It’s the crazy season, the one where we all embrace tradition with an affliction of heartfelt fondness and encourage one another to hug family and friends with the intensity that a year of neglect can demand. And all the while we are engaging in social gatherings and relaxing into pastimes that allow us to assume an imagined life that provides us with the opportunity to question the people we have become and afford us a wee chance, should we choose to accept it, to do something different.
We curl up with our children, our friends or our lovers, and our books and DVDs and life is actually different, and for a little while at least, meaningful and significant. Increasingly, one of the tools we use to capture that sense of worth is by watching poignant films, movies with a tell-tell message.
Screenings of old black and white movies, like Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, are sold out in cinemas and in a unified emotional slumber we engage in an uplifting, inspirational experience that teaches us (with more than a little finger wagging!) that to be good is to be right and clever and kind.
But what of the broader meaning of these old films, especially in the period of their actual place in time?
In 1930s America, of a population of 120 million, 100 million made a weekly visit to the movies (60 million went to Church on a weekly basis…). Some of the most popular films were those of the man mentioned, Italian immigrant Frank Capra whose movies frequently represented the sub-text of his own life, the achievement and consequence of realising and living ‘The American Dream’.
Capra’s journey from poor immigrant to national figure, through sheer determination and hard work, overcoming significant hardship along the way was text-book material, symbolic of the ethos of American society, and as such fuelled an interest in his character and his films. Capra and his language represented the aspired ‘real’ world, which for most had only ever been imagined.
The vocabulary of Capra’s movies demonstrated an overwhelming command of film and common language that depicted America as its people held it to be. For the American population his films resolutely asserted a number of familiar elements that were representative of the American way of life whether by actuality or perhaps more tellingly, by aspiration.
Remarkably, Capra’s movies extend even further beyond that. His movies are useful, especially now, in helping us to gain an understanding of the cultural history of America. If you are watching this Christmas, you will be able to see how as the narrative cleverly unfolds onscreen.
Capra, often referred to as a utopian populist, offered a fairytale alternative to the grim reality of the Depression whilst at the same time providing a grounding of a familiar world, reaffirming experiences culturally reflected and understood from the inside out by his audiences. Capra has been quoted as being ‘the most insistently American of all directors’ – that is, he was obsessively concerned with scrutinizing American myths and American states of consciousness.
In undertaking an in-depth examination of the language of Capra, as expressed via the figurative technique of his characters and storylines which respond to issues of gender, repression, politics, idealism and nationalism, a unique insight into how the population lived, or perceived to live their lives, in 1930s cultural American society is represented and revealed.
Capra explores a number of constituents of American cultural life through his use of idiosyncratic language and in doing so he creates characters, in the period they reflected, that are successful in providing upbeat entertainment which the Depression audiences were anxiously looking for. This shift towards unity and individual success is a recurring theme in Capra’s work and represents yet another element of this constant commitment to fulfilling, for his audience, the ‘American Dream’.
In Mr Deeds Goes to Town, in the language and character of Deeds, Capra engages his audience in his attempt to reflect American society by creating a dramatic social circumstance that forces his character to speak symbolically, not just for himself, but for all Americans afflicted by the power of the institution over the weak.
For Capra the association between the metaphorical character and reality of life was evident in his analogy that each of his characters ‘are human and do the things human beings do – or would do if they had the courage and opportunity.’ His use of family values, a location for the populace to embody a fundamental and valuable feature of American culture, makes his audience comfortable with the material. This wasn’t particularly representative of the way in which Americans lived their lives but it is certainly systematic of the way in which, via the aptitude of the ‘American Dream’, they have been shaped to understand their lives. In embodying this technique the audience is at home with the analogy generated by the film’s methodology.
The audience now, here in the UK too, engages in Capra films like It’s A Wonderful Life in a similar way. The reaction of us, its 21st century audience, and our willingness to accept the story is symbolic of our understanding of the message which reflects a familiar or aspired pattern of life. The reaction and interaction with the plot and its story is demonstrated in two strands, fantasy or reality.
Regardless of which, the language is successful in constructing an equitable representation of the cultural desires, nuances and understanding of its audience. We want to be somewhere else and for some that desire to escape is entirely understandable.
Capra reaffirms that the dream is permissible, but only if the good challenge the bad and the political tyrants are succumbed by the power of collective justice.
In the wake of the unthinkable violence in schools and streets in the states, (and indeed elsewhere), collective justice is all the people of America have if they are to break the cycle of firearm atrocity.
If you’re escaping this festive season, think about the different ways in which you can come to understand that escape, and remember that collective justice is the route to a reality that at the moment only looks as if it can be imagined.