The Reel America

Neal Gabler is author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" and "Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Cult of Celebrity" (Knopf)

Perhaps it was no accident that the movies began just as the American frontier was pronounced closed. According to historian Frederick Jackson Turner, whose 1893 “Frontier Thesis” changed the face of American historiography, it was on the rugged frontier where Americans shaped their character and defined their values, where, indeed, they became Americans. Once that raw physical space was domesticated, the function of character-building seemed to pass to another frontier: the imaginative frontier of the movies.

The accompanying survey asking respondents to name films that express the American character, however, shows it is far easier to define character in theory than in practice. For one thing, national character is a slippery idea. Is there such a thing as “Americanness”? Even if they answered yes, respondents didn’t always clarify whether the character they were defining was an ideal or a reality, and if they regarded movies as mirrors reflecting our character in our daily lives or as dreams revealing our character as we imagine it.

This is the issue stoking the current cultural war over the movies begun by Dan Quayle and continued recently by Bob Dole. On one side are the “realists,” who believe movies reflect the way we really are, warts and all. On the other are the “idealists,” who believe movies purvey the way we like to think we are.

Though there isn’t necessarily a correlation between either view and a particular political orientation, conservatives tend to lament the realist position--because realism in Hollywood’s hands so often takes the form of criticizing American values or showing how short we fall; while liberals tend to lament the idealist position because idealism in Hollywood’s hands so often takes the form of glossing over what liberals see as the awful truth.


That said, what the survey suggests is that Hollywood has provided plenty of ammunition for both arsenals. Idealists can adduce movies like “Hoosiers,” about a ragamuffin high school basketball team, from a shoebox-sized town in Indiana, that pulls together to win the state championship. “It’s America,” crows Hugh Hewitt, host of PBS’s “Searching for God.” Or idealists can summon “High Noon,” which “beautifully exemplifies the classic American confrontation” between a heroic individual and a craven community (Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.).

Realists, for their part, can adduce “Taxi Driver” which, in novelist Carlos Fuentes’ interpretation, “announces that U.S. civilization can break down in the dark alleys of urban neurosis;” and in Michael Woo’s depicts how Americans’ love of freedom has “degenerated into alienation, urban anomie and even pathological violence.” Or “Dr. Strangelove,” which novelist Christopher Buckley says shows the “Reductio ad absurdum of the modern American military mentality.” Or Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” about police corruption in a Mexican border town. “We don’t like messiness or loose ends,” artist John Baldessari says. Or they can choose D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” one of America’s seminal movies though one that locates the country’s spiritual birth in white Southern resistance to freed black slaves.

If you scanned all these selections for key words, you would find the so-called traditional values well represented: independence, innocence, optimism, can-do spirit, honor and, above all, heroic individualism. But you would also find racism, corruption, ambivalence, greed, overweening ambition and violence. Not exactly a matched set of characteristics.

Yet, it is in the contradictory nature of our movies that we may discover who we are: a nation caught between definitions. In choosing “The Fountainhead” and “The Towering Inferno,” Terence Riley, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, takes just this approach. The first film, about an incorruptible architect who demolishes his own building rather than see it compromised, and the second, about a building that demolishes itself because of corporate greed and technological arrogance, are thesis and antithesis in America--"two irreconcilable sources of American cultural values, the individualism of Jeffersonian personal liberty and the idea of the shared destiny of Puritan theology.”

One can find other pairs here: “Taxi Driver” with “High Noon” contrasting misguided messianism with duty; “Deep Throat” with “Pretty Woman” contrasting sexual debasement with the fantasy of sexual redemption; “Singin’ in the Rain” with “Raging Bull” contrasting the exuberance of American energy with the explosive fury of that energy; “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” with “A Face in the Crowd” or “The Manchurian Candidate” contrasting populism with the potential for demagoguery in a democracy.

Rather than cancel out one another, each term in these pairs exists in a symbiosis with the other, just as America itself exists within a symbiosis of its nightmares and dreams, its fears and hopes. We all believe in possibility. As Atlantic Monthly national correspondent Nicholas Lemann writes, “The essential American thing is the preoccupation with individual opportunity.”

But at the same time we are also aware of the distance between ourselves and the success we desire--if only because so many movies have provided us a vision of glamour, power, love and self-realization that we know we cannot possibly achieve. Taken as an aggregate, our films provide a continuing negotiation between the real and the ideal, between our lives and our dreams of transcendence, between our own shortcomings and aspirations and the shortcomings and aspirations of the country. Indeed, the idea of negotiation itself may be more American than any of the particular negotiating positions.

A case in point is Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” This is the movie most frequently cited in the survey--presumably because Capra’s naive faith in America seems so quintessential a square in the American quilt. But for all its civic religion, with Jimmy Stewart gulping at the Lincoln Memorial, “Mr. Smith” is deeply cynical--the government is corrupt, the people are cattle and only the superhuman efforts of one man can shame them into action.


Similarly, Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” also cited here by several respondents, seems, in political analyst E.J. Dionne’s words, to have “everything”: “American ideals about love, family life, children, wartime heroism, localism, community-mindedness, loyalty, friendship and, most broadly, just who we think the good guys are.” But “Life,” which takes a man through his personal history and then shows how his community would have been different if he had never been born, is, at base, a bleak, noirish vision of small-town American life where every strophe is followed by a catastrophe, every dream dashed by reality.

If the tension between nightmare and dream is the fundamental feature of our movies, it may be because the movies themselves are genetically suspended between photographic reality and the manipulation of reality into something much larger, much better--an endowment that is nowhere more evident than in American films. It may be surprising, then, that only one respondent cited style as the defining characteristic of American character. “American movies look big,” wrote Richard Rodriguez. He goes on to connect the sheer size of American movies to an assertion of American ego. The movies literally make us bigger than life.

But while style may be an integral component of American character, it is not unrelated to content. The size, the bombast, the movement of our most popular movies are all in the service of an attempt to make reality conform to the dream even when, in the process, they often demonstrate that the feat is impossible. Whether realist or idealist, in almost none of these films do we find men or women in repose. Instead, protagonists as different as Forrest Gump, Jake LaMotta, Rhett Butler and Ratzo Rizzo, Clyde Barrow and Cool Hand Luke are all racing along the imaginative frontier, negotiating between themselves and their ambitions, trying to discover who they are and who we are and hoping against hope they’ll find what character really is. It’s the quest that’s so American.