Angels Lack Imagination and Are Pretty Useless in a Crisis: It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Posted by Charles Reece, December 25, 2013 01:18pm | Post a Comment

There are a few seminal American movies that I've made a (non-)tradition of never seeing: E.T., Forest Gump, Platoon, High Noon and It's a Wonderful Life. It's sort of fun to not have seen something that everyone else has. However, I possibly brought a curse upon me and my kin by finally watching Frank Capra's Christmas classic last Saturday at the Egyptian Theater in sunny, anti-winter wonderland Hollywood. The commentary on It's a Wonderful Life is vast, I'm sure, but along with being baffled at anyone who would choose Donna Reed over Gloria Grahame, here's what came to me:

Ultimately, what capitalist realism amounts to is the elimination of left wing politics and the naturalisation of neoliberalism. [...] Capitalist realism is about a corrosion of social imagination, and in some ways, that remains the problem: after thirty years of neoliberal domination, we are only just beginning to be able to imagine alternatives to capitalism. -- Mark Fisher

I don't know which of the most prominent intellectual leftists first said it, but Fredric Jameson, Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek have all repeatedly commented that it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the world continuing without capitalism. We treat capitalism as a biological state of things (survival of the fittest, etc.) or a nomological principle on which our understanding of humanity rests. Even the angels in It's a Wonderful Life can't imagine a counterfactual reality where capitalism ceases. George, contemplating suicide, is given an onto-ethical choice between two worlds: one in which he lives trying to help those in need as best he can, but where his whole community ebbs and flows from one crisis to the next according to the caprice of capital, with capital mostly flowing to those most capable of and willing to exploit the working class, i.e., old man Potter; or, two, a world where George was never born, but Potter's power is even greater and he's more successful at exploiting the working class. If divine power is so great that it can fabricate a new reality without you in it, and follow the diverging trajectories of everyone in the alternate world, then why not do the same regarding capitalism, or Potter? George could've even made a deal with Clarence, his guardian angel, such as: "You want me to live, so that you can get your wings, right? Well, how 'bout you make Bedford Falls into a self-sufficient, anarcho-paradise, where there's no hierarchy and everyone respects each other's individuality, yet we work together for the good of the collective, too? I'd love to live, even with Donna Reed and all these goddamned kids, in such a place." But, no, capitalism is greater than God's will.

Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer. -- Epicurus

The angel, trying to convince George not to commit suicide, both stacks the deck and pulls a bait-and-switch on the audience. First, it's a bit screwy that the way you get George to not jump off a bridge into the freezing waters below is to jump off yourself so that George jumps in to save you. What the fuck kind of intervention is that? Anyway, the whole point at the beginning of the film where Clarence is being ordered by his celestial superiors to provide George with a reason against suicide is the basis for all the flashback sequences showing how the poor guy reached his current depressed state. Once we get to the present-tense, I'm expecting a good reason against suicide. However, George, while drying off with Clarence, makes an offhanded remark about wishing he'd never been born. Then, POOF!, he's shown what the world would've been without him. That's not an argument against suicide, though; it is, if anything, a reason for being born and living his life up to the point where he wants to commit suicide. If he kills himself, all that stuff will have still happened as it happened. So, as it stands, the money his wife would've received through life insurance remains a reasonable justification for George's death and, narratively, it would've completed his life as a martyr. (Speaking of which, isn't this the same sort of situation that Christians objected to in The Last Temptation of Christ -- namely, trying to convince a potential martyr not to be a martyr?) That's the bait-and-switch. The stacking of the deck occurs by not showing any person who might've been better off by having never known George. What about that little girl he teased back in grade school who developed a bad case of body dysmorphia, slashing her inner thighs on a daily basis because she feels so vile, and in her lacking of self-worth runs off to New York to be a drug-addicted prostitute at the age of 18? Perhaps she's a famous actress, loved by millions in the non-George world. We just don't know, because Clarence is a cheat.

Finally, by way of supporting my first point about the necessity of capitalism through the uselessness of angels, what finally convinces George, a Building and Loans banker, of his existential value, pulling him out of his doldrums, is the same thing that convinced our realworld bankers of their own value to modern existence in 2008: instead of divine intervention, the poor townsfolk all chip in to bail him out of the jam he's in (missing cash due to gross negligence on the part of his fellow banker), because they, like we, just can't let capitalism fail. Evidently, it's essential for the human condition. It's a Wonderful Life: an enduring testament to the power of miracles, or merely a poverty of the social imagination? It contains a lot of reality; that's for sure.


It's a Wonderful Life

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Capitalism (5), Frank Capra (2), It's A Wonderful Life (1), Christmas (68)