Everyone goes through that thing when you feel like dying, a famous person said.
If you think this cheerful dictum was voiced by a sourpuss like Nietzsche, you'd be wrong. It's what Frank Capra said about the heart of the story of his classic 1946 movie "It's a Wonderful Life."
You know the drill about this film, which Capra liked the best of all of the movies that he'd made. It's shown endlessly on TV and DVD during the Christmas/New Year's holidays. George Bailey, the film's protagonist, is a kind man, who has always done what's best for his family and Bedford Falls, the small-town where he lives. Through his hard work and self-sacrifice, the townspeople are able to have homes of their own and weather the Depression.
Sometimes Bailey resents being stuck in Bedford Falls. Ideally, he would have loved to have gone to college or seen the world. But he adores his wife Mary and their children, is proud of his brother Harry who's won the Medal of Honor for his valor during World War II, and is pleased that he's helped his friends and neighbors fight Mr. Potter, the villainous banker.
Until Bailey snaps on Christmas Eve, when he learns that $8,000 is missing from the Building & Loan (the financial institution that he manages.)
Things get so bad that Bailey tries to kill himself.
Unlike most of us in this position, Bailey has an angel waiting in the wings (so to speak) to save him. Clarence, an angel who's working to earn his wings, tells Bailey that he can have his wish. He can arrange things so that Bailey would never have been born.
Unless, you're a denizen of Mars, you know that Bailey is freaked out when he sees what would have happened if he'd never lived.
Bailey, as a 12-year-old boy, wouldn't have been there to save his brother's life, or to stop the town druggist (preoccupied by his son's death from influenza) from accidently giving the wrong pills to a child. He'd never have met his wife, had children, or been able to keep the town out of the clutches of Potter.
Being arrested for a missing $8,000 seems like a lark compared to this, and Bailey decides that he can't wait to have his life back again.
This being a Capra film, everything turns out fine for Bailey. His friends, who love him more than ever, give him the money that he needs, and then some. Even Clarence, who must have gotten to be an angel for his heart rather than his brains, gets his wings. It's the book of Job meets Capracorn. Six degrees of separation before Kevin Bacon.
By now, if you're like my buds, you're throwing things at your computer screen. I'm writing this from the Witness Protection Program. That's where I go every December. So I can stealthily watch "It's a Wonderful Life," for the zillionth time, and, even worse, give a shout-out to this film.
My friends speak to me in the patient tone you use when you explain to someone who's hallucinating that there's no twenty-foot dragon riding a roller coaster in the room. Descendants of Cassandra, they tell me that there are no angels waiting in the wings for us. That if there were any Clarence-like beings, they wouldn't have the technical skills or media savvy to come in out of the rain.
Life doesn't wind along any yellow-brick road, my pals insist, and if it did, the path would be long, up-hill and over-run by potholes. There are no happy endings, these killjoys tell me, and fools don't fall in love (they're reality TV shows contestants). But, cheer up, these naysayers say, as bad as things are now, is nothing compared to how bad they will be in the future. And, after that, they'll get really terrible.
I get their point.
The U.S. is involved in two wars and the world economy is in a shambles. Like most poets and artists of all stripes, my work isn't generally respected in some quarters of this culture.
As is the case with every poet I know, I struggle to find time to write, to get up the courage to send out work and to deal with the inevitable rejection slips.
Did I mention the egos, jerks and pedants that you sometimes encounter in the poetry world?
I don't know why I'm so drawn to "It's a Wonderful Life."
My holidays, as I'm sure will be the case with many of you, will be filled with as much pain and family dysfunction as with joy. And yet....
I still find "It's a Wonderful Life" to be compelling and true, on an emotional, if not a literal level. Partly, because you can find almost any emotion of the human condition (from lust to rage to love to hope) in this film. The latte-liberal-ironic-all-sentimentality-is-horse-manure-rap on the movie is that it's a sappy one-dimensional tear-jerker. Filled with too much shouting.
As a latter-irony-loving liberal myself, I don't buy this rap.
Because the sentimental moments of the film are earned: from George Bailey kissing Mary in the bushes to the bell ringing on the Christmas tree in the final scene. Yes, Bailey is aided by an angel. But, Bailey is mainly thrown on himself. George Bailey, in the midst of the worst despair that a human being can feel, must go through the fight of his life–to save himself, his family and his community. There is a lot of shouting, and even, at times, to coin a phrase, an "irrational exuberance" in "It's a Wonderful Life." (Hello! This is a movie!). But the film sticks to my bones, I suspect, because George Bailey is all of us.
Who hasn't wished they could die or were never born?
Who hasn't felt the scourge of despair?
Who hasn't been helped by a family member, a friend, "an angel,"–at one time or another? (Think about the blurb your buddy wrote for your book, your spouse watching your kids while you wrote your poems or painted your paintings, or the word from a mentor that helped you get a job.)
Sometimes believing in the best is much harder than believing in the worst. It's not cool. You risk sounding like a sap. Because things don't usually work out that well. Except every once in awhile.
Think about Obama becoming the first African-American United States president. Think about what it would be like if you hadn't been born and had the chance to see that. Or to love who you love or to make art.
Cassandra and I are buddies. Nine times out of ten we're on the same page.
Except now this December. When Capracorn trumps Cassandra.