Monday, December 12, 2011

Life In Pottersville

So Lisa and I sat down and watched It's A Wonderful Life yesterday. The girls aren't that Jonesed with it, so it ended up being the two of us. While I was watching, the old familiar complaints I had with it surfaced. Except for Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore, it isn't really well acted. Some of the dialogue seems stilted. When George returns home having been told he's not only lost $8000 but may face arrest and the possible exposure and mischaracterization of his friendship with Violet Bick, does he take his wife aside, tell her what's happened, and figure out what to do? No. He throws a temper tantrum, then runs out and gets drunk, then wrecks his car. His self-pity is almost overwhelming. I don't so much feel sorry for him as want to smack him.

This doesn't even begin to capture my frustrations with the scenes when Clarence shows him Bedford Falls without him. George is supposed to be smart, yet he never really catches on that he has never been born! Seeing the downtown area doesn't convince him? He runs off to his "mother"! That doesn't convince him (a spell? What the hell!), so he heads over to "Bailey Park", even though his mother treats him like the drunken loon he is. And he is shocked, SHOCKED! I tell you to discover, despite Clarence's repeated description of events, to discover not only no Bailey Park, but the grave of his brother, whose death as a child doomed the lives of hundreds of soldiers whose transport was sunk.

After all that, even I'm wondering why I bothered watching it.

Anyway, I got to thinking about some other things while I was watching it. For instance, without the Bailey Building and Loan, the collapse of the local market in Bedford Falls allowed Henry Potter, who - as George correctly tells his frightened customers and neighbors and friends - wasn't panicking in the midst of a banking crisis, to take over the town He not only exploits the situation to his own advantage He converts a friendly, run-of-the-mill small town to the Las Vegas of the Finger Lakes. Potter is no dummy. Vice is the quickest, easiest, and most profitable business imaginable. Dance halls. Burlesque houses. Peep shows. On and on and on and on. We see Violet Bick, whose less than stellar virtue has already been demonstrated, not once but twice (she is, essentially, portrayed as a prostitute in an earlier scene; in the immediately previous set of scenes, she is heading out of town . . . because women had to leave if they were either pregnant, or involved in a scandal; personally, I think she probably got pregnant by some married dude and had an illegal abortion, but that's the romantic in me), being dragged to a paddy wagon, screeching like a harpy.

It occurred to me that the United States has become Pottersville. It's really that simple. Not only have the folk of Pottersville forgotten their history as the sleepy, pleasant community of Bedford Falls, their decade and a half as Pottersville (I usually put the community name-change at the point when the Building and Loan collapsed and Potter consolidated his hold on the town) has completely erased any vestige of personal or communal ethic from their lives. Even Mary, who is described as "an old maid" at, what, 35, doesn't react with any equanimity when George confronts her. That anyone like Mary could exist in a town like Pottersville - that it would even bother with a library - strains credulity. At the same time, the way the bad folk of Pottersville gather round to protect her as she faints over George's (largely unbelievable) entreaties is kind of a ridiculous display of false protectiveness. Which results in the kind of scene that, say, had George been African-American, would have ended up with him strung up from a tree.

Like the residents of Pottersville, the same Americans demand unfettered access to profit from individual and social weakness, promote a kind of collective ignorance and rapacious individualism that merely exists from one moment to the next without thought, and allies itself with a false virtue that protects largely symbolic innocents, all the while actively apathetic to the collective suffering that exists around them. Indeed, our major parties would much prefer we waste our energies protecting old maids who faint at the slightest provocation, while always reaching deep in to our pockets to shell out as much money as possible for the dance girls. That the same people can actually insist simultaneously that we need to be most concerned with some random matters of personal virtue all the while promoting a social, economic, and cultural milieu that seeks to profit from a variety of vices only shows how atrophied our collective moral imagination has become. Those who insist that things can be, or at least could be, otherwise are George Bailey - crazy, drunk, and refusing to believe that things are the way they really are.

Virtual Tin Cup

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