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Holiday Kunstler

BKM

Cyburbian
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I thought this was very amusing. Note that there is no profanity (for once).

December 22, 2003
Frank Capra's 1946 movie It's a Wonderful Life has become the totemic American Christmas story over the last couple of decades. It was a box-office flop when it came out, but constant holiday-time TV exposure turned it into the classic it has now become. It has replaced Dicken's A Christmas Carol with an updated and more accessible American mythology. But it a close examination shows that it contains strange, paradoxical, and disturbing messages for our time.
The movie was made just after our nation's triumphal victory over manifest evil in World War Two, but it carries a heavy undertone of the Great Depression that preceeded the war. Indeed the story takes place from early in the 20th century to the middle of it and, in a way, can be viewed as a comprehensive social history of America's industrial high tide.
The greatly simplify it, the story concerns the denizens of Bedford Falls, New York, a provincial main street town, and one George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), who grows up to preside over a little Savings & Loan Association (a kind of bank that no longer exists thanks to the scandals of the 1980s). Over the years, George struggles with his family-owned bank, tries to help his neighbors, raises a family with wife Mary (Donna Reed), and eventually endures a great personal crisis of conscience and self-worth, from which he is rescued by an angel. In the end, the world is made right and Christmas carols ring out as the credits roll.
Oddly, George Bailey's greatest accomplishment in the movie is shown to be the development of Bedford Falls' first suburb, Bailey Park, with a scene of much patriotic hoopla when the first unit is sold to the owner of a local restaurant, Mr. Martini, an immigrant. I say odd because of how innocently clueless our collective imagination was about the consequences of that seemingly benign transaction. Like vicious nano-bots, the little units of suburban America metastisized over the following fifty years to consume and defeat all the small towns like Bedford Falls in America, and all the rich local social and economic networks that the movie celebrates, including George's bank and Mr. Martini's family-owned restaurant.

Along similar lines is the sequence in which George Bailey is shown, by the angel who saves him from a suicide attempt, how Bedford Falls would have turned out if George had never been born. The town is renamed Pottersville, after the movie's villain, a greedy rival banker played by Lionel Barrymore. How striking and odd, though, what a wonderful town Pottersville actually appears to be, compared to the real horror of what happened to American towns in the late 20th century. In fact, Pottersville looks like the kind of tourist town that demoralized suburbanites now flock to for country weekends. Standing on Pottersville's lively Main Street, George sees the sidewalks full of people. Some of them are carousing drunks. Some of the businesses are gin-mills, with hints of prostitution and all the other usual quaint human vices of an earlier day (including many that are now part of mainstream American culture). But the catch is that Pottersville is actually portrayed as a town brimming with life and activity! Only the content is considered bad -- too many gin mills and loose women, not enough soda fountains. As we really know, the many Bedford Falls of our nation have uniformly become hollowed-out ghost towns with no life and no activity. And the George Baileys of our world went on to become the WalMart moguls and real estate tycoons who sold out their towns and ultimately destroyed them.
So, it really provokes me to wonder what Americans are thinking when they see this beautifully-crafted but deeply paradoxical movie. Do we notice what it is we really have lost? And how insidious the process was?
 

Chet

Cyburbian Emeritus
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MOD HAT ON: In the future try to link to the Big K and not copy his work please.

MOD HAT OFF: Thanks. I feel like a more clean human now.
 

Seabishop

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So it was Martini who turned our country into a "clusterf&*% national automobile slum, drive-thru utopia of clowns?" Gee, thanks a lot buddy! ;)
 

martini

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surprisingly enough, I'm not related to him! Though I have worked in several restraunts over the years...

Crap, am I gonna hve to defend my charachter over this? :)
 

Gedunker

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I think Kunstler has over-simplified the film, which because of its necessarily limited running time, can't explain all things satisfactorily.

For example, Bailey Park is never shown in relationship to the town. A suburb? Quite possibly, but in the life where George was never born, it becomes the paupers graveyard. A pretty low-end use for ground supposedly not proximate to the city center. Also, George's high school buddy Sam Wainwright (hoo haw) is persuaded by George to reuse a closed up Bedford Falls factory "that put all those folks out of work" for a plastics manufacturer. Kunstler ignores this nugget. Sounds like George is a redevelopment planner, eh? Finally, to suggest that "gin mills and prostitution" constitute a vital, thriving town center is just ridiculous. Note that the only change (aside from land use and street life) in Bedford Falls is the neon signage run amok in downtown -- the architecture is totally unchanged. (Oh, and the cop shoots at George in the alternate Potterville. I can't imagine that in George's BF.)

Cities are organic entities -- they are born, they grow, they age and some even die. Was Bailey Park the first step down a slippery slope to the death of Bedford Falls, as Kunstler claims, or was it the rational smart growth so many adore today? We'll never know. The film doesn't tell us.

Rem said:
I wonder if Mr Martini is related to our Martini?
You beat me to it Rem! :-D
 

NHPlanner

A shadow of my former self
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Am I un-american for never having watched or not having any desire to ever watch this movie?
 

Zoning Goddess

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Please also note that George and Mary buy and renovate an enormous older home in Bedford Falls, and raise their family there.
 
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NHPlanner said:
Am I un-american for never having watched or not having any desire to ever watch this movie?
You and me both! I have never seen this movie and there's no sense in breaking tradition now by attempting to watch it.
 

Gedunker

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Zoning Goddess said:
Please also note that George and Mary buy and renovate an enormous older home in Bedford Falls, and raise their family there.
I thought about that right after I posted and meant to come back to edit it. You are absolutely right, Goddess, as goddesses tend to be.
 

donk

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Planderella said:
You and me both! I have never seen this movie and there's no sense in breaking tradition now by attempting to watch it.
Add me to the list. Only thing that makes me consider watching it is to better understand some scense from Red Dwarf, and other pop culture references to it.
 

donk

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Rumpy Tunanator said:
Are you talking about the British Scificomedy Red Dwarf?
Actually the books it is based on, specifically backwards.
 

Tranplanner

maudit anglais
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I've seen bits and pieces of the film, but not the whole thing. Everytime I hear that little girl go "everytime a bell rings and angel gets his wings" I cringe.

Gimme "A Christmas Carol" (Alastair Sims version) anytime.
 

BKM

Cyburbian
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MOD HAT ON: In the future try to link to the Big K and not copy his work please.
Sorry, I guess direct linking is "better" than copy-and-paste.

Link etiquette question: Is this true even for copy-and-paste with a direct reference in the post to the source?
 

el Guapo

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In defense of saccharine

I liked the movie the first time I saw it.
I still like the movie, about 10 times later.
I like the story of a romance without an ex-MTV video director's debasement of innocence.
I like sweetness and wholsomeness. We spend to much time being jadded because only simpletons fall for that kind of thing. It's peer-pressure still kid. When are we going to say "I don't want to hang with the cool kids, I want to do something uncool."
I like the fact that good and evil were clearly defined for the masses that would view it.
I like the idea of a kind and gentle man winning a long struggle.
I like the idea of people being able to work towards their common good.
I like the idea that people can learn from their failures and eventually succeed after some hard work

I think HK missed the fact that there was a severe shortage of housing in this country in that pseudo-cinematic time period. You and I watch the movie outside of its original context. Things were different then. Just being happy for an immigrant who succeeded in American was a radical social departure from the mainstream of Hollywood plot lines. He was just barely acceptable to the cinema- go'er as an Italian. Imagine if the had been Mexican or African American. What a shocker that would have been.

Kunstler - gets this one wrong.
(sorry fellow ranter)
 

donk

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One other item, Its a Wonderful Life was used in the Hebrew Hammer as a tool to brainwash poor little kids.
 

Cardinal

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Tranplanner said:
I've seen bits and pieces of the film, but not the whole thing. Everytime I hear that little girl go "everytime a bell rings and angel gets his wings" I cringe.

Gimme "A Christmas Carol" (Alastair Sims version) anytime.
[ot]This is the perfect subject for a holiday poll: a match between "A Christmas Carol" and "It's A Wonderful Life." My vote goes to Scrooge (Alistair Sim, of course).[/ot]
 

Super Amputee Cat

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I have to agree with Kunstler that the bizarro-Bedford Falls wasn't that bad at all, when compared to the alternative that would most likely prevail today: A boarded up and vacant downtown.

As a preservationist, I would see value in the 1940s redesign of the town, neon lights and all. Plus, it did look like all the original architecture was intact beneath all those glimmering lights.

Furthermore, the depictions of Potterville, perhaps shocking in their time - have been dulled by over almost 60 years of ever-increasing moral depravity in this MTV/Reality TV/Wal-Mart addled culture of intellectual bankruptcy. Potterville, is certainly a far more innocent place than any postwar shopping mall could ever hope to be.
 
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BKM said:
Sorry, I guess direct linking is "better" than copy-and-paste.

Link etiquette question: Is this true even for copy-and-paste with a direct reference in the post to the source?
BKM, it is not a matter of etiquette. It is a matter of copyright violation. It can be serious, but, most of the time, it gets no one in trouble. The etiquette part is the amount of bandwidth it burns to quote at length if linking is available.

I liked the movie if only because it is a pre-cursor to the Star Trek universe tradition of exploring alternate time-lines, alternate outcomes if you could change one thing, etc. I think such mental models are useful for developing good ways to think about the potential results of different choices available to one when making a decision. I think the ideal is to be able to mentally explore the future outcomes of various possibilities so one doesn't wind up doing something they seriously regret.

El Guapo is right about Kunstler taking it so out of context. I have seen some Depression-Era films and they are all incredibly depressing with bummer endings. I would also like to add that one of the big points from the film is that George's S&L is a grass-roots organization that is community-based and everyone has buy-in. This fact is what saves his bacon. The reason he wishes he had never been born is because he loses a very large sum of money and feels he will be ruined, the S&L will be ruined etc. All of the members of the organization take up a collection to replace the lost money.
 
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