Snowbound with George on Christmas Eve

Our Patio with the most Snow we’ve ever seen on it

Our patio with the most snow we’ve ever seen on it

You always assume that things will turn out as planned, but some­times they don’t. Pam and I had all but packed our suit­cas­es ear­li­er in the week for a trip to vis­it with my broth­er and his fam­i­ly in Seat­tle, as well as my par­ents, who were going to be vis­it­ing from Bal­ti­more. Moth­er Nature had oth­er ideas.

The fact that Cana­da is enjoy­ing the first coast-to-coast ‘White Christ­mas’ in 40 years is not lost on me, and it is pret­ty out there. Pam and I had a nice time walk­ing in the first of the snow­storms, and it looks like storm num­ber three, which start­ed last night, will dump near­ly as much on us.

The car is not ready to dri­ve on these kinds of roads. We don’t have any snow tires, as we don’t dri­ve that much to begin with and nei­ther of us use it to get to a work­place (unlike the days when I was work­ing in Burn­a­by for IBM). Snow tires are not usu­al­ly need­ed here.

So, here we are, like hiber­nat­ing bears in our cave, look­ing out at the snow. Well, not exact­ly like bears in one key respect: Hiber­nat­ing bears don’t eat, and I’ve been cook­ing like crazy. I roast­ed a chick­en stuffed with herbs and lemon (an old Jamie Oliv­er recipe that I’ve com­mit­ted to mem­o­ry), and yes­ter­day did a large pot roast with car­rots, parsnips, turnips and potatoes.  This after­noon I baked a tray of oat­meal muffins (after also bak­ing a bunch of cook­ies ear­li­er in the week). We’ve also got some steaks in the freez­er, and since Granville Mar­ket is closed for the next 2 days, we’ll prob­a­bly eat those as well, along with some of oth­er food in our larder, which we stuffed full just in case the weath­er did get worse.

The oth­er thing I did, which I do near­ly every year, was watch Frank Capra’s movie “It’s a Won­der­ful Life”.  For me, it tran­scends movie mak­ing to become a piece of art, the same way that some Nor­man Rock­well illus­tra­tions do. I keep find­ing new details in it, the way you do with any great piece of sto­ry­telling or music. There’s always some lit­tle motif or pas­sage here or there that after the 10th hearing/viewing you sud­den­ly real­ize is referred to or echoed in some oth­er place. Capra’s film also has a lot more res­o­nance now, when the news reports from the States ear­li­er in the evening eeri­ly echoed (or pre­saged?) the talk in the movie of peo­ple being fore­closed on their homes because of not being able to pay mort­gages, runs on banks and acts of char­i­ty. How many peo­ple might be, this evening, need­ing to draw upon char­i­ty for the first time in their lives, the way that George Bai­ley had to?

I noticed that a week or so again, Wen­dell Jamieson of The New York Times wrote a fas­ci­nat­ing reassess­ment of the film, and actu­al­ly found it to be essen­tial­ly a big fat lie, some­thing that he first sus­pect­ed when he was shown the film at school when he was 15 year’s old:

“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.

Holy Cow!  Believe it or not, his opin­ion of the film’s mes­sages actu­al­ly gets harsh­er still:

Many are pulling the movie out of the archives late­ly because of its pre­science on the per­ils of trust­ing bankers. I’ve found, after repeat­ed view­ings, that the film turns upside down and inside out, and some glar­ing — and often fun­ny — flaws become appar­ent. These flaws have some­how deep­ened my affec­tion for it over the years. Take the extend­ed sequence in which George Bai­ley (James Stew­art), hav­ing repeat­ed­ly tried and failed to escape Bed­ford Falls, N.Y., sees what it would be like had he nev­er been born. The bucol­ic small town is replaced by a smoky, night­club-filled, boo­gie-woo­gie-dri­ven haven for show­girls and gam­blers, who spill rau­cous­ly out into the crowd­ed side­walks on Christ­mas Eve. It’s been renamed Pot­tersville, after the vil­lain­ous Mr. Pot­ter, Lionel Barrymore’s schem­ing financier.

Here’s the thing about Pot­tersville that struck me when I was 15: It looks like much more fun than stul­ti­fy­ing Bed­ford Falls — the women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night. If any­thing, Pot­tersville cap­tures just the type of excite­ment George had long been seeking.

Not only is Pot­tersville cool­er and more fun than Bed­ford Falls, it also would have had a much, much stronger future. Think about it: In one scene George helps bring man­u­fac­tur­ing to Bed­ford Falls. But since the era of “It’s a Won­der­ful Life” man­u­fac­tur­ing in upstate New York has suf­fered terribly.

On the oth­er hand, Pot­tersville, with its night­clubs and gam­bling halls, would almost cer­tain­ly be in much bet­ter finan­cial shape today. The gam­bling halls would be thriv­ing and a great social expe­ri­ence instead of the cae­sars casi­no slot at we have now.

I checked my the­o­ry with the oft-quot­ed Mitchell L. Moss, a pro­fes­sor of urban pol­i­cy at New York Uni­ver­si­ty, and he agreed, point­ing out that, of all the upstate coun­ties, the only one that has seen growth in recent years has been Saratoga.

“The rea­son is that it is a resort, and it has built an econ­o­my around that,” he said. “Mean­while the great indus­tri­al cities have declined ter­rif­i­cal­ly. Look at Con­necti­cut: where is the growth? It’s in casi­nos; they are con­stant­ly expanding.”

In New York, Mr. Moss added, Gov. David A. Pater­son “is under enor­mous pres­sure to allow gam­bling upstate because of the eco­nom­ic problems.”

“We ease up on our lot of cul­tur­al behav­iors in a depres­sion,” he said.

What a grim thought: Had George Bai­ley nev­er been born, the peo­ple in his town might very well be bet­ter off today.

Well, I’m not sure that the raunchy Vegas-like Pot­tersville is any bet­ter than the Biff Tan­nen’s alter­nate Uni­verse town of Hill Val­ley (which does­n’t get a rename, despite the sim­i­lar biz­zaro treat­ment) in Back to the Future II.  I’ll bet that a few choice grotesque zooms on the land­scape of Pot­tersville would have hor­ri­fied the rest of us as much as it did George Bai­ley rather than thrill him that that his town was less bor­ing with him not in it. Capra per­haps did­n’t want to hit us over the head with the mes­sage, so it did­n’t escape the 15-year old Mr. Jamieson’s cynicism.

Any­way, apt or not, I still find it a great piece of sto­ry­telling, even if it teach­es us all the wrong things. Jamieson is not alone in his dis­dain for the film. Besides the fact that the movie was con­sid­ered a finan­cial flop (too expen­sive to make, did­n’t make back what it cost), Charles Affron on says:

The impe­tus and struc­ture of It’s a Won­der­ful Life recall the famil­iar mod­el of Capra’s pre-war suc­cess­es. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Wash­ing­ton and Meet John Doe. In each of these films, the hero rep­re­sents a civic ide­al and is opposed by the forces of cor­rup­tion. His iden­ti­ty, at some point mis­per­ceived, is final­ly acclaimed by the com­mu­ni­ty at large. The pat­tern receives per­haps its dark­est treat­ment in It’s a Won­der­ful Life. The film’s con­ven­tions and dra­mat­ic con­ceits are mis­lead­ing. An idyl­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of small-town Amer­i­ca, a guardian angel named Clarence and a Christ­mas Eve apoth­e­o­sis seem to jus­ti­fy the film’s peren­ni­al screen­ings dur­ing the hol­i­day sea­son. These are the signs of the ingen­u­ous opti­mism for which Capra is so often reproached. Yet they func­tion in the same way “hap­py end­ings” do in Moliere, where the arti­fice of per­fect res­o­lu­tion is in iron­ic dis­pro­por­tion to the real­i­ties of human nature at the core of the plays.

Maybe I should have just watched Rudolph the Red Nosed Rein­deer instead.

6 Replies to “Snowbound with George on Christmas Eve”

  1. Maybe you should have.

    The mis­sus were at Art Knap­p’s a while back, and they have a large selec­tion of those lit­tle dec­o­ra­tive vil­lage bits, where you can buy a house, or a small shop, or what­ev­er in some­thing like 1/64 scale. They had a bunch of odd sets, includ­ing (I think) a Casi­no, and between that and a few oth­er gaudy pieces, we both not­ed you could have built Pot­tersville in miniature.

    That NYT cri­tique is inter­est­ing and per­son­al (not usu­al­ly praise when I say it) and ambigu­ous. But those are also strengths of the movie. To re-invert the cri­tique, think about the char­ac­ters in Pot­tersville the oth­er way: all have the poten­tial to be their Bed­ford Falls coun­ter­parts, but cir­cum­stances dri­ve them to oth­er paths. That may be about as pure a social­ist cri­tique of mod­ern liv­ing as you will ever see, with Stew­art play­ing some sort of free­lance State.

    I like the movie, but am sim­ple enough to read the theme more sim­ply: though George nev­er gets what he wants, he gets an awful­ly good lot in life regard­less. He just does­n’t real­ize it.

    Also, Uncle Bil­ly should nev­er have been let any­where near the cash deposits.

  2. Off top­ic, but inter­est­ing, nonetheless:

    While check­ing out the “test post” on my GoogleRead­er this is what appeared:

    Sor­ry, but you are look­ing for some­thing that isn’t here.

    This amused me as it so accu­rate­ly explains a large por­tion of my — and I dare­say oth­er’s — lives. 🙂

    Thanks for a great end to the day .…

  3. Ah, I was test­ing some new blog edit­ing soft­ware and had­n’t post­ed any­thing real yet, but appar­ent­ly it is ping­ing Google Read­er with a mes­sage that I’ve actu­al­ly post­ed some­thing. It’s an inter­est­ing appli­ca­tion called ‘Blo­go’ but appar­ent­ly needs to be a lit­tle less enthu­si­as­tic about let­ting the world know I’ve writ­ten some­thing just because I cre­at­ed a draft post called ‘Test Post’.

    I think the ‘Sor­ry, but you are look­ing for some­thing that isn’t here.’ mes­sage is from Word­Press, since the link in Google Read­er was for some­thing that actu­al­ly did­n’t exist (but may some time, although I doubt I’ll keep the same title). Pret­ty accu­rate, but also a bit exis­ten­tial, I agree.

    Thanks for the heads-up. Glad that the blog actu­al­ly pro­vid­ed a lit­tle amuse­ment, even when it was mere­ly a glitch. 🙂

  4. Heh, regard­ing your com­ment on my post, I think that Char­lie Brown plays a schle­mazel in every strip he appeared in. I also think the orig­i­nal Char­lie Brown Christ­mas spe­cial (there was at least one lat­er, less­er car­toon) endures pret­ty well.

    “Mir­a­cle on 34th Street” is a nice movie, and I rec­om­mend it to you, but it’s not my favorite.

    I know the Alis­tair Sim ver­sion of Christ­mas Car­ol (prop­er­ly, “Scrooge”) fair­ly well, thanks to TLO’s ardent advo­ca­cy, and I think the delay in Scrooge’s con­ver­sion revolves around the twofold idea of hav­ing to first renounce his old behav­ior, and sec­ond renounce despair (which is basi­cal­ly his excuse until he meets the ghost of Christ­mas Future). 

    Hav­ing nev­er seen the Car­rey Grinch, the orig­i­nal car­toon remains pris­tine in my mind.

    The Rankin/Bass col­lec­tion con­tains some near­ly unwatch­able stinkers (“The Lit­tle Drum­mer Boy,” though charm­ing, is so insane­ly depress­ing I declare it the offi­cial Christ­mas spe­cial by which to slit your wrists; “Nestor the Long-Eared Don­key,” is, incred­i­bly, even sad­der). But they also have one real­ly odd one: The title “The Lep­rechaun’s Christ­mas Gold” should give you a hint as to how odd. 

    But my favorite Rankin/Bass, just for the music, is “San­ta Claus is Comin’ to Town.” It’s got a great (if com­plete­ly ahis­toric) plot, but it also has some first-rate tunes. Recommended.

    The Snow­man is my very favorite Christ­mas spe­cial, and will def­i­nite­ly repay your atten­tion, and is almost unruin­able. Bug TLO to bor­row her copy.

    Final­ly, the Star Wars Hol­i­day Spe­cial, I can assure you, has not been ren­dered worse by mod­ern cyn­i­cism. It would be impos­si­ble to make it worse…

  5. I’ve often thought that Christ­mas rep­re­sents a very small por­tion of our actu­al lives. Yet a few weeks out of every year in it’s midst, and by the time we’re teenagers, we’ve been indoc­tri­nat­ed with a seem­ing­ly bot­tom­less well of sen­ti­ment and sentimentality.

    So many loss­es and the mem­o­ries of unre­al­ized hopes come to me at this time of year. I can under­stand Scrooge’s divorce from human­i­ty, George Bai­ley’s thoughts of sui­cide, Char­lie Brown’s dis­en­chant­ment with his friends and their rela­tion­ship with hol­i­day com­mer­cial­ism, even Rudolph’s mis­fit feel­ings and attempt to run away from everyone.

    All of these tra­di­tions that call us togeth­er, and still we feel alone and apart.

    Yet, Scrooge gets scared into redemp­tion, George is for­giv­en, Char­lie Brown real­izes his dream of inclu­sion, and Rudolph becomes a hero because of his defect.

    Redemp­tion, for­give­ness, inclu­sion, and real­ized val­ue — pret­ty much the mes­sage of the Gospel itself.

    Peace and love to all this sea­son and for the New Year.

    - ZithRob

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