We use films, plays and books as vehicles for showing ourselves who we aspire to be and who we aspire not to be. During the holidays, it is standard to have great nostalgia and to watch movies that show people behaving contrary to their natural inclinations and doing great, noble things. I have to say: Though books have obviously played a central role in my life, movies are nonetheless very powerful tools, and I am far from immune to their influence.
Perhaps it is the movies of my childhood that I remember watching with my family that had the most lasting impact. There was only one movie my mother would make my father turn the news off for if it came on TV. (I should say that, unlike many people, we only had one television instead of one in every room.) That film was “Pocket Full of Miracles.” It was a made by Frank Capra, Sr. and based on a Damon Runyon story about an apple seller on the mean streets of New York. She works to send daughter Ann-Margaret to a convent school in Spain. The girl becomes engaged to an aristocrat and brings her prospective new family to the U.S. to meet her mother. The New York underworld rallies around Apple Annie to create an illusion of wealth and grandeur, to ensure the marriage goes forward and everyone lives happily ever after. It’s not Capra’s most brilliant film, but it was the classic sappy nostalgia that he did so well.
His masterpiece was probably “It’s A Wonderful Life,” the Jimmy Stewart picture that has become a Christmas staple. It will screen at Thalian Hall’s Main Stage again this year.
I have to admit: It really was not one of my favorite movies for most of my life. But that changed pretty drastically a few years ago. Many of you are familiar with this story: Jock received The Clarence Award as an angel who had gotten his wings for his work with Full Belly Project. We watched the movie on the big screen at Kenan Auditorium, and I have to admit that as an adult and seeing it in a cinematic setting rather than in the living room, it was a pretty damn powerful film. I remember crying by the end and marveling that everyone had shown up to help George. I wondered what that must feel like. I regretted that I hadn’t lived a better life or contributed to the world in way that I would ever yield that experience. But through Jock’s reflected glory I could at least touch it.
That was December 2009. Less than a month later, in January 2010, the building the bookstore had inhabited for 25-plus years was condemned. Actually, it was discovered that it wasn’t really a “building” at all; rather, it was two walls and an unconnected roof leaning against a pizza parlor with a façade designed by someone who had never heard of Archimedes.
“Did you ever think that having a wall held up by Danielle Steel and prevailing winds was in your future?” Jock asked one day in an effort to lighten the mood. “I mean this is like Bucky Fuller level of futuristic design ideas.”
I rolled my eyes and responded that if this was a segue into a discussion on climate change, I needed to get through this crisis first. “Fine, fine, just asking,” he chuckled.
When it became apparent that we would have to vacate the building and move 150,000-plus books, help poured in from across the area. The climax came on the last Saturday in February when I was hoping that maybe 30 people might show up to help us move to storage. Instead, hundreds of people cycled in and out throughout the day, packing, schlepping, removing bookshelves, and labeling. I was useless: Pretty much all I did was cry all day. That was the day I knew what it was like to be George Bailey: to realize you had never seen your life in perspective before that moment. It was without a doubt one of the most profound and life-changing experiences I have ever had.
“‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ sums up my philosophy of filmmaking,” Capra has been quoted regarding this film. “First, to exalt the worth of the individual. Second, to champion man—plead his causes, protest any degradation of his dignity, spirit or divinity. And third, to dramatize the viability of the individual—as in the theme of the film itself…There is a radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see, and to see we only have to look. I beseech you to look.”
But nothing in Capra’s film looks at what life is like after this realization happens to a person. It ends with Clarence getting his wings and George happily with his family, looking out at life ahead of him. How do you live with such a realization?
To begin with: You accept the responsibility that you have toward the people who have shown you such generosity and kindness. It becomes paramount in your mind. I feel a deep gratitude to this amazing community, but I also feel a real responsibility to try to make good decisions, so as not to waste that trust and generosity. More so, there is a sense that I need to share this generosity with others. It colors the way I see everything. Live Local—which honestly started with a certain amount of frustration and anger at the way the world was going—has become much more of a celebration about what could be better. It frequently surpasses expectations.
My recent visit to Santa was about me learning I shouldn’t be asking Santa for presents; rather, I should be asking Santa what I can do for him (and Mrs. Claus). If anything, I think that’s where Live Local needs to go. I need to start asking you all, our wonderful encore readers, more about what you want us to look into. What does the Live Local column need to do to be more relevant? What should be on the New Year’s resolutions list?
I think the “happily ever after” that Capra alludes to in “It’s A Wonderful Life” is about not just basking in the glory of the realization, but turning it around and understanding what you really need to do in return. What I finally understand is: That movie is just the prequel. The real journey and the real story is yet to come.
It’s pretty overwhelming. Misanthropy is much easier than being part of life in a community. I’ve written before about running away to go live on a commune when I was 17, and about how it’s one of the hardest things I ever did. It’s tough to have an honest and mutually supportive relationship with Jock, and doing that with 16 more people ranging in age from infancy to 70 is beyond difficult. In all honesty, we are all obligated to do that—whether we admit it or not—with the 120,000 other people in our community.
I don’t enjoy movies about the family that decides to do something nice for a homeless person on one special day (like Thanksgiving or Christmas); they irritate me to no end. They are highly unrealistic and do not present a possibility for affecting change that average people will attempt. However, making a commitment to support our community and to make a concerted effort to keep money circulating here, rather than mindlessly letting it go, is something we can do: Choose to be present and mindful with our community in 2015.