Christmas is almost here so it’s time for me to reaffirm my love for It’s a Wonderful Life, the most unlikely holiday classic (I’m hoping that the Fox News folks have a google alert for any time the word holiday is used, so they can excoriate my blog on one of their shows; I need the traffic). As you know from my previous review, I think It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the darkest classic Hollywood films; thus its current status as the preeminent feel-good holiday movie baffles me. Rereading my initial review, however, I have a bone to pick with me from four years ago, regarding my take on the ending (Christ, I’ve been doing this blog shit that long? Time to throw in the fucking towel already). Though I didn’t expound on the climax in my otherwise glowing review of the film, I did toss off a few bon mots on its cloying nature.
With the benefit of hindsight I can see that my initial take was mostly the result of writing inexperience. I had a very specific point I wanted to get across—It’s a Wonderful Life is dark as fuck (which, for what it’s worth, I still mostly believe)—and I tried to mold the movie I was reviewing to fit that idea. Anything within the movie that seemed to negate my point I simply disregarded with a rhetorical wave of the hand. That’s not how you write. If a piece of seemingly contradictory information rears its annoying head, you gotta confront that shit head-fucking-on, figure out its deal. It’s the shit that doesn’t comport with your viewpoint that you gotta focus on; that’s where the interesting happens. But back then instead of intellectually stimulating me, this kind of contradictory shit left me a deer in headlights.
Of course, writing inexperience/laziness wasn’t completely to blame; I also wanted to protect my rep as a champion of difficult art. I couldn’t give a sincere defense of such a happy ending. Endings should be joy vacuums, man, all hope gone (lighting my cigarette, looking at the nearest reflective surface to make sure my goth makeup hasn’t run and that I cast a sufficiently moody glare); It’s a Wonderful Life ends happy? Fuck happy. But I’m not that person anymore. At least not completely. Hell, even though I disregarded the supposedly schmaltzy ending in my original piece I did acknowledge that it made me cry. If this ending was just tacked-on cheap sentiment, it certainly shouldn’t affect me. But it does every time. Something about it must work.
Let’s examine my criteria for a good ending. For a finale to work, it has to feel earned, it has to seem of a piece—stylistically, tonally, thematically—with the rest of the film; it has to unfold naturally. An incongruous dark ending tacked on to a mediocre film to convey artistic street cred can be every bit as, if not more, annoying as artificial sentimentality. And my barometer for the earnedness of an ending is not so much analytical as intuitive: did the ending move me; did it create any sort of emotional response other than annoyance? Crying = emotional response. So, since It’s a Wonderful Life’s climax does move me, I gotta work back and figure out why that is. I mean, my bawling response does seem paradoxical. I just wrote that an ending has to feel of a piece with the rest of the movie and Capra's film ends far happier than the first 120 or so noirish minutes would seem to portend.
First of all, ok, I’ll admit that the film isn’t as dark as I’ve implied; as in life, there are plenty of happy as well as sad moments. As the film progresses, however, the sad moments, accumulating at an ever-increasing pace, begin to outweigh the happy moments. The ending works because George Bailey’s descent from wide-eyed dreaming to hum-drum mediocrity to accidental criminality to suicidal despair is so unrelenting, and progresses (regresses) so believably, with such force that the eventual release from this dread is the best kind of catharsis. And because some occasional happy litters the earlier scenes, the over-the-top happy of the climax isn’t from left-field, tone-wise.
Furthermore, the ending works on a strictly technical level in that nearly every scene until the “no man is a failure who has friends” finale sets up the ending: the collective reciprocity for all the do-goodism George Bailey achieved throughout the preceding scenes. We believe that the townspeople’s feelings for George Bailey are sincere because we witnessed George’s backbreaking efforts to help every single one of them earlier. (Which, as I said in my previous piece, the real message of the movie is that loner shut-ins should definitely kill themselves; their lives aren’t affecting anyone.)
More than anything, however, the ending works because it’s sincere; it comes from a real place. To understand just how important sincerity is, look at Super 8 (I just watched it, so I've got it on the brain). Now, I feel like a dick shitting on this film because I did enjoy it. Well, I’m not really shitting on it—or at least I hope I’m not—so much as I’m pointing out some…now, I don’t wanna say problems, because the movie’s impeccably constructed and conceived but…ok, I’m rambling—get on with it. Super 8’s ending left me cold both despite and because everything about the movie was so technically correct. Super 8 was so meticulously constructed to elicit the greatest degree of 80s Spielberg nostalgia (as much as I love lens flare, there is such a thing as too much), it was hard to find a voice, to view the movie as anything other than an exercise in stylistic homage. There was no spontaneity; every beat had to happen. And so, though Super 8’s finale did fit every other criterion for an earned ending, it was lacking the one key component that ties everything together: sincerity. Because everything about the movie feels so pre-ordained, it’s hard to form an emotional bond with it. (Unlike say Attack the Block, which used Spielberg nostalgia as a jumping-off point, then veered into surprising territory. Attack the Block’s ending was cathartic because the movie felt sincere; it was trying to say something other than I Heart Spielberg.)
Which brings us back to It’s a Wonderful Life, a movie that worked, more than anything, because Capra was trying to express a genuine emotion; he had a sincere point of view. Now sincerity doesn’t always beget quality, but it sure helps if the creator fucking means it. Capra made this movie like it had to fucking happen, his passion informing every fucking frame. Because if you're not gonna create art like you fucking mean it, what's the point?