top of page

How It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol really work

Wednesday 12/25/19

How very different Christmas morning is right now than in many years past. It is six in the morning now, and I have been working since four. I am, of course, alone today, as I am every day. I was invited to a Christmas Eve party last night--it's the one thing I am invited to each year--but I could not go. I would not be able to face people, the level of conversation, what people would say to me. I wish I could go and be with my people--Aristotle, Keats, Picasso--and debate and share and regale and listen--but obviously I cannot do that. You want to be stupid in this world. You want to be mediocre. You don't have to worry that if you are stupid or mediocre you will not be provided for. You can make a fortune being stupid and mediocre--look at Skip Bayless and David Sedaris--and I am terrified that you have to be stupid and mediocre to get people in any real numbers to come to you. People think it would be awesome to be a genius, but the way it has played out for me, as someone quite beyond that, is like the worst curse conceivable. Thus far. Were life to become a complete 180, my attitude to that genius could also do a 180, but that's hard to even begin to imagine right now.

I looked at Twitter yesterday and saw that people were upset--"furious" was the word Twitter used--that Patrick Kane was not included in some list of the ten best NHL'ers of the last decade. One person posted that his omission was worse than shooting up a school. How evil must you be to post this? Then, of course, dozens of people hit the like button.

Says most of what you need to know about our rancid world.

It's a Wonderful Life aired last night. You are a very stupid, sexist person--or a very stupid, seemingly sexist person, hopping on board with the mindless stances and poses of our times--if you think the film is sexist because Mary, in the no-George Bailey-alternate reality sequence, is a librarian. The film passes no judgment on her as a librarian. A crazed man shows up outside of her work, at night--and Bailey looks to be pure crazed at this point--and insists that he knows her, violates her personal space, says her name repeatedly. He's scary. Mary is young, she may be...who knows. She might be depressed. She might be about to meet the love of her life--someone else--in six months. We don't know. Connection is rare in this world. People are with people are they not connected to. They are with the people they are with. It could have been 250,000 other people, for most people, they could have been with. So, yes, if you don't meet your person, if you are a rare person, or if you sabotage what you have with your person, you can be broken. If she is even broken, and we have no reason to think that. None at all. Or how about this: let's say you're a brilliant, talented, giving person, an introspective person, but there are not many people like you. You know no one like you. Consequently, you feel alone, trust is hard. And let's say you meet someone who shares those characteristics, maybe even possesses them in greater range and depth. Maybe they help you pull out what is inside of you; help you become you, you as you are. And that's how you grow, in part, how you face the world, feel it, experience it, meet it. And say this person never had that person. That's what Capra--who is exponentially smarter than the people who make this idiotic we-got-even-more-sexism! argument--is playing off of. Not "men are bad, women don't need men, Mary is a boss, all men are sexist, patriarchy patriarchy patriarchy."

How stupid do we need to be? See what i just said? See how simple and logical that was? It's not "Oh, it's time to be the mega-genius." It's basic. Simple. Rational. That's all. Not having your head up your ass.

The two best Christmas stories--or two of the best, certainly--are It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol, and they have special ways that allow them to work as well as they do. In It's a Wonderful Life, that's the the ferocity of George Bailey's despair. Pain. Both works are about death. It's a Wonderful Life, more than anything, is a film about a pain so intense, a man becomes suicidal. What Capra said to James Stewart was that he had to make the pain believable. People don't notice this, but I want you to think about it: This is a man so destroyed, that on Christmas Eve, in his house, he wishes that his children had never been born. He says it aloud. For everyone to hear. He's not a bad man. For you to get to that point, to have that torture in your breast, that those are your words...I mean, Jesus H. Christ. Who the fuck says that? It's shocking. SHOCKING. Shocking. But, entirely believable.

He expresses the thought during one of the best extended sequences in all of cinema, and certainly the best use of diegetic sound, which is sound that is not from the music soundtrack, but which originates organically from the picture. So, if we're at a bar, and someone presses play on the jukebox. That would be diegetic sound. For this sequence, it takes the form of Janie playing--over and over and over again--what Bailey refers to as a "tune"--"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"--on the piano. She plays it like thirty times. As he comes completely apart. The word choice of "tune" is to illustrate the secular corruption of the sacred. He's cheapening the sacred. I'm not talking God stuff, I'm talking how this is a kind of pun, a play on ideas, of deterioration. The piano has to be persistent, it can't be accomplished, but it can't be super grating--for us--because it's going to play consecutively--the same notes, again and again--for several minutes. It's like a timer, counting the seconds of the breakdown. Or a backing track for the breakdown. It also ratchets up the tension--of someone about to snap, then, having snapped, extending the snap. And Stewart is terrifying. He even scares his brave, courageous, strong wife. When he leaves that house--after expressing his contrition--you have no doubt--it's not some tarted up drama--that this is a man who has reached that point where he can end his life.

A somewhat less desperate version of this man--but a jaded, frightened, and haunted one--is the man who will come upon Mary as she leaves the library. In a short scene. So yeah, not knowing what her life is like, not knowing what her own experiences may have been, perhaps her own trauma, perhaps what was not there to help her actualize who she was, or God knows what--maybe she just realized she was a lesbian and doesn't know how to tell her parents; who the fuck knows--and with this scary guy leaping out of the dark, she seems meek-ish. Hell, it's a good time to blow the rape whistle if you have one. Do you see the look in his eyes? It's terror. And desperation. It's probably the same look I have in my eyes when I sit in a church, alone, and literally ask God out loud what the fuck he wants from me, why did you give me this ability to leave me in this position?

Side note: I am a little bit in love with Mary in this picture. She's strong, she has character, she has ingenuity, a sense of purpose, she thinks creatively, and she's smoking hot.

The other big device in It's a Wonderful Life is how everything is used one way, then returns another. You can think of it like the resolution of a chord. Bailey steals Sam Wainwright's girl. They practically start humping while they are on the phone with him, which is as erotically-charged a scene as you will see in the movies, and it's just two people on an old-fashioned phone in a parlor. Clothes on--it's not like Hitachis are scattered hither and yon and a fresh set of anal plugs piled beneath some rigging. But note how intensely sexual the scene is.

The "he-haw" thing becomes a riff. Sam speaking through distance--either via phone, or telegram--becomes a riff. A riff picked up elsewhere. Mary loves George, Sam doesn't get the girl--not that girl--and Sam remains a friend, bails out George later. That's why we love this film. Because that is life. That is someone electing to do the right thing--something we do less and less of--and adjusting to life. Not screaming moronic Woke shit, not screaming moronic victim shit. But rather dealing in reality.

Think of reality as your boss, your employer. The rule-maker. You react to the boss. You might find creative solutions that make everything awesome for you, that make you and the boss almost partners. You can have a wonderful--ah--symbiotic existence. But reality is the boss. The women who want you to call them a boss lady and self-bill as such? No. You're not the boss. Reality is.

You can say whatever stupid shit, and right now, life is a case of say the stupid shit, get other people to say stupid shit, and it's as though you can beat reality into submission to your insecurities, your lack of fight, your cowardice, your indolence, your galling entitlement crossed with your devouring weakness. But reality doesn't submit, it doesn't go away. So we end up with this freakoid, abomination of a culture with reality being there, as people try to destroy this thing they can't destroy, which comes down to trying to drape a tarp over the thing that is always there, which burns through the tarp, only to have people try to drop more tarps.

You can't have all of that coexist. The attempted forced coexistence makes matters worse. There is your death of culture and society. When people say, "These are insane, embarrassing, fucked up, twisted times we live in," after they're read some story or post about the latest virtue signaling, or how it's wrong to say that someone looks good after they worked to lose weight (because apparently fitness is now wrong, and exercise is wrong, and getting your ass off your couch is wrong, and health is wrong), that's what they're referring to.

So we come to A Christmas Carol. This morning I listened to the 1938 version with Orson Welles, who, in this iteration, is both narrator and Scrooge. Lionel Barrymore--Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life--was not available in '38, but would be the next year, and worked with Welles then. I prefer the non-Barrymore version. There are some ineffectual moments--the last ghost, in the last moment, has to be more discordantly frightening--but Welles is excellent in both roles. Note his energy. Do you hear it? Feel it? He's a sun of sound. Do you get the huge ass vibe of energy coming off of him? Realize, too, how hard it was to make a performance like this. They're not doing multiple takes, dropping in overdubs later. He's going from narrator to Scrooge to narrator to Scrooge, "live." His bit of preamble, too, is vital knowledge, well-shared. People should listen to what he has to say there. People in 2019 should really listen to it.

But here is how Dickens got A Christmas Carol to work, and I've written about this before, and will again: Scrooge isn't that bad. In the first place. What makes him so bad? He doesn't want to pay his employee for not working. Okay, he's a bit of a dick. Most people are far more than a bit of a dick. He's exacting. He's focused. He wants to make money. What? You think most people would turn down more money if it gave them more time to read Descartes and listen to Billie Holiday? Most people possess far greater degrees of cupidity than Scrooge. Okay, swap out possessions, sometimes, for social media points. Or, even better, swap out both for attention.

People want attention far more than Scrooge wanted fresh funds. He doesn't give money to charity, and that's this big knock on him. Do you give money to charity? I'm not talking if you drop a check in the mail each year to your dear old Ivy League alma mater who doesn't need your fucking money. Your alma mater needs a cull of all of the pretentious, lazy, arrogant instructors who were there when you were, before you were, and will be there until their system, which is dying, is completely eradicated. Which is self-eradicating because of those people, though they are too stupid to realize it. And too arrogant. But that's not charity.

Dickens knew what he was doing. Like A Hard Day's Night, like Chads Say What, A Christmas Carol is a perfect work of art. Those three works--and yes, I know, I wrote one of them, but read it when it comes out, and judge for yourself--have so much in common. A Christmas Carol and Chads are both good at setting you up. They don't lie to you, but they present something in a way that makes you draw conclusions (early on--which is to say, initially, over the first few pages). Which is your deal. They both know the conclusions you will draw. In Dickens' case, the conclusion is that Scrooge is a mega-dick. In the case of Chads Say What, the (initial) conclusion is that meatheads--jocks, bros, use whatever term you wish--are very far removed as people from who we think we are, and deserve our scorn, whereas the opposite is true for us. And we're both setting you the fuck up, to make a point later, and it's a gentle point, a loving point, a point of friendship, a point of connection. It's not a point of "suck it! You were wrong!" These are loving works. More than anything, they are loving works. They help us love, they love us, they, too, can be loved.

These are Scrooge's sins, as such. Oh--and he doesn't commemorate the death of his partner. Well--who knows what the fuck their relationship was like? Or maybe they were close, and Scrooge is depressed and can't handle his grief; maybe that's why the sign with Marley's name on it remains above the door. We don't know. Or he could just be an asshole. Maybe not fundamentally an asshole; maybe someone who became one because of life. An experiental asshole. Here's another thing--we think of him as really old. Quick, off the top of your head, how old do you peg--not an asshole reference--Scrooge as? I bet you said seventies. He's somewhere in his fifties. He's prematurely old. I know people who are thirty who might as well be seventy-eight,. I would have said 108, but to get to be really old, I think you have to be really young, if you know what I mean, in some ways. I could get to 108, if I don't kill myself and this ever turns and works out, because I am very young and always will be; even if I possess an ageless wisdom. A wisdom older than all of the sands.

Dickens has created a character--as I have with Chad--who, at first glance, seems very far removed from us--very far indeed! But he's not. He's hidden in plain view--that he's us. And through the genius prose, the genius stories, the genius scenes, the "us" emerges, naturally, organically. And you think anyone with this MFA backwash shit they squirt out over four years with one shitty story does anything like this? Come on. When Scrooge reverses--and it doesn't take long--we believe the reversal, because he was only ever five miles away, not 5 million. Get it? That's the entire fucking swing-point of the work. That's why it works, just like It's a Wonderful Life works because of the real rage and terror and pain. You can watch a million crappy mob pictures that you're told, by simpletons, are masterpieces, which really all just fucking suck, and are an excuse to show people shot in the head, because that's a real level of fantasy for some people--sick fuckers--and you will never see someone as enraged--for it is the rage of despair--as Stewart is during the extended "Hark! The Herald Angels" scene. In fact, if this were made today, millions of people would be on Twitter bitching about it, and there would be a cancelitsawonderfullife hashtag.

bottom of page