I almost forgot this: a blogathon, for It's a Wonderful Life. More like, almost forgot it was set for today... we are talking, after all, about the greatest movie of all time. An opinion I've held firmly for a decade or more - though I admit to having doubts lately. Mostly under the pressure of a steady diet of Ozu films, which cover much the same ground, but without the need to end happily every single time. (That is a vital point, to understanding Ozu or Capra - that things can go either way. Ozu got to retell stories with different endings and configurations - Capra did the same thing, but felt he had to always end them well. This makes some of his endings feel very strange - they are very arbitrary. Sometimes, in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, naming one, the "happy" ending is almost pure rhetoric - what really happens is far more complex... which is one reason that film remains a serious contender for the top slot....) But this is time to praise It's a Wonderful Life: and praise we shall.
There is much to praise: Capra was among the 2-3 best filmmakers ever (stories aside) - this is no exception. Cinematography, acting, handling of actors, staging, sound, story telling, is all utterly masterful. He gets short shift these days, on purely technical matters - that is criminal. His peers are Hitchcock, Godard, maybe Kurosawa, Imamura - directors who used everything cinema had to offer at the very highest level (as opposed to equally masterful filmmakers who chose more limited palettes - Ozu and Mizoguchi, Renoir or Bresson, maybe) - and he got there first.... Or taking more specific felicities - his manipulation of time, say - the "real time" of the film is about what - 20 minutes? we start with people praying for George - flashback to tell his whole life up to that point, then an extended dream sequence, then one last reel in the present. And the flashbacks are expertly paced: Capra lingers over every episode, taking his time, then shooting off like an express train. Look at the way he plays out George and Mary's courtship - all the hesitations, false starts, false turns, the comings and goings and shifts of tone and emotion in their love story, then - once love is declared, cutting straight to the wedding. It's like that throughout - episodes played out in detail, but strung together at a breakneck pace. (This is something TV totally ruins: commercials cutting up long sequences and taking the shock out of the ellipses.)... Or take it's literary references and lineage: obvious stuff like Dickens, a comparison it earns, for its willingness to show the harshness alongside the melodrama, for its handling of characters - the deeper, rounder characters at the center, surrounded by types... Though this is also, if not an allusion to the Confidence Man, an excellent example of Melville's notion of the "original character" - the way a central character can reveal everyone around him. Though too - they reveal him - representing the ways he could choose to live, by becoming (like them) adequate to his role. They represent options, some quite attractive, but all of them limitations: Mary's stability and her will to transform their small scale life into a kind of fairy tale; Potter's rapaciousness; Sam Wainwright's goofball selfishness and enthusiasm; Violet's easy hedonism, etc. Good or bad, all of those characters have settled - they are what they are, and George is not. (Though it's worth remembering that we see George from outside too, at least a couple times: the scene with the schoolteacher's husband, particularly - he takes a crack at George, and rails at him, and everything he says makes sense - he's right, and George knows it...)
It's that, I guess, that in the end, makes this film what it is. It's that doubleness, to everything - how every good thing is, in some ways, a limitation. How you have to live within the limits of thw world you are in, the choices you make, the person you are - but you don't have to be happy about it, and the minute you get too happy about it, you are stuck with it. And George's world is a bitterly ironic world (bittersweet, of course): everything cuts both ways. What is this film about? The way a community (a town, a family, any community) sustains and traps its members. About the necessity of both self-determination and fulfilling ones obligations to the community. It is about the ways no one is ever alone, and how one is always alone. It is about how our strengths trap us, how our best instincts lead us to do things that hurt us. It is about how we can never break out of the systems we live in, and how we can never simply accept those systems. About the necessity of constant self-invention. It's a film about contradictions, that can't be resolved. Yes - the ending fudges the issue a bit, but not enough to obscure it: anything George did, assuming he was as decent about it as he is in the film, would have made something in the world a better place and something else would have suffered. To be true to himself he would have to sacrifice something of himself - that would have been as true if he had gone away and become Robert Moses as it is if he stayed in Bedford Falls.
Everything in the film is double-edged. Everything that happens has at least two meanings. Everything is built on sudden reversals. Everything is built on the ways George's intelligence and ambition forces him into a position that (seems to?) thwart his ambition and intelligence. There are times (the courtship scenes, say, or the wedding night) when the contradiction becomes almost unbearable. He loves her - of course he loves her, why shouldn't he? But he knows that marrying her will trap him there; but he knows he's trapped whether he marries her or not. And their honeymoon: Mary's whimsy and imagination, turning their troubles into a dream, is coupled with the frustration of comparing the reality of their poverty, their responsibilities, to their dreams of travel. The scene is a tribute to their strength, their resourcefulness, their ambition and decency - but it's also a parody of his dreams, and it's a lie to pretend it's not cruel.
It's that constant pressure that links Capra to Ozu - they both pose individuals against communities (families, social obligations), and both refuse to resolve the conflict. They never let their protagonists off the hook - American films usually find a way for the hero to couple up and still be free - Japanese films all too often insist that happiness (and self-fulfillment) requires serving the group. Capra and Ozu, though, don't make it so easy: true individuality almost always involves social obligations - which almost always choke our individuality. Love, friendship, families - fulfill us and frustrate us.... Ozu was more free to explore this - so that one film can end badly, another less so - while Capra felt obliged to end happily throughout his career. (Or convince us that the end was happy, whatever it looks like.) Though those bell ringing, auld lang syne singing tear jerker triumphs Capra kept putting on screen are a bit more than just unconvincing. Because, first - they aren't really unconvincing. For all the pissing and moaning people do about the way It's a Wonderful Life ends, it's a pretty believable ending. If a popular and well respected man is in trouble, his friends probably will take up a collection for him - if he has rich friends, they will probably raise enough to buy what he needs. What's arbitrary about it is not the happiness of the ending, it's the idea that it's an ending at all. It's worth remembering that the ending of It's a Wonderful Life is a direct steal from a scene in the middle of You Can't Take it With You. The only thing different at the end of It's A Wonderful Life is that George sees himself a bit more clearly.... His life? he won't go to jail, but he's still not rich, he's still going to have to go to work on boxing day, with the same problems he had before. Will he understand things a bit better, having seen himself through Frank Capra's eyes? What more can we ask for?