Saturday, June 17, 2006

Inspiration (AFI's, Not William Hung's)

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - This is probably a bit late, since it was on Wednesday that the American Film Institute had yet another one of their overblown "100 Years...100..." whatever specials. But I rather wanted to say something about this most recent countdown of theirs, even though I technically didn't watch any of it.

This time, the topic was "inspirational films" and---surprise surprise---Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life emerged at the top of the heap. I haven't yet examined the rest of the list in depth to say anything else about it, but I can definitely see why the AFI would consider Capra's holiday classic the most inspirational American film ever made.

Heck, I'll admit it: it moved me the first time I saw it a couple of years ago. But then, I think I was in my "dark" phase when I first caught the film during Christmastime on TV, when I was dwelling on how much of a wuss I was for allowing my mother to push me (however unwittingly) into the accounting field. Call it over-identifying with a fictional character, but I couldn't help but sympathize deeply with George Bailey's yearning to do all the ambitious things he wanted to do when he was younger---travel all over the world, start some kind of business, etc. But everyone depended on him in Bedford Falls, and so he never felt he could leave. Personally, I was taken with George's plight because I saw it as a yearning to escape from a mundane existence---something that I was obsessed with when I was thinking hard about what direction I was headed in college and beyond.

Because I looked at the film in that very personal way, perhaps I should have logically cried "bullshit" at the Capra-corny uplifting ending, which affirms George's mundane, unspectacular existence by emphasizing his importance in the eyes of everyone else in Bedford Falls. That's not really the message I was looking for, especially after seeing Kanji Watanabe rise up against the prospect of dying an insignificant old lifelong bureaucrat by doing one final noble deed in Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (the most inspirational movie I've ever seen), and also after seeing Jack Nicholson's Warren Schmidt break down at the end of Alexander Payne's About Schmidt (which, I think, has a mild kinship with Ikiru) after realizing an African kid whom he's never met is the only one who takes him seriously. (I was moved to tears by the end of both films.) Compared to those conclusions, the ending of It's a Wonderful Life doesn't really solve anything if you think about it---by the end, George Bailey still hasn't traveled the world. Who knows? Maybe in a few weeks he'll become depressed all over again thinking of what he could have done if he could have somehow left Bedford Falls.

And can you resist Clarence's final, immortal "No man is a failure who has friends"? I'd certainly like to believe it. Granted, Capra builds up to this conclusion by basically rigging it, creating his own unmistakable fantasy Americana, in which everyone in town depends on this one man to handle their finances and stuff. That was pretty much always Capra's way. But only a hard cynic would allow that to deter them from going along with the emotional ride It's a Wonderful Life skillfully and passionately provides. Any reservations will only register afterward, when you think closely about the implications of the film---if, of course, you're not still high on the emotional uplift provided by its ending.


New Pulse article published yesterday (Friday)! This one compares Stanley Kubrick's two war films, Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket. In it, I find Paths of Glory the better film (for me, it's no contest---unless future viewings of Full Metal Jacket convince me otherwise, especially regarding its scattered second half, after Vincent D'Onofrio's Gomer Pyle shoots himself), although both films are worth seeing. Even Kubrick at less than his best is still worth engaging intellectually.

The Pulse editor even added a tagline to the end of this recent article, noting that I'm a "film enthusiast." That I am, although I was surprised she actually decided to use those words at all.

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