Though I reject the notion that sacredness exists, the Grand Illusion Cinema feels sacred to me. It's the last of the small, lovingly shabby independent movie houses that used to run through Seattle like a seam of gold. It's in the University District, where almost nothing is good. One minute you're slogging past students, civilians, and Ave rats, and the next, you're up a flight of wobbly wooden stairs and into a tiny time warp.
The Grand Illusion's continued existence stands in radical contrast to every prevailing trend of urban development. It's the kind of magical little art space you never go to as much as you mean to. Then when you look up one day and it's a Quiznos, you feel like someone just insulted your mother and you didn't stand up for her.
I have to duck to get through the door. The seats predate the science of ergonomics. The old posters and flyers plastered in the cramped lobby are handmade. You can hear the sounds of the Ave bleeding through the thin old walls of the small auditorium. When it's raining, which it always is, or cold, which it often is, the notion that you're indoors instead of out feels almost hypothetical. Like all important places, it's vulnerable.
My holiday ritual never varies much. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I go to the Grand Illusion—sometimes by myself, sometimes with someone else (sometimes with someone else and then by myself)—buy a ticket, find a seat, and wait for someone to give a little spiel about the theater's noble mission and the history of the film we're about to see. Then the lights dim, the title card comes up, and the countdown to my convulsive fit of ungovernable crying begins.
It never takes long: a gradual wince accompanied by the first few trickling tears, then the torrential gushing sobs, and then the percussive aftershocks of feeling that come intermittently through the two-hour-and-10-minute narrative and emotional catharsis that is It's a Wonderful Life.
I feel the same way about It's a Wonderful Life that I do about the Grand Illusion, vis-à-vis sacredness, but also with regard to the degree to which they remain perpetually available, and egregiously underappreciated. To the extent that people think of the film at all, you probably think of it as some corny Christmas junk you can buy for $2.99 while you're waiting in line at Walgreens. But to me, It's a Wonderful Life makes all that horrible music and all those fake sentiments in the ritual of Christmas worth enduring.
Sappy? Silly? Sentimental? In fact, this film is heavy fucking water, emotionally speaking. Its capacity to lay humanity bare, or at least white American humanity, is unprecedented in cinema.
In the seven decades that Frank Capra's minor-poet masterpiece has been reducing audiences to quivering tear ducts, we have never needed it more than in this most miserable of all miserable years.
Due in large part to a quirk of copyright law that landed the film in the public domain, the key moments of It's a Wonderful Life spent many years being more familiar to many Americans than the Bill of Rights. Every year around this time, the parade of its iconic scenes becomes inescapable: James Stewart and Donna Reed falling into a swimming pool while dancing the Charleston, Stewart stumbling ecstatically through the streets screaming, "Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls," for all he's worth, and, chestnuttiest of all, Stewart's winking congratulation to the angel who's just gotten his wings—"Atta boy, Clarence." And, stuck on infinite cultural repeat, these bits are as cloying as they are context-free. It's not hard to see why a lot of people can hate It's a Wonderful Life without having actually seen it.
But they're wrong, and they, like you, should brave the elements to see this overplayed-yet-eternally-underrated masterwork at the Grand Illusion by (or on) Christmas Day. And again next year. And the year after that. Because seeing it in a theater might be the only way to remember that this isn't a piecemeal collection of syrupy moments stapled to the litany of holiday bullshit we all still have to annually endure. It's actually a movie. A great movie. A work of art.
Its title is ironic for a film whose main purpose seems to be portraying just how miserable one man's life can be. En route to his tearful redemption, our George Bailey is put through a Job-like incrementum of humiliation, emasculation, and depredation, all of which issue from his inability to be selfish. His father's death ensures that he will remain at home to preside over the family's building-and-loan company, at the expense of all his hopes and dreams. George gets married, moves into a crumbling house, and scrapes out a living, watching his boyhood friends become millionaires, his baby brother become a war hero, and his nemesis, imperious Mr. Potter (the great Lionel Barrymore), become richer and more powerful with every passing year. Along the way are humble rewards, but they are swallowed up by an accretion of hard disappointments that eventually lead him to the brink of suicide.
The film's power to make you cry doesn't issue from bathos, but from the tiny moments of human anguish Capra captures throughout: the righteous fire in George's belly when he calls Potter "a warped, frustrated old man," and later, "nothing but a scurvy little spider!"; the quaking passion as he grips his wife, Mary, and cries, "Now, you listen to me! I don't want any plastics, and I don't want any ground floors, and I don't want to get married, ever, to anyone!"; his impotent fury as he kicks shut the door of his old car, slams the banister post, and clutches his son while silently sobbing. Capra's eye for despair extends to the supporting cast as well: Mr. Gower's drunken tears ("Ask Dad, he'll know!") and the vicious slaps that make young George's ears drip blood, Uncle Billy's pathetic apologies for misplacing a huge deposit, and Violet's dissolution from comely young flirt to fallen woman. These scenes are shot plainly and played with unflinching ugliness; one could argue that Capra is piling it on. But the film's morality—angels and wings aside—comes from its profound admiration of the human capacity for punishment and renewal.
Shortly after Life's 1946 release, James Agee, one of the earliest serious film critics whose work is still worth reading, noted the film's grueling aspect. "Often," he wrote, "in its pile-driving emotional exuberance, it outrages, insults, or at least accosts without introduction, the cooler and more responsible parts of the mind." These aesthetic cautions are followed, however, by a telling addendum: "It is nevertheless recommended," Agee allowed, "and will be reviewed at length as soon as the paralyzing joys of the season permit."
Paralyzing joys are the very heart of George Bailey's dilemma; they are, to borrow words from George's father, "deep in the race." The sacrifices George makes for being "the richest man in town" resonate bitterly even as they lead to the finale's effusive payoff. Those sacrifices are what make It's a Wonderful Life endure.