On Christmas eve my thirteen-year-old grandson was breathing down my neck, waiting for me to finish and have the computer to access the web for his games. So I couldn't really give to It's a wonderful life all its due.
I said already that I love old Hollywood movies, because, as the Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell strongly said, America found in them one of her best self expressions, more originally her own than, say, in philosophy or theology, or in political theory, where it stayed pretty much in line with Europe.
Through movies America gave a mythical expression of herself, reaching with success beyond her borders. Nothing of the kind in Europe, where, besides great movies by great directors like Fellini or Bergman, the average production didn't have the same popular mythical appeal. For this was always preferred Hollywood.
Instead of mythical, I could have said archetypical. I won't explain what this means. I will illustrate it.
Little had people to do with the kings, princes and princesses of old fairytales and romances, or for that matter my grandson with the knights and warriors of his games, but it is to these that the imagination resorts. Little had the people of the East Coast to do with the heroes of the prairies that from Nineteenth Century pulp fiction passed into movies, and though John Wayne is there as a sort of American monument. The noble characters and exotic locations serve to remind that there are differences that in everyday life get blurred, which make good guys good and bad guys bad, women beautiful princesses or ugly witches, men brave or vile and cruel, and so on.
Here you have representations of the primary figures – call them archetypes – that make the plot of all possible stories into a myth.
And yet, "I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic," remarked some time ago Ralph Waldo Emerson, apparently speaking for himself, but actually making that "I" of his a spokesman for America, "I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low." If anything, this would mean a preference for ordinary, everyday stories, because – let me say – in themselves mythical. Again Hollywood provided for that.
It was enough, to be quizzical about life, and suggest that one way or another "it is a wonderful life", to tell the plain story of a young man who dreamt of traveling and doing great things… and indeed he did them, but with no need to go very far.
The villain of the movie is the callous capitalist who thinks any enterprise that doesn't give an immediate return in money superfluous. It easily reminds us of today. But the answer given by the movie to such a callousness it isn't to make government surrogate the private lack of concern.
The answer is to recast our lives in the archetype of gift: the sense of gratuitousness immanent to all human intercourse, that makes of any encounter an adventure, in which we put ourselves at stake with no need of going very far from home.
Of course we can measure the give and take, in some of its very conspicuous manifestations, with money, but this cannot replace the mutual concern represented by gift, and the trust – or fides – that comes from it: at the price of facing the hellish wondrousness of how life would have been if we hadn't put our heart in it.
I speak of the archetype represented by the Christmas gift exchange, evoked in the final scene of the movie, when all the good gratuitously done brings its return of equally gratuitous thanks.