Classic film released in 1946. Directed by Frank Capra and written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Capra, based on Philip Van Doren Stern's story "The Greatest Gift." Starred James Stewart as George Bailey, Donna Reed as Mary Hatch, Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter, Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy, and Henry Travers as Clarence.

Is there anyone out there who doesn't know this story? George Bailey stays in his small hometown to run the family's Building and Loan, despite a desire to see the world. When he's about to lose everything one Christmas, thanks to the machinations of the evil Mr. Potter, George plans to kill himself, but a sad-sack angel named Clarence shows him what the world would've been like if George had never been born.

The movie originally flopped at the box office, but it became more popular over the decades after its copyright was allowed to expire. The film was aired repeatedly on American television, especially around the holidays. Capra never saw a penny in royalties, but the movie's popularity skyrocketed until it became acknowledged as a Christmas classic.

Fave line: "A toast to my big brother George -- the richest man in town."

Third album by Sparklehorse released in 2001. Mark Linkous is painting the same melancholic pictures but with with a few more colours on his easel, namely more guest vocalists and instruments. Dave Fridmann does a lot of the production. As before, surreal lyrics make an ear-catching appearance. How this album will measure up to Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot and Good Morning, Spider only time will tell.

Track listing

  1. It's a wonderful life
    An optigan, orchestron and chamberlin feature here. Linkous alone plays all the instruments, produces and mixes.
  2. Gold Day
    The mellotron, wurlizer piano,dictaphone and fey lyrics lend mean this track would sit comfortably on Led Zeppelin III. Nina Persson of The Cardigans provides backing vocals.
  3. Piano Fey
    In the established Sparklehorse tradition, a slowburner is followed by a wake-up call. Polly Jean Harvey lends a hand (on piano) and a voice.
  4. Sea of Teeth
    The drummer, Scott Minor, is credited here with playing a Russian satellite. Dave Fridmann tinkles away on piano.
    Can you feel the ring
    of Saturn on your finger
  5. Apple Bed
    Nina plays a more prominent role, pleading with a doctor for a remedy and the chance to smoke some bees. Horses are mentioned, an obsession Linkous shares with Will Oldham.
  6. King Of Nails
    Sophie Michelitsianos sings along on this stomper.
  7. Eyepennies
    Another PJ Harvey collaboration. John Pariah plays piano and Linkous strikes those high delicate notes that evokes Neil Young.
  8. Dog Door
    Rollicking track featuring the peerless Tom Waits (voice, big seed pod, metal things and a train). A backward midget voice and a kitty cat guitar is used.
  9. more yellow birds
    A standout track on the album. The violin emphasises the aching melancholia.
    Is your jewellery still lost in the sand
    out on the coast or rushed in to the brine
    you left your rings on the shoreline
    so you wouldn't lose them swimming in the shallows
  10. little fat baby
    Inspired by the Vic Chesnutt song Myrtle
  11. Comfort me
    The strings that play at the end of this song reminds one of a track on a previous Sparklehorse album.
  12. Babies on the sun
    This track starts strangely but then a melody emerges. Baby voices (always slightly disturbing) feature.
  13. 'Hidden track'
    About three minutes of silence elapse and then this beautiful diamond is unearthed. It's worth waiting for and it maybe one of the best tracks on the album. Its a duet worthy of Gram and Emmylou and will bring a tear to any eye.
    In the silver morning hollow,
    trembling and getting old
    smelling the
    oil of heaven
    'bout ten years too big to hold
    She don't get up
    When I come
    into the room
    She don't walk through the fields

For a lot of people, the defining moment in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life happens right before the credits roll, when a redeemed George Bailey, basking in the warmth of loved ones and financial security, opens Clarence's present: a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the inside cover of which is inscribed by Clarence with the following adage: "No man is a failure who has friends." Coming at the tail-end of the movie, Clarence's advice has the ring of an Aesopian "moral of the story." And so, people usually name this scene as the film's big moment. Others point to a moment a few minutes earlier in the movie, when George is slumped over the bridge begging for redemption. Having been shown the desolation of sans-George Bedford Falls, George prays with utter humility, "I want to live again. I want to live again. Please God, let me live again." Just as he trails off, sobbing, fresh snow begins to fall, signaling that God has granted his wish and restored him to his "wonderful life."

But for me, and for a few others I've talked to, neither of these scenes fits the bill. The popular view of the film is that it's a fluffy holiday classic, heavy on the sentimentality and light on the substance. Mostly, this is attributable to the title of the film, plus the fact that the movie is constantly linked to feel-good memes like "Christmas," "gifts," and "love." The hell with that.

I have always seen IAWL as a much darker film than people usually give it credit for. How many "holiday classics" feature the main character shouting "I wish I'd never been born!" mere minutes after a thwarted suicide attempt? For an excruciatingly long time, George's life is far from wonderful, and we are forced to wade through the muck and misery with him. That said, I still think IAWL is an optimistic, redemptive film. However, powerful redemption can only come after real, intense existential darkness.

That said, my "defining" IAWL moment comes during George's guided tour through Pottersville, the seedy and dismal dystopia that would have been had George never been born. He has just visited his childhood home, which has been converted into the Ma Bailey Boarding House. His mother does not recognize him, and she unwittingly reveals to George that Uncle Billy has been in the insane asylum "ever since he lost his business." Then she slams the door. Terrified, George rushes from his mother's door, almost crashing into the camera. We see nothing but George's crazed, unshaven face in an uncomfortably close close-up. Cut to Clarence, who offers what are, to me, the central words of the film:

"Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"

These brief words sum up what is most substantial about the movie. They contain the most wisdom, because they come during the darkest time. From this quotation, a number of concepts and ideas spring forth, each of which is richer and more interesting than the greeting card-y, "No man is a failure who has friends." Taking the Clarence's individual sentences out of context, these ideas include:

  • "Each man's life touches so many other lives."
    This reminds us of the essential interdependence of human beings, the extent of which is only barely known to us.
  • "Strange, isn't it?"
    Clarence notes the apparent "strangeness" of the previous truth, which underscores the human's ignorance of its interconnectedness with our environment.
  • "When he isn't around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"
    Clarence, who is relatively plainspoken, offers a poetic image here: the "awful hole" of nonbeing. George, with his limited perspective, saw the world as unbearable, simply because his own life seemed unbearable. What Clarence tells George is that every person is an essential part of the world, and no matter how bleak one's life may seem, the pain of being pales in comparison to the awful hole left by one's self-erasure. This gets into some pretty heavy territory, including fate, destiny, the ethical responsibility to live, and suicide, which I won't even touch here. Needless to say, Clarence's words pack a wallop.

Like I said earlier, IAWL is a powerfully optimistic film. Optimism is generally disfavored among the "cultured elite" as the comfy, flimsy worldview of preschool teachers and preschool students. But this isn't real optimism, just a kind of naiveté that may or may not be a calculated front. Real, robust optimism, loosely defined as a belief that this world is "the best of all possible worlds," does exist. But for it to truly become so, there must first be an honest and intense encounter with the darkness. It's a Wonderful Life plunges headlong into the darkness, and emerges with a newly forged optimism that is profound and strong.

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