15 December 2005

it's a wonderful life




this is a great film. it gets a lot of notice for the holiday cheer it spreads, and it does do that. but the interesting part about how this movie is structured is that, save for the final reel, its a serious fucking american tragedy. things start off bad for george bailey -- he loses his hearing, he isn't able to travel or leave his shitty small town -- and they only get worse, mostly due to money woes. the redemption, of course, is that he has been a good dude this whole time, and karma has a way of feeling someone out and doing them well when they are in need.

so the movie is a good example of the maxim that most viewers only remember what happens in the last twenty minutes or so. another example of a bleak fucking film that becomes heartwarming in the last reel is "the shawshank redemption". in that movie, the average moviegoer is subjected to a falsely imprisoned shy guy who gets anally raped, beaten, and put in solitary confinement. in the end, though, he escapes cleverly, gains a good friend, and lives happily ever after by the water (a stark contrast to the drabness of maine via mansfield, ohio).

but moviegoers will sit through all of that unpleasantness if you give them something heartwarming and pretty and life-affirming at the end. and that's what they take with them when they leave, not all the nasty stuff that came before it.

so this movie is great because it has it both ways: it lets its characters wallow, then pulls them out of the muck at just the right time. its also great because of a lot of technical things. first, the acting. man, james stewart was something. he had a great face, a distinct, yet not annoying, voice. and the comic timing he displays here, both in little gestures -- such as when he goes to mary's house, can't open the fence door and throws his stick in the yard -- and in little looks he gives, is amazing. he's a fine example of an actor being popular and beloved for all the right reasons. the other actors play it all well, fitting into the appropriate archtypes. and certainly lionel barrymore, chained to the wheelchair but reveling in his power, is something fun to behold. so cartoonishly, unredeemingly BAD. i love it.

the production design is fantastic, too. they fucking built that street -- the whole main street, three blocks long! and the contrast between the bedford falls main street and "pottersville" main street is striking (and hilarious in how much it actually reminds one of bourbon street in new orleans). also of note is the use of special effects in the stars talking, and the unexpected use of freeze frame in introducing grown-up george.

listen, i love old shit like this. this movie was made to reaffirm americans during the second world war (just like another favorite of mine, "meet me in st. louis"), and it does that. the message is trite to our cynical minds now, but that's why movies like this are so refreshing. and they get away with it because they made it well, with a real story and a sense of purpose and craftsmanship in all departments.