Filler by Proxy LVII: Things Ain’t What They Seem

Thursday 27 December 2007

Because it’s that time of year, I’m working up a short list of best-ofs for 2007. It’s the fashion. Last December Georgina Hibberd posted at Sarsaparilla her list of books for the year, with the twist that the books did not necessarily have to be published in the past 12 months. In fact, it was preferable for them to be older. It’s such a good idea I’m going to steal revive it for a follow-up article posted on Sarsaparilla in the next day or two. Gilbert Sorrentino will be mentioned.
Because it’s that time of year, It’s A Wonderful Life has probably been on a telly somewhere near you. It’s the tradition. While it’s fresh in your head, you might enjoy Sorrentino’s brief, but thorough, demolition of the illusion that movie strives to portray.
Capra’s greatest film, It’s a Wonderful Life, is a curious example of a work that means precisely the opposite of what it seems to say. Its true message is, in the context of Capra’s oeuvre, a surprising one: Money is everything. Although the film is usually read as the pinnacle of the Capraesque ideal of grassroots optimism, I would argue that its subtext calls this optimism into serious question. In effect, the film encapsulates a disgust and anger with modern American life that are barely hidden, and often glaringly foregrounded.
The final scene of the film is ambiguously eerie, and its strangeness is emblematized in George Bailey’s near-maniacal grin, one that is equally composed of shame, fear, gratitude, and self-loathing. It is a grin that, once seen, can never be forgotten. Money is everything is what that grin says, what the scene says, and what the film says. In this final moment, the truth of the film strikes at us with metonymic power through the stilted images of celebration and victory and joy….