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Case Number 04189: Small Claims Court

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It Was A Wonderful Life

Docurama // 1993 // 82 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // April 2nd, 2004

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All Rise...

The Charge

A semi-successful look at the hidden homeless.

The Case

They are known as the hidden homeless, the unaccounted for and unprotected members of the population. For them, there once upon a time was a normal life. A world filled with appointments and assignments, excuses and excitement. Then one day, like a hidden bombshell unexploded just beneath the surface of existence, they discovered that the rug of stability had been slowly unraveled out from under them. Gone were the house, the husband, the order, and the comfort. These unfortunate lost souls, these disconnected members of the communal order, don't know what to do and are ashamed, embittered, and unprepared for the realities of the real world. The men in their lives still victimize them, either with painful memories, actual scars, or the ongoing angst of battling the legal system for financial help. Child support goes uncollected. Assistance becomes a standard nightmare of bureaucratic battery. And just when it seems the dark clouds will lift and the sun will finally shine a little luck their way, the tempest of torment rises up again and obliterates the optimism. For these wives and widows, divorcees and newly dependent, God's grace has stopped shimmering, and there but for his interference they go. And as they sleep in their cars, bathe in public bathrooms, and try to collect what little is left of their dignity, one phrase haunts them. In their recent past, like an ever-dimming star about to supernova, was something stable and secure. They were women of power and personal integrity. But not now. Now they are misplaced. But long ago, It Was a Wonderful Life.

With a subject as heart tugging and breaking as the plight of the socially disenfranchised, drama and depression are inherent in details. And It Was a Wonderful Life is indeed a thoughtful, tearful meditation on the growing subculture of homeless middle class women. It's an interesting piece that makes its point clearly and often. Lost within the shifting paternalism paradigm of our society, with all its glass ceiling busting and role reversal, is the sad lot of those ladies who aren't prepared for refugee status from the battle of the sexes. These pampered and fragile females are the innocent bystanders in the barrage of gender bending and flagging feminism, unsupported and unaccepted by the very institutions created to care for them. Take Reena's case, for example. One of the more prominent personal stories in the entire documentary, this fascinating ex-cabaret singer was once married to a famous fashion photographer. She used to live in a mansion in the California hills. She traveled all over the world, both as a performer and as a companion to her man. She was celebrated on stages from Rome to New York and even met the Beatles during the final, frantic days of Apple Corps. Well, it's two decades and six kids later, and Reena is no longer performing. She has moved from the manor and now lives in a tiny suburban home. But not for much longer. She is divorced and destitute. Her husband has never paid child support (nor has he seen the teenage son that he abandoned before he was born), and the rent is months overdue. So she is evicted and finds herself without a residence for the first time in nearly 40 years.

The impact is devastating, but a little underwhelming. It may sound heartless and a little cruel, but Reena seems trapped in the past, lost in the world she used to live in. She seems to be hoping that somehow, either via a miracle or, more likely, a lump sum settlement of old deadbeat dad's outstanding support bill, she can keep what she has and somehow avoid the obvious. Reena is just incapable of letting go and moving on. Apparently she has had years of warning before she reached this point, and she obviously did something for funds (we are never told what). But she now acts like a removed witness to her own financial downfall. There is a lot of blaming going on in her life, and frankly, that is a flaw that flows throughout most of this film. At the time of filming, finding everyone but yourself culpable may have felt like the right fingers to be pointing, but almost 12 years later, a lot of the excuses sound like sad sack, woe is me whining. Again, not to be harsh, but these "lost ladies" fail many of the tests of sympathy that one can confer upon them. Each is almost proud that they have had life or husbands dump all over them and still come up strong and strident. Almost too self righteous. This haughtiness prevents many of them (like the lonely, still in love with her separated-from husband Lou or the suffering artist Josephine) from using their personal gifts to make their lives better. Sure, there is a conspiracy of silence around them. The lack of shelters and services was (and may still be) a dirty little secret that governments dare not admit. But when we see Terry, a devastated business consultant living with her three kids in a motel, find rays of optimism and apply a never say die philosophy (which results in some measure of greater success) to her circumstances, we wonder what the other gals are made of. Or what they are afraid of.

Indeed, this documentary works better as a psychological study of the homeless and what makes them so versus a testament to feminine empowerment (or lack thereof). Many of the women we meet wear their angst on their awkward demeanors. The delicate, deluded Josephine appears above it all, thinking that talent and a will to rise up will be all she needs to regain some social status (the fact that she refuses to tell her adult children is amazing). Marie, a near bag lady style street preacher has all the answers (you swear at any moment she'll proclaim it's "the man"—or maybe "the men"—that are keeping her down) but the obsessive motor-mouthed machinations in her involved conspiracy theories give you pause as to her mental capacity. Even Jeanette who plans to litigate her way back to domicile status (she is studying to be a lawyer) has her loose screw moments. A lost paternity case taints some of her honest forthrightness and, again, provides unspoken answers about why her life is the way it is. This does not mean that It Was a Wonderful Life is a bad film. Absolutely not. Watching these tired, internally tortured women get through the day, eating out of cans and showering in public baths, is almost unbearable. But it is a kind of flat, faceless agony. When the director, Michele Ohayon, inserts herself into the action (asking questions off screen, calling Reene's husband—who's in the book!—about his living up to his legal obligations), she takes a moral stance and creates an obligation she is not capable of carrying through to the end. She compels herself to help but not in the right ways. Unless you can consider publicizing their plight an act of charity, we never feel her actually giving. This exploits instead of explains the women and makes It Was a Wonderful Life a fascinating, but flawed, work of non-fiction.

Docurama releases what has to be considered a true bare bones DVD experience. No elaborate menus, bonus features, or company advertisement. Just an introductory screen, the ability to click on five distinct chapters, and that is about it. The audio and video are also a little substandard. The 1.33:1 full screen image is filled with defects, from print damage to transfer flaws. While the picture can be poignant at times, the budgetary constraints of the shoot are felt all over this film. Sound wise, the movie has a muddled, almost murky aural awareness. Conversations can get lost in ambient background noise and technological limitations. Only Jodie Foster's forthright narration comes across clear. Since there are no other DVD elements to discuss, here is an idea that should have been explored, something that could have made this package a premium motion picture purchase. An update would have been extraordinary, a chance to see these women in their current state, whether happy, sad, or no longer with us. Just a note, or a video essay, on what happened in the 12-plus years since the movie was released could have saved several of the sadder, more self-serving stories. But that is not present on this disc and we are left to wonder. Did Reene ever move beyond her past? Is Josephine still painting, or has pain and pride derailed her again? Is Jeanette a lawyer, and does she advocate for the homeless she was once a publicized member of? These unanswered questions mean that It Was a Wonderful Life feels half complete. And while the concepts present make for compelling viewing, the lack of closure creates an atmosphere of emptiness that saps all the strength and sentiment from what should be very emotional stories. For all the good it wants to do, it feels like its really not trying very hard.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 79

Perp Profile

Studio: Docurama
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 82 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• IMDb

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