Month: December 2014
Lately I’ve found my gaze wandering to post-its on lamp-posts, graffiti, illegally put-up posters for events, transient notices of private services on public display. A whole phantasmagoria of desires, feelings, promises, services, actions and events find expression in this form of communication.
I was reminded of all of this recently whilst on vacation in Gran Canaria. The scenery was as spectacular as only an accident of nature can make possible — the rolling beaches, the spectacular sunsets on the horizon; the bougainvillea, hibiscus and bird of paradise flowers peeking through bushes, the sand-dunes. What was on or around nature, however, was as ugly as only greedy and thoughtless human intervention can make it: indistinct blocks of flats and malls, all higgledy piggledy and vying for space as close to the beach as possible; every trace of man’s work a blot on the landscape.
Gran Canaria is where the working classes of Northern Europe go on holiday. Most buildings seem in need a new coat of paint and the cons were only mod circa 1975. There’s a desperate gaiety about the place, like it’s New Year’s Eve year-round; all that expense must result in a good time and sex must be found to go with the sun and the sea or the holiday will be a bust; there’s a grim determination to not fail at having fun; and this provision of fun and sex and cheerfulness is what the place and people who work there are meant to provide.
At the ‘Restaurante El Gran Obrero/ The Great Worker’s Restaurant’, however, the talk is not of the provision of pleasure for the tourist trade but of the problems the locals are having in just getting by; and one overhears the same ramblings here as one does throughout the Spanish mainland : ‘Rajoy, robo por que soy/ I am Rajoy, therefore I rob,’ says one. ‘But it doesn’t matter who’s in power. They’re all crooks.’ ‘You wouldn’t say that if your husband lost his job and they took away your pension’. ‘Don’t worry about me, I ‘d steal a sack of lentils and I’d get by better than I do now’.
The dissatisfactions of the locals and the illicit desires of the tourists find a common if surreptitious and illicit home in the graffiti, posters and post-its that adorn the walls and lampposts of the place. There’s a forlorn air to most of them, as when the poster advertising the promised pleasure is for an event now past. They’ve at one time been hopeful: how many people turned up to that march against Capitalism now past? Will anyone actually get on that website and organize a boycott against Repsol’s despoliation? Many continue to be scary: the praise for Franco and Fascism that is silenced in the mainstream but finds too recurrent an expression darkening whitewashed walls throughout Spain; the more local appeal to the Ultras of Frankfurt to work towards the ancient promise of victory.
Often they evoke cheapness – producers that don’t have the means to draw an audience’s attention in other ways – or tawdryness – the drawing of attention to something that has to be done surreptitiously or in hiding. Or mere fun: ‘stop texting me’!
These roiling murmurings, by their very nature liminal and interstitial, reward attention in every guise. They speak of silenced conversations, disbelief, dissatisfactions, dissidence, all roiling up to the surface, expressing another point of view, sometimes in fun, sometimes in anger, even if only to hit a wall or a lamppost near you, all asking for change, most succeeding in changing only the surface you’re looking at. There’s a power in this mode of expression, one that is particularly interesting in that it’s drawn entirely from impotence
The saddest bit of graffiti I came across was a scrawled note on a white wall, at shoulder height, large enough to call attention to itself, but written with a hurry that nonetheless suggest an element of clandestinity. The literal translation reads as follows ‘Today, Thursday 8th of May 2014, I shall commit suicide at 4h25. My life is worth nothing and the only thing I have is suffering. I ask of God that he forgive me’.
Is the note real? What makes a person want to write it, even if it’s not. Did the person go through with the act? If they didn’t, why didn’t they come back to erase it? If the person did go through with it, did anybody they knew come across the note? What despair does this note speak of? Is the despair lessened by the person still being alive? These are depressing times, austere times, even in spite of, or particularly in the light of so much sunshine and colour. The Graffitti tells a story rather different than the brochure, no less interesting, and best read alongside it.
James Stewart is so great in It’s a Wonderful Life: the repressed fury, frustration, the dashed hopes sometimes relieved by an evident yearning, the bitterness, all dazzlingly displayed by the actor and sometimes captured by Capra in a sweeping extreme close-up that swoops up on that anguished face and confronts the audience with it. A marvel of a performance, beautifully directed.
The film’s a holiday staple, and everyone’s seen it several times, but it’s much darker than one remembers; George Bailey is after all a man driven to suicide at Christmas. The warm feelings the memory of the film gives rise to seem due to the beginning (the view of community communicated through the idealised Bedford Falls), and then the very last scene (the utopian view of friends and family at Christmas), and one forgets most of what leads up to it.
It is after all the story of a man whose every hope is thwarted: he doesn’t get to go to college, he doesn’t get to travel around the world, he doesn’t even get to go on a honeymoon. Duty, obligation, responsibility, the need and well-being of others, all take precedence over his own wishes and thwart him at every turn.
The only desire he manages to achieve is that for his wife, and even that seems to catch him by surprise (and Capra’s staging of this, in close-up, whilst they seem to be talking about everything else but, manages to somehow indicate that desire growing off-screen as a both a physical manifestation and as a dawning of feeling – a tour de force of staging). As my friend Nicky Smith observed, one is reminded of the episode of Friends where Phoebe says it ought to be called ‘It’s a Sucky Life’.
It’s a crime that the film has been colourised as the black and white cinematography by Joseph Walker in the original is so beautiful. It’s really shot as a noir and even Sunny Bedford Falls is enmeshed in shadows. But it’s no surprise that dramatically the film works even when in colour. It’s a marvel of story-telling: the prayers going up to the heavens, the Heavenly spirits being made aware of the happenings of those normally too insignificant to bother with; the setting forth of a life, the way the story arrests time, speeds it up; the creation of an alternate universe; the ability to identify with George even as he looks forth on his own life and on a world without him in it. In telling us the story, the film also seems to be saying, ‘this is what cinema can be. It can do anything. Isn’t it in itself heavenly’?
It’s a film full of delights: the set-piece of the opening dance where they all end up in the swimming pool; the scene where Donna Reed loses her robe; the run on the bank; the camera rushing alongside George running through Bedford Falls and through Pottersville; Thomas Mitchell’s wonderful characterization of George’s uncle; Gloria Grahame’s even more delightful characterization of the hottest girl in town (‘this ole thing. I only wear it when I don’t care what I look like’).
Seeing it recently on a big screen,I liked it more than I ever have and found it better than I remembered though one has to accept some things being what they are (bits of capracorn, the sexism, the tinge of racism — all no worse than in any other film of the period — but there nonetheless). There are problems with the film: Did Capra really believe that being an old maid librarian is the worst thing that could befall a woman outside of becoming a prostitute?; doesn’t Pottersville look a lot more fun than Bedford Falls? But what are these next to James Stewart’s towering performance, surely one of the very greatest in the history of cinema, and next to the dazzling display of filmic story-telling that Capra and Co put on display?
Addendum: In his recent How to Watch a Movie (London: Profile Books, 2015), David Thomson intriguingly writes that ‘in the decades since its first showing, it has grown easier for audiences to imagine a question mark in the title and to realize that the idyllic Bedford Falls of 1947 has turned into Pottersville, the drab plan of heartless capitalism pursued by the town’s tycoon (played by Lionel Barrymore)..think of that story shifted to the era of 2008 and the anxieties of middle-class existence. Once upon a time It’s a Wonderful Life was a Christmas staple, but try showing the picture to a modern young audience without rueful irony crushing nostalgia.’ I wonder if he’s right.