Wednesday, December 24, 2003

It's the film, stupid

I bought a DVD player in December 1998--hard to believe it has been five years--and a 5.1 surround sound system and flat screen television followed in the next couple years. Gradually I became much more particular about viewing conditions. I wouldn't watch a film, be it on DVD, VHS, or television, if it wasn't presented in the proper aspect ratio. In fact, I practically dropped watching movies on pre-recorded VHS at all because the image quality didn't match DVD. I've since come back around to the format as long as the aspect ratio is correct, in large part because there are still many films unavailable on DVD.

While I don't have the most expensive or most elaborate home theater--in the opinion of some on home theater message boards, I don't have one, considering I own a 27" television--I am relatively satisfied with my set-up. The down side is that it can make seeing things elsewhere on home video a challenge. Take, for instance, watching movies at my parents' home. There it isn't so much a matter of equipment, although that can factor into it, but the environment. Trying to find a quiet moment around the house during the holidays is pretty rare, and even if everyone is sitting down to watch something, it is inevitable that some are going to want to ask questions or carry on discussions as the movie plays.

With mom in the kitchen and everyone else out of the house for a bit, I thought I might be able to watch IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE without too many distractions or interruptions. As you know, even the best laid plans don't always work to perfection. It wasn't the ideal viewing situation--people coming and going, a ringing telephone, etc.--but in the end, if the film is good enough, all will be fine. (OK, that's not completely true. If I had been watching GERRY, the racket would have ruined the mood that film creates. Hey, I'm trying to be magnanimous.)

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (Frank Capra, 1946) (DVD, 12/24/03) Grade: A

Hollywood probably can't, or won't, make a movie like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE anymore. Everyone remembers the sections in which Jimmy Stewart is distraught and the angel Clarence comes to help him. These scenes are so embedded in popular culture that I knew these parts reasonably well and hadn't seen the film before. Yet what makes the film work is the extensive establishment of Stewart's George Bailey. Most modern day studio pictures don't devote a lot of time to character development, but the reason why the latter part of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE resonates is due to the deep sense we have of Bailey's humanity.

Ever the populist, Frank Capra paints a portrait of a small town man whose selfless commitment to the community makes him one of the most beloved people in Bedford Falls. Yet Capra is also quick to point out that George has experienced his share of disappointments. Every time he has been on the verge of finally leaving Bedford Falls, whether for Europe, the big city, or college, something happens that requires him to stay. The floor gets pulled out from under him, but George just keeps on dancing, something Capra illustrates during the party scene when the floor over the pool is opened while a dance contest is in full swing. George isn't a saint, just a regular guy who does what he knows to be the right thing.

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE reinforces its title without resorting to cheap Hollywood devices or sentiment. In the end, George is able to understand that he has had an enormous impact where he lives, possibly more than he could have had if he had become an architect in New York City. One senses that somehow George will scrape by, that life won't get any easier for him. Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) won't have a change of heart, and the Bailey Building & Loan won't be highly profitable. Those twists would be the easy way out, a direction Capra never takes. No, like the wide audience Capra was addressing, George will have to work hard to keep his head above water, but he'll be rich beyond words because of his friends and family. That's a sentiment worth remembering, whether at Christmas or any other time.

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