Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas meditations

A New York Times essay offering a different take on the perennial classic It's a Wonderful Life sparks a lively discussion in the comments.

The essay argues that the small-town life Capra's hero embraces at the end is, in fact, terrifyingly and asphyxiatingly oppressive, and that the movie is all about resigning oneself to the loss of dreams, to being trapped in a life of compromise, small-mindedness and conformity. He even asserts that the "Pottersville" of the alternate reality in which Jimmy Stewart's George was never born -- filled with booze and vice -- is a lot more fun than boring New Bedford, where The Bells of St. Mary's is all that passes for entertainment.

Some commenters agree, and also point to the movie's disturbing gender ideology: without George in her life, his wife Mary (Donna Reed) has become -- the horror! -- a single, childless librarian. One poster mentions (approvingly) that Ayn Rand hated this movie because of its emphasis on self-sacrifice and the compromises of adult life. Others defend close-knit communities as well as the idea that adulthood is about accepting compromises and limits, and that life's true satisfaction comes not from chasing adolescent dreams but from family, friends, and community.

This is where I'm always reminded of a famous Niels Bohr quote:

"The opposite of a small truth is a falsehood; the opposite of a great truth is another truth."

There is a great truth in the Randian/libertarian celebration of the free individual, of the stubborn pursuit of one's dreams and visions, of the struggle against limits. There is also a great truth in the conservative/communitarian vision that emphasizes relationships and acceptance of reasonable compromises and limits. Both of these starkly different approaches to life have value -- are, in fact, necessary to a healthy culture, which needs both roots and wings. (I believe the origin of this metaphor is this quote by American motivational speaker Dennis Waitley.) So do the vast majority of individuals, even if some can be perfectly happy pursuing their individualist dreams with no human ties and some can be perfectly happy living completely for others.

Of course, each vision also has a seamy side. A lot of "autonomous individuals" who pride themselves on never compromising and never "settling" are not Randian Howard Roarks but obnoxious, egotistical jerks with a very exaggerated notion of their own talent. A lot of lives that revolve around family, community and self-sacrifice are poisoned by undercurrents of bitterness, resentments, and suppressed conflicts. And so on.

But in the spirit of the holiday, let's focus on the positives. Here's to roots and wings. And to the fact that American culture is big enough to accommodate Frank Capra and Ayn Rand.


Anonymous said...

Interesting article-the author does make some good points although I would disagree with his overall message. But he is right in that when you examine it closely, it's not strictly the feel-good movie we think it is. But I do like the message that although our lives may not turn out the way we originally envisioned or wanted, that doesn't make them worthless. Actually the movie I find much more offensive in sending a message that suburban, family life is the only right and true option is 2000's "The Family Man" starring Nicolas Cage as a happy, single, successful, workaholic Wall Street executive who in his words "took the road less traveled" by leaving his girlfriend to take an internship in London many years before. However fate intervenes in the form of an angel-like character who offers him a glimpse of the New Jersey suburban family life he could have had with her. Of course, he eventually warms up to and embraces this new life but then the angel returns Jack to his real life which he now finds empty and lonely. So he seeks out a reconciliation with his former girlfriend, also a single, successful career woman and tries to convince her that family life is the only way to go. UGGGHHH! Give me "It's a Wonderful Life" any time over the insulting message of "The Family Man" which is, you may think you are happy in your single, work-oriented life, but trust us, you're not!

Cathy Young said...

Oh, I haven't seen that one, Moy! I wonder if the real purpose of these movies is to make suburban parents feel better about their lives and to remove regrets about "roads not taken."

Speaking of gender messages in alternate-future movies: the one I really disliked, in that respect, was Back to the Future. Apparently, the fact that George McFly punched out Biff not only changed George's life, giving him the confidence to pursue his dreams; it also changed Lorraine's life -- she's now a happy, cheerful, open-minded, physically fit suburban mom, rather than a bitter, prematurely aging, secretly bibulous housewife. A woman's life is shaped completely by how successful her husband is!

Anonymous said...

without George in her life, his wife Mary (Donna Reed) has become -- the horror! -- a single, childless librarian.

Yeah--this always cracks me up whenever I see it. Truly, a fate worse than death! (A similar ideology can be seen in the film The Butterfly Effect, in that Ashton Kutcher's character's actions are solely shown to determine the destiny of his love interest--although that may be partially redeemed in that, IIRC, in the timeline where he never meets her, she is shown to have become a successful businesswoman.) Personally, It's a Wonderful Life never did that much for me--I definitely prefer the original Miracle on 34th Street.

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