Sunday, December 19, 2010

Escape from "A Wonderful Life"

Each Christmas, the chestnuts are taken out of mothballs to pull at our heartstrings and pocketbooks. Linus shames the cynics with his Biblical message, Bing and Bowie cryogenically reanimate their intergenerational pa-rum-pa-pum-pum, and Scrooge and George Bailey rediscover the meaning of life.

Well, I have a slightly different tradition.
I've always been something of a noncomformist when it comes to sentimentality. Not that I'm unsentimental. I just hate being forced into it. For instance, when John Lennon was killed, I had a college radio show the next morning. Everyone else was playing "Imagine" and "Give Peace a Chance" and I spun "Happiness is a Warm Gun" and "Run for Your Life." I felt it was an equally valid way of paying tribute to John -- and saying the world was a dark fucked up place for eradicating him.

My tradition is, I like to watch "Escape from a Wonderful Life."

In 1996, the influential improv troupe that had come to New York from  Chicago, the Upright Citizens Brigade [right] -- Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser, and Ian Roberts, and my former Rolling Stone colleague Jay Martel -- took advantage of a bizarre loophole in the copyright to Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," which put the video into public domain.

Comedy Central, still in its scruffy pre-South Park days when the Daily Show starred Craig Kilborn, let the UCB recut the movie down to about 50 minutes, and redub all the voices, telling a very different story.

In "Escape from It's a Wonderful Life," George Bailey is suicidal for wholly different reasons: because he's an aspiring actor who really wants to do action movies like Pulp Fiction but instead is forever trapped in retelling this treacly story. He runs around with satchels of cocaine while his brother tries to jump the maid. Everyone around George is furious with him for not sticking to the script. The first and third parts are (at least as of this 2015 update) available on YouTube, but some Scrooge at Paramount has disabled the middle part, so you have to resort to downloading part 2 and watching it on a REAL PLAYER (!) at this link >> <

 Fifteen years later, the comedy still holds up. George complains about the producers exploiting him, not giving him a raise for 50 years, while his fellow actors plead with him to get with the program. As his father puts it, "The whole family, the whole town, is counting on you to play the lead in what has become the quintessential holiday film classic." Mr. Potter is the big evil producer, fielding calls from Ted Turner about colorization. George wants the movie to have aliens instead of angels. Eventually the cast tries to do the movie without him.

I guess it's just the teenaged nonconformist in me who identifies with poor George.

Don't worry, in the end he still has a Merry Christmas. Hope you all do too.