The current cinematic buffet is offering up some increasingly gloomy, ambiguous fare, with the likes of Troll Hunter, A Lonely Place to Die, Super 8, tempered with unbelievably saccharine nonsense like Mr Popper’s Penguins and Friends With Benefits. I was leafing through my DVDs and I think I’ll compile a list of the most life-affirming films I’ve seen, 2 at a time, over the next few weeks. These are films which have consistently impacted on me and stayed with me.
It’s a Wonderful Life
The film is an unabashed and brilliantly crafted tale of a man, George Bailey, who has lived his life in the small-town setting of Bedford Falls. A good man at heart, George falls on bad times financially, and despite a loving family, becomes suicidally depressed in a very real, and very affecting way. The story that follows is a wonderful and fantastical ride through Bailey’s past, visiting his prom night and the discovery of the love of his life, an incident in which he saved his brother from drowning in a frozen pond, and a run on the bank after which he uses his own money (originally deposited for his honeymoon) to quell unrest from the bank’s customers insisting on a return on their investments.
George Bailey is the epitome of a ‘good man’ always acting selflessly and sacrificing all of his ambitions and desires to help those in need. The premise may seem hokey and ‘too good to be true’ but the charming and natural James Stewart handles the role masterfully, portraying Bailey as cheeky and often quick-witted and beligerant. The character of Bailey lives and breathes, not the one-dimensional ‘good guy’ seen in modern cinema, but a wonderfully rounded man who acts generously out of his own free will.
It’s a Wonderful Life can seem corny to some, especially if some scenes are watched “out of context”, similarly, the central plot of the film, involving the angel, Clarence, getting his wings could be a large ask of an audience unwilling to suspend their disbelief for the duration. But the enduring spirit of the piece is what gives it gravitas and longevity.
This is a film that unashamedly celebrates human kindness, the nature of ‘giving’ and acting without self-regard or materialism is rewarded over and over by the time the credits roll. But the real triumph, and the reason why the film holds itself together so impressively, manifests itself within the opening narrative. The intense despair that George Bailey feels is palpable, played to perfection by Stewart. There is a very vivid sense that this is a man driven to the edge of reason, and the decision to take his own life is something he visibly struggles with.
The human nature to endure, and to overcome is something that runs through the film as a common thread, no matter how dark things get, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, and never is this more visible than the relief and pride which fills Bailey during the film’s emotional climax. The response by the townsfolk to reward his lifelong commitment to the place is both heartrending and beautiful to behold.
The Shawshank Redemption
The apprentice becomes the master in Shawshank Redemption, as Frank Darabont, the longtime admirer of Frank Capra, emulates his style with aplomb and creates one of the most uplifting and visually arresting modern parables in recent memory.
The story revolves around Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne, a wrongly imprisoned former banker, framed for the murder of his wife. The mitigating circumstances that have led to Andy’s incarceration are fully fleshed out during the course of the film, however it is testament to both the directorial work of Darabont, as well as the source material (a short story called ‘Hope Springs Eternal’ by Stephen King) that the focus is always on the events and relationships concerning the main cast of characters, such as Red, brilliantly played by Morgan Freeman; Brooks, the perpetually institutionalized and wizened denizen of the library; Bogs Diamond, the masochistic sex offender, as well as Warden Norton and his violent lackey Heywood. This is very much a ‘character piece’ and is not overly reliant on set pieces, however there is still time to fit in one or two absolute corkers (playing music to the transfixed prisoners over the PA system for instance).
The beauty of Shawshank and the reason I include it on this list, is the way in which it sticks very close to it’s central thesis. The idea that “you get busy living, or you get busy dying” becomes a mantra for Andy and Red. Andy’s stark refusal, almost to the point of delusion, in the idea that he will eventually become free of Shawshank, is a stirring idealism that sums up the human spirit. In the same way that George Bailey’s selflessness has benefited the entire town of Bedford Falls, so Dufresne’s tireless efforts benefit his fellow prisoners, gaining them a new library, and even some ‘work on the roof in the sunshine’. The endearing and timeless aspect of the Shawshank Redemption is to show how a person can be thrust into a situation for which they are unprepared, for no real reason, and can rise above. There are times when the despair Dufresne feels is entirely palpable, the frustration at his wrong imprisonment and the subsequent years of toil and suffering, brought about after his cheating wife was murdered. His resilience and ability to soar above the walls of Shawshank speak volumes of his character, and the human spirit’s ability to endure.
Next: Big Fish, Up.