5.22.2011

It COULD BE a Wonderful Life....if You're Open to That Sort of Thing

We love a good story.  We love a good movie.  Some movies will draw you in and stay with you; you watch them over and over and over.  They speak to you depending on where you are in life at the moment you watch them. Sometimes they speak to you because they remind you of a place you used to be in life.  Sometimes they reveal things about you which you were probably aware but not fully admitting to yourself.  Movies allow you to escape into someone else’s perils for a while to forget about yours.  To really examine a character is to really examine one’s self.   Here are three classics to help introduce you to yourself. 

It’s A Wonderful Life, 1946

George Bailey is, by all accounts, a good guy.  What that means is that he is adores his wife and family, is successful, and is generally pleasant.  When his father dies, George takes over the Savings and Loan that his father ran.  His uncle misplaced a $5,000 deposit (in the time period of the movie that was lot of money) and George feels helpless.  More importantly he feels hopeless.  In his utter desperation, he attempts to kill himself by jumping off a bridge.  Then an angel named Clarence appears with a specific purpose – to show George that his life has meaning. 

The angel takes George on a journey to show him the positive impact his life has had on those around him.  His brother nearly drowns in childhood and George saved his life; then saw his brother become war hero.  We watch as George’s life is revealed to him, showing him specifically all the people he helped.  He consistently sacrifices his own self in order to help someone else.  As he embarks on this journey, he begins to become to transformed from someone whose own life was at stake to someone who becomes filled with an overwhelming desire to live.  And live with fervor he does.

He is kind and compassionate to the less fortunate and then in his hour of crisis the entire town came together to save him.  A long-lost friend pledges to wire George the $5,000. The entire town comes together and each person pledges money.  George realizes that he should not go through with suicide because his life is meaningful, he is beloved, and life truly does have a purpose.  The dynamic and complex aspect of the character that transfers energy to the story is that sometimes we are all faced with what initially appears to be a dire situation.  But if we take the time to understand and assess the situation, we just might find that things have a way of working out.  It can be a wonderful life if we just allow ourselves to be open to the positive side of things and embrace life for all it has to offer.  We also learn that we touch every person’s life with whom we come into contact.  And sometimes, they change us more than we impact them. 

The Apartment, 1960

Many people constantly struggle with their own internal noise and spend their whole lives trying to answer questions like: Did I sell out? My life is not what I thought it could be. Am I a bad parent? Maybe I should hit the gym today.  C.C. Baxter is the embodiment of all of these questions and more.  He is somewhat quirky, somewhat hilarious, somewhat driven to succeed, and somewhat na├»ve. 

C.C.  is a low-level employee at an insurance company.  He works every day from 8:50 A.M. to 5:20 P.M.  at the same desk, surrounded by the same people, and rides the same elevator day-in and day-out to the 19th Floor.  He has some ambition to rise to middle management but he is one of many in a faceless, nameless pool of similar employees.  The biggest thing at stake for him is to be promoted and he will do anything to get there – even sell out.  He actually has no qualms with selling out and sees it as just the way things are.  The one thing he does have going for him is that he is male is a male-dominated, “old boys club” world.  The one thing working against him in his environment is that he isn’t part of the cool kids or the in crowd. 

In order to fit in among the popular guys at the office and in an attempt to get that coveted promotion, C.C. essentially makes a deal with the devil.  He is single and has an apartment in the city.  Most of the upper management (who are all men) are married men who actively and openly have myriad of sorted affairs with women.  However, they need a place to take their mistresses. So C.C. allows the men to use his apartment.  They systematically pass the key to his apartment around the office while C.C. keeps a detailed schedule of the rotation.  Whenever C.C. feels the squeeze or just wants his apartment to himself, he tries to tell the guys the apartment is not available for a particular evening.  They always respond by reminding him that his numbers look good and the human resources department will be making promotion recommendations any day, insinuating that he will get a promotion if he allows them to continue using the apartment.   He is somewhat irritated yet allows them to sort of bully him because he believes they will put in a good word for him to upper management. 

All is going swimmingly until the company president wants a piece of the action.  C.C. allows the president to use the apartment and he thinks surely now he will get that promotion – to middle management.  However, this is when he begins to change – for the better!

He realizes that his love interest, Fran, is the boss’s mistress. The complex and dynamic aspect of the character that transfers energy to the story is when the boss’s mistress attempts suicide over their failed relationship – in the apartment.  C.C. plays nurse and gets her get back on her feet.  He even tells the world that her attempted suicide was his fault, protects the boss, and even takes a punch!  The boss is so thankful for this that he promotes C.C. – twice - giving him an office on the coveted 27th Floor and access to the executive bathroom.  C.C. Baxter has sold out. 

However, when good people sell out they sometimes regret the decision.  Sometimes when we get to the top (at the cost of our own integrity, principles, and energy), we realize that the view from the top is not necessarily what it is cracked up to be.  C.C.’s boss asks him for the apartment key – again – and C.C. has finally had enough. He refuses and quits the job that he worked so hard to get.  He once seemed resolved to selling out and now seems relieved that it’s over.  He is a good man and has chosen personal integrity over professional gain.  And makes us laugh through his entire journey.

The Graduate, 1967
When Benjamin Braddock graduates from college, he is so much like a lot of people his age.  He is without direction, without a job, and living with his parents.  He has a melancholy demeanor and despite his father’s best attempts at getting him off his rear end and into something passionate, Ben is just lost.  The night of his graduation party he is approached by the wife of his father’s business partner, Mrs. Robinson.  She flirts with him aggressively. She is twice his age.  He is a little mortified….and a little turned on. 

Ben is able to elude Mrs. Robinson for a while however he eventually calls her and asks if he can buy her a drink.  This leads to a summer-long torrid affair.  Ironically, the affair is just what Ben needed to gain some perspective about his life.  He goes into the relationship a virgin – in every sense of the word – and emerges as a changed man at the ripe old age of twenty-one.  

As the summer of being lost, without direction, without a job, and without enthusiasm continues, Ben gets pressure from his parents to go on a date with Elaine Robinson who is Mrs. Robinson’s daughter.  Ben begrudgingly agrees.  Surprisingly to Ben, he falls head-over-feet for Elaine.  This sends the drunken, unstable Mrs. Robinson into a rage. She tells everyone that Ben raped her.  Ben flees town and chases after Elaine when she returns to college in the fall.  The movie ends with Ben and Elaine ending up together.   

Benjamin Braddock is so much like people his age.  He is searching for who he is and what he believes and what he stands for.   He wants to do something with his life but he isn’t in a real hurry to do it.  He discovers the difference between sex and love and screws up along the way. Ultimately he decides that following his own path is difficult, scary, and full of misplaced energy however it is the only way to find yourself and to be happy with who you are.  When in the pursuit of creating yourself, stupid decisions are excusable as long as you learn and grow from them.

Conclusion
So, which are you?  Are you George Bailey, faced with the impossible and unable to see the good in yourself and your life?  Are you C.C. Baxter, so driven by desires to succeed that you almost sell out (or have you sold out already but you’re ok with that)?  Or are you Benjamin Braddock, struggling with your own identity and doing something a little against the grain? 

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