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Peter T Chattaway

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

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: Quite right, but in that parenthesis I was deliberately theologizing.

Ah, but in order to theologize the story, you have to have a certain understanding of the story ITSELF, and that is still up for debate here.

A lot may be up for debate, but I think we can reasonably posit "a certain understanding." The parable of the workers, like the prodigal son, the wedding guests, and the wicked tenants, are all about coming of the kingdom.

Each of these parables distinguishes at least two parties or groups: those who enjoy established positions of favor (the original workers, the older son, the original wedding guests, the original tenants) and the johnny-come-latelys who, one way or other, threaten the privileged positions of the former, either by joining them or even supplanting them.

The last shall be first, and the first last. In this connection we may speak of the sinner who repents and the ninety-nine righteous, the tax collectors and prostitutes who enter the kingdom ahead of the chief priests and elders, or we may also speak of Gentiles and Jews. In any case, the landowner, the father, the man throwing the feast, is Israel's God.

The landowner's, too. Otherwise, how could he accuse them of "standing here all day long"? It does NOT sound as though they got there AFTER his previous visits to the marketplace.

But the question also implies that as far as he is concerned there is no reason for anyone to be found standing around idle; there is work for anyone who wants it.

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Let's not forget that Mr. Potter {a} offers the local bank and its customers a private bailout package at the start of the Great Depression (which, you'll recall, is more than the federal government was willing to do) and {b} performs useful service for his country by chairing the local draft board during WWII. You can argue that his motives weren't pure, especially, with {a}, but these actions do offer us a suggestion that Potter is more than one-dimensional.

Lionel Barrymore was rightly beloved for his Mercury Radio Theatre portrayals of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, as well as for kindly grandfather-type roles like Martin Vanderhof in You Can't Take It with You. Capra cast him against type as Mr. Potter, and Barrymore, afraid the role would change public perception of him, agreed to do it only if he could wear a prosthesis that changed the appearance of his head. That's why he looks different in this film than he does in others.

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We watch this pretty much most years (sometimes in an annual Christmas Eve cinema showing in Leeds), and I'm a big fan of the film and find it one of those films that helps me reflect on, and process the direction of my life. Having found it increasingly despairing in recent years, this time I found it less so than in previous years, despite feeling worse about my own life than in previous years - I think my approach to the film has undergone a paradigm shift such that I've got more detached from it whereas previously I used to personalise it more.

Anyway, the more I think about it, the more I am persuaded that I would prefer a slightly different ending. George still witnesses Clarence's vision and is inspired and changed by it, but the final scene is a bit more downbeat. Perhaps after a long war his friends simply don't have the $8000 to bail him out - despite their best efforts. Of course there's a power and an uplift to the saccharine ending (though c.f PTC's recent blog posts on sentimentality as avoidance of reality), but how much more meaningful would the film be to people unenamoured by their contribution to others' lives were it to show George perhaps heading towards difficult times, but with a renewed spirit and a fresh perspective. Or perhaps if some other crisis had triggered his suicidal thoughts which did require such a dramatic, but unrealistic pay off?

And as for the parable of the talents pay off, it's only right for me to post this:

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=4mpxMZWuulk

Matt

Edited by MattPage

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SDG wrote:

: A lot may be up for debate, but I think we can reasonably posit "a certain understanding." The parable of the workers, like the prodigal son, the wedding guests, and the wicked tenants, are all about coming of the kingdom.

True, in Matthew's redaction, Jesus tells the parable immediately after the "rich young ruler" episode, which ends on a weird note with all sorts of statements and counter-statements, from Jesus and the disciples, indicating that there is some jockeying for position among the people who are following Jesus -- and these statements do include a reference to the Twelve becoming judges of Israel "at the renewal of all things". But the fact that this parable comes immediately after a bad episode involving a wealthy landowner should, itself, make us wonder just what we are to make of the wealthy landowner in the parable.

: But the question also implies that as far as he is concerned there is no reason for anyone to be found standing around idle; there is work for anyone who wants it.

That still begs the question, why did he not hire them earlier in the day when both he and they were in the market.

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: But the question also implies that as far as he is concerned there is no reason for anyone to be found standing around idle; there is work for anyone who wants it.

That still begs the question, why did he not hire them earlier in the day when both he and they were in the market.

A question that, as far as I can see, the parable doesn't answer.

We can speculate all sorts of answers: Perhaps he didn't need the help and figured that they would pick up work elsewhere, and later hired them out of pity. Perhaps they were standing there but didn't present themselves for work when he came the first time, or perhaps when the landowner was negotiating the day's wage (v.2, "When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day") they opted out, thinking they might get a better offer later.

In terms of textual warrant, your speculation that the landowner first "semi-stingily" tried to get the work done on the cheap, then later decided the work wasn't going fast enough and he really did need more help, and then finally made a seemingly inexplicable (on a diagnosis of "semi-stinginess") decision to pay everyone the same, seems to me neither particularly more grounded or less grounded in the text than the possibilities I mentioned. It does, however, seem much more strained and less plausible.

The more pressing point, though, is that the parable doesn't seem interested in the question of the landowner's motives. The point of the parable seems to be the moral for the laborers.

Edited by SDG

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MattPage wrote:

: And as for the parable of the talents pay off, it's only right for me to post this:

: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=4mpxMZWuulk

That's brilliant, Matt. And for the first time, it gets me thinking that, if we take this parable at all seriously as a story, then it seems obvious that this landowner will have a difficult time getting anyone to work for him (at least earlier in the day) on the NEXT occasion that he goes to the market looking for workers.

Though perhaps, of course, we are not supposed to take parables seriously as stories. But man, so much Christian discourse on storytelling is predicated on the notion that Jesus set a precedent for us in this regard.

SDG wrote:

: A question that, as far as I can see, the parable doesn't answer.

Quite so.

: We can speculate all sorts of answers . . .

Quite so. And as with this plot point, so with the parable as a whole (and many other parables that are often assumed to have nice-and-simple applications): they tease us out of our complacent assumptions about things, and can sometimes point in multiple directions.

: Perhaps he didn't need the help and figured that they would pick up work elsewhere . . .

FWIW, this reminds me: your earlier comment about "the non-value of pursuits outside the master's fields" seems to assume that there was only one potential employer coming to the market to look for workers.

: In terms of textual warrant, your speculation . . . does, however, seem much more strained and less plausible.

Well, it's difficult to interpret erratic behaviour without making erratic theories about it. :)

: The more pressing point, though, is that the parable doesn't seem interested in the question of the landowner's motives. The point of the parable seems to be the moral for the laborers.

Assuming, of course, that we assume the wealthy landowner (or "rich young ruler", or "master", or whatever) has the moral high ground here.

And assuming, of course, that Jesus meant for the parable to have a nice-and-simple moral in the first place.

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And for the first time, it gets me thinking that, if we take this parable at all seriously as a story, then it seems obvious that this landowner will have a difficult time getting anyone to work for him (at least earlier in the day) on the NEXT occasion that he goes to the market looking for workers.

The apocalyptic subtext of most (all?) of Jesus' parables envisions no business-as-usual "next day." The climax is The Climax -- of Israel's history, of God's plan, of the coming of the kingdom.

Though perhaps, of course, we are not supposed to take parables seriously as stories. But man, so much Christian discourse on storytelling is predicated on the notion that Jesus set a precedent for us in this regard.

I wouldn't say we aren't supposed to "take the parables seriously as stories." I would say that we maybe need to open to rethinking what we expect of stories. For instance, not all stories are "about" the extended narrative logic of the world one could infer from story events (again, Tumnus's parcels, etc.).

Quite so. And as with this plot point, so with the parable as a whole (and many other parables that are often assumed to have nice-and-simple applications): they tease us out of our complacent assumptions about things, and can sometimes point in multiple directions.

They can, yes. Whether this particular plot point is rightly taken as a point of departure for such teasing out, or whether we aren't meant to be thinking about it at all, is another question.

: Perhaps he didn't need the help and figured that they would pick up work elsewhere . . .

FWIW, this reminds me: your earlier comment about "the non-value of pursuits outside the master's fields" seems to assume that there was only one potential employer coming to the market to look for workers.

Because, again, I was theologizing, going beyond the story qua story (as hinted by the use of "master"). As a point of moral theology, either you're doing the Lord's work, or you're standing around doing nothing. This is not a point I would posit within the narrative framework of the story itself, where there is no reason to conclude that there is only one wealthy landowner in the area ("No one has hired us" at least most naturally suggests other possible employers).

Well, it's difficult to interpret erratic behaviour without making erratic theories about it. :)

I think the least problematic gloss is my first proposal, that he later hired workers he didn't need out of mercy and generosity.

: The more pressing point, though, is that the parable doesn't seem interested in the question of the landowner's motives. The point of the parable seems to be the moral for the laborers.

Assuming, of course, that we assume the wealthy landowner (or "rich young ruler", or "master", or whatever) has the moral high ground here.

I don't think it's an assumption. With N. T. Wright, Pope Benedict, and any number of other commentators I could cite, in the context of Jesus' kingdom preaching I take the parable to have apocalyptic reference to the coming of the kingdom, with the landowner as Israel's God.

And assuming, of course, that Jesus meant for the parable to have a nice-and-simple moral in the first place.

I think it has a definite meaning. "Nice and simple" is an aesthetic judgment regarding which I have no particular brief.

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SDG wrote:

: The apocalyptic subtext of most (all?) of Jesus' parables envisions no business-as-usual "next day." The climax is The Climax -- of Israel's history, of God's plan, of the coming of the kingdom.

Ah, but what IS that climax? The incarnation? The crucifixion? The resurrection? Something that hasn't happened yet? All of the above? And which aspect of this climax-over-time does any particular part of the parable refer to, and in what ways does it refer to that?

I don't mean to be obtuse about this, but as we can see in the debates over, e.g., the passage in Mark where Jesus quotes Daniel (and whether the Son of Man, in Jesus' application of that passage, is "coming" to Earth or to Heaven, etc., etc.), none of this stuff is as settled or easy to categorize as some people think it is.

: Because, again, I was theologizing, going beyond the story qua story (as hinted by the use of "master").

But even just in saying that, you have to make a certain assumption about the direction the story is pointing you.

: I think the least problematic gloss is my first proposal, that he later hired workers he didn't need out of mercy and generosity.

Well, that begs the question of whether he was really being "generous" in the first place. In fact, your earlier supposal, that these workers had turned down the original job offer because they were waiting for a better deal, makes some sense in that regard. As Ben Witherington III writes:

. . . a denarius could hardly be called a generous gift by anyone's standards. It might not even suffice for a poor man to feed his family for a day. Thus we must be careful about insisting that this parable speaks of God's generosity even to the undeserving.

So let's start with the question of the wealthy landowner's (or "rich young ruler's") self-styled "generosity", and work from there.

You said in an earlier post that we aren't necessarily supposed to pay attention to the fact that Jesus gets his botany wrong when he talks about mustard seeds growing into giant plants. But wait: what if Jesus WANTS to draw our attention to those sorts of incongruities? Some people complain that the fight scenes in Chris Nolan's Batman films are hard to follow. But what if the hard-to-followness is the POINT? As with those things, so with this: Why would Jesus have told a story about a wealthy landowner (or "rich young ruler") and his erratic, manipulative behaviour, and given it a punchline in which the landowner calls himself "generous" even though there is nothing "generous" about a denarius, unless he was actually trying to draw his audience's attention to that aspect of the story?

: I don't think it's an assumption. With N. T. Wright . . .

Reference, please? The parable comes from Matthew 20:1-16, and according to the index to Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright refers to this passage only twice in that book, specifically to Matthew 20:9-19 on page 178 and to Matthew 20:16 on page 338. But it turns out the first reference is erroneous (on page 178, it is LUKE 20:9-19 that is cited), and the second reference is unhelpful (on page 338, Matthew 20:16 is simply one of several passages that contain "the cryptic but frequently repeated saying: the first shall be last, and the last first" -- and this particular passage is bracketed off from the others with a "cf.", to boot). Insightful commentary on the parable in question, this is not.

: . . . Pope Benedict, and any number of other commentators I could cite, in the context of Jesus' kingdom preaching I take the parable to have apocalyptic reference to the coming of the kingdom, with the landowner as Israel's God.

That it may indeed be, on some level. As you very helpfully pointed out in the thread on The Return, Jesus was in the habit of drawing analogies between God and not-so-flattering human figures such as unjust judges, etc. But we dare not ignore the way that he himself characterizes these human figures.

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I admit I haven't seen the film in many years...

Well, now I have. We rented it and watched it as a family together. The girls (8 and 11) were a little bored, although my wife and I enjoyed it, and both of us agreed that it was much better than we had remembered it. I think part of my problem with it was actually having seen it first as a child, and probably the last time in my late teens. It is funny that it is so widely cited family movie, because I don't think that it is one. It isn't that it has objectionable content for children, it is that it seems to me that the movie is all about George's internal conflicts which are very much those of an adult, and which are played out in terms of financial matters about which most children have little understanding. Children (my children at least and myself as a child) aren't given much to relate to. Compare it for example to movies like Finding Nemo or Toy Story, which are not necessarily better films than It's a Wonderful Life, but which are much more accessible to children from a thematic perspective.

I did think it a much better film than I remembered. I am very glad to have seen it again. My children, not so much. Still, it may be that they too will see it again decades from now and be surprised at how much better it is than they remember it...

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I mentioned Jamieson's article in some thoughts about Capra in general and The Bitter Tea of General Yen specifically here:

I start with Tannen because a couple months ago, amidst the annual run up to the annual television broadcast of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, Wendell Jamieson caused a lot of fuss with his New York Times article claiming loudly and forcefully that this sacred cultural cow was really just a bunch of bull. Jamieson's article had that loud and deliberately overstated tone that I remembered well from my days of shooting spitwads at Stanley Fish, and if the provocative bravado of the attack is part of the charm of such pieces, it also allows us to take them none too seriously. Anyone who has written such an article understands that a win is not convincing people of your argument, it is getting them to engage it.

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Great essay, Ken, and a very apt reading of It's a Wonderful Life ... anyway, one that I find both persuasive and accurate.

I'm intrigued by the whole "argument culture" business, and what the alternative looks like. (Does Tannen's book represent part of the "argument culture"? It seems somewhat confrontational, or at least provocative...) (Clarification: "Intrigued" does not here mean "skeptical.")

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Great essay, Ken, and a very apt reading of It's a Wonderful Life ... anyway, one that I find both persuasive and accurate.

Thank you.

I'm intrigued by the whole "argument culture" business, and what the alternative looks like. (Does Tannen's book represent part of the "argument culture"? It seems somewhat confrontational, or at least provocative...) (Clarification: "Intrigued" does not here mean "skeptical.")

If by "argument" we are to mean a rhetorical mode with the purpose of persuasion (sorry to parse, not being snide, just trying to be clear), I'm sympathetic to the notion that (as the textbook says) "everything's an argument." (Typically many college writing classes are founded on the rhetorical modes and a teacher might have students write, say, a narration essay, a comparison essay, a process essay, a definition essay, an argumentative essay, etc. Another might say, "the purpose of each of those modes is usually to persuade--we tell a story to make an illustration, we compare candidates in order to justify our choice, we describe a process to champion a course of action, etc.) If by "argument" we mean a structured rhetorical conflict between adherents of two different positions, then, no, I don't think Tannen's book is part of the argument culture.

For one, she's not really in combat with an alternative position. (She has her detractors and skeptics, but I don't find her often engaging in rhetorical debate. In fact, like some of my other favorite academics, I think she actually takes criticisms in a scientific way--to see if she can't tweak her model or do more investigation to answer where there are weaknesses.)

If I can quote Amazon.com again:

she posits that misunderstanding is endemic in our culture because we tend to believe that the best way to a common goal is by thrashing out all our differences as loudly as possible along the way. Thus we are treated to a whole array of confrontational public forums, from congressional partisan politics to media circuses

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"Who won the debate last night?" (Is it any suprise that 92% of Fox viewers say Palin and 95% of Jon Stewart's viewers say Biden?)

FWIW, it is always a surprise to me.

I once watched a debate between a skilled anti-Catholic polemicist and a mediocre Catholic apologist, and it was clear to me, as a Catholic, that the anti-Catholic had the better of the debate. (As I said at the time, I could have stepped onto the podium that very night, cold, with no preparation, and while the anti-Catholic would still have given the better performance, I would have done a lot better than the guy on the podium.) However, I was nonplussed to find that while the Protestants in the audience all believed, as I did, that the anti-Catholic had won, other Catholics in the audience believed that the Catholic had won. So far as I know, I was the only viewer whose opinion of the outcome didn't correlate with his personal convictions.

Likewise, for all that I opposed far more of what Obama-Biden stood for than what McCain-Palin stood for, and argued at great length (in other fora) for voting McCain-Palin rather than Obama-Biden, it was clear to me that Obama-Biden consistently did better in the debates than McCain-Palin ... but, again, I was baffled at how many of my co-belligerents (on the matter of the election) felt otherwise.

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George Bailey’s Younger Brother is the Real Villain in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’

For years I watched this movie and like many Americans would come away with that warm fuzzy feeling. But one character in this film always bothered me. In fact, I believe that the more appropriate title of Capra’s project should have been It’s A Wonderful Life – If You’re Harry Bailey! Think about it. George Bailey’s kid brother makes out like a bandit in this flick. And why is that? Because Harry (Todd Karns) throughout this film is a steam-roller of selfishness. I will even go so far as to say that Harry Bailey (who was never intended to be a bad guy) is one of the most despicable characters in movies. In scriptwriting it’s formulaic that two villains be created to inject multiple layers of conflict. Obviously Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) is the uber-villain. But who’s the other antagonist? That would be Harry Bailey, who plays his older brother for a sucker throughout the film. In fact, Harry is either directly or indirectly the root cause of all of George’s miseries. . . .

Brad Schaeffer, Big Hollywoof, November 29

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Shorter Brad Schaeffer: "I'm a free-thinking, soulless bastard who wants attention."

Sotted old Uncle Billy gave the definitive retort to Schaeffer's nonsense: When Potter asked how "slacker George" felt about his brother's laurels, Billy chortled, "Very jealous, very jealous. He only lost three buttons off his vest." Thus endeth the Harry Bailey As Villain meme.

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I wouldn't go that far SDG. There's a kernel of truth in it - Harry does renege on his deal with George (which I suspect is something George would never have done) - but the rest - "Selfish Harry getting himself killed in the water, and then saving lots of people's lives" - is totally overblown and manufactured.

Of course George didn't have to stay on either. That was his choice. And whilst he/we might curse Harry's fickleness George could have just sold up and moved on. And I say that as someone who would absolutely do what George does and sacrifice their own dreams for doing the thing that's expected of them

Matt

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Harry doesn't renege. He's been offered a golden opportunity, but he hasn't agreed to take it. He knows George has been holding the bag, and there's no reason to think he's not willing to do his duty. It's George who inquires from Ruth (behind Harry's back) about the offer, and makes the decision not to hold Harry to their agreement.

You can argue that Harry suspected that his noble big brother would do this, and certainly Harry doesn't come charging in determined to reject his father-in-law's offer and free George from his obligations to the family business. But that's not the same as reneging. Both brothers are on the same page.

Edited by SDG

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But is Harry's marriage a surprise, at least? I mean, that sort of thing DOES kind of force George's hand, doesn't it?

"Force" is a strong word, but it's reasonable to suppose that Harry's family obligations figure into George's decision to support his brother's career opportunity over his own plans. And yes, it's a surprise, but so what? A proper wedding would have given George more time to get used to the idea, but it wouldn't have changed the outcome. The only thing that might have changed the outcome would be if Harry remained a bachelor. Is that what he should have done? Would George have wanted that?

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But does that erally make harry some sort of selfish jerk? Man, those people who get married and have to change their priorities.

It seems to me that Big Hollywood has done this before...they seem to feel the need to redeem Potter (this time by admitting he's a villain, but really, little brother was worse)...

Edited by Nezpop

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But does that erally make harry some sort of selfish jerk? Man, those people who get married and have to change their priorities.

This is what I'm saying. Of course, Harry getting married changes George's priorities too. You can say it's "unfair" to George, but it certainly doesn't make Harry "selfish" or a "jerk." That's Just Life.

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Have I mentioned how effing sick I am of "clever" revisionist debunkings of this film? Yes, I suspect I have.

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SDG wrote:

: Of course, Harry getting married changes George's priorities too.

Quite so. Which is just one reason why I'm not fond of people springing surprise spouses on their kin like this. When someone gets married, they don't just marry an individual, they marry into a FAMILY. And if the whole point of Harry's life to date has been to take George's place -- at school, at work, etc. -- then it's profoundly insensitive of him to introduce a major change like this to both his life and George's without even notifying, much less consulting, George in the first place.

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