Saturday, October 24, 2009

Out of Bedford Falls, into modern day cynicism

I was eleven years old when I saw my first black and white film in its entirety. The film was It's a Wonderful Life. I was able to catch the annual NBC broadcast that year and I was fully blown away by Frank Capra's sentimental ode to the precious gift called life.

Even then, I somewhat related to James Stewart's underdog hero, George Bailey. I wanted to get the hell out of the suburbs--which may or may not be worse than the film's little piece of Americana, Bedford Falls--and seek greater things. Like most pre-teen girls, I wanted to be famous, important--anything but an ordinary person. At the same time, I couldn't shake off the connection I had for the suburbs. It was my home, a place that I was familiar with.

It's a Wonderful Life became a holiday "home" for me. Every time I watched it, I felt like I was revisiting a lovely old friend. Watching it in the middle of October was no different.

After enduring the ridiculous crappiness of Sergeant York and Boys Town in my BS high school film class, It's a Wonderful Life felt like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I don't care if I wasn't going to learn anything new, I was just grateful that I was going to watch a movie that I knew I was going to enjoy.

Being the cynic I am, I realize that it was completely ridiculous that Bedford Falls would be so different without George. I don't think that if George never married the sweetly radiant Mary (Donna Reed), she would become an old maid and librarian. I don't think Mrs. Bailey would turn into such a stern-faced lady either just because her darling son George doesn't exist.

But I understand Capra's point that every individual's life has the power to impact the world. It's fueled with the kind of optimism that modern audience, like myself, have to struggle to accept.

Then rolled in the happy ending: George's friends helps him raise the $8000 the villainous Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) stole; the Building and Loans can continue its hopeful existence. A bell rings and our favorite second-class angel, Clarence gets his wings. Merry Christmas to all.

It was my fifth viewing. I didn't think I was going to once again shed some tears.

I wonder if this kind of heartstrings-pulling, tearjerking optimism can ever work in a modern film. I'm not even sure if it quite works with a modern audience. My classmate told me he thought the ending of It's a Wonderful Life is silly and emotionally manipulative.

Critics and audiences complain that "happy endings" in modern films are cliched, sentimental, and trite. Modern romantic comedies with happy endings are often considered dumb and uncharming (and the truth is, many are). Serious filmmakers tend to avoid making those kind of films. Steven Spielberg attempted to revive the spirit of classic romantic comedies and underdog stories with The Terminal several years back. I think I was the only person who enjoyed it.

Is this generation so pessimistic to the point that we can rarely appreciate a winning hero and a losing villain? So how long will it be until amgiuous, unsatisfying endings become a tired fad in so-called "quality" films?

I understand that relentless originality is in demand. The era for Capra-esque films are long gone. But there are some people who still want to see a great film about the victorious underdogs or a couple who ends up together in the end of the film. I want to see another Forrest Gump (I know some people feel otherwise) or another When Harry Met Sally. I'm not asking for more silly, ditzy feel-good flicks, but I'm asking for the kind with a genuine heart at its core.

Happy endings don't have to be crap, if that makes any sense...


  1. I think what might throw some modern audiences off a bit, is that they don't realize that they can't recognize when they are watching the groundbreakers.

    Yeah, it might seem hokey and clichéd...but that's because in the nearly seventy years since, the story has been ripped off a zillion different ways. That shouldn't be held against the originator. Recognize!

    Kinda reminds me of how someone I knew rolled their eyes when they heard "Round up the usual suspects" at the end of CASABLANCA...little did she know that she was watching the movie that said that line first.

    I think that's what's at the heart of it...not an ambivilence to hope or happiness, so much as a failure to understand the context of the hope and happiness on parade.

    Great post!

  2. Hi there - I really enjoyed reading this. I think there was more of a sense of honesty back in the Capra era films... recently movies seem to me like everyone is pretending to be someone. Watching It's A Wonderful Life feels as though you are actually watching George, Mary and the rest live their lives, like a fly on the wall. I love it. I watch it every year and can't get enough. I actually wrote a song called 'George Bailey' - would love for you to check it out. You can hear it via my website below.

    Thanks for the great post!

    Carolyn Sills

  3. @Mad Hatter - I agree. Film copy other films, but there is always a film that started it first. Glad you enjoyed the post!

    @Carolyn - IAWL is a very special film. It just feels very authentic to me, even though it's sweet and rather sentimental. I can feel the characters' emotions and...they just don't make them like that anymore.

    Oh, I really enjoyed your song too! Good job and keep singing!

  4. Actually, I think that - right now, we're hitting a new wave of cautious optimism in our modern cinema. I mean, look at Children of Men, or Happy Feet, or even Tarsem's The Fall - all of these work their way toward what is an unquestionably happy, or at least potently optimistic in the case of Children of Men, end. And yet, they do it so well that even the most cynical of audience members have been taken off guard, slack-jawed at what these movies - and others - have accomplished by the end of their running time.

    Hopefully, this isn't just a fad, however.