Thursday, January 20, 2011

It's a Wonderful Life

Christmas. 'Tis the season to be jolly? Sing we joyous all together? I think most of us know it is a more complicated and fragile celebration than the Yuletide carol Deck the Hallssuggests. I doubt I'm the only one to sense a deep melancholy coursing through our lives at this time of year. As if something about the season's inclusive, loving, giving, family-and-friends ethos leads one back to aloneness and the meaning of who you are in order to partake of any true unity - if you're lucky, and wise enough, to be able to partake at all.

Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946), arguably the greatest and most loved Christmas movie of all time, is soaked in this sensibility. For anyone who needs reminding, it features Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a man at the end of his tether financially, wishing he'd never been born and about to commit suicide.

The wish is granted as an angel takes him back through his home town of Bedford Falls to witness how things have turned out now his life has been erased. Bailey sees the missed chances for hope and for good, the suffering and disillusionment that have bloomed, how every action is a flicker in the firmament of change.

Of course, he wants to live again. This wish, too, is granted, and the ''real'' world turns one more revolution in his favour. Redeemed.

I must have seen this film a dozen times over the years and I still find myself moved by it. It's odd to think that the subject of a man's suicide has been staple family viewing at Christmas for the past 60 years or so. But Capra's silvery cinematography makes us feel it is all a beautiful wintry dream: another time, another place.

Time has only enhanced this snow-dome feeling. But how awful to be shut out from Bedford Falls and disbelieve in its virtues, this fairy tale place planted inside us with Jimmy Stewart as our would-be Holy Ghost.

Maybe I am just a corny guy in saying all that. The sustained appeal of It's a Wonderful Life indicates I'm not the only one. Fairly obviously, Christmas is the time when redemption stories should hit home. Particularly tales of impoverishment and humility and possibility: Christ being born in a stable, a carpenter and his wife and the animals gathered around the manger, the Star of Bethlehem rising above, the three wise men who've followed it across the desert. That's a pretty good story to imagine whether you believe in it or not. It glows.

We've drifted a long way from that spiritual starlight to the way Christmas is today. The massive feeding frenzy whipped up by advertising, the clamour for things, the pressure. But the day itself - and the eve before - still survive as our most potent act of communal feeling.

Your place might look like Santa Claus meets Las Vegas, or have a simple tree with a few lights and a star on top, or just make do with a bit of tinsel strung between the beer bottles. Maybe not even that. But its presence is there around you in the world anyway, much of it hollowed out, some of it overwhelmingly true.

Children don't need this existential shadow. But even they get inklings of it in the messages of charity the season carries for those less fortunate. It often emerges in the programs they watch, too.

The Little Drummer Boy deals with a child who has no present for the baby Jesus. A Charlie Brown Christmas Special (1965), which basically deals with depression and the commercialisation of the day, remains one of the most successful television specials ever made.

These classic examples seem reliable indicators of the season's eternal moodiness. Christmas is the land of the television repeat, if nothing else. Time and again kids encounter the power of imperilled dreams that such shows evoke.

An equally classic antidote, perhaps, would be to shut up and put on Gene Autry singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town andRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Those songs still sound great.

Later on, when the kids are in bed, you can watch Bad Santa or even the latest jet-set series of Entourage. Why weigh yourself down with introspection? But in the nights before, and especially on Christmas Eve itself, your thoughts may drift to those who are missing their loved ones, those who are feeling financial pressures and the stress of a busy month, or even just people experiencing some kinda blues they can't put a finger on - probably because you know a few of these feelings yourself.

Then try playing Paul Kelly's How to Make Gravy or Tom Waits singing Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis, or even Judy Garland doing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, a song that used to make soldiers weep for their families during World War II. Stop and listen to a clumsy street choir doing Silent Night and marvel at its deeply reflective intensities. Or tune into a modern equivalent such as Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, most likely heard via Jeff Buckley's forever-young and yearning voice coming out of your radio.

Yeah, listen to it and sing along to ''the blaze of light in every word/It doesn't matter which you've heard/The holy or the broken Hallelujah''.

- Mark Mordue

* First published in The Age Opinion pages on December 22nd, 2010