And the people who gave him money are accessories to a coverup, especially the guy dumb enough to wire money with a narrative telegraph. Eeek. The fact is, the ending of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” tears-of-joy-jerking as it may be, is a copout untrue to the rest of the film. The wonderful Saturday Night Live skit alternative ending where the whole happy Bailey throng turns into a lynch mob to beat down Potter is just as appropriate, really. These two pieces cover that ground pretty well. So I’ll touch on a few points they don’t focus on as much:
1) This movie is fabulously well-written and acted. The dialogue crackles. A lot like Casablanca that way. The bank run scene, so apropos today, is a perfect example. But my favorite line comes from Donna Reed’s Mary, irritated with both George’s rudeness and her mother’s active disapproval of him as he sort of courts her. What’s going on down there, the mother shrieks. “It’s George Bailey, he’s making passionate love to me, mother,” spits Mary in response, with a kind of vengeful irony aimed at both of them. You don’t expect that kind of edge from a circa 1948 movie.
2) In fact, the motherly hotness of Donna Reed in the movie is way underrated. Hell, she gets naked at one point. Tell it like it is: With her always immaculate figure and natalist brood of adorable children, Reed’s Mary Bailey is everything Sarah Palin was pretending to be. And she can also complete a sentence. George married well better than he deserved with her. It’s telling that the sight of Mary as a mousy old maid is what finally sends George over the edge and causes him to beg God to give him his life back.
3) Ah, God. It’s a Wonderful Life is intensely religious. That sounds like an obvious thing to say about a film concerned with angels rescuing a man from suicidal compulsion. But it’s worth considering the nature of its religion today, at a time when the prosperity gospel, Pentecostalism, “Purpose-Driven Life,” and atheism are the ascendent forms of addressing the divine mystery of life and death. It’s Wonderful Life has the feel of a museum piece, devoted to a time when religion was part of a cultural consensus, benignly dominated by the mainline churches. (I was raised in one, by the way, Methodist.) George, like everybody else, the narrator says, cries and prays on V-E Day. Then, like everybody else, he cries and prays on V-J Day. Not sure that type of national cultural consensus ever really existed – a lot of people were on the margins, obviously – but it’s a nice fantasy.
While I’m clearly not a theologian, it seems to me that It’s a Wonderful Life is religious, but not evengelical, a distinction that continues to blur in modern America. In the film, God is a mystery, best exemplified by the conflicting beauties of the Sermon on the Mount, which I’ve always sort of considered the divine expression of conscience, God’s way of keeping us uncomfortable about our own behavior and morality. In this sense, religion is about defining one’s own relationship with God and how that affects the way one lives within God’s mysterious creation. I think the key value of this approach is spiritual humility. That contrasts greatly with the evangelical movement, which, I think, prizes above all testimony to the received truth, which believers never publicly doubt, but can’t define. While the first approach cannot measure its success, the second can, through conversions and souls “saved.” I think that’s an advantage for growth. (I’m certainly open to having this perception questioned, and/or refuted. Paging Mr. McMullen.) However, it will probably come to no surprise to those of you masochistic enough to read this far that I prefer the former approach.
Why is George enraged and despairing? He feels he’s wasted his life through a series of limiting decisions, each seemingly made for the benefit of others. When Uncle Billy loses the money – when God in one fell swoop rips away the appeal to vanity provided by annoying Potter in business and by being the model husband and father at home – all his frustrations come crashing down. What follows is a dark night of the soul. (The meltdown scene at his house, with his authentic cruelty to his wife and children is brilliant.) Eventually, Clarence the angel, despite all his bumbling, forces George to realize why he made all those decisions in the first place. And the answer, of course, is love. All acts of responsibility and duty – and betrayal – begin somewhere with love – for your friends or family or country or God. Over and over again, we see George make decisions almost involuntarily. He repeatedly finds himself in situations that offer him no choice, if he’s going to be true to people and ideals that he loves – and to God. In George’s world, this is the price of believing in God. You must answer to your conscience and accept the consequences. That’s how God talks to you. This is how you get right with God, as the evangelicals might say. Clarence helps George see how God has worked through him to make other people a bit happier and the world a bit more just than it might have been. And George realizes what a massive accomplishment that is. The absolute key line of the movie, the moment that rightfully should end it, is when George returns home, bleeding, and declares with joy: “I’m going to jail. Isn’t it great?”
Now, let me ask: How many of you out there have been blessed with an angel to explicitly justify both your life choices and your belief in a just and loving God? It generally doesn’t work that way. That’s the nature of faith, I suppose, and why the first approach to religion I mentioned seems harder than the second. (I’m aware there are probably millions of approaches beyond these two. I’m generalizing.) That’s also probably why George gets rescued secularly at the end of the movie. That, and the fact that it makes a much happier ending and more receptive ticket buyers. I don’t really want them to cut it. This is a movie, after all.
And here’s the entire ending, in case you’ve missed it this season.
Most of us will never be the richest man in town, either in money or friends. And as the story of Michael Holley reminds us, either condition is probably illusory and can change at any time. During this troubled Christmas season, we’d probably all do well to ask ourselves why we do the things we do, or possess the things we possess. What do the answers to these questions say about us and our relationships to the universe and each other? Because really, what else do any of us have? Given my skepticism, I probably wouldn’t call that process getting right with God. But someone else might, and I don’t think they’d be wrong.
Anyway, Merry Christmas and/or other holiday of the season.