It’s a Pastel Life

This year, due to circumstances beyond my control, we had the colorized version of It’s a Wonderful Life for our yearly viewing. I’d never actually seen that version before (which James Stewart famously said he couldn’t stand even to watch), so it was at least instructive.

Well, I didn’t find it unwatchable, since with a film this good, that would be practically impossible (to be clear: I consider this the single best American film ever made).

And to be fair, the color allowed me to notice even more of the innumerable details that fill out the screen and which I hadn’t caught before (like, how after both Harry’s party and George’s wedding, you can see a set of chairs set out on the lawn where the photographer – cousin Eustace – had stood a minute before, and the coffee on the table during George’s final conversation with his father is steaming. Something that isn’t often mentioned about this film is just how richly detailed it is. Watching the corners and backgrounds of the scene is often hugely rewarding).

But overall, the effect is a very definite downgrade, and not just because of the filled-in, water-color look that colorized film often has. In the first place, the color pallet chosen is often pretty ugly. There is way too much yellow and light green, giving it a rather sickly tone. There are very few solid colors (contrast Miracle on 34th Street, which was colorized in a far more successful fashion and actually benefited from a vibrant color scheme): almost everything is pastel, giving the movie a faded, half-hearted look.

Worse, though, is that the colorization plays havoc with the lighting, especially during the Pottersville sequence. Watching this version brought home just how gorgeous the lighting and cinematography in this film really are. Look at the misty atmosphere during the bank run (wrecked here by the stark green grass), and especially the dead-black shadows in Pottersville. At times the movie almost looks Noir-ish, like the scene where George finds his house is still a ruin in this world. And it’s here that the colorization makes its presence most known; it fades out the shadows and adds a lot of distracting nonsense filling out the screen. When Bert and Ernie are framed in shadow in the doorway, we have yellow highlights surrounding the black shadow and Ernie’s bright yellow cab sitting in the corner of the scene.

On that note, the colorization is overall very distracting, even in ordinary scenes: George’s now-red-and-blue tie tugs at the eye every time it’s on screen. Or when George is talking with the angry tree owner about his car there are bright multicolored Christmas lights off to one side (this is another scene full of gorgeous shadows).

This is one of the big problems with colorization: a film that is shot and lit in black-and-white usually doesn’t look good in color because black-and-white cinematography is a very different visual style and approach. It isn’t ‘inadequate’ color; it’s an art form all to itself. In a film like Miracle on 34th Street, which is not very distinct in its lighting, it can work fine. In the finest film of one of America’s finest directors, it’s like taking a set of paints to the Pieta.

The only reason to watch the colorized version would be if it’s the only one available or if you want to truly appreciate just how good the black-and-white cinematography of this film really is.

Sticking up for ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

So, a few days back, someone posted an attack on It’s a Wonderful Life in the ‘Boston Herald,’ criticizing it, not only as a bad film, but as promoting socialism. It was a very poorly done piece, of the “make a bold claim, then support it with a sarcastic comment” variety, but since the point of view is one that I’ve seen infecting Conservative circles a lot, I thought it needed to be addressed. Hence, today’s piece in The Federalist:

Having dismissed “It’s a Wonderful Life” on a technical level with a single ill-informed paragraph, he proceeds to tackle the film’s message. Graham’s position is that George’s life is “pretty awful” because he endures a lot of suffering, is unable to go to college or even on his honeymoon, and “his kids wear second-hand clothes and get sick from the cold…because George can’t afford nice things for his family.” Graham then claims the film’s vindication of George’s life “fails” because “his life still stinks. He’s not, in fact, rich or even financially secure…and on top of that, Potter gets to keep the eight grand!”

Thus, apparently, Graham’s definition of a good life is one in which we are “rich, or even financially secure,” able to do what we like, able to avoid suffering as much as possible, and perhaps one in which evil people are punished as well. He then rather absurdly goes on to claim that “It’s a Wonderful Life” represents socialist, New Deal-style economics, and that it was intended for “the workers at a Soviet collective circa 1949,” with the message “who cares that you have no shoes? Back to the factory for Mother Russia.”

Ironically, Graham’s view of the good life as defined primarily by material security and wellbeing is far closer to a socialist perspective than anything in the film. The foundational idea of Marxism is that the world is purely material, and therefore creating material security and equality for the most people is the highest good.

Judging by this op-ed, Graham would agree, but only dispute with a Marxist whether socialism or capitalism creates the most good for the most people. One thing with which a Marxist would never agree is that a man’s happiness is far more dependent on family, community, virtue, and so on than by his material well being.

This is a fundamental flaw in modern discourse for both conservatives and liberals: we focus so much on material issues, trying to work out a system that will make, as Graham says, “the best world for the most people,” that we don’t stop to ask what we mean by “the best world” or a “good life.” Both sides are making the exact same mistake even as they draw different conclusions: both accept the same basic philosophy, but disagree on its application.

Read the rest here

It’s a Wonderful Life at Catholic Match

If anyone were to ask what I think the best movie ever made is (understanding there’s objectively no such thing), I would probably say It’s a Wonderful Life. I might do a piece going into why I think this, but in the meantime I get to give some idea of why in today’s piece on Catholic Match. 

I have sometimes thought it a shame that It’s a Wonderful Life is regarded as a ‘Christmas Movie.’

It is, of course (in more ways than one), but if we think of it as ‘merely’ a Christmas movie we risk undervaluing it.

Frank Capra’s masterpiece, of course, needs no introduction. You’ve seen it at least once, and if you haven’t you know the basic premise: an ambitious, gifted young man named George Bailey wants nothing more than to escape his small, provincial town and do something big and important with his life.

But, one way or another, he gives up every opportunity to make good on that dream in order to help the people around him until one Christmas Eve finds him contemplating suicide, feeling he’s wasted his life. A roly-poly, ‘second class angel’ named Clarence then appears and shows him what the world would be like if he had never been born.

The message of the film is usually given as “every life has value.” Yes, but not quite in the way you might think. It is not George Bailey’s intrinsic value as a person that leads to his vindication, but the choices he made along the way.

Read the rest here, and Merry Christmas!