Posted by Joseph Knippenberg
Patrick Deneen meditates on the significance of Bailey Park. Must we choose between slums and suburbia? Who can afford community these days?
An interesting read. I found myself nodding in agreement at his discussion of the front porch and its role in community. I miss front porches and the kind of "safe informality" they afford.
Of all the things that erode community, I suspect mobility, which leads to turnover, is the most destructive. To that end, I'd vote for the automobile and the Interstate system as the single most influential developments in our culture in the last 100 years.
I never before realized the dark dimension of George Bailey's disdain for Bedford Falls. Sure, I saw the plot line in the movie, but I saw it as frustration rather than contempt.
Finally, I will go to my grave insisting that no spinster librarian has ever looked as hot as Donna Reed did in that sequence during which George had never been born. She has spawned a thousand fantasies in my heart about hair pulled back in a bun and glasses ...
I read and found Deneen's thoughts on my absolute favorite movie of all time to be quite interesting.
I have always understood George Bailey's disdain for small town life. Having grown up in a small town myself, I think I always identified with it. I knew it was contempt rather than frustration . . . but it was a contempt born of frustration. Deneen makes some legitimate points about the trade-offs involved in moving away from an older style of town life to a more suburban and private life. But he seems to be forgetting many things as well.
For example, why is George Bailey frustrated? He is a talented and ambitious young man. He is a natural king. People look to him for guidance and help. But it appears that he cannot get his just desserts in a place like Bedford Falls. His scope is larger. Surely Deneen does not wish to imply that there is something wrong with that? In some ways, the people who need him there are not worthy of him. He is limited by their neediness and by their small thinking. Bailey has a noble and hungry mind. He cannot find the nourishment he craves in a place so small and unimaginative. But George is also a good man (and Deneen rightly points out that much of his goodness does, in fact, come from his having had the benefit of a rearing in Bedford Falls--though surely that's not the whole explanation for his goodness) and so his reaction to their pronounced need is to do his duty by them. He gives up on his dreams--or, as Deneen (perhaps rightly suggests) he alters the objects of those dreams and sets his dreams to work on a smaller scale.
Deneen sees cause to regret the changes George Bailey initiates because of the lack of "community" that results. But the changes Deneen is skeptical about had been in effect for a good while before the close of the movie--and the community of Bedford Falls did not appear to be fractured in the end . . . indeed, they were quite united and grateful to Bailey. Deneen's criticism may be a hasty conclusion reached by way of 20/20 hindsight some 60 years later and directed less at the innovations of the George Bailey's of the late 1940s than at the innovations of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Deneen may say that those innovations are of a piece with George Bailey's . . . but there are more than a few steps missing here to make that case. And he must also consider some things that may speak against it.
As for the question of whether the only alternatives are slums or suburbs . . . consider this: Did the Henry Potters of this world ever live "front porch" lives? Indeed, they did not. Did they, in that old way of living, ever deign to have some ordinary passer-by come sip a mint julep or a lemonade with him? He always had his castle and he was king of it--as well as much else. Most important, such men always had their independence. And they didn't always use it with the same regard to duty as a natural king like George Bailey could be trusted to use it.
Bailey Park was a great boon to Bedford Falls. Instead of renting and bowing before a lord like Potter, each man could be lord of his own lot in life--both literally and figuratively. To be sure, not every man would live up to the test of his civic virtue in the same way that George Bailey did. But many more would have the opportunity to give it a try. Fewer natural kings would be stifled by an unnatural order to their universe that kept them burning their lamps under bushel baskets. There's not only one reason the Bible cautions against this . . . there are two. One is because it's a waste of the light. The second one is that burning a light under a basket is dangerous; it's apt to start a terrible fire and destroy at least one life (and sometimes it is a great many lives).
I think the real message of the movie is a conservative one. If the young and impetuous George Bailey started out with contempt for the small town that kept him down, the mature George Bailey was able to grasp that circumstances do not make the man and a truly free man cannot be kept down by any circumstances. Freedom comes from God first, and must be realized within us before we can expect to see its fruits. The form that expression takes can be a bitter-sweet little tragedy of sorts because of all of life's (and our) imperfections. But still, it is a wonderful life we have been given and it is (thank God!) up to us (and not a Henry Potter) to keep it wonderful. Whatever obstacles we may face cannot diminish the wonder of life. The theme of Life is Beautiful (one of my other all time favorites) is very similar--though more stark and less subtle.
There is one aspect to the Deneen critique that I had not considered--the building over the past (literally) by putting Bailey Park upon the city's old cemetery. I guess I have never realized that in watching it all these years . . . so now I'll have to watch it again. But even here there is more than one way to take that. It is sacrilege from one point of view--but from another it may be a kind of recognition that we build UPON the past. We spring forth, literally, from the seeds of our ancestors. It is a very earthy and real part of us, and yet, our spirits cannot be bound by it. Their bodies are underfoot, but their souls are marching with us. Of course, I say that as a person who has never had much use for cemeteries . . . preferring, as I do, to remember my dearly departed among and through the living. Cemeteries have their uses (esp. comfort to the living as I have discovered by aging and maturing myself) but at some point they become relics of a long forgotten past that cannot be revived by the mere visiting when there are none left above to recall those below.
Kate, You need to write that interpretation up and get it published. Not only is that interpretation thoroughly original, it's a fine reflection on true human greatness. I hope Dr. Pat responds.
I meant Julie! Merry Christmas Julie!
Trivia -- the cemetery is called "Potter's Field" in the movie, presumably because it was yet another property owned by Henry Potter. But that can't be mere coincidence ...
Then he who had betrayed Him, seeing that He was condemned, sorrowing, Judas returned the thirty pieces of silver again to the chief priests and elders, saying, I have sinned, betraying innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? You see to that. And he threw the pieces of silver down in the temple and departed. And he went and hanged himself. And the chief priests took the silver pieces, and said, It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, because it is the price of blood. And they took counsel and bought the potter's field with them, to bury strangers in. Therefore that field was called, The Field of Blood, to this day. Matthew 27:3-8
Thanks Peter. I might also have added that the moral of the story was that George comes to realize the value of the town and the people he had once held in contempt. He comes to realize that there was, in fact, a scope large enough for him to perfect himself (and people wise enough to be grateful to him) in the town he had once considered too confining. It took him longer to realize this lesson than it took his friends (and brother) who did move on . . . because they had an experience to compare it against. They were able to see that the world outside of Bedford Falls was not all that different from the world inside it. Very often people who move away from small towns in search of something better find that no matter where they go, life is still just life. Joy and fulfillment come from within. I think that was the moral of the story with Bailey's friend and brother. Bailey's friend lost the girl in all his striving for better vistas. His brother became a hero . . . but George was the hero of the hero. George had saved his brother's life and George was still--in the brother's words--the "richest man in town."
Thanks for pointing that out Don. I'll have to think on that. I'm sure you're right that it's not a coincidence.
And, Julie, that is a really Christian message, found in the best American Christmas tale ever.
George lived a "Christian life" without explicit references to Christianity -- he was good and kind and gracious to others, which seemed to flow from an inner light.
In the dream sequence we see not only the state of the world absent George, we see George absent God. It is a cold, dreary and lonely reality.
The movie is in one sense a subtle validation of the Christian message of loving one's neighbor. It shows how life is really easier with God than without. "Take My yoke on you and learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you shall find rest to your souls." (Matthew 11:29)
A truly great chain of comments! Very insightful, all. Thanks! And Merry Christmas.
Peter, if you're still reading this, drop me an email . . . I don't have your address for some reason.
And yes . . . it is a Christian message in an American, non-sectarian sort of universal way. A defense of the parochial that embraces the universal. Or we might say a "catholic" way . . . but that might cause us to be misunderstood.
Paul, Merry Christmas to you too. See Charlie Wilson and Juno while you have the time. Julie, I'm emailing you in a few minutes. And you're right about the "catholic" (see Orestes Brownson or Walker Percy etc.).
I emailed the link to Patrick's essay to an architect/urban planner (and part-time university lecturer) friend this morning. Invited him to get together soon to discuss the article and what we might do about *realizing* the most positive of PD's insights locally.
Could turn out to be an expensive "chain of comments." Let's hope so.
While you’re at it, listen to this lecture, order this book, and get ahold of Mark Henrie’s 2002 essay from The University Bookman (unfortunately not available online anywhere I’ve looked).
But have a merry Christmas first!
It's certainly hard to discretely mete out the frustration from the contempt--in this regard George's pathos always reminded me of a kind of extended adolescence; that's a period of life which can be so torturous because in the midst of struggling for autonomy we're constantly confronted with our parents, the two most poignant symbols of our inescapable "givenness". George seems to see Bedford Falls in a similar way--he wants to liberate himself from his humble origins to remake himself in the modern world. And much like an ornery teenager, he often hates what he also loves--that which, at least partially, made him the man he's become. What George learns is what every adolescent should eventually--the virtue of gratitude for all they're given naturally.The ultra-modern impulse to remake the world is incredibly antithetical to gratitude---I've tended to see this movie about the great difficulty of being a Christian in an increasingly Lockean world.
I think Peter's right, Julie---you should write that interpretation up so more can enjoy it. And Merry Christmas to everyone at NLT!
Joe: Will do. Each of your recommended links looks more-than-interesting. Exactly on point...even provocative. Thanks. Speaking of conservatives (and conservatism) I know that Paul Weyrich (of the Free Congress Foundation) has a keen interest in this very topic.
If one builds/develops community...then one might be able to "afford" community! As the Crunchy Con often sez: "I'm just sayin'!"
BTW, JP's "review of the movie review" gets my "Review of the Review" Award for 2007.
A very Merry Christmas to you and yours, too.
Ivan, thanks, for pointing us in the direction of Christmas gratitude. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas...
Thanks Gary . . . now tell them to send me a mug!
I've been thinking about this for the last two days . . . I wonder what Deneen would say about the house that George and Mary purchase. They don't move to the suburbs George creates for the renting classes . . . but in a very old house in town that they first have to rebuild. On their first significant meeting, George thought so little of the house that he threw rocks at it. Mary chastises him and tells him that she loves it and wants it to be her own someday. And this is their first disagreement and her first opportunity to give him a hint about the lessons she will be teaching him throughout his life. They honeymoon in it when his plans to travel to Europe fall apart (and he gives away all his travel money) . . . they build a home in that house and--as many couples who own an older home discover--the house is a constant source of joy and agony all mixed together. The stair rail ball is always falling off the stairway, for example. When George loses his temper he throws it. (In a nod to this scene, National Lampoon has Chevy Chase attacking his railing with a chainsaw in Christmas Vacation). But at the end of the movie, George comes around to see Mary's view of the house. He proclaims his love of it--even as he still believes that he is in bankruptcy and on the verge of a prison sentence. He is not divorcing himself from the past, but improving upon it. He stands on the shoulders of giants. He remodels his home, his town and--in the end--his own wonderful life--none of which would have been possible without the Bedford Falls of days gone by, but none of which would have been possible (THE WHOLE POINT OF THE MOVIE!) without the unique contributions of George Bailey. He improves it first with ambition and then--more maturely, with gratitude. With these two (very American) elements, George Bailey becomes the ultimate American Christmas hero.
I haven't watched the movie in a few years and so can't remember: Do we know for sure that the "Potter's Field" cemetery was there all the time, and that it was paved over for use in the subdivision that Bailey built? Or is it possible that the field had been empty, and that in the alternate Bailey-never-lived scenario, Potter turned it into a cemetery instead?
You don't miss it till its gone.
---- A simple analysis of the movie.
Did a lot of comments disappear here? What happened?
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