Thursday, December 20, 2007

Replace a Wonderful Life with Millions

One reason to suspect that I am really a deeply undercover cold-war mole, and grew up outside western culture, is that I did not see It’s a Wonderful Life until I was in college. Even before cable TV, it was apparently hard to watch TV in December without seeing It’s a Wonderful Life playing on one station or another. Or so I am told. I only had a vague sense that it had something to do with banking.

I finally saw it when the Ryder Film Series of Bloomington, IN screened it in the mid 1980s, while I attended Indiana University. The Ryder Series was my first true education in film. It was mostly independent and foreign films of the day, but also showed classics on a regular basis and was not above showing lowbrow comedies. They rented out the IU Fine Arts Auditorium for shows, as well as a local bar/restaurant called Bear’s Place. I saw films like Koyaanisqatsi, Fanny and Alexander, and This is Spinal Tap via the Ryder, and also Citizen Kane for the first time when they screened it.

In fact, Jill and my’s first “date” was to Bear’s Place to see (gasp) Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School. It didn’t start out as a date – it was just a way to escape studying for summer midterms, and was the only movie playing within walking distance. However it ended as a date, much to my everlasting surprise. So, I remain forever indebted to the Ryder, even when they show crappy movies, because you never know. Although, I suppose the object lesson could go the other way: Don’t put yourself in a position where you have to admit that your first date with the love of your life was Back to School.

They screened It’s a Wonderful Life in mid-December (but of course). I don’t know if it was the relief of the end of that semester, or maybe that I was feeling alone and friendless myself at the time, but I think it was the first movie I ever got teary-eyed at. There’s nothing like realizing that the human condition is bearable because of our connections with each other, and that good things sometimes happen to good people because they are good. Yay schmaltz! It has been a Christmas staple for me from college onward.

Of course, time tends to erode the thrill of any experience, and so it has been for It’s a Wonderful Life. I tried to watch it with the kids a few years ago, but they were mostly just confused about bank runs and the Depression. The last time I saw it, I thought maybe I didn’t need to see it again for a few years.

Lately, when asked what my favorite movie is, I’ve abandoned the long-honored tradition of naming a movie that I think that particular person will be impressed with. Instead, I tell them about a movie that I’ve seen four or five times now and still enjoy it as much as I did the first time: Millions. I remain mystified as to why more people don't know about it, because it is such a gem of a movie.

It really isn’t a Christmas movie, but then again, neither is It’s a Wonderful Life. In fact, I wonder if the best Christmas movies are not really about Christmas, but just use it as a backdrop. Except for A Christmas Story. That one couldn’t work any other time of the year. In fact, I haven’t seen that in a few years either, so it might be time to see it again.

Anyway, Millions shares two things with It’s a Wonderful Life: They are both sappy, and they both involve banking during the Christmas season. But Millions is the kind of banking my kids can identify with (or would like to, anyway): What do you do with several hundred thousand English sterling that must be spent in a few weeks before the Euro causes them to become worthless? Amidst the chaos, a saintly little boy tries to do right when everyone around him is gleefully being corrupted by the sudden availability of money.

If you haven’t seen it, go rent it - you won’t be disappointed. The IMDB entry is here, and it was also shown at EbertFest, and I did a review of it here. I’ve decided that it is now The Christmas Movie at our house, and we will watch it ever year, until I inevitably get sick of it, or there is the usual insurrection in the family about not watching the movie Dad wants to watch. Then I’ll cave, like I usually do.


Robert Sievers said...

Well, it isn't a Christmas film, but the movie that makes my teary-eyed everytime I see it is "Life is Beautiful". I mean, what could be more heart-wrenching than a holocaust comedy.

Dan S said...

Yea, nothing like a good Holocaust movie to turn on the waterworks. The first movie I really sobbed at was Schindler's List.

Interestingly, I find that it isn't cruelty that gets to me at movies so much as people coming out of nowhere to reveal their goodness.