Saturday, December 09, 2017

Pottersville Public

SPOILER ALERT: I take it for granted that everyone has seen It's A Wonderful Life, but of course each person has to have a first time. If you have not yet seen this, please go find it and come back to this commentary. I think it is especially important to watch it if English is not your first language -- as with the film Wizard of Oz, this is full of expressions that have become common in American English.

My favorite librarian and I have watched It's a Wonderful Life together just about every year we have been together, and I know I had watched it quite a few times before that; so I have seen it at least three dozen times.

We know every line, and find ourselves speaking lines from the film to each other throughout the year. Among the most common:
"I've been nominated for membership in the National Geographic Society."
and
"She's ... she's just about to close up the library!"
Last week, we had a special treat, seeing it on the big screen at the historic Zeiterion Theater in New Bedford. When I hear the cliché that films are better on the big screen, I think of films with sweeping landscapes -- or seascapes, as in Moby-Dick. We had seen that film on the same screen a few weeks ago -- in the audience with some who had watched it with Gregory Peck during its premiere. The Z (of which we are members) has been working with the mayor to organize free screenings of classic films.

I did not expect as much from the big-screen viewing of the Jimmy Stewart classic, which is focused very closely on one person and his relationships with other people. Sweeping landscapes have nothing to do with it. I was pleased to learn that I was mistaken -- seeing the film as the director intended reveals so much about a director's craft that a small screen cannot convey.

As well as I know the story, seeing it on the large screen allowed me to fall more deeply into it than usual. I frequently think about the class implications of the dystopian sequence at the end of the film. Without the equalizing influence of George Bailey and the Building & Loan, the already uneven distribution of wealth in Bedford Falls becomes more extreme. Capra paints a grim alternative history, plunging the viewer for just a dozen minutes or so into a community that has spun out of control.

And yet, and yet ...

Even in Pottersville, even in the fevered imaginings of the selfish Henry Potter -- "a warped, frustrated old man" -- there is a public library. Increasingly, public libraries -- along with public schools, streets, and other basic services -- face drastic cuts and even elimination.


We only see its exterior, and the lighting is spooky. But in Pottersville, public funds support a public library. The most selfish, self-serving person Frank Capra could imagine would be considered a political moderate today, when all public services are subject to elimination or privatization. In some jurisdictions, Potter would be too liberal to be elected to Congress, at risk of being "primaried" by someone more stingy than he.

Lagniappe

The day after we watched IAWL on the big screen for the first time, we saw it on stage. The Massasoit (Community College) Theater Company performed a lovely adaptation that allowed me once again to lose myself in this compelling story.




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