Monday, January 19, 2009
in 25 Movies...
Black and white and a million shades of gray. In one movie.
NEXT LOT. Well, we've reached the fifties, that decade in America where nothing interesting whatever happened because the Baby Boomers were in cribs and all the people who know everything now share the same smeared memory of conformist idiots doing exactly what they were told, unless they were energized by Elvis and other Top Forty acts to kick authority in the balls. You know, reacting against the moron clowns who raised them and getting ready for the inspired and enlightened sixties. It's possible something interesting might have happened if it weren't for the same old Republican problem -- an old white man as president, who didn't know anything about anything, which doomed the fifties to a kind of cartoonish timeout in which people didn't live their lives (didn't even know they had genitals) and America almost imploded from boredom.
16. The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
Exhibit A. Unless it's really Exhibit Z. I love this movie. Just as many men who deplore the anger and hostility of feminism love women individually for all the marvelous capabilities that redeem the worst of their chosen mates. In fact, this is the movie I would prescribe for all those men who act baffled at how long their wives and girlfriends spend shopping for the right card for every occasion, including their own sorry-ass birthdays and anniversaries. READ THE CARDS. This is a movie about the lives so many women lead, even today, and what's distinctively American about it is the entrepreneurial possibility our great nation offers to those who are determined to keep fighting as individuals for what matters most in their lives. What is schlock in critical terms can be high art in life terms, and this is the story of a life of artistic genius in a purely fifties American context. If you can watch this movie and NOT fall in love all over again with the whole idea of the women in our lives, you are probably a serial killer. Watch it and you will never again feel a moment's impatience with her meticulous wrapping of gifts that will be torn open in a moment by children or shunted aside by embittered oldsters. You will just love her -- and all the seemingly silly rituals and courtesies she so faithfully executes while caring for everyone more than she does for herself. If she wears your team's football jersey and assembles the tailgate feast while raising your kids on the side, she's not your subordinate. She's the blessing that redeems all the disgusting low points of your life. Back in the fifties, she held the whole country together. Thanks to her, there were two-parent families and homes to go back to. She had the Christian gift of forgiveness. Now that we've worked so hard to turn her into us, and she's just another struggling, narcissistic single-mother household, what are we? Better? Freer? Maybe you and she should talk about it. (clip)
17. The Godfather
Yeah, we've dissed this one, too. But it's still part of who we are as a nation. Not the mob, but the mafia, whose sick code of silence has infected every organization that cultivates a sense of its own specialness. Including the government. All organizations are prey to the accumulated conviction that they are too important to obey anyone else's rules. Show me any large, old organization, and I will show you a mafia. In fact, that why I have always hated this movie so much. The sense of belonging to a privileged, elite group which can thumb its nose at more universal affiliations is what I have always despised about investment bankers and corporate executives quoting lines from The Godfather as life lessons or Rules of Engagement. To an obsolete WASP like me, it teaches all the wrong lessons -- weakness where you should be strong and reactive wrong where you should seek out the hard right thing to do. But here's the irony. All of you who turn your noses up at the fifties, who think that realistic, pragmatic life began in the post-superstitious age of the enlightened, "progressive" sixties -- why do you still hearken back to the "offer that can't be refused"? Because for all your supposed education and rationality, you are trapped in the anti-romanticism of Michael Corleone, the raw display of Machiavellian power that enables you to perpetrate the hoax of global warming, the myth of salvation by a new elitely chosen Godfather, and the lie that a chosen iconic boss can somehow make everything right, no matter how ruthless and hypocritical his methods. Why American intellectuals who have always been free still idolize Castro. They worship the fucking drama of a life-and-death overlord, given how dull life is if you're just an Irish consigliere played by Robert Duvall. Why do the freest people on earth still want (anti)royalty to rule them? Maybe Obama will explain. Whatever the answer is, there is a uniquely American answer. Which, in this case, is headquartered in the boring fifties. I hate it. But it's still part of who we are and have become. (clip)
18. Malcolm X
Never cared for Spike Lee either. But this is a great movie. Quite free of some of his other, more self-indulgent peaeans to the moral imperviousness of blackness. The subject made him honest. Malcolm X began as a thug. One can understand the extremity of his escape route. In fact, one -- meaning I -- can understand why he became so radicalized. Does this mean that he was right for all black men for all time? No. But it's the American Way that you get to choose. Malcolm X chose. Decidedly. Intellectually. Morally. And he chose wrong. Not Spike Lee's point, I suppose. I think he was after an alternative Christ for African-Americans who sort-of-thought MLK had failed kind of thing. The last-refuge-ofanger kind of thing.
But here's the irony. I admire this movie as a testament of real honesty. I thought Spike Lee created a masterpiece. I thought he was telling black people that the way out of the abyss was education. Which it is. Malcolm X learned how to read and write and speak. Eloquently. That was the lesson. Not the particular politics he advocated. Which are completely at odds with everything I have experienced in the African-American community. His attraction to Islam was an attraction to discipline. Control everything. He realized what made black people a stereotype in the white world and he stood all that on its ear. Except that he was wrong. About everything. He had a bigger dream than MLK. He dared to believe that black people could transcend their heritage and history and be better than the white folk at having families, being faithful to their wives, and being fathers to their children. He was wrong. They killed him for it. In a hail of bullets.
Black people in America remain for the most part slaves, governed by an outlaw, slave mentality. Malcolm X is proof that this is an unnecessary mentality. But the extremity of his philosophy and his sacrifice are a huge part of the burden we all bear. We prefer the much much dumber vision of MLK. Who fantasized that his own people might one day give up the resentments of their past and rely on their own gifts instead. Malcolm X knew better. That blacks had to exceed whites in morality, accomplishment and discipline to win their separate peace, because self-respect was more important than the flattery of debtors.
Idiotic. A fifties delusion. Right? (clip)
Remember how nobody in this country ever even noticed black people before the sixties and the dawn of the Civil Rights era? I mean, like Malcolm X was wrong, and oh go to hell. Except for Jazz. Americans have loved black musicians for several centuries, but they've also cited them as the bad moral examples they've always been. Because Americans prefer delivering sermons over the doomed dead to being energized and enlightened by the brilliant live performances of their social inferiors. (Like none of your friends ever dance, do they? Racist sticks...) Another instance. (clip -- dubbed in Italian, but it doesn't matter)
20. On the Waterfront
Probably the greatest American move ever. The greatest acting performance. The greatest screenplay. The greatest director. The greatest irony between the story told and the story implied. The greatest cultural vindication demonstrated by the greatest industry insult. The movie is great art by itself, and it's also history, and its after-effects are the QED of its point. No artist can ever hope for more than Elia Kazan achieved with On the Waterfront. And no artist can ever recover from the insults deliverately heaped on Eia Kazan for having made this movie. I could explain all this. But I also have the sense that our readers who lionize Reservoir Dogs and Saw IV need to step up and ask what the big deal is. It's a VERY BIG DEAL. Here is the movie that analogizes history, encapsulates history, is history, critiques history, and stands as a personal tragedy that is also one of the sorriest instances of American history you can expect to find in a supposedly free country. Elia Kazan did the right thing. Just like Terry Malloy. He got beaten mostly to death for it the same fashion. That's also part of the American Way.
So, without apologies, here's the final scene of the greatest American movie ever made:
Next up, the Baby Boomers.