The Reel America
The Opinion Survey
The movies have long offered a refracted view of America. When Federico Fellini won his honorary Oscar, he explained the phenomenon: “I come from a country, and I belong to a generation, for which America and the movies were almost the same thing.”
If you were explaining the American character to a foriegner, what three movies best sum up the national persona, and why?
A selection of responses:
John Baldessari, artist.
“Hud"--Ambivalence--having your cake and eating it, too. The film features these oppositions: 1) Looking out for No. 1 versus doing the right thing; 2) Protecting nature versus making a quick buck, and 3) The business of America is business versus the business of America is the public good.
“The Hustler"--The desire to win and what that means and how it blinds us to other values.
“Touch of Evil"--Our sense of black and white morality and how the end justifies the means. We don’t like messiness or loose ends. Recent pertinent example: the Simpson trial. Our xenophobia-- if you act white and/or look white you are above suspicion. Otherwise you are up to no good.
Roger Wilkins, history professor at George Mason University.
“The Birth of a Nation"--It is like the United States: an ingenious technical and artistic virtuosity, yet the magnitude of the achievement is undermined by racism and cultural arrogance. That is a fundamental story of America--dazzling achievements undermined by a lack of humanity which flows from the cultural arrogance that made our forefathers think they had the right to move Native Americans out of the way. It is a tragic mixture.
“Casablanca"--Rick is our American male fantasy: tough and adroit socially on the outside and at the intersection of legitimate commerce, shady activities and the world of spies. But underneath he’s a sentimentalist--a good guy. People’s fantasies are revealing. That’s the America we told ourselves we were when we fought World War II. It’s who we thought we were up until the Vietnam War, which destroyed many of our illusions.
“Pretty Woman"--There is an American fantasy that says everyone is innocent--even prostitutes have hearts of gold and can be redeemed with the application of enough American money and charm. The defining moment of the movie was when the character played by Julia Roberts is in the bathroom. She wants privacy and Richard Gere’s character thinks something serious is going on; so he goes in and there she is--flossing her teeth. So we know she is not, deep down, a bad person. With Gere’s money and charm everything turns out swell and the pretty woman and handsome man will live happily ever after.
Wendy Wasserstein, Pulitzer prize winning playwright whose works include “The Heidi Chronicles” and “The Sisters Rosensweig.”
“Singin’ in the Rain"--Because of its exuberance and its love of the movies.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"--Because it has to do with nobility of character and Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur as the smart woman reporter. But mostly it has to do with nobility and honor and individual rights.
“Pulp Fiction"--Because it has to do with the sexiness of violence.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombian novelist and 1982 Nobel Prize winner for literature. His most recent book in English is “Of Love and Other Demons.”
“Safety Last” (Harold Lloyd)--An intrinsic part of the American character is its idealistic liberalism. The Founding Fathers introduced it in the nation’s governing institutions and it persists in the universities, in the arts and sciences and in the philanthropic spirit of the individual. It is a historic irony that this idealism has not found its way into the American political reality. I find this spirit in the films of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.
“The Loved One"--Americans believe happiness is attainable and anyone can achieve it. This belief allows them to feel happy without realizing how much unhappiness there is in the world. It has even made them unafraid of death because they know that once they’re in the casket they will be more beautiful and better dressed than when they were alive. There they are, all pink, with lots of makeup on their faces.
“The Gunfighter"--It’s about a gunfighter (Gregory Peck) who wants to retire but can’t, because all the new, up-and-coming gunfighters want him as a prize. It is the same with Americans. They cannot retire into isolationism. They are condemned to police the world. It is their fate, their destiny.
Isaac Mizrahi, fashion designer.
“2001: A Space Odyssey"--This movie perfectly represents America’s terror of the present and its belief in the mystery, promise and resolve of the future.
“Peyton Place” and “Return to Peyton Place"--The visual aspect of these movies offers us a glimpse of America at its happiest and most prosperous, in contrast with the script which portrays the misery of a typically provincial attitude that continually threatens to represent our national thinking.
“Sullivan’s Travels"--It’s the perfect story of how Americans deal with success: The guilt they feel over getting something for nothing or how nothing is worth having unless a struggle is involved. Somehow, Preston Sturges was stating that flatly and making fun of the statement at the same time.
Terence Riley, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art.
There are two movies that offer great insight into the conflicting cultural currents in American culture: “The Towering Inferno"and “The Fountainhead.” Both feature the tallest building in the world; however, they convey completely different messages. The former is a Puritan morality tale that emphasizes the sin of pride and its inevitable punishment. As with all such stories, the entire community is seen as at risk for the sins of the individual. Technology is seen as an evil tool for overcoming the natural order.
In “The Fountainhead,” the opposite values are celebrated. The individual is vested with such authority that the architect is excused for destroying a public project because it deviated from his design. The value of the individual in “The Fountainhead” must be protected from society--as opposed to the message of “The Towering Inferno,” where society must be protected from uncontrolled urges of the individual. Technology is seen as heroic, enabling the architect to achieve dominance over nature.
Ultimately, the films point to the two irreconcilable sources of American cultural values, the individualism of Jeffersonian personal liberty and the idea of shared destiny of Puritan theology.
S.I. Newhouse, chairman of Conde Nast Publications.
“White Heat,” “Night of the Hunter” and"D.O.A."--The first is about American business; the second is about religion and child abuse, and the third about energy in America.
Andrea Dworkin, essayist and novelist. Her books include “Pornography: Men Possessing Women” and “Intercourse.”
“Salvador"--Because it shows the ruthlessness of U.S. foreign policy with its slick topping of human-rights idealism. The restless edginess of James Wood’s character is an American prototype--I haven’t seen this temperament elsewhere. “Salvador’s” violence--in the way it is made as well as the story it tells--is also echt-America.
“Deep Throat"--Because it shows the callousness of the pornographic sexuality that has predominated in this country over the last two decades, the idea that sticking anything anywhere in a woman is fun, and what has become a characteristic contempt for both sexuality and women’s bodies.
“The Accused"--Because the film is an act of resistance to the American male’s enthusiasm for both rape and voyeurism. And because Jodie Foster’s luminous, unsentimental performance conveys a new truth: American women are not quiescent in the face of male violence anymore, and we especially reject rape as a male right. This film would not have been made in France.
Richard Rodriguez, essayist, author of “Days of Obligation.”
What makes American movies so “American” is not their stories but their look. American movies look big--that’s what the entire world knows, from Lima to Budapest. With each decade, Hollywood has expanded and expanded the boundaries of fantasy--from talkies to THX (“The Audience is Listening”); from the silver screen to VistaVision; from the early movie stars to the superstars.
We Americans are people who believe in the individual--the “I.” Movies have given us images that confirm our belief in ourselves. On the screen, Marlene Dietrich’s lips were 20 feet wide. Mickey Rooney had a smile as big as a Cadillac. On the screen the “I” was triumphant. Fred Astaire could dance across the skyline of Manhattan. The Edith Head chiffon gown was light as a cloud.
Don’t waste your time trying to remember the title of the John Ford-John Wayne Western--leave that to the UCLA cinema students. It was the entire genre of cowboy movies--the good and the bad--that gave Americans our sense of our own land, its epic size and sky. Without the movies we would have a lesser sense of ourselves.
Cinemascope. Todd-AO. 3-D. Cinerama. The bigger the screen the more American the movie. The best American movies--the ones we cherish--were the ones many saw in old movie palaces, before they were torn down and replaced by a cineplex. Worse, now, is watching a movie on a VCR. Arnold Schwarzenegger has shrunk!
But the other night, watching Tom Cruise in a crowded movie theater, you could feel the excitement. Who cared that the movie’s plot was confused? There it was, nonetheless--an American movie. Big screen. Big sound. And Cruise with a dimple deep as a well.
Farai Chideya, Generation X political analyst for CNN and author of “Don’t Believe the Hype: Fighting Cultural Misinformation About African Americans.”
The first two films reveal our fears and paranoias, one shows America as we fear it will be, one as we wish it would be:
“Bladerunner” --This film’s vision of Los Angeles as a future dystopia--chaotic, polluted, overrun by technology, nonwhites and foreigners--reveals Americans’ deep anxieties that our culture is disintegrating. America from its inception has been an amalgam of cultures. One of our not-so-hidden fears has been that the constituent parts will swallow the whole--particularly that nonwhites will engulf “Euro-American” culture.
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner"--This film, with Sidney Poitier as the--gasp!--black beau of a white couple’s daughter, was progressive for its time. It’s not surprising that Poitier’s character was not merely man but superman--a hyper-polite, cheerful, comfortingly square guy who just happened to be black. This provides a useful look at our racial fantasy. Americans will tolerate human flaws and foibles among members of their own racial groups--but we expect perfection of others. The very American message in this film is: If there must be people of other races and cultures, please let them be as polite as possible.
“Superstar"--Unlike the other two, this film is fairly straightforward in its exploration of American neuroses. “Superstar” is a 40-minute biography of Karen Carpenter--filmed almost exclusively using Barbie dolls. Because the Mattel Corp. was not pleased that their best-selling toy was being used to explore anorexia, the film, by Todd Haynes (director of “Safe” and “Poison”) is rarely shown. “Superstar” has camp moments, but it is a heart-wrenching and emotionally intense exploration of the pressures of modern womanhood--career, family, marriage and, yes, eating disorders. It says a lot about the Barbie-doll perfection that the American media demands of women, and the realities that underlie those images.
Hugh Hewitt, host of PBS’s “Searching for God in America” and KCET’s “Life & Times.”
“Cool Hand Luke"--Paul Newman has set the mark for so long, he deserves top billing. Plus, this movie dented the language--"What we have here . . . ."--a considerable achievement.
“Hoosiers"--It happened. It’s thrilling. It’s America.
“Caddyshack"--Sure, no one in France will understand this. But at least three quarters of American men over 30 and under 50 understand the line, “I’ve got that going for me.”
Francis Fitzgerald, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam.”
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"--Because it shows how American political instincts are different from European instincts. It’s a great exposition of what many have called the American civil religion. The Washington monument as church and the Senate rail as altar rail. Yet the denizens are hopelessly corrupt and can only be saved by an innocent from the backwoods. So Washington becomes the sacred ground that must be resanctified by this naive youth. This was the story Oliver L. North told so brilliantly, and every presidential candidate runs against corruption in Washington and presents himself as a non-politician. “Thelma and Louise"--It’s a road movie. Anyone can drop out, disappear and become an outlaw--civilization is that thin. European “road movies” tend to be pilgrimages--they are going to some place, as in “The Canterbury Tales.” The American road movies are stories of escape and going toward the unknown. The point is never the goal but what happens along the way. In those movies there is no tragedy of separation and no desire to return.
The tragedy of separation is in the immigrant experience--when people of tight-knit families and strong cultures lose their children to America. There are many great movies on this theme, but I choose “Mississippi Masala” because it is up to date. It shows this continuing story of the immigrant family losing their children to the world--and being Asian immigrants in the South makes it an original setting.
Danny Goldberg, president, Mercury Records.
“The Oxbow Incident"--Because it shows that the majority is not always morally right, hence the Bill of Rights.
“Woodstock"--Because there was a beauty to part of the ‘60s that people still care about, regardless of what pundits say.
“Searching For Bobby Fischer"--It shows that winning is important but not the only important thing in American dreams.
Leon E. Panetta, White House chief of staff.
“To Kill a Mockingbird"--This interpretation of Harper Lee’s novel of the segregated South reflects the fundamental American belief in the ability of the individual--one man--to make a difference. Atticus Finch, much like the Gary Cooper character in “High Noon” and the characters played by Gary Cooper and James Stewart in some of Frank Capra’s great movies, has the courage to stand up for right against wrong--and wins.
“The Grapes of Wrath"--John Ford’s classic film of the great John Steinbeck novel shows the indomitable spirit of Americans in search of the American dream--a better life for themselves and their children--as it reflects the traditional American sympathy with the underdog in society.
“American Graffiti"--George Lucas recreates small-town California in the early 1960s, where a young man’s ambivalence about flying East to attend college reflects the classic American conflict between home and the world beyond. Like “The Wizard of Oz’s” Dorothy before him, the Ron Howard character decides home is where he belongs.
Stephen L. Carter, Yale Law School professor and author of “The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law & Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion.”
“Pollyanna"--The ability of one compulsively optimistic little girl to change an entire town’s attitude about itself captures the American belief in the future as good and the individual as important. The key change in the story is that of Karl Malden, who plays the pastor of the local church. His preaching, in true American fashion, slips from pseudo-Calvinistic hellfire to a vague let’s-feel-good-about-ourselves Protestantism. (But note the strong anti-socialism theme: Pollyanna’s rich aunt, who owns everything in the town, gets to keep all her property but learns the virtues of noblesse oblige. Americans have never hated the rich, just envied them, and wanted them to be nice--Michael Jordan, not Dennis Rodman.)
“Unforgiven"--This portrays perfectly the American ambivalence about power. Clint Eastwood’s murderous gunslinger comes out of retirement to avenge a terrible crime, but of course, once called to arms, he cannot be controlled and a blood bath ensues. We like to see the guilty punished, but we are scared of the power that can do it, so we wrap that power in a tight web of constitutional restrictions. Thus we pretend to control the natural violence of the sovereign. When the violence slips through--the Rodney G. King beating or, a generation ago, the shootings at Kent State--we are capable of enormous outrage. But we are still generally glad that the capacity for violence is there--in case we need it.
“Star Wars"--This is the American film of the modern age. Good conquers Evil. Good is a handful of adventurers. Evil is a vast hierarchy. Good is plucky and individualistic. Evil is bureaucratic and arrogant. Good just wants to be free. Evil’s motive is a bit unclear--but isn’t it always? (Was world domination the only motive of communism?) Good does not want to fight, but Evil forces the battle. (Compare the famous line from Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address.) Good looks like us. (Well, in the first movie, the good guys, at least the humans, were all white. But this was fixed.) Evil wears masks. And, one more thing: Good always shoots better than Evil. That, too, is part of the American credo.
Carlos Fuentes, Mexican novelist and essayist. His new book is “A New Time for Mexico.”
“Singin’ in the Rain"--The supremely optimistic U.S. film. Almost Cartesian: I sing and dance, therefore I am.
“Citizen Kane"--But innocence can be lost and the American dream of happiness and success can founder in the warehouses of Xanadu.
“Taxi Driver"--Which announces that U.S. civilization can break down in the dark alleys of urban neurosis.
Angela E. Oh, head of the Korean American Family Service Center.
One movie that explains our American character is “Do the Right Thing.” This movie does a good job of raising the issue of race relations and the collage of our national persona. The perspectives of working-class whites, blacks and newcomers--all struggling with their common humanity and deep differences--speaks to what I believe is the greatest challenge facing this nation today. If we fail in meeting this challenge, we face a bleak future.
Christopher Buckley, novelist and editor of Forbes FYI. His most recent book is “Thank You for Smoking.”
“Smile"--A satirical gem of Americana. Bruce Dern plays a glad-handling, slap-on-the-back car salesman who runs the Young American Miss pageant in Santa Rosa, Calif. Barbara Feldon (remember her, from “Get Smart”?) plays a frigid former Young American Miss who’s so tight-assed that she drives her husband to drink and to shoot her (in the arm). What could be more splashily vulgar and American than a beauty pageant? And more innocent? It manages to display our worst and best tendencies simultaneously. And on this movie’s small stage both are deliciously amplified.
“High Noon"--The most distinctive hero in the American imagination is--as Henry A. Kissinger once unfortunately pointed out to Oriana Fallaci--the man who rides into town alone, saves the town and rides off alone. Gary Cooper, as the marshall who must save the town single-handedly, is also quintessentially laconic, a very American trait. He doesn’t have much to say--unlike the knights of old, who could be positively garrulous. But he saves the town and gets the blond (who ironically, in real life, went on to marry a European prince). And forget all that bull about how the movie’s subtext is the struggle of the blacklisted American screenwriter--screenwriter Carl Foreman was one of the Hollywood 10. The bad guys are not the House Un-American Activities Committee.
“Dr. Strangelove"--The mad U.S. Air Force general, Gen. Jack D. Ripper, played to lunatic perfection by Sterling Hayden, and his Pentagon superior, Gen. Buck Turgeson, played with brilliance by George C. Scott, (who went on to the starring role in “Patton,” my fourth choice) are the reductio ad absurdum of the modern American military mentality: One unleashes the Apocalypse and the other tries to turn it into a silk purse. Scott’s portrayal in particular captures the can-do attitude that has saved the world twice this century--and also brought it to the brink of annihilation.
Alexis Smith, artist.
“The Manchurian Candidate"--It’s a political movie where life imitates art all the time. And there is its checkered history: It presaged the Kennedy assassination and was pulled off the market.
The movie itself exemplifies both the best and the worst of the American character. In the best category, there is selflessness and heroism, patriotism and the redemptive power of love. In the worst, there is paranoia, greed, overweening ambition and a willingness to sacrifice the most sacred things for gain.
The other two are categories rather than actual movies. The road movie, of which there are a million examples, is a peculiarly American idea of leaving the old life behind, finding a new life and having all these adventures on the road that are significant and life-changing.
The other type that is incredibly critical is the cowboy movie. Probably my favorite--in that it is the most melodramatic--is “Stagecoach.” Cowboys and the American West are an incredible archetype for Americans but it colors the way people around the world see us. In Germany they have clubs where they study and re-create the culture of American Indians.
Both of these types of movies have the idea that you can change your circumstances based on what you do yourself.
John P. Sears, former political advisor to Richard M. Nixon and campaign manager to Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980.
“Gone With the Wind"--All things are transient except the indomitability of the human spirit.
‘Picnic"--It is admirable to follow your emotions, to take a chance, even though reason would dictate a different course.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest"--Americans have a special love for the incorrigible. It makes communal activity difficult but saves us from being a country controlled by elitists.
Stanley Crouch, essayist and author of “The All American Skin Game.”
In the three films I picked, we see the effects and the expression of democratic power and democratic corruption within the context of the overwhelming American reality, which is miscegenation--both literal and cultural. None is a propaganda film. The meanings and mysteries of our humanity come before any manifesto.
First, John Ford’s “The Searchers,” a post-Civil War tale of the winning of the West, the demon of racism and the heroic ability to finally accept the complex mixtures of our identity--no matter how tragic the circumstances that create it. To understand one aspect of the soul of America is to appreciate how well Ford directs Vera Miles to display pioneer pluck, charm and earthiness, then sear away our innocence with her blood-thirsty racism. This masterwork also features John Wayne, one of our greatest actors, at the top of his craft.
“Touch of Evil,” an Orson Welles phenomenon, is about miscegenation, the entwining of juvenile delinquency, drugs and organized crime, as well as the corrupt measures a representative of the law will use to get his man. The great director’s understanding of this nation’s many intricacies are observed in how class and culture come together. The bloated cop and the Mexican criminal, the Jew and the Mexican investigator, the delicate technology of a shocking and brutal act, are all examples of his astute command.
In “City of Hope,” writer, director and actor John Sayles wove an epic picture of an Eastern city where labor, class, race, law, and politics are mixed so brilliantly that our faith in American aesthetic possibility is redeemed. Few post-Vietnam films are this good at capturing the layers of heartbreak, sleaze, nobility, disillusionment, romance, frustration and hope while moving us through ethnic groups filled with different kinds of individuals.
Sammy Lee, Olympic gold medal winner in 1948 and 1952 for diving, and only Asian-American to be awarded the James E. Sullivan Award (1953) for outstanding amateur athlete.
“Forrest Gump"--Because our country is more involved in helping the disabled than other countries. We started the Special Olympics for kids who have mental and physical disabilities.
“The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938)--Because this best shows what we believe: that good always overcomes evil.
“Mr. Holland’s Opus"--Because you always hear of someone who wants to do something great--such as make a perfect 10 when you dive. This movie shows that even though you have those dreams, as a coach or teacher you extend that dream to others and help them to be the best they can be. Unfortunately, the American way of life gives less money to teachers and more money to the worst basketball coach in the country.
James Truman, former editor of Details, now editorial director of Conde Nast.
“Rebel Without a Cause"--Youth as a cultural industry.
“Raging Bull"--Violence as a national art form.
“Risky Business"--The free market as fin-de-siecle theology.
Henry G. Cisneros, secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
“Stand and Deliver” explains our faith in education as the great equalizer that can change lives and make the American Dream accessible to all. The dedicated teacher who turns marginal students into top math achievers shows why we believe that no one’s life should be written off as hopeless--no matter what the record of past failures.
“Apollo 13" gives insights into the powerful American determination to succeed against seemingly insurmountable odds, and illustrates how extraordinary efforts, teamwork and courage have enabled our people to achieve so much.
“Shenandoah” illustrates the determination of Americans to risk their lives and sacrifice everything to stand up for their beliefs.
E.J. Dionne, author of “They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era” and “Why Americans Hate Politics.”
OK, maybe I’m sentimental, but you have to start with “It’s a Wonderful Life.” This movie has 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. It also explains why Americans simultaneously love capitalism and are so critical of it. George Bailey is the good capitalist who gives of himself and helps create the Jeffersonian ideal of lots of small property owners. Mr. Potter is the bad capitalist who cares only about money; is happy to have people live in slums, and would sell his city’s soul to the gambling and liquor interests. We want our marketplace to embody Bailey’s values, not Potter’s.
Then, “All Through the Night,” my favorite Humphrey Bogart film. Bogart plays an organized crime leader in New York called Gloves Donahue. Gloves enlists in the anti-Nazi cause when the man who bakes his favorite cheesecake, a German immigrant, is killed after he stops playing ball with the Nazi underground. Bogart unites all of organized crime in New York against the Nazis, telling one of his enemies: “If these guys take over, you won’t know what a closed town is. They’ll tell you what time to wake up in the morning and what time to go to bed at night.”
But my favorite line--and the finest comment on party loyalty in all of American film--is at the end. Bogart finally catches the Nazi ring leader and has a gun on him. The Nazi, trying to win favor, says: “But Mr. Donahue, you should be with us, you’re a man of action. You don’t believe in democracy.”
Gloves looks coolly down his gun and replies: “Look, I may not have been a model citizen. But I’ve been a registered Democrat all my life.” The Democrats have never fully recovered from the moment that Bogart went to God.
Finally, “The Graduate,” as offering the best clues to the whys, wherefores and weirdness of ‘60s alienation. Sure, “Plastics” is a cliche. But it wasn’t before Dustin Hoffman did this movie. I also like his reply on having a half-baked idea. “Oh no,” he said, “It’s fully baked.” So we all claim.
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr, historian, whose works include “The Age of Jackson” and “The Cycles of American History.”
“High Noon"--because it beautifully exemplifies the classic American confrontation: an individual standing up for what he believes against a craven and corrupt community.
“Glory"--because it shows with vivid artistry how whites and blacks can fight together for freedom.
“Nashville"--because it wonderfully reveals the crazed underside and incipient hysteria of American life.
Marian Wright Edelman, president of Children’s Defense Fund.
“Glory,” “Eyes on the Prize,” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman"--Because its time to correct the misinformation about the 1960s and to revisit the lessons of our national history.”
Michael Woo, former City Council member and businessman.
“It Happened One Night"--This movie expresses Americans’ native optimism within the context of the Great Depression. Far from presenting an attack on the inequities of a class-based society--indeed, even tycoons are shown as lovable--it offers hope that class divisions separating the rich (Claudette Colbert as a spoiled rich girl) from the working classes (Clark Gable as an irreverent newspaper reporter) can be overcome by the ingenuity, pluckiness, native wits and friendliness of individuals. It doesn’t matter who your parents are or how rich--people can find ways to get along, even in difficult situations. Americans have long cherished this assumption underlying their optimistic belief in the possibility of change for the better.
“Taxi Driver"--This is a pungent refutation of the optimism that characterized the period from the New Deal through the postwar economic expansion. Martin Scorsese shows that something about the American Dream is rotten. While “It Happened One Night” celebrates the joys of mobility, “Taxi Driver” argues that the sense of freedom that accompanies mobility has degenerated into alienation, urban anomie and even pathological violence. The easy relationship between men and women embodied in Gable and Colbert has devolved into Robert DeNiro’s sometimes comic, sometimes pathetic encounters with women in “Taxi Driver.”
“The Godfather, Part II"--An almost operatic vision of America, poignantly setting forth the hope of new immigrants seeking to make a fresh start in the New World, seeking to escape the violence, corruption and hypocrisies of their past--only to discover new sources of violence, corruption and hypocrisy in their adopted home. Americans yearning to justify their optimism are nonetheless struck by the movie’s insistence that fundamental evil cannot be escaped; on the contrary, it is passed on from generation to generation.
Lari Pittman, artist.
“All About Eve,” “Nashville” and “The Grifters"--The thread that goes through all three captures that special American pathology associated with self-determination, ambition and entrepreneurship. What unifies them is that wonderful, juicy, dark American subtext.
Donald E. Westlake, novelist and screenwriter. His most recent books are “Smoke” and “Baby, Would I Lie?”
The first movie I chose is “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” It is imbued with the can-do spirit of America, the conviction that all problems can be solved with a little determination and hard work. But it also contains the contradictory (and very American) idea that things don’t work out, but it hardly matters--grace and self-reliance are more valuable than gold; home and honor are most valuable of all.
Because race is the intractable problem that defines us the way class defines Britain, my second movie would be “No Way Out” (1950). It is intelligent and honest and even-handed. It is also overwrought and melodramatic, as it would have to be, being an American story about the intractability of race in America. Appropriately, it yearns for answers without finding any.
A part of the American character is anarchic and surreal, because America is a land of immigrants, who were (and are) leaving the known for the unknown, entering a space where anything is possible because everything is improbable. This surreal landscape has created much of our humor, so my third movie would be “Bringing Up Baby.” (It even contains a European who doesn’t believe there can possibly be a leopard on his roof.)
A fourth movie, to complete the picture, has not yet been made: The movie about Americans’ alienation from themselves, the movie that explains everything from the Unabomber and the militias to wilding and gangsta rap. But that movie doesn’t exist yet, because film is a reflective medium. It does not lead the way. It draws the map after the road has been taken.
Carlos Monsivais, Mexican journalist, historian and social critic. His most recent book is “Los Rituales del Caos,” (The Rituals of Chaos).
“Gone with the Wind"--The preferred American way to understand epics is through a couple. Americans see history as romance. (Another way to understand epics is through organized crime: The Godfather.
“It’s a Wonderful Life"--Expresses the belief in the family as the space for utopia.
“Taxi Driver"--An institutional craze in America is the monologue of the loner, “Are you talking to me”?
Anna Perez, former press secretary for First Lady Barbara Bush, now vice president of government relations at Disney.
“Citizen Kane"--A wonderfully entertaining movie and an always valuable reminder that a politically active and opinionated news media is not a new development on the American scene.
“Pillow Talk"--Doris Day’s perennial virgin is at least as Austenian as “Clueless’ ” Cher. Day, however, also had a great job and a great apartment, acquired as a result of her own wit and effort. Now, that’s a role model!
“Sounder"--An American “Les Miserables.” A stunning evocation of where we’ve been as a country, told, as the best stories are, one family at a time.
Nicholas Lemann, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and author of “The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America.”
The essential American thing is the preoccupation with individual opportunity; most of the other distinctive national obsessions, such as classlessness and populism, social and geographical mobility and black-white race relations, are its byproducts. What’s most difficult for non-Americans to understand about America is that it isn’t a pose. We really do believe that everybody should be able to transcend the circumstances of birth and fulfill some personal destiny.
I just saw a reissue of “The Last Picture Show,” which implies a good trio of movies because the characters in it watch snatches of two other pictures, “Red River” and the original “Father of the Bride,” in their town’s dying movie theater. “The Last Picture Show” conveys the overwhelming longing that Americans in obscure circumstances feel to find a connection to the big, glistening, national enterprise.
“Red River,” as it’s played here, is the Western as a dream of heroic conquest (and upward mobility)--remember cowboys were the underclass of the post-Civil War era--but here they get to be gods.
“Father of the Bride” is used as an excuse to flash the face of the young and staggeringly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor on the screen to symbolize to “The Last Picture Show’s” high-school boy heroes an incredibly alluring life of prosperity, refinement and sexual fulfillment that countrymen of theirs are somehow, somewhere living.
A. Scott Berg, biographer, author of “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius” and “Goldwyn.” He is working on a biography of Charles A. Lindbergh.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"--This 1939 ear of Capra-corn still offers defining images of this country. The American persona is optimistic, believing one person can make a difference and that our self-correcting government can overcome any evils. Jefferson Smith--the quintessential James Stewart/American Everyman role--voices these principles, along with every other watchword of liberty. And no matter what the scandal at hand--Watergate, Packwood, Claude Rains as the sell-out Sen. Paine--we still cheer every time the system works.
Many consider money the nation’s bedrock; and “Citizen Kane” examines America’s ambivalent feelings toward it. Like the fortunes of innumerable American power brokers, Charles Foster Kane’s springs from a lucky strike and just keeps mounting. In America, the sky’s the limit; and there is no end to Kane’s need to acquire. In its moralistic American way, this is a cautionary tale, reminding us that in selling your soul, money still can’t buy you love--or an election. (Nota bene, Ariana Huffington and Ross Perot.)
America was forged by immigrants who arrived dreaming of a better life, of second chances. This all-American redemptive theme reverberates throughout “Hoosiers.” Like countless American heroes before him, Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) rides into town, a stranger with a past. In America, people do not ask who you are as much as, “What do you do?” Norm coaches basketball, reconstituting a team from a group of disparate individuals. E pluribus unum. And almost every character--the coach, the sulky player who quit the team, the drunken father (Dennis Hopper) of another player--gets a second chance. Americans champion underdogs and cherish winners. These hoopsters are both.
Michael Ventura, novelist and essayist. His new novel, “The Death of Frank Sinatra,” will be published this summer.
“High Noon"--A town full of frightened people who back down and accede to evil, and an equally frightened man (Gary Cooper) whose sense of honor won’t let him cop out. He wins his personal battle but loses faith in his community. Nothing has changed; the townspeople will be just as chicken next time. In the last scene, the disgust on Cooper’s face when he throws his badge into the dirt is the price that many heroic Americans have paid.
“The Birds"--Even in our loveliest, most out-of-the-way places, there is a sense of an impending, irrational, implacable danger--we feel so guilty for something that we fear even the birds may turn against us. What else can explain our constant need for scapegoats, and our willingness to believe even the flimsiest lies if they offer temporary comfort?
“The Gay Divorcee"--The eternally popular Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals were made in the worst years of the Depression. Something lovely and reckless in the American character is always ready to believe that a song and a dance will make everything all right; that the pretty, silly lyrics are true, and if only we can find love the rest of our problems will take care of themselves. Every one of us knows better--yet that doesn’t seem to matter. But we’d better learn our problems won’t go away by themselves--no matter how well we dance.
Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"--Portrays American idealism, the belief that virtue will triumph over evil and that our system can work.
“To Kill a Mockingbird"--Shows the strong strain of racism in the American society and how deeply it is ingrained.
“The Grapes of Wrath"--Illustrates the drive and perseverance of poor and working class people in the search for human dignity and economic security.
Sean K. MacPherson, restaurateur, owner of Jones, Swingers, Good Luck Bar, Small’s K.O.; co-owner of Bar Marmont.
“A Face in the Crowd” shows the incestuous and dysfunctional relationship among America, its idols and the media. We see a man whose hunger for the nation’s adoration is eclipsed only by the public’s appetite to adore him. While the media fosters this relationship, we watch a nobody become a monster. As long as there is money to be made, nobody cares that he is a monster. But as soon as the public sees the monster behind the mask, they and the media abandon the man and leave only the monster.
Though “Easy Rider” is emblematic of the free-spirited 1960s, it also represents America’s tradition of “outsiders” relinquishing tradition. For generations, Americans have believed they can find themselves by traversing the country. Though Americans believe, “This is our land . . . " we see that, in America, this does not apply to all Americans.
“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” deftly depicts the American high school experience. Though scholastics are important to the American high school student, the real focus tends to be on the process of socializing--which in America is often done through sex, drugs and rock and roll.
Justin E. Kaplan, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of “Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain.”
“The Manchurian Candidate"--Because it dramatizes our obsession both with politics and with conspiracy theories.
“The Wizard of Oz"--For its humor, its mix of fantasy, the grotesque and satire, its faith in things always working out for the best, and the way it reflects our deeply held assumption, contrary to the facts, that we’re still a rural, “just folks” nation with a heart as big as Kansas.
“On the Waterfront"--The flip side of both Oz and the American gospel of success: the graininess and recalcitrance of urbanism.
Shirlee Taylor Haizlip, author of “The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White.
Praised at the Wilson White House, prized at the red-neck outhouse, “The Birth of a Nation” for the first time disseminated widely distorted iconic images from the national nightmare which would provoke, persuade and propel some Americans to fear, hate and mistrust others, from that time until now.
For the first time in movies, the bleak personal landscapes of “Nothing But a Man” revealed the affects of systemic, institutional racism on one generation after another. Then as now, families were destroyed and separated because their husbands, fathers, grandfathers, sons and grandsons were denied access to employment. It was clear from this film, that people of good hearts were, like characters in a Greek play, often overwhelmed by forces beyond their control.
“Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored” captures the resilience and culture of a people seeded in slavery, salted in Reconstruction and enduring until now. The film reveals that America melds all of its children to have the same dreams--though some dreams might never be fulfilled. The lives and loves of its characters reflected the triumph of the American character over the unceasing, mean-spirited American undertow.
Todd Gitlin, professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University. His most recent book is “The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars.”
“The Candidate"--Which shows the quarrel in the American political ingenuity between idealism and pragmatism.
“Platoon"--Which exhibits the miserable consequences of classic American innocence and our melodramatic propensity to polarize good and evil.
“Bonnie and Clyde"--Which exhibits our rootlessness and ruthlessness.
John Gregory Dunne, novelist and screenwriter. His most recent novel is “Playland.”
I don’t really see movies as saying anything about America. A movie is a movie.
This survey was compiled by Kathleen Bueno.