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.