I believe in a kind of equivalence of artistic enrichment, much like the rule of thumb that a glass of wine equals a beer equals a shot of
liquor. Great movies are great art. When you watch a truly great film, you’ve consumed one form of the highest expression of human experience. Citizen Kane, The
Goldberg Variations Ã la Glenn Gould, The Sun Also Rises, Shakespeare’s sonnets–what are ya drinkin’ tonight?
And whatever sub-genre they may be–hard-minded Westerns like The Wild Bunch and Unforgiven, powerful dramas such as Elmer Gantry and The Insider, or lighthearted romps from My
Man Godfrey to The Jerk–great movies garner “timeless” status by offering insights into life.
Herald, telegraph, cell phone, or e-mail, one thing never changes: us.
And that’s for better but usually worse. We still have bullies and blowhards who spout between cigar puffs and sips of vintage port
that it’s all laziness today and if “these people” only pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, et cetera, ad nauseam. Sure, as if J. Paul Getty emerged
from the womb and immediately set about striking oil and forming holding companies . . . never mind “those people” born without boots.
Standing up to greedy hypocrites is one of many reasons why Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life remains high atop the list of most beloved American movies.
It debuted in 1946. With the world in shock from a global war’s unprecedented carnage, and at the dawn of the nuclear era, the
individual seemed a trifling matter, a single life insignificant when weighed against the sprawling ledgers of so many murdered. Even with peace and unparalleled economic
prosperity, there were an awful lot of men and women struggling to find meaning and a reason to live.
It was Capra’s mission to remind benumbed humanity that, to paraphrase an equally important contemporary movement, individual lives matter.
As he put it: “My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they
all learn to love each other.”
Fairly lofty agenda, huh? But you watch a Capra film, especially It’s A Wonderful Life, and you get just that feeling. Pick up
a newspaper and you can see how the world still desperately needs this reminder.
In It’s A Wonderful Life, Capra avails of a technique made famous by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol: he shows a
suicidal George Bailey, the main character so movingly played by James Stewart, a vision of an alternate reality in which George has never been born. Instead of ghosts leading
George around, heaven dispatches Angel 2nd Class Clarence Odbody, George’s kindly but as yet wingless guardian.
What follows is a truly harrowing tour of the little town George had once desperately tried to leave but couldn’t because of his civic
responsibility and good conscience. Having made Bedford Falls, New York his home, George has had an enormous influence on its character, especially as head of the family
business, the Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan. His affordable housing project, Bailey Park, offered humane alternatives to the exorbitant, broken-down shacks peddled by
town’s richest man and unapologetic slumlord, Henry F. Potter (whom Lionel Barrymore depicts with villainy freshly honed as Ebenezer Scrooge in radio performances of A Christmas Carol.)
Affordable housing–sound familiar? Without George Bailey, Bedford Falls becomes Pottersville, a tawdry strip of dive bars, dance
halls, and pawn shops inhabited by callous, angry people, a Vegas in miniature without the infernal heat.
George hasn’t just made a difference in Bedford Falls. Like the proverbial pebble tossed in the pond, his influence has rippled far
beyond his town. When Clarence tells George that his brother Harry drowned as a boy, George rages back: “That’s a lie! Harry Bailey went to war! He got the
Congressional Medal of Honor! He saved the lives of every man on that [troop] transport!” To which Clarence reminds him: “Every man on that transport died.
Harry wasn’t there to save them, because you weren’t there to save Harry.”
As Clarence says: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an
awful hole, doesn’t he?”
Individual lives matter. Despots and demagogues are fond of statistics because they dehumanize the issue; in a kind of sinister
reverse-alchemy, numbers transmute living, breathing people into abstractions. A recent cherry was former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s 47% quip–as in 47% of
us people are lazy freeloaders.
(Of course, politicians are even better at using words to similar effect: one of my favorites is from 1965 when Ronald Reagan referred to
Medicaid recipients as “a faceless mass, waiting for handouts.” You picture the Mongol army loitering outside the gates of Vienna instead of the elderly, the infirm,
the single-parent families, and other indigent human beings–all of whom, I’d be willing to bet, had ears, eyes, and noses.)
While George never leaves Bedford Falls, Dave Stoller tries to achieve escape velocity from Bloomington, Indiana in Breaking Away, a 1979 coming-of-age classic directed by Peter Yates.
Dennis Christopher plays Dave Stoller, a delightfully eccentric 19 year-old whose answer to the conformity of life in a Midwest college town
is to throw himself into cycling and all things Italian (the Italians being, in his eyes, the world’s best riders.) Always in bicycling attire of some sort, Dave drives
his father (a hilariously grumpy Paul Dooley) nuts by speaking in an Italian accent and listening to Rossini, Mozart (Le Nozze di Figaro, of course,) and Puccini. But
Dave’s passion has made him into a formidable cyclist.
Dave and his friends–Mike (Dennis Quaid), Cyril (Daniel Stern), and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley)–have graduated from high school
but remain unsure as to what to do next. Most 19 year-olds in Bloomington attend the university, but Dave and his pals are unemployed townies, or, as the students disparagingly
call them, “Cutters,” a reference to the men who worked the local limestone quarry from which the university’s buildings were made.
The foursome have resolved to stick together and thumb their noses at jobs, college, and college kids, but the realization that they must do something with their lives grows increasingly apparent. Even the pride they take in calling themselves “Cutters” almost vanishes. During a quietly affecting father-son scene, Dave tells his dad he doesn’t want to go to college, that he wants to stay a “Cutter.” Gently, and with justified pride, Ray Stoller tells his son: “You’re not a Cutter. I’m a Cutter.”
Or at least Ray was a Cutter. For some time, he’s run a used car dealership. In one of the funniest sequences, a college student
pushes his recently purchased clunker back onto Ray’s lot (while Ray tries his best to push it off), asking for his money back. Used-car salesman that he is, Ray demands
to see a contract in writing knowing that it doesn’t exist, but just when he seems to have won the debate, Dave steps forward and says that it’s only fair to give
the guy a refund. Still trying to push the car off the lot, Ray screams: “Refund? Refund! Refund?!” We immediately cut to find Ray–doctor in
attendance–waking with a start from a sedative-laden sleep, shouting half-questioningly, half in horror: “Refund? Refund! Refund?!”
An Indiana used-car lot is the auto industry in microcosm. Just recently, the Environmental Protection Agency discovered that Volkswagen
installed emissions-eluding software in their diesel automobiles and SUVs which kicks in when inspectors check a car on a dynamometer. The same software turns up in diesels and
SUVs made by Porsche and Audi, brands owned by–surprise, surprise–Volkswagen.
What’s the word for “refund” in German?
I can just picture the VW boardroom somewhere in Wolfsburg, Germany and a gaggle of panicked executives all honking away:
After literally having given his dad a heart attack, Dave tells his mom that he’s not going to ride against “the Italians”
in a kind of dream-come-true race for which he prepared for months. In one of the most moving and wisdom-rich scenes, Dave’s mother, Evelyn, brilliantly cast in Barbara
Barrie, reaches into her purse and holds up a passport:
Evelyn: “Did I ever show you this?”
Dave: “It’s a passport.”
Evelyn: “It’s quite cheap, you know . . . a real bargain. I carry this with me all the time. Someday there’ll be a new girl at the A&P and when I want to cash a check she’ll ask me for my identification and I’ll take out my passport and I’ll say: here.”
Dave [visibly moved]: “Mama.”
Evelyn: “So, you see, I think you really should go. I think you should come home singing, with a trophy. I think you should do all
those things while you can.”
Talk about implied meaning in a simple object: that passport is tangible evidence of dreams on hold, probably permanently. With maternal
tenderness and the vantage of experience, Evelyn pivots off her own disappointment to help her son avoid regret.
Of course, the race with “the Italians” teaches young Dave Stoller another lesson. He’s so enamored with Team
Cinzano’s bona fide Italian riders he doesn’t realize that they’re not at all pleased with his ability to keep up with them. The kid is good, too good. As Dave naively tries out his best Italian phrases on his fellow cyclists, one of them sticks an air pump in his spokes, sending Dave and his bike hurtling into the weeds. Race over.
When he returns home, bruised and utterly disillusioned, he apologizes to his dad about the “refund” debacle. And when his dad
asks him where his trophy is, Dave responds: “Everybody cheats. I just didn’t know.” And Ray’s laconic reply? “Well, now you know.”
Naturally, there’s another race that not only offers redemption for Dave but wonderfully unifies the Cutter foursome in a kind of last
hurrah. And it’s a real race, a great tradition at Indiana University Bloomington called The Little 500.
After Dave (mainly) and his fellow Cutters triumph as the first townie team to not only compete but win The Little 500, the film cuts to the
following fall. Dave is now a Bloomington freshman. A pretty French exchange student asks him for directions on campus. Soon the two of them are cycling through campus as Dave
extols the Tour de France and “zee French riders, zay are zee beste!”
Ray Stoller, who drives undoubtedly the biggest Lincoln Continental through much of the film, has had a change of heart and is seen biking
past when his son hails him: “Bon jour, Papa!”
Here’s my sagest lesson of all: watch these movies, they’ll make you happy!