Friday, December 01, 2006

Sympathy for Scrooge/George Bailey, You Should Have Jumped Again

It’s that time of year for various versions of A Christmas Carol to blanket the TV schedule, and I’ve gotten in the habit of missing each one, much like I tend to miss It’s a Wonderful Life. Both are deeply problematic for me.

I may have touched on these issues before with each story line, but it’s good to compare and contrast. Charles Dickens is one of the greatest writers the world has known. I can recall reading A Tale of Two Cities in a factory lunch room during summer break at college, getting choked up at the end and pretending I had to sneeze. Even now, that particular story line rings true to me.

But I have trouble with A Christmas Carol. In short, I don’t believe Scrooge, who is positioned as a lost soul in need of spiritual redemption, needs to be redeemed. Sure, he’s a prick. He’s going to bust Bob Cratchit’s balls by making him work on Christmas. I guess Scrooge is some type of loan shark, and we get to see his progression from an unloved child, to relatively cheerful young man working for a really cheerful older man, to a guy in his 20s who chooses money over a chick, and then somehow about 40 years are magically skipped, and we’re left with Scrooge as a bitter, angry, money-grubbing bastard. Not since Jesus has such a meaningful, decades-long time gap existed in an otherwise coherent story. I guess Dickens, had he detailed the lost years, would have had Scrooge spanking his monkey on a regular basis over that chick he left behind while he worked his way up to owning his two-man loan company. And who knows – that might have been for the best. Maybe if he’d chosen love over money, he’d be miserable and abusive to his wife, and felt trapped by his kids.

It’s my contention that I’ve worked for and with dozens of people who make Scrooge look like a pussy. There was no traceable downward trajectory into prickdom for these people: they always were about the money. Started out in life that way, raised by greedy parents who nurtured this way of seeing of the world, valued money over love, and saw it all the way through to their monied lifestyle. Oh, they had families and such. But they still valued money over love. A lot of them can’t stop working because they feel empty and lacking in any sort of power or identity without a high-powered job. Affairs. Backstabbing coworkers and leaving footprints on their backs. Business practices that would land them in jail if they weren’t white collar. Scrooge? You got a rich old bastard who needs to ease up on his lone employee a little around the holidays. He’s nasty to kids on the street? I got news for you. Kids on the streets of major cities have always been jerks. Hats off to Scrooge for getting the drop on them.

I don’t buy his redemption either: fuck Tiny Tim. Whether Bob Cratchit is a bachelor or has 20 kids shouldn’t be any of Scrooge’s concern or business. What the fuck is Bob Cratchit doing with a gigantic family when Scrooge is paying him shit? I gather this was Victorian England and things were pretty rough all over. But it seems to me that poverty was part of the landscape; Scrooge’s place looked like a dump, too.

I don’t get the Ghost of Christmas Future, pointing at Scrooge’s tombstone and having that send the final redemptive blow into Scrooge’s soul. Shit, man, we all die. We’ll all have tombstones. People will talk good and ill of us afterwards. Scrooge is an old man. Of course, he’s going to die soon.

Here’s what happened to Scrooge after he was redeemed. He made Bob Cratchit a partner in his loan-shark firm, taking in Tiny Tim as an intern. As the years went on, Scrooge kept seeming to make less and less money, but he didn’t really care, as he now knew the meaning of life was love. Tiny Tim’s legs got better, to the point where he grew into a fine young man. At that point, Cratchit let Scrooge knew that he had spent the last decade shaving shillings off every pound the firm brought in and now held a majority interest. Tiny Tim had also become an expert forger and signed over the deed of the company to him and his father: Cratchit & Son. Both of them then beat Scrooge to death with a hot poker and ate his corpse over the next few days. Cratchit & Son went on to became the most ruthless loan-sharking operation in all of London at the turn of the 20th century. Before Bob Cratchit passed on in 1910, Scrooge’s spirit visited him in hopes of scaring him into redemption, but Bob said he would be perfectly comfortable ruling in hell and sent him on his way.

I like the concept to a It’s a Wonderful Life, too: a suicidal man on a bridge, on the verge of losing his business, feels his life has been wasted by remaining in his hometown, jumps into the river and is saved by an angel, who then shows him what the world would have been like if he had never lived. Naturally, it would be a much worse place, and this knowledge gave the man, George Bailey, the will to live, and he runs back to his family and town, is accepted by all with open arms, all of them raining money on him so he can keep that musty old savings and loan running.

One problem I have, and I hate to say this, but if you could magically show some people what the world would be like if they’d never lived, the world would be a better place without them. And the angel would be doing a better thing to push them into the river. Jeffrey Dahmer? Hitler? Those are extreme examples. But you will find “every-day people” who sexually or physically abuse their children, have committed murder, rape and other horrible crimes against others, in short, spent their lives making the lives of people around them worse. I always thought it would be a wonderful idea to remake It’s a Wonderful Life with the old banker in a wheelchair deciding to commit suicide, wheeling himself off the bridge, and an angel shows him how the world would have been without him (i.e., virtually no different). After seeing it, the old coot moans “fuck it” and still wheels himself off the bridge, clutching the angel as he plummets over the railing in hopes that they both drown. Merry Christmas!

My real issue with It's a Wonderful Life is the stereotypes of happiness and sadness the director Frank Capra places in the movie. The one that really grates on me is his wife, who is portrayed as the happy, strong-willed mother who bears George’s children and has a full, wonderful life with him, whether or not the old savings and loan goes under. The version of his wife without George: a pathetic old spinster/librarian who stalks the streets of their doomed little town at night like some dark specter of loneliness and dreams deferred.

How many older single women watching that movie thought, “What the fuck … that’s me they’re showing up there! Is my life that bad?” The gist is unless you reproduce and have a big, happy, wonderful family, you’re somehow not living right. Ditto the “floozy” girl George helps out with his savings and loan who, without him around, turns into a prostitute. What I don’t get is that the town of Bedford Falls, without George, is portrayed as a den of sleaze, sin and greed. Wouldn’t a prostitute stand to make a lot more money in a town like that than in the “clean” version of town created by George’s existence? Would making the jump from town pump to working prostitute be that much of a stretch? If I remember, the woman was having some kind of money issues that George helped with her. If she’s out screwing dozens of guys for money, she’s probably making better money than when she was just screwing guys for kicks. For however harder Bedford Falls would have become without George around to "save" it, one thing is clear: there'd be a lot more money going around.

Even the local bartender, who has Joe Palooka written all over him in both versions of the town, is made to be a somehow darker, badder guy for throwing the disgraced pharmacist, the now-unknown George and the angel out of his bar. I suspect the bartender, even in the real town, probably gave the bum rush in the exact same way to belligerent drunks, bums and people acting no more or less strange than George is in this alternate world.

Ultimately, I think the problem is that I was just never all that nuts about Jimmy Stewart as an actor. From all accounts he was a genuinely kind, decent man, which is far from the norm in Hollywood, and obviously one of the greats who appeared in dozens of classic movies. But I just don’t like the “aw shucks, mac” spin he put on most of his “everyman” characters, the same way I don’t like Jack Lemmon, another great actor, sputtering like a mental patient in most of his roles. (I think Glengary Glenn Ross was the best thing he ever did, where he portrayed a desperate real-estate agent about to lose his job in a cut-throat agency.)

I don’t dispute the theme of It’s a Wonderful Life – it’s a good concept to show a virtuous human in crisis that his life matters. What I dispute is that everything around him appears to turn to shit in that fantasy world where he never existed, and it’s my take that this world could be just as good without him, and this wouldn’t in any way detract from his existence. Instead, we get this ham-fisted version where Bedford Falls and everyone in it has gone to hell. I aint buying it. One of the other kids probably would have pulled George’s brother from the pond when the ice broke. His wife might have met someone better. Or met a butch girl named Spike, moved to Key West and lived happily ever after? The old pharmacist might not have put the rat poison in the wrong bottle. Someone might have shot the banker for being such a bastard. I have a hard time believing an entire town’s morality is going to hinge on one guy and his small savings and loan company, that it will turn into Babylon without him. A lot more shit would have to go on with that town than the lost presence of one person who played a small-but-vital role in the town’s well being.

And ultimately the problem with both A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life: Christmas is not a redemptive time. We like to think it is, because we give each other presents. Oh, and it’s Christ’s birthday. But it’s my experience that pricks go back to being pricks after Christmas, and even when they’re not being pricks during the holiday season, you get the vibe that the feeling is very forced and unnatural for the person. I think that’s why people get depressed over the holidays – they feel this façade growing in the weeks leading up to Christmas and reject it out of hand, not quite understanding you should just accept kindness in whatever form it comes. Just a nice gesture that should be appreciated, and hopefully returned. Not redemption. A huge difference. Have you ever met anyone redeemed by the Christmas spirit?

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