Saturday, November 13, 2010

George Bailey is Trapped

On Wednesday nights, I host a movie discussion group at Grace Church-on-the-Hill.  The current five-week series focuses on the question, "What is the meaning of life?"  We're watching five films that touch on the topic.

Last night, we watched It's a Wonderful Life.  More than a decade has passed since I last saw the film.  As I prepared for the night and discussed the movie with the group, I realized that Life is a very adult movie.  The week prior, we had watched The Truman Show.  There are some striking parallels between the movies, but in comparison Truman is a teenage movie.  Here's why.

George Bailey is trapped.

This isn't something that I could appreciate when I was in middle school.  Life  is about a man who is well and truly trapped in his life.  From the earliest of ages, he wanted to be an explorer.  He wanted to see the world and do great things.  Yet, at every turn, he is thwarted.

Right before going on an extended trip to Europe, his father dies.  He has to stay in Bedford Falls to settle his father's affairs.

Right before going to college (a few years late because he needed to save the money), he learns that they'll close down his father's Building and Loan if he doesn't stay.  He stays.

Four years later, when he has the opportunity to go to college again, his brother has gotten a great job in another city.  George feels compelled to let his brother out of the obligation to take over the Building and Loan.

Then, when the opportunity arises to get in on the "ground floor" of plastics, he falls in love and completely misses the opportunity.

On his wedding day, as he and his new wife Mary are about to leave the town, the stock market crashes, and he has to stay in the town to save his father's business.

Bedford Falls is George Bailey's prison.  He cannot escape.  His nemesis Mr. Potter tells George what we already knew: George Bailey hates his life, his job, and his crummy, little town.  All he ever wanted to do was get away, but he can't.

So, when Uncle Billy loses the Building and Loan's $8,000, we understand why George flies into a rage.  He is broken, gone.  The town that has consumed his life has finally consumed his soul.  There is no place else to turn, save the bridge where he will take his life.

And, then, happily, angelus ex machina.  It is the final 45 minutes of the movie that makes it a Christmas classic.  George finally realizes, after losing himself completely, that his life had meant something, that doing great things is not necessarily tied to travel, college, or exploration.  The movie was released in 1946, not very many years after the end of WWII.  It was a movie for people who stayed home from war.  The movie says that even those people are heroes.  It is their influence that shaped the lives of soldiers who saved lives.  Without them, the greatest war in the 20th century would have been lost.

But, why is it an adult movie?  It is an adult movie because it is about the webs of relationships in which we find ourselves enmeshed.  George at any point could have neglected his familial responsibilities and left, but he didn't.  He stayed, if unhappily.  The movie is about coming to terms with the demands of those relationships, accepting them, and, ultimately, finding that fulfilling these mundane responsibilities is meaningful: truly, a wonderful life.

And, it is an adult movie because it emphasizes that this is not easy. George Bailey is well and truly trapped.  He eventually copes (with Clarence's help) by putting aside the dreams of his youth.  He will never be an explorer.  He will never build great bridges and buildings.  But, he will wake up the next morning and sustain a beleaguered institution that helps marginalized people find their feet in the world.  That, the movie says, is greatness.

Truman is a teenage movie because it says that we can only find ourselves when we free ourselves from our attachments.  Life is an adult movie because it says that our identity is our attachments.  For Truman, I am who I am, and I come to myself when I put aside other attachments: "Follow your dreams."  For Life, I am who I am with these people and in this place.  I come to myself when I recognize the importance of those attachments: "Follow your responsibilities."

What would it look like to learn that in a scattered city like Toronto?  It might just look like the Church.

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