Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Capra's Old Cinematic Christmas Chestnut, Redux

By Steve Evans

It’s a Wonderful Life remains the greatest of Christmas films. If this seems like a predictable choice, that’s only because it’s the correct choice, though not for the reasons most people might consider.

I don't accept the widely-held criticism of this 1946 Frank Capra film as sentimental, feel-good “Capra-corn,” as his films were so often dismissed. Sure, there’s a (relatively) happy ending. George Bailey learns what life would have been like if he had never been born. He finds salvation in the form of a kindly angel and neighbors who come forward to pay it back. George reunites with his children and his impossibly patient wife, the luminous Donna Reed.

Cue: church bells and Auld Lang Syne.

Most viewers remember and cherish this happy, populist ending, and with good reason: it follows a long middle act of crushed dreams, financial ruination and attempted suicide. It’s a Wonderful Life is a dark film, as bleak as any noir, redeemed only by the artificiality of that famous ending. I admire Capra for clinging to such a kindly philosophy, but I respect the film for putting George Bailey into a crucible of life lessons from which there are no easy answers – even if Capra provides one, anyway, at the conclusion. That ending is essential. Whether we believe it is another matter. More on that in a moment.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a great film and a classic Christmas movie because of the little grace notes we can discover if we read between the lines.

Bailey is a man whose dreams are systematically shut down through his own efforts to do the right thing as evolving circumstances demand. There is no chance for college, world travel, a brilliant career in architecture. There is only the little world of Bedford Falls. Even if George decides that his small town is good enough, that can scarcely reconcile a life of struggle against big business, as exemplified by the bitter and utterly vile Mr. Potter, who goes unpunished.

I believe George and Mr. Potter are two sides of the same coin. Potter represents what George might have become had his better nature not prevailed. Potter’s scheming ways provide the catalyst that enables George to emerge as a decent man concerned for his community, even at the expense of his own life’s dreams. A hero needs a worthy villain. That’s part of the basic equilibrium of the universe. George might have even defeated Potter (although we would have had no movie) if absentminded Uncle Billy had not been such a schmuck.

Like George himself, It’s a Wonderful Life encourages us to embrace our better nature, to place the needs of the many before the needs of the few, or the one. This was the essence of Capra’s politics. To convey this message to a nation returning from the horrors of World War II forced the director to craft a Machiavellian screenplay that would compel his characters to move in the precise directions he wanted them to take. This story is coiled as tightly as a steel spring. A whiff of inevitability, of fate, hangs over It’s a Wonderful Life. The omniscient narrator, God Himself, tells us as much near the beginning of the picture.

Capra crafted a message movie for the ages, so carefully constructed that the mechanism reveals itself only after many viewings. It is this:

Like the observation of Christmas itself, the climax of his movie is not at all about life as it is, but the way many people desperately want it to be. Without that sweet, romanticized ending, It’s a Wonderful Life would be unbearable -- though it would more closely approximate the truth. So, can we believe it?

In the end, if we choose to accept Capra's message, we do so purely on the basis of faith. If that's not in the spirit of Christmas, then no other film ever could be.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Howling hurrah for Wolf of Wall Street

By Steve Evans

Martin Scorsese's new film The Wolf of Wall Street is getting some serious love on the cusp of awards season. Variety reports audiences howling with approval during early screenings.

Lotsa talk of probable Academy Award nominations for best pic, director and actor (Leo DiCaprio), as well as supporting actor Jonah Hill (!) and possibly adapted screenplay.

Wolf of Wall Street tells the more-or-less true story of disgraced stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who ran a pump and dump scheme in the 1990s to inflate the value of securities and sell them before the market got wise. He was indicted in 1998 on securities fraud, among other charges. 
After cooperating with the FBI, he served 22 months in a federal prison for his boiler room schemes, which resulted in investor losses of approximately $200 million.

Scorsese reportedly plays the material as comedy, which may be the best way to comment upon and perhaps ridicule the money-obsessed. Here's the second trailer:

Notice the trailer has the same jittery, machine-gun pacing as GoodFellas, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Scorsese's classic gangster film riffed on all the stylistic techniques pioneered by the Nouvelle Vague, then beat the French at their own game. Contemporary cinema could survive another blast of comparable exuberance. In the United States, only Scorsese (and maybe Quentin Tarantino) can convey the wild joy of making movies and telling stories of life lived on the edge through sheer bravado and consummate filmmaking skill.

As per my tradition with Scorsese films, I will be there for Wolf of Wall Street on opening night with a bag of roasted macadamias and a smile. Maybe two bags; the film clocks in a minute shy of three hours, making this Scorsese's longest picture after Casino.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.