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S pecial to the Times


by Matthew Terry

A number of years ago, I stood in the lobby of the Egyptian Theatre after watching a film at the Seattle International Film Festival. The director of the film was there and a moviegoer stood next to the director praising one scene in particular.

"I loved in that one shot," the moviegoer said, "as the elevator descended, it was as if she was going into the abyss. Like her life was descending too." And as the moviegoer went on and on about the particular shot, I thought about the director who, more than likely, showed up on the set that morning, saw that he had access to the elevator shaft, asked the building owner if he could take a shot of the elevator descending, took the shot, edited it into his film because it looked "cool" and finished editing his film.

No special meaning. No hidden depth. Just a shot of an elevator descending.

Then I watched "It's A Wonderful Life," and it changed all that.

Well, OK, two seconds of the film changed all that. Frank Capra's film has been shown for years around the holidays and, due to it being in the public domain it was shown over and over and over again. Only within the last few years has someone been able to re-claim the rights to the film and NBC shows it two times during the holiday season. You all know the film; I don't need to describe it. It's been out on video and you can get it on DVD with a few bells and whistles. It is still, and will always be, a classic film of redemption and honor. A film about self worth and the impact each one of us has on the people in our lives. It is, undeniably, a very powerful film.

But the two seconds. Which two seconds am I talking about? No, it's not the realization that he's back in the land of Bedford Falls. It's not Zuzu's petals. It's not when the bell rings or when he helps Mr. Gower or even when he kisses Mary. No — it is just one, very powerful, two-second moment. During the scene when he returns home from the bank and, realizing he has no money and the town is ripe for a scandal, and the dominoes are about to fall and he's going to be on the bottom of the heap — he faces his family in despair. In his anger and frustration, he turns and with one swift kick he destroys a large toy suspension bridge that he had been building. It, along with various plans and blueprints, goes crashing to the floor.

Those two seconds.

What of those two seconds, you ask? Why so significant, you ask? Isn't it obvious?

In one fell swoop, Capra showed that this man, getting along in years, with four children, a bad ear and living in a drafty old house in little ol' Bedford Falls, had not given up on his dreams.

Within those two seconds, you see a man finally, fatally, destroy whatever hope he had in his goals. Within those two seconds, you see a man finally, fatally destroy his dreams and wishes.

Take another look on video or DVD or on network television. Look for that moment. If you think about the time and energy it took to make that bridge, you must think about the dreams that held that bridge up.

The film runs over two hours long and Capra couldn't take the time to show George Bailey buying the supplies, drawing up the graphs and delicately placing the glue. Rallying his children around his project. Explaining dimensions and suspensions and the art of architecture.

Capra couldn't show George Bailey fantasizing about the cars that would travel this bridge. He didn't have the time to show George Bailey cutting the ribbon and seeing his name on a plaque. He didn't have the money to film a scene next to a wonderful suspension bridge with a proud and proper George Bailey standing in front, hands in his lapels surrounded by other architects wondering how he did it. He couldn't, and we'd be lesser if he did. When George kicks over that bridge and all the plans and pieces hit the floor — you really do see a man giving up on the goals, dreams and passions that had always fueled his fire.

I think, in some ways, it asks us about our dreams. Our passions. What have we kicked down and out of our lives in a moment of anger or frustration? What have we given up on? What have we let crush our desires? I don't know what happens to George Bailey the morning after. Maybe Mr. Potter has a change of heart. Maybe his toady manservant who knew about the money came clean. But I have to think that, after everyone left, and the money was counted and the gifts were opened and house cleaned up — George Bailey found his broken model and didn't fix what obviously was broken, but started over again. From scratch. To build it better than it was before.

It's what George Bailey would have done.


by Matthew Terry
Local screenwriter Matthew Terry has taught a screenwriting class at Seattle Central Community College for the past six years.

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