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It’s a Wonderful Life vs. A Christmas Story

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A Tale of Two Rockwells: These two holiday favorites draw on Norman Rockwell’s all-American imagery, but one is a poison pill.

If you’re a sane person, Norman Rockwell’s paintings will drive you insane if you look at them for too long. They might even drive you as insane as George Bailey is at the climax of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

ImageWhat’s the remedy for this? Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story.

These two movies – Capra’s IAWL and Clark’s ACS – have both become the punchline of the same Christmastime joke. They’re beloved holiday favorites that are shown incessantly between Thanksgiving and Dec. 25.

Or at least one of them is. In the last decade or so, the networks got a handle on the insane amount of screenings of IAWL and whittled them down to a few showings – usually one around Thanksgiving and one closer to Christmas.

ACS, by contrast, has earned its place in the pop-culture pantheon with its own insane level of broadcast ubiquity, culminating in TNT’s awesome 24 Hours of A Christmas Story – a marathon that accompanies my last-minute gift-wrapping whenever possible.

I approve of this trend away from IAWL and toward ACS because while both movies draw on the Norman Rockwell aesthetic, they reflect opposite sides of it. IAWL uses Rockwell’s America as a portal into escapist lunacy, while ACS uses Rockwell’s imagery as a springboard into a rumpled, grungy and righteously fun reality.

The first Norman Rockwell painting I can remember seeing was in my elementary school principal’s office. My first grade teacher had sent me down there to wait for my mother because I was sick and needed to go home. Hanging on the wall was Rockwell’s “The Winner,” also known as “The Shiner,” I believe. The painting depicts a bobby-socks-wearing, pigtailed, rosy-cheeked tomboy sitting in the waiting room of the principal’s office. One of her eyes has been blackened, presumably from a recent fight. In the background, a door stands slightly ajar, and we see two surprised male faces looking out into the waiting room.

The painting gets its title from the expression on the girl’s face: She’s smiling her ass off.

Even at that young age, this image didn’t sit right with me. The ghoulish principal at my elementary school had lumbered out of a Roald Dahl fever dream, complete with asparagus breath, green teeth, a huge belly and a name so Dickensian I hesitate to type it because later in life she – no bullshit – committed suicide by shooting herself in her stomach so she would die slowly, a la Mr. Orange from Reservoir Dogs. We’ll call her Mrs. Highweight.

As an underfunded grade school in the sticks, my school came factory-equipped with scores of overfed redneck bullies who spiked their hair into menacing Mohawks and ranged around the playground pissing circles around their territory, their elbows gawky and swollen as they struggled through puberties they should have been experiencing in junior high school, were it not for their inability to meet the minimum requirements  to pass third fucking grade.

These overgrown hormone cases had their way at my school, because any time a kid fought back, both that kid and the bully in question would get sent to Mrs. Highweight’s office – and she’d punish both of them for fighting.

As I progressed through grade school, my ideas (however primitive) of right, wrong, justice and injustice started to take shape, and I started to hate Rockwell’s “The Winner” and its implicit message that the powers that be would sympathize with the little girl and punish whatever bully had been picking on her. It just wasn’t true. Mrs. Highweight was in the next room, and she’d punish them both.

Maybe I’m projecting a lot into that painting. Probably. But I can’t ignore the triumphant smile on her face. (Later in life, I would be fortunate enough to encounter far more thoughtful and just school administrators, and when I picked a fight with a bully, they recognized who was in the right.)

But I can’t forget the feeling that when I first met Norman Rockwell through one of his paintings, he lied to me.

Norman Rockwell shows us a treacly, idealized, neutered, homespun, gingham-aproned, pulled-up-by-the-bootstraps, rosy-cheeked, golly-shucks America where everyone is a white, Christian male and no one swears.

Norman Rockwell shows us Utopia. Remember what Utopia means? No place.

IAWL’s framing device presses no less than God almighty into duty as our deus ex machina, assuring us that George Bailey will weather this movie safely a few frames into the first reel.

I won’t bore anyone with a full recap of IAWL, but just to remind you: George fucking hates Bedford Falls. He spends the whole movie trying to bolt, only to get hung up back home by guilt and familial obligations. A doddering, idiot relative screws him by dropping a few grand into the lap of his arch-nemesis. This prompts George to consider suicide, only to top that impulse with the wish that he had never been born. Enter a wacky angel who intervenes and shows George an alternate reality where he never existed. George recants his wish and lives happily ever after.

Just for the hell of it, let’s admit one additional premise into our interpretation of IAWL:

There is no god.

Feel free to open a debate with me about the existence of gods – deistic, theistic, pagan or otherwise – in the forum thread for this article, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that in the reality of IAWL (just as in ours) there is no superpowerful magic dude who intervenes in the terrestrial affairs of superintelligent, hyperevolved, hairless apes.

While you’re considering that premise, let me remind you of another movie that explores similar territory: Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky. (Apologies to fans of the original, Abre Los Ojos – I haven’t seen it.)

SPOILER ALERT (for anyone who gives a shit) FOR VANILLA SKY

Tom Cruise’s character gets into a car wreck that disfigures him. Unbeknownst to the audience, he agrees to have his body inserted into a Matrix-esque virtual reality that will give him a perfect life. If you watch the movie closely, you’ll hear subtle, science-fiction-y bleeps and clicks when his character enters the virtual reality. If you look at the sky in this scene, you’ll see that it’s taken on a surreal, impressionistic, purple-and-orange sunset glow. Soon after he enters this virtual reality, doctors beset him with good news – they can repair his facial disfigurement!

But as the movie pans out, the virtual reality degrades (becoming a nightmare), and Cruise’s character opts out of the simulation. He chooses reality over the comforting fantasy.

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Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.

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