Jason and George

Every now and then I go back and re-read this comment on the generational divide between James Bond and Jason Bourne. A snippet, if you're not up to the arduous task of reading an internet comment (in which case, why you're here for my overwritten bumf I don't know):

Who is our generations [sic] James Bond? Jason Bourne. He can't trust his employer, who demanded ultimate loyalty and gave nothing in return. In fact, his employer is outsourcing his work to a bunch of foreign contractors who presumably work for less and ask fewer questions.... What about work tools? Bourne is on is own there too. Sure, work initially issued him a weapon, but after that he's got to scrounge up whatever discount stuff he can find, even when it's an antique. He has to do more with less. And finally, Bourne survives as a result of his high priced, specialized education.... Oh, and like the modern, (sub)urban professional, Bourne had to mortgage his entire future to get that education. They took everything he had, and promised that if he gave himself up to the System, in return the System would take care of him.

And, indeed, that's our reality these days. Cross reference this one from Eddie Smith about the current professional's mindset, less that of an employee and more that of an independent contractor:

I don't care who you work for, stop thinking of them as a boss or a company. Think of them as a client. Think of yourself as a business. And start thinking like that right now.

Now, I'm guessing you're like me, and when you think of Jason Bourne, you think of "It's a Wonderful Life".

It's pretty much everyone's favorite dramatic holiday movie, right? Pull ten people off the street, six or more will gush. They'll use terms like "uplifting" and "inspiring" and "hopeful". It's that magical Capra touch.

Let's recap, shall we?

Hometown boy wants one thing in life: a little adventure. He wants to see the world. He wants to build things. And it never happens. Ever.

What holds him back? Obligation, mostly. His sense of duty to his family, to his town, to his neighbors. He greets even falling for the woman who would be his wife, what should be one of the most joyful moments of the film, with frustration, anger, then resignation.

His honeymoon, his last great shot at adventure, sold away to keep his family's business afloat. Then it's a mortgage on a drafty old house in need of constant repair, then it's children. And more children. And sick children.

And then? His business again put at risk and now a looming felony conviction, all because of one doddering, drunk uncle and a rich asshole George once pissed off.

He's toast, his dream ground to powder and thrown to the wind, his future ruined, entirely because of other people. The real bitch? Nearly all of them are people he loves. People who need him.

So he does the only sane thing in the world left to him. He gets stinking drunk and wrecks his car. And then? He tries to throw himself off a bridge.

I won't waste words running down the rest of it in too much detail. You all know how it goes down. But let's flash-forward to the end. What's our hero's reward?

He doesn't go to jail. All those people he helped out return the favor and bail him out. Still broke, still never see his dream fulfilled, but not going to jail and slightly-less-screwed financially.

This is a joyous fucking movie.

Yes, yes, I know. His real reward is learning that he made a difference in other people's lives. He discovers that he'd been an important man all along, important in a sense that wrinkly scrotum facsimile Potter would never be. But other than the house full of singing people at the end, this is a black tale of the woe-est woe. If it weren't for Clarence's ruffly Mormon undergarments and rum punch, it'd be nigh-unwatchable. Hell, it only needs someone shooting John Turturro in the face.

Is it too much to give the poor bastard a plane ticket?

Just as Bond and Bourne are hyperbolic analogues of businessmen past and present, so is George of the modern family man. Just as the Bourne movies are about navigating the modern realities of employment, "It's a Wonderful Life" is about navigating a mid-life crisis.

Now, that's a phrase we all like to use as a punchline: hair plugs, convertibles, secretaries. And certainly those men who abandon their posts are worthy of criticism, if not contempt. But look at George Bailey, slumped over Martini's bar and rubbing his face. I love my family, he thinks. I need my wife, my children. But I also need just one thing that is for me. Just one dream fulfilled. Just one break.

A friend once said that inside of every man in his fifties is a man in his twenties wondering what the fuck happened.

I wrote before of my fear that I'd never leave a lasting mark on this world. A number of men who read that came forward to confide that same fear. Not a need for fame or riches or a Wikipedia entry, but to die with the knowledge that we did something that mattered, that outlived us. That we will not disappear with those who remember us. Maybe, along the way, the ability to live a life without caring too much about the expectations of others.

Facing the possibility that it might not happen, that in fact for most of us it will not happen, stinks going down. Those of us who have read our Thoreau remember being young and coming upon that phrase "quiet desperation" and thinking, not me. Never. And now, in our thirties and forties, we re-evaluate, and we wonder if there is still time. We are not ready for resignation yet. And yes, some of us panic.

The thing about men who accomplish big things is that a shocking number of them are complete pricks. Ben Franklin, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, all reputed dickholes. You wonder if that's the secret, not giving a damn what others want. You wonder if you have to choose between being a good man or a great one.

If you do, the costs of greatness are obvious and on display in a million movies. Just look at old man Potter. But no one warned us of the costs of goodness. Nor perhaps should they have. Like any important thing, goodness is hard, and it is hard because it means choosing obligation, cleaving unto others. Goodness, like love, is a choice you make every day of your life.

God rains plagues on George Bailey because of his goodness, again and again, until he's begging. I have done as you commanded. Please, just one dream. Just one thing to go the easy way. Just one thing that is mine.

God's reply: No. But here, I'll show you what it was all for.

We cry over Zu Zu's petals and atta-boy-Clarence because we are George Bailey. Nearly no one escapes their youth with their dreams intact, because life is what goes on while you're dreaming, and it has its own ideas. We cry because George got to see that he had built something all along, while the rest of us can only hope that we did.

Jason Bourne survives by being the baddest of the bad, fulfilling every corporate stooge's dream of shooting his boss. But that's a power fantasy, not a reality we can or should relate to.

George? George survives because those other people who broke his dreams pull him from that wreckage and tend to his wounds and tell him that his sacrifice made their lives possible. Nothing badass about that. No plane ticket. But it matters.