Saturday, December 20, 2008

The sociopath perspective

If you want a less sentimental take on "It's a Wonderful Life," (and why wouldn't you?) the New York Times obliges in this story by one Mr. Wendell Jamieson:

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.

The movie starts sappily enough... Soon enough, though, the darkness sets in. George’s brother, Harry (Todd Karns), almost drowns in a childhood accident; Mr. Gower, a pharmacist, nearly poisons a sick child; and then George, a head taller than everyone else, becomes the pathetic older sibling creepily hanging around Harry’s high school graduation party. That night George humiliates his future wife, Mary (Donna Reed), by forcing her to hide behind a bush naked, and the evening ends with his father’s sudden death.

Disappointments pile up. George can’t go to college because of his obligation to run the Bailey Building and Loan, and instead sends Harry. But Harry returns a slick, self-obsessed jerk, cannily getting out of his responsibility to help with the family business, by marrying a woman whose dad gives him a job. George again treats Mary cruelly, this time by chewing her out and bringing her to tears before kissing her. It is hard to understand precisely what she sees in him.

That's a great take. I wish I'd been perceptive enough to frame it that way. Then the writer (I find it hard to believe that Mr. Wendell Jamieson doesn't have something like III or IV or Esq. after his name) goes on to highlight thoughts I thought back when I was in my early twenties, if not 15:
Here’s the thing about Pottersville that struck me when I was 15: It looks like much more fun than stultifying Bedford Falls — the women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night. If anything, Pottersville captures just the type of excitement George had long been seeking.

I understand and share the feeling. I left a small town for the big city, a series of them actually, and wouldn't wish that stultifying life on anyone with the good sense to get out, but the writer of this NY Times piece goes quite a bit farther and does a good job of illustrating the sociopathology of the wealthy shitwads that rule the world:
I interpret it instead as showing the true characters of these individuals, their venal internal selves stripped bare. The flirty Violet (played by a supersexy Gloria Grahame, who would soon become a timeless film noir femme fatale) is a dime dancer and maybe a prostitute; Ernie the cabbie’s blank face speaks true misery as George enters his taxi; Bert the cop is a trigger-happy madman, violating every rule in the patrol guide when he opens fire on the fleeing, yet unarmed, George, forcing revelers to cower on the pavement...

Not only is Pottersville cooler and more fun than Bedford Falls, it also would have had a much, much stronger future. Think about it: In one scene George helps bring manufacturing to Bedford Falls. But since the era of “It’s a Wonderful Life” manufacturing in upstate New York has suffered terribly.

On the other hand, Pottersville, with its nightclubs and gambling halls, would almost certainly be in much better financial shape today. It might well be thriving.

You see the problem? Mr. Wendell Jamieson (IV, Esq, whatever) seems to believe that it's necessary for the poor to suffer in order for people such as himself to have fun. The opposite of what he says is the reality. The true characters of Bert the cop, Ernie the cabdriver, Nick the Bartender and Violet Bick are not psychopathically violent cop, miserable loser, angry scumbag, and drunken prostitute. The point is that they would not be that way if they lived in a society with a modicum of economic fairness. They would be decent people with a good shot at happiness. Economic justice and good times are not mutually exclusive.

It really makes you wonder about the writer (III, Esq). Does his happiness require the suffering of others. Must his prostitutes be desperately unhappy for him to get off? Would he feel even smaller if the cops and cab drivers and bartenders he so obviously looks down on live decent lives? And the idea that gambling jobs are better than manufacturing? Yea, how's that working out?

That's such a fucked up take but it's valuable for the window it gives us into the minds of the upper eastsiders and their soul mates everywhere.