In 2009, my older brother nearly ruined It’s A Wonderful Life for me on the patio of my first college apartment. I had watched the film that night with a friend who had, until that point, been adverse to the film on principle as watching it — especially during the holiday season — was “too cliché.” This friend was going through a phase in which the vast amount of her intellectual energy was spent avoiding any behavior one could call “cliché” or “conventional,” but I somehow persuaded her anyway. Shortly after the movie ended, my older brother showed up at my apartment. This was not an uncommon occurrence in college. My apartment was halfway between a Jimmy John’s and the duplex my brother rented with roommates. When ravenous and intoxicated, he could often not wait the additional three block walk to eat his sandwich, so he would make a pit stop. He was introspective when drinking, that sort of drunk, and that night he smoked on the porch after finishing his sandwich and picked apart It’s A Wonderful Life.
“You know what you never notice about that movie?” he said, “Clarence’s job, supposedly, is to stop people from killing themselves. But it took him 200 years to get his wings, right? What the hell was he doing before George Bailey?”
The sentiment sickened me as it embedded a certain existential confusion into a film that was always soothingly simple. If Clarence had failed in missions before George, what does that mean? What does it mean if the Gods themselves cannot save an ill-fated mind? Part of me would like to see that movie. The story of a guardian angel who fails, and the aftermath of that kind of downfall, a film that ponders what happens when the gods are impotent. A bigger part of me, though, wants It’s A Wonderful Life unscathed. I want this film, and The Wizard of Oz, to remain untouched by modern reinterpretations. I still refuse to see Wicked. I am usually not one to condemn reexaminations of artistic staples. In fact, I think such resistance is asinine. I believe putting any work on some sacred pedestal, no matter how brilliant that work is, is shortsighted and restrictive to the creative community. I know I am in the wrong here, but I have a childlike attachment to these films that trumps all logic. These are sweet and simple works that I prefer sweet and simple. I do not want anyone to do to these films what George R.R. Martin did to Lord of the Rings. There will be no deconstructing of dichotomies here, god damn it! Leave my saviors in check. Stay away from my guardian angels and my fairy godmothers.
That is what I latch onto most—the angels and the godmothers, the ones who swoop down at opportune moments to provide guidance.
I am a 27 year-old atheist, and feel some embarrassment to over this love of angels and fairies. I am not one who seeks guidance from above. Most of the time, actually, I find the idea of a higher power frightening. One night in college, I had a talk with a friend, who had just lost his father, about the afterlife. This friend said something like, “Shit. I hope there’s no God or heaven, because I’m not getting in, and I sure as shit know my dad didn’t get in.” I am inclined to feel the same way. If there is a God, there’s no way he’s smiling down at me. The realization of my atheism came with a tremendous sense of relief and liberation rather than disillusionment or fear. I am the opposite of the X-Files poster. I don’t want to believe.
Yet, I love Clarence and I love Glinda—the cute, cuddly saviors, not the type to turn someone into a pillar of salt for looking back on a burning city. I can’t imagine those two smiting anyone. These films are far too simple to embed moral ambiguity in their saviours. The brilliance of The Wizard of Oz and It’s A Wonderful Life comes from an ability to trigger pre-existing emotions. They are not the kind of films that make a person think. They instead encourage us to revel in already present sentiments. After watching It’s A Wonderful Life, my non-cliché friend pointed out the film might have been more powerful if it focused on someone fairly innocuous rather than someone whose very existence (I’ll admit, somewhat unbelievably) kept an entire town from falling into utter destitution. An unimportant person’s loss would challenge filmmakers to explore how life, in and of itself, is precious and important, perhaps showcasing a person’s absence in a less over-the-top fashion. That’s not, however, so much the point. It’s A Wonderful Life is a politically driven work, written in the spirit of a Steinbeck novel, and it tears down capitalism by presenting the working class as saintly and their oppressors as double chinned sadists. The themes are not complex, the characters are not well developed, but no one can deny the film succeeds admirably in its goal—to rile the viewer the fuck up. It was weird that my friend could not comprehend the merit in the simplicity of It’s A Wonderful Life, and yet managed to sum up the simplicity of Wizard beautifully. She once astutely pointed out that Wizard of Oz is about how it’s okay to need to go home sometimes.
“No matter how much of an adult you are,” she said, “Sometimes you do need to go home, and there’s no shame in that.”
Home does not necessarily have to be a literal, physical home, of course. Going home is more a concrete way of showcasing that fragility is, at times, normal. Needing to go home is a way of saying, “I am fragile, I am overwhelmed, I need someone, please help me.” There should never, ever be shame in that, no matter how old one becomes.
It is when I feel fragile that I need both the films deeply. They pull on a lifelong fantasy of mine, perhaps a fantasy we all have at times – the idea that something will come rescue me, that I am a good person, and I am doing good things, and someone, somewhere, is paying witness and will swoop down to save me when I become overwhelmed by it all.
I do not see this fantasy as anything other than a fantasy. I do not look for signs God is watching. I do not interpret moments of serendipity as a message it will all be okay. If there are only one set of footprints in the sand during my hard moments, is not because anyone carried me. For the most part, I’m okay with this. I would rather see it this way than indulge in belief systems I find, at best, incredulous and, at worst, deeply troublesome. I have reservations about organized religion. I have political objections to much of the teachings in Bible, or at least to certain interpretations of those teachings. The otherworldly beings I cling to in weakness are not from legitimate religious texts. They come, instead, from the watered down realm of pop culture.
A month after I left my abusive ex, I listened to the soundtrack of The Wizard of Oz while drinking alone in the one bedroom apartment we once shared. While this image may sound depressing, it actually is not depressing at all. When we lived together, my ex never left me alone. He monitored how I spent my time, guilt-tripped me if I indulged in any activities that did not directly involve him. Drinking alone does not mean getting drunk alone. It means enjoying a glass or two of a nice red wine, while listening to music, and reading. This simple pleasure was inaccessible to me for nearly 2 years, as I never would have been allowed the freedom of a night to myself. During this time, there were more than one set of footprints in the sand. There were the footprints of my good friends, who invited me over for food and alcohol one night in late March and gently explained their concerns about my relationship. There were the footprints of my friend Carrie, who pointed out my reasons for wanting to stay made me sound like a “textbook abuse victim.” There were the footprints of my friend Liz, who sent me article after article with titles like, “10 Signs You’re in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship” and “Gaslighting: What Is It and How Does it Happen?” There were so many other footprints along the way, all the people who loved me, and who helped me, but when it came down to it, I needed to rescues myself. That night, I was re-reading a childhood favorite, Walk Two Moons. At the end of the novel, when Sal finally sees her mother’s grave and is able to accept her death, she notes, “It was only when I saw the stone and her name . . . that I knew, by myself and for myself, that she was not coming back.” People tried to show Sal the truth, like they tried to show me the truth, but when it came down to it, she had to find that truth herself. It was the same way for me. I could only accept my ex’s abuse when I was ready to see it, by myself, and for myself. I had all the footprints in the world, but I had to take some action on my own. For as much as everyone did, no one carried me. Nor should anyone have carried me; it is not healthy or fair to expect to be carried.
I was so drawn that night to The Wizard of Oz soundtrack. I felt an acute need to listen to it, and to revisit a book from childhood. I think I was longing for simplicity that night, longing for dichotomies, because, the fact is, abuse is complex. One’s feelings about their abuser are always a convoluted mess.
It is, in fact, possible to pity someone who hurt you. It is possible to, while knowing the answers to these questions are irrelevant to your situation, while knowing the answers to these questions do not condone or forgive his behavior, ask yourself, “Did he know what he was doing? Was it intentional, was it calculated, or was it some desperate attempt to take a shortcut to intimacy, a way to assuage gnawing feelings of loneliness?” It is natural to want to explain the behavior, to understand its origins, even when people tell you to just get mad, that the healthiest thing is to get mad and to detach and to let yourself hate him. It is natural to think about his childhood, and his mother, and his father, who kicked down a door when angry once. It is natural to remember how, once, your ex caught this angry, door-kicking father paying children he thought were his friends to play video games with him. It is natural to wonder why, for some reason, the insecurities of childhood rejection never quite left him, the way they have left you, the way they have left others. It natural to ponder why he could not get over it, why he grew into a mangled and damaged adult so desperate for affection he was willing to do anything, anything, to feel secure, a person who placed his own insecurities over the needs of those around him. Yes, it is possible to feel pity for someone who hurt you, even while feeling great, great anger at the same time. It is possible to feel about him the way you sometimes feel about a serial killer on a true crime documentary, the kind of pity reserved for those possessing a human body and a human mind and who appear human in every conceivable way, but who are somehow not human, who somehow do not understand how to be human, how to be good, even if they may—on some level—really, really want to be good. I told a friend once a story of how my ex was incredibly jealous of my cats because he believed they got more of my attention than he did. She responded, “Well, of course. He’s very fragile.” This is true. He was a very, very fragile person, but this was not his great flaw. It was that he expected, for some reason, to be carried. I will never understand that expectation to be carried, where it came from, how it happened, but I know that expectation meant he could never do something by himself, and for himself. Because of this, he drove others away. He did not have nearly as many footprints as I had. I am not sure he had any footprints at all.
I asked, in regards to my brother’s interpretation of It’s A Wonderful Life, what it means when the gods themselves cannot save an ill-fated mind. Perhaps that is the wrong question entirely. Perhaps an ill-fated mind that relies on the gods for rescue is simply not savable.
The night I watched The Wizard of Oz, I dreamed he came to find me. I dreamed he kicked the door down, and he screamed at me the way he used to when we were together. I woke up shaking, my heart pounding, and I texted a friend, “I dreamed he was here. I was sure it was real.” She offered to come over, but I told her not to. Instead, I put on a pot of coffee. Then, I climbed back into bed while the coffee brewed, and stretched out on my back, folding my arms over my chest like a corpse in a coffin. It’s a game I play, on difficult mornings, where I pretend to erase myself, temporarily. I think to myself that, just for 10 minutes, I do not exist, that no one is thinking of me, that no one knows I am here. I do not imagine the gap that is left by me. I pretend there is no gap at all. After 10 minutes have passed, I always get up, have a cup of coffee, and open the blinds to let the sunlight into the room.