I like that Edward Winkleman’s blog is at times an unabashedly political blog from an art writer and at others an art blog from someone with strong political views. But we try to keep the Artists Unite site at least tangentially connected to art at all times. I am saying this, because I’m going to use some very old and probably very unlikely cinematic art as the art connection to the current political situation.
Wendy and I just spent a long weekend at a friend’s cabin in the woods, where the video (yes, video) collection hasn’t changed in quite a while. With the limited available choice, we got a jump on the season-that-gets-earlier-each-year and watched “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Frank Capra’s tale of the importance of every person’s contribution to the lives of those around him or her.
As I watched the film, I was reminded of the “values” argument that runs so popular in the media and allegedly in the conservative quarters of the U.S. It struck me that the “family values” embodied by the Bailey family–first George’s parents’ family, then his own, are what conservatives, neocons and other non-liberals are after. A kinder, gentler, purer, America; a return to the kind of America we used to know and love before “free love,” “free sex,” and “equal opportunity” a.k.a. integration changed it into a non-homogenous union of willing co-habitators under a pretty good constitution. I’d bet W. watches the flick at Xmas time, wouldn’t you? How interesting, though to look at what’s going on here (and in most of Capra’s films). The American hero: the everyman, the straight-shooter, the regular guy, is basically the communist in this film, creating a social pool of capital at virtually no profit to help the citizens buy homes, and in opposition to the corporate icon, Potter, who, left to his own devices, turns the town into a den of commercial shit (when George gets his “wish” that he was never born).
Capra, a Sicilian-born immigrant American, was certainly no stranger to political corruption. It is interesting that as an American artist he tooks such bold blows at the U.S. elite’s ideals. Self-proclaimed subjective British film biographer David Thompson says in his delightful reference, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (2002),
In America, I “discovered” the uneasy depths of It’s a Wonderful Life. I had seen the film in England, but I had not grasped it and it had not gripped me. But, in America…[it brought good cheer without letting us forget a vision of dread]… happiness here was pursued by the hounds of living hell; the American dream was so close to the nightmare. The film that failed in 1947 had become a token of uplifting fellowship, yet it was a film noir full of regret, self-pity, and the temptation of suicide…
I am thrilled at the U.S. mid-term election results, but I wish that every member of Congress would take a couple hours to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” for a little inspiration in what it means to be an everyman in America; and who the typical citizens are and how extremely basic are the needs they struggle to meet. (I am reminded of Bush senior’s trip to a grocery store when he marvelled at the check-out counter’s use of scanners–clearly demonstrating that he’d never had to shop for groceries in his life).
image: Potter (John Barrymore), “It’s A Wonderful Life”