This is a strange holiday season. To gather, or not to gather: that is the question for many as Omicron bursts onto the scene just in time to turn our seasonal festivities into millions of individual party games of Covid Russian Roulette.
Does Aunt Jen look a little under the weather? Or will it be the friend from work who looks perfectly fine that turns Christmas dinner into a super-spreader event?
Should I go out on New Year’s Eve, or content myself for yet another year with the depressing televised Times Square ball drop?
Is it okay to go see the local Christmas tree lighting? It’s outdoors after all. But the new strain is twice as contagious as Delta, so will being outside really make a difference?
Or do we just stay home and do nothing? Again?
The only tradition we can truly rely on in times like these are the one thing that, by their nature, will never change: our Holiday Movie Classics.
Miracle on 34th Street (favorite line: Of all the isms in the world, the woist of ‘em is ‘commoicialism’), A Christmas Carol (the Alistair Sims version), A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Christmas Story, Home Alone 2, Elf, Polar Express…
Even as our world crumbles around us, these remain frozen in time, representing not only a fantasy holiday season, but a fantasy America; one that is vaguely, permanently, stuck somewhere between 1932-1955, and where the nation always lives up to its highest ideals.
It is a world of small towns, snowy vistas, tow-headed tykes, red rocket sleds, prosperous small businesses, and contented shop keepers. It is an America whose people are innocent and yet somehow possessed of an innate, native wisdom. Salt of the Earth types abound while the bad guys are either banished from the merrymaking in the final reel or invited to join in once they’ve seen the error of their ways. By the end we all learn the true meaning of Christmas, which, in our national cinema, is synonymous with the true meaning of America.
No film exemplifies the formula better than Frank Capra’s classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra, an Italian immigrant deeply enamored of his adopted nation and its institutions wove together the “America as Christmas” conceit more effectively and explicitly than any other filmmaker before or since. The “no man is poor who has friends,” thing? I tear up every time. Every. Single. Time.
Far from being naïve about the dark side of America, Capra’s two most enduring films, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, both pit his favorite Everyman, Jimmy Stewart, against figures that represent an America gone wrong: greedy old businessman, Mr. Potter, in the former, and the corrupt Washington establishment in the latter.
But in Capra’s telling, one good, plain-spoken man, sure of his purpose and just in his cause, can always triumph over the rapacious and the corrupt. His honesty and truthfulness will ultimately rally the people to his cause, ensuring that the nation will never fall into the hands of the Mr. Potters of the world. Hell, even that Sam Wainwright “Hee-haw,” jerk comes through in the end.
It goes without saying that this was always a, shall we say, generous version, of how America worked. Ask any black or brown person. Or all the women that Capra would never have considered choosing as a protagonist. But cultural ideals are always made up of myths and fantasies intended to point us towards our better selves. Without stories like It’s a Wonderful Life, would people ever look around at the country they actually live in and realize how far short it falls of what they want it to be? Of what it’s supposed to be? Of what they’ve been told it was?
It is in that spirit that I watch the film now, in this hellish plague year, and come to a terrible conclusion: 2021 America isn’t the one where George Bailey learns what the world would have been like without him and then returns to Bedford Falls with a renewed sense of purpose and vigor. This is America as Pottersville, the dog-eat-dog slum that Mr. Potter creates in Bailey’s absence.
A healthcare system that bankrupts its citizens; a childcare system that is completely unaffordable for the working class; a political system that is entirely owned and operated by the wealthy and corporate interests; an education system whose quality depends on your zip code; a level of wealth inequality that is truly medieval in scale; a news media that only exists to spread elite propaganda; a workforce that hasn’t had a raise in 50 some-odd years, even as productivity has soared; skyrocketing home prices making the market unaffordable for young families while large corporations buy up what little housing stock is left: this is a society that only Mr. Potter could feel at home in.
For the rest of us, America has become the nightmare place that George beholds after his near-suicide. Like him, we look around at this horror our society has become, bug-eyed, disgusted, confused, and desperate. Only for us, there is no Clarence the Angel to set things right. The closest thing we had was Bernie Sanders and, in the end, he was no match for the forces of greed and ignorance that have taken control of our country. No one is coming to save us. We’re stuck here in Pottersville. Forever.
And so it is a strange feeling watching these films this year. They are just as they ever were. But we are not the same. Like the boy in Polar Express, we have lost our capacity to Believe, and all the magic bells in the world aren’t going to fix it this time.
Universal Healthcare might do the trick. Or Student Loan Forgiveness. Drop a $15 Minimum Wage on us and we may hear the music once more. Hell, even dental, vision and hearing coverage for Grandma would go a long way.
But we aren’t getting any of that. Not ever. Not without social collapse and possibly a civil war in between. We know that now.
No, we don’t live in Bedford Falls. Never did. Us Americans, we’re straight outta Pottersville.
Photo: It’s A Wonderful Life, Senate Democrats