Posted by: Dr Pano Kroko Churchill | December 28, 2014

“It’s a Wonderful Life” — Bedford Falls vs Pottersville — Your Call

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As another holiday season rolls by, it’s good to remember the classics that we see.

Especially the ones that bond our families, communities, and society together.

We all remember the black and white perennial film “It’s a Wonderful Life” filmed by Frank Capra back in 1946 and retelling loosely the tale of the 1929 economic crash. It is essentially important to remember this tale, as economic troubles are always right around the corner, and a the US exits the last great recession — it helps to see this film becoming a staple of Christmas Cheer all around the world. A world that still suffers economic hardships and difficulties today.

I believe that we have all seen this tale of Love and Redemption, teary eyed and heart broken for things past and present in our lives. But how many of us recall the reason why we are teared up, or why it affects us so much in the gut, when we see the bonds of community holding strong during the time of adversity, this “everytown” suffers through.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a tale of two paradoxes. Something like a hockey game of Life between Bedford Falls vs Pottersville. One vision of the world, will persist, and win, to carry the day. And the film shares this positive approach to Life’s difficulties, vagaries, and illusions to a great outcome.

We went to see this awesome movie once again, with a group of long lost friends from Seattle’s Tech Industry.  A bunch of Super Successful Innovators who had started many series of companies, and had to share the burden of writing people’s paychecks in difficult times. Leader who understood how to take responsibility for mounting payrolls, managing burn rates, and meeting investors expectations. And Leaders who are unafraid to show their sensitive side. So after seeing the movie we had dinner in a groovy restaurant in Belltown and we talked about our victories and our failures. We talked about our lives and how this film touched all of us in a unique way. We talked honestly about the trials and tribulations of being a CEO responsible for the well being of hundreds and as we scaled up for thousands of People, and the burden of responsibility for the continued employment of the whole lot.

We reminisced about the stories we all shared as partners, as co-investors, as CEOs and as competitors, because the Seattle scene is great in that if you are there long enough — you will know everyone and revolve in leadership roles to cooperate and compete with everyone at some point.

We shared leadership stories that rivaled the movie’s intensity of human experience. Because truth be told – the story of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is primarily the story of a CEO who did the RIGHT THING.  George Bailey had maturity to keep his wits about him and do the right things, time, and time again.

These were the tales we had to share over dinner.  And we are all better for that. So if you care to catch this film now, it still plays to a packed audience at Seattle’s Grand Illusion Theatre during this holiday season. And it is the best Leadership film I’ve seen anywhere in a long while. So go see it under that lens, and you’ll be getting the best Christmas Holiday Gift ever, and if it affects your leadership style in the New Year — then the world will be a better place because of us and our positive interaction.

And this story is also a call of duty of every leader, and every CEO, as well as for every citizen of a vibrant community of relationships and accountability — which is the true matrix of strength in any situation. And this delicious bittersweet view of humanity, with all it’s faults and frailties shown up, used up, and forgiven, make good fodder for leadership.

But being with old friends — this is what Christmas is all about. And this is also what makes this holiday movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” feel so ancient and so removed from our daily existence today and why it might not be suitable fare for the rest of the year.

It’s also a throwback to an earlier era of simpler decisions and honest feelings, because todays leader is hidden behind layers of insularity and legalize. But ultimately we all know what’s right and what’s wrong in pursuing the path to growth, scale, and acceptance by the markets. And this is the reason that small town relationships, and the equality of human experience, meant throughout the film as the tethering bond of community — is all the more prevalent in the “small village” world of Tech entrepreneurs where everybody know each other…

It’s the small things in Life. You know the small town intimacy. The knowing of each other and the paradox of Loving thy neighbor.

Even though at times it can be hard. People all over, they have faults… And there is competition and animosity.  And this game of Success is murder on the soul. And the idea of “Loving Thy Neighbor” proves to be a hard sell, but it’s good to remember that it mostly works.  The equanimity of understanding is genial and friendly.

So it’s relationships all over again. Capra saw that, clearly having himself gone through the really hard up time in the years since 1929 and in the second world war years of 1940 – 45. It was these year and his experiences from humble beginnings and life’ hardships that made him re-evaluate the movie making business, and gave us his masterpiece.

Frank Capra (May 18, 1897 – Sep. 3, 1991) was an Italian-born American film director, producer and writer who became the creative force behind some of the major award-winning films of the 1930s and 1940s. His rags-to-riches story has led film historians such as Ian Freer to consider him the “American dream personified.” Frank Capra became one of America’s most influential directors during the 1930s, winning three Oscars as Best Director. Among his leading films was It Happened One Night (1934), which became the first film to win all five top Oscars, including Best Picture. Other leading films in his prime included You Can’t Take It With You(1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). During World War II, Capra served in the US Army Signal Corps and produced propaganda films, such as the Why We Fight series. After World War II, however, Capra’s career declined as his later films like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) were critically derided as being “simplistic” or “overly idealistic”.  However, his films have since been majorly and favorably reassessed in succeeding decades, with the most important one and the most watched ever film, being “It’s a Wonderful Life”

So Frank Capra focuses his dreamy film on relationships. And we all know that of course relationships matter, but much like Capra, we simply don’t know which relationships are the ones that truly matter. This is what we don’t know.

Neither does George Bailey, the leading character and protagonist of a divided self. Capra directs him to be “everyman” and this makes him fully human.  In one version of events, James Stewart is George Bailey, a man who has given up on his dreams in order to help others, and whose disappointment and weakness in the face of economic hardship and imminent loss of face lead him to suicide on Christmas Eve. George’s hastily conceived and sloppily executed “suicide” brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence. Clarence “The Guardian Angel” shows George all the different lives he has touched and how different life in his family and in his community of Bedford Falls, would have been — had he never been born, or had he killed himself.

But what George himself doesn’t know — is that George Bailey’s warm and loving family, friends, and community, hold him together.

Surely, we still have close family ties today. But it’s the far-off relationships, as with long-lost school friends, the new friends, and the loved ones, that we don’t see often, that matter the most. The neighbours we can count on in our hour of need, and the ones who maintain resilient communities by being civic minded. The relationships that come from those that hold up whole societies by being straight up helpful. Those neighbors represent Society’s most resilient bonds. And it appears that due to the Social Networks and the multiplicity of good voices out there — we have more of them than ever…

But in today’s Social Media, the social networks, and other digital communities — is there enough “glue” to replace our long held sense of community?

Going back to the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” we can’t but stare in disbelief at the strangely strong relationships people had in the small town of Bedford Falls. They had the type of relationships, that are often missing today from everywhere. And these are the key relationships between the very intimate and the quite distant, that make this experience from “just a movie” to a useful tale of Love and Redemption.

Townspeople like George Bailey, like his librarian wife, like his uncle, like Gower the druggist, like Ernie the cabdriver, like Bert the cop, like George’s soldier brother, and even like the evil banker Potter, and more or less like all the people in between, they all animate our lives fully. But you’ve got to know their names and their stories first. George Bailey – the protagonist – knew them all by name, and he knew them well, because he knew their stories, and cared for each and every one of them.

As a background, we must say that George’s family, owners of a building and loan association – a type of a community bank – was fairly prosperous, and well liked in the city of Bedford Falls. But the “Baileys” created wealth, and health, and fully thrived out of the relationships they had with the community by sharing that wealth fairly and equitably.

As a family, and as individuals, they remained tightly woven with the people of varying incomes, education, race, and ethnicity. They saw each one of them as an individual, not just as a customer, as a client, or as a useful provider of “cash” for goods and services.

This is society’s band of relationships that keeps the whole thing together. It is the belt of strength, so strong in the Main Street America of years ago, but much weakened since then by several external and internal forces. One is the TV culture and the separation of our communities by clustering like-minded people from similar backgrounds and similar income strata, in the same neighborhoods. Another is the weakening of the Middle Class. A strong factor though is also the migration of our useful commercial and trusted social life as well of our generalized “shopping” from the Main Street and the High Street, to the impersonal and untrustworthy Internet.

There is a Social Science case where Marc Dunkelman writes of the fading town-based model of society in his book, “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community.” The middle ring, [Middle Class] he says, was “where communities of people with different skills and interests, disparate concerns and values, collaborated with their neighbors in the pursuit of the common good.”

It reminds me of the “Sharing Economy” we try to built today using technology all over again. And by that we can expect to start regaining the strength of community over the network.

It also reminds me of the Canadian small town experiment story where they eradicated poverty for a few years… in a groundbreaking experiment that the city took part in 40 years earlier. And although, that was quite a few years ago, there were a lot of people that really benefitted from it. Between 1974 and 1979, residents of a small Manitoba city were selected to be subjects in a project that ensured basic annual incomes for everyone. For five years, monthly cheques were delivered to the poorest residents of Dauphin, Man. – no strings attached. And for five years, poverty was completely eliminated. The program was dubbed “Mincome” – a neologism of “minimum income” – and it was the first of its kind in North America. It stood out from similar American projects at the time because it didn’t shut out seniors and the disabled from qualification. The project’s original intent was to evaluate if giving cheques to the working poor, enough to top-up their incomes to a living wage, would kill people’s motivation to work. It didn’t. And that’s a great lesson in the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We can always aspire to greater things, ideas, and progress.

Surely the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” wallows in sentimentality, but it does not sprinkle sugar on the stresses of middle class relationships. In this romantic drama, a key theme running through is George Bailey’s ability to deal humanely with the town’s flawed human beings. Forgiveness, redemption, and Love reign supreme. George treats everybody kindly. He dispenses kindness with the same strength of Love and forgiveness, that he shows to the heavy drinking bank manager losing his bank’s deposit money causing a bank run —  as he does treating the local floozy, Violet, with unfailing kindness, even lending her money so she doesn’t have to sell her furs, to pay her rent…

In my mind it’s a didactic tale “It’s a Wonderful Life” — Bedford Falls vs Pottersville — where there’s a harsh scene in which a drunken druggist Mr Gower, slaps young George around. George responds with tearful sympathy for the grief he knows the druggist is suffering, because he knows the story of his loss. In today’s world, the parents might sue the druggist for assaulting their child. And then the chemist Gower’s reputation would have been shredded beyond repair on social media, and the community might have made him an outcast. And that is a Pottersville reaction making for a truly poor and blighted community. But in the town of “Bedford Falls” things were different, because they understood that to forgive and forget, allows for our relationships to be salvaged and repaired over time.

And this is what makes our community resilient and our intimate social lives worth living. And when you talk about this with friends, past competitors, and cooperators — makes for a serious band of brothers who are always leaders in their actions, in their outlook, and in their decision making too.

And we all had history amongst ourselve. Rich history. Good and Bad. Misses and Spot On target Wins. And we had fights. Epic Wars. The stuff that histories and legends are made of. Today though, it all seems that we are brother after many fights and many wins. And to think that the Facebook generation would probably unfriend these needy or difficult people in the space of two minutes — make me cringe.  Because when you cut off your “difficult people” and your enemies turned friends, or friends, turned enemies from your Life, a veritable “Pottersville” ensues. But in the social matrix of Bedford Falls — same as in Seattle, these connections are for life.

Sacrifice for others is another theme running through the movie and the Seattle’s Tech Industry Leaders in the real life parallel of “It’s a Wonderful Life”. George Bailey – the S&L bank CEO gives up his dreams of exotic travel & adventure, in order to focus on small town life and in protecting his neighbours from the force of the evil banker Mr Potter, who is trying to take over the town’s properties like the “banker” in a Monopoly game. He is solely motivated by Greed, in order to become the “King” of the town with a view towards renaming it “Pottersville” after his grandiose and insatiable appetite for money and control.

So George — the good CEO, remains in town to keep things in balance and fight for the poor, to help them keep their homes in difficult times…

Remember that this film was made right after the World War II had ended and it represents a Leader’s journey in the midst of the greatest economic depression this world has ever known. The 1929 Crash was a lesson in gratitude for good deeds, and forgiveness, that kept families, towns, communities, society and our country together maintaining the axis of strength that the Middle class represents.

The few men and women who offered the most to accomplish this, are the bedrock of community. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to all those people who sacrificed so much to give our community a sense of resilience.

But gratitude for goodness sake is not easy to come by. And even when it arrives, this gratitude, does not flow freely even when the Bedford Falls town saviour, George Bailey is concerned.

When you see the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” you see soon enough that like in the crash of 1929, and in 2009 again, and surely many more times in the future there’s a “run” on the small community banks. Economic difficulties, rumours, and the real fear of losing your deposits cause people to run scared. So in the movie the scared and angry depositors of Bedford Falls, run to the Bailey’s Savings and Loan bank to lift their meagre savings, and get their little deposits back in cash, and thus ignore George Bailey’s assurances that they will eventually get all of their money back – when things settle down.

George has a fight on his hands…

He has to remind all of them of the value of the small local S&L bank as a Community wellspring. He has to remind all of the people of the good he has brought to them in their hour of need. And because he knows the “stories” he does this well, and succeeds when he tells a man named Joe, that when “Joe” was behind on his house payments — the bank let him and his family keep their home.

Still some townspeople went to the other end of Main Street and gave their “rights” of deposit redemption from the stricken Bailey’s S&L to the evil Banker Mr Potter. They were scared and foolish enough to take Potter’s offer of pennies on the dollar, for their deposits, so the evil Potter can take over the small community S&L bank of George Bailey and rule the town fully — ruining the community forever.

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But here comes the magic: George Bailey implores the people “running” on his bank demanding their whole deposit back: “We’ve got to stick together    …   We’ve got to have faith in each other.”

And from here on it could go either way…

In a nightmare sequence, George sees what Bedford Falls would have become without him. It’s Pottersville now, a hellish place where malice is the default, the vulnerable are humiliated and seedy bars, strip clubs and pool halls expel their neon nastiness onto the streets, and beating the fallen people into the gutter.

And on another version:

Hope and Love reign supreme and the people become reasonable and band together to face the adversity and overcome the difficult economic weather ahead. And in this version of events they are all rewarded mightily as they keep their city safe from the clutches of Evil…

My question to you is this:

Is this the world we like to inhabit?

Or are we ready for Pottersville?

Yours,
Pano

PS:

Yet it’s good to remember that this “thing” here is our Universe and we can do whatever we like to do with it…

As our relationships move online, this dark vision is looking awfully familiar. There’s “flaming,” the spread of false personal attacks. There is plenty of trolling. And there is an abundance of bullying online. And doxxing, the malicious disclosure of private information. Hacking into private accounts has become commonplace. Stolen personal photos are posted on anonymous websites. And adults are using false identities to traumatize children. And talk about complaining… and fighting over the net. As if our civilization had collapsed.

And on, and on, and on…

This is what happens when middle class, middle of the road, middle ring relationships, are replaced by an outer ring, crowded with strangers, who have no interest n our community.

So is it all Pottersville from here on out?

Let’s hope not.

At least not if we can help it…

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