[Piano music] As we sink deeper into the fever dream that is this unusually divisive and fear filled season, it’s nice to have an antidotal feeling in the form of winter holidays. Throughout which, despite being co-opted by Hallmark commercialism, a sense of family, of coming together predominates. My family ritual of this time of year is the annual broadcast of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve. What was once a postwar box office flop has become a cultural phenomenon, recognized as one of the great cinematic masterpieces by one of our very best directors. Watching it, of course, it’s tempting to brush off this film as overly sentimental an nostalgic, which it is. But I think we judge it like this at our own peril. Indeed, with It’s a Wonderful Life, Capra interrogates some of the key contradictions at the heart of American life to see whether or not they can be reconciled or if, in fact, they don’t exist at all. Contradictions between the individual and the community, between adventure and domesticity and between success and an ordinary life. He stages these contradictions in the figure of George Bailey, a citizen of the small town of Bedford Falls and the president of the local Building & Loan. As the film begins, we don’t know exactly what has happened to George; only that he’s in serious trouble and has reached the end of his rope and that he’s about to be aided by divine intervention in the form of a guardian angel seeking to earn his wings. We learn about George’s life as his angle does in a series of flashbacks. “If you’re going to help a man, you want to know something about him, don’t you?” George, we learn, has big dreams of leaving Bedford Falls, traveling the world and becoming a metropolitan architect. “I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world!” But his selflessness, his drive to do the right thing, repeatedly comes in the way of these dreams. We also learn about Bedford Falls, a close knit community of mostly good people leading simple lives, which is under the constant threat of being taken over by a ruthless business man called Mr. Potter. The only thing standing in Potter’s way is George Bailey, his father and their empathetic Building & Loan operation. The foil to Potter, the clear representation of corruption and evil in the film, is not George himself but Mary Hatch, George’s eventual wife, a compassionate young woman who is quite happy to stay and live in Bedford Falls. It’s important to note that both Potter and Mary show up in every flashback, representing George’s desires for fame and fortune on the one hand, and his drive to do the right thing for his community on the other. Of course, it’s Mary’s side that eventually wins out, but for a large majority of the film, George is not rewarded for doing the right thing. He’s punished. When young George rescues his brother from a freezing lake, he loses the hearing in his left ear. When he warns his boss about a potentially disastrous accident he gets beaten. When his father dies and he takes on his responsibilities at the Building & Loan, he loses his chance for travel and college. When there’s a run on the bank, he misses his own honeymoon. Every noble sacrifice for Bedford Falls makes Bedford Falls feel more like a trap. And instead of bringing him closer to the community he’s helping, Capra shows him isolated from it. In this shot, after realizing that his dreams of travel are finally squashed for good, George stands isolated against a train that he’ll never get on before he walks slowly back into the crowd, putting a smile on again, like he always does. Despite this parade of personal wounds, George is able to remain resilient until the very end, when his scatterbrained uncle misplaces $8,000 and puts him in danger of going to jail for fraud. Things get worse and worse and George, believing himself worth more dead than alive, contemplates suicide. It’s at this point that his guardian angel Clarence intervenes. Clarence Oddbody, angle second class, shows George what Bedford Falls would have been like had he never existed. What George sees is a nightmare. Bedford Falls is now Pottersville and all the dreams he had of an exciting life of adventure and exoticism have returned as perverted versions of themselves on the main drag of his former home. The moon that George promised to lasso for Mary, that she had made into a lovely needlepoint picture is made ugly and sleazy in the form of the Blue Moon Cafe. Martini’s Bar, a place where any break from decent behavior was not tolerated has become a garish speakeasy where anything goes. Everything is turned into an opportunity for crass commercialism. Even George’s home has become a boarding house. And when George finally gets his old life back, he’s rewarded with generosity from the community who bail him out in an unbelievably touching finale that ends with everyone, including the cops who came to arrest him singing Auld Land Syne. “For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang- ” It’s easy to get carried away in this wave of feeling. But it’s important to remember what hasn’t changed. And that’s basically everything. George Bailey still has to live in his drafty, old house, scraping by to support his family, his business, despite being bailed out by the town, remains at the brink of being swallowed by Potter’s relentless expansion. Indeed, Potter faces no consequences at all, despite being the main protagonist, depsite stealing money from George Bailey, he’s not vanquished. He’s up $8,000. In some sense, Capra reconciles the contradictions I mentioned before. Success is not mutually exclusive to an ordinary life. Adventure can be found in a domestic setting. And yet, the most basic contradiction, that between the individual and the community, is left open ended. America has struggled with this contradiction since before its founding. How does a culture predicated on individualism maintain public virtue? How does an economic system that incentivizes individual success keep from exploiting communities? If you have the answer, tell us, because we’re still, at the eve of 2016, struggling to figure it out. I feel George’s dilemma, as I’m sure many of you do. The world shines with the promise of adventure and possibility, all that could be gained, experienced, learned, if only you were to commit yourself to a radical individualism. And yet the responsibilities of family and of the community nag; They call us back, they ask us, sacrifice. In solution to this, everyone finds their own balance, but you should keep in mind that it’s these personal dilemmas played out in society at large that ultimately draw the fault lines in our politics. In Frank Capra and George Bailey’s time, following World War II, the idea of an American destiny, of the American way still had weight and consensus. A string of disasters have weakened our resolve in such a thing, have fractured our ability to imagine a consensus and into the void rushes the heirs to Henry Potter. This is why the message of It’s a Wonderful Life, a message of hope and perspective is not so shallow as it seems. The contradictions in the film are never quite resolved, something beautifully dramatized by the finial on George’s stairs. There will always be an incompleteness to life, but hope is not naive. It’s hardiness and resolve against a situation that cannot give us assurances or guarantees. The film shows us that a change of heart and perspective, far from being powerless nostalgia in the face of an unusually divisive and fear filled season can be a genuinely revolutionary attitude. Hey everybody, thanks for watching and happy holidays, whatever you celebrate out there. If you want to help me make more of these Nerdwriter videos, if you like what I’m doing here and you want to see more, I ask you to pledge a little bit of money to my Patreon page. Everything helps. You guys have been so generous so far and, you know, all the money that you pledge goes directly into improving this channel. You know, these take a lot of time and essentially money to make, so everything you do is much, much, much, much, much appreciated. This is one of my favorite movies of all time. Jimmy Stewart is my favorite actor of all time. Someone once said that George Bailey was like a vessel that Jimmy Stewart poured every nuance of his being into and I totally agree with that. I love this movie, I’ll never get tired of it. I watch it every year. Thank you again for watching and I will see you guys next Wednesday.