Friday, January 23, 2009
in 25 Movies or More...
Watch the whole thing or skip to 4:40 in. Which is what it's all about.
HONORABLE MENTIONS. Everything else in this country is over budget at the moment, so why shouldn't I be, too? As soon as you make a finite list of anything, you realize immediately after you filled in the last slot that you've forgotten this and missed that. So here are, as promised, the "Tacked-On Ten."
1. My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Yes, dear readers, it's a comedy. Funny, affectionate, and rarest virtue of all, still entertaining after many viewings. It also illustrates the duality of the American melting pot. Yes, we assimilate immigrants into American ways, but we also absorb the gifts they bring with them. It's more frankly warmhearted than most of the comedy suggestions from commenters, many of which I couldn't understand at all. Liking some movie a lot doesn't mean it belongs on this list. It's got to reflect more than just the writer's or director's political perspective on some issue, however important that issue is. Comedy succeeds best when it illuminates human strengths and foibles in endearing ways. (As opposed to satire, which is almost invariably an intellectual attack by the mind behind the words.) I like this movie for the list not only because I like it but because it succeeds delightfully in expanding our appreciation of the joyful sparks of culture clashes. It's grossly unfair to WASPs, but as a WASP myself, I'm used to it and there's no point in explaining that nine out of ten of us would have been enthusiastic participants in all those Greek parties. That aside, it's a worthy addition to our American canon. To be brutally honest, I'm all done with watching Dr. Strangelove. There's nothing else in it for me. This modest little movie still has miles to go before I tire of it. (clip)
2. Pork Chop Hill
Someone correctly pointed out that the Korean War is a hole in the list of 25. I agree. But the best Korean War movie isn't a political thriller. It's a movie about the men who fought that terribly costly and now forgotten battle in the Cold War. In movie terms, it's almost as big a hole as World War I (and don't anybody dare mention M*A*S*H, which was always only about Vietnam). Pork Chop Hill, though, is exactly the movie it should be -- hard to watch, painful, dreary, and admirable all at the same time. Make the effort to watch it, and as you do, remember one of the saddest of all facts about that war -- how many of the men fighting it had already survived military service in World War II only to be called up again to fight under the flag of the U.N. But you never saw Korea vets burning a flag or throwing their medals away. You've never heard a peep from them. That's the kind of men they were and are. (clip)
3. Advise and Consent
Does anybody but me remember this movie? It was a star-studded Otto Preminger production about the internal partisan wars attendant on the confirmation of a key post in the president's administration. In 1962. Before Bork. Before Clarence Thomas. If you think there was a time when Washington politics weren't bloodsport, think again. At first it seems dry and dull and procedural, but it slowly pulls you into the center of a very nasty game. With excellent performances by Don Murray, Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Lew Ayres, Walter Pidgeon, Burgess Meredith, and Franchot Tone. It's a sobering lesson about what power in America's constantly growing federal government entails. Can we ever trust them? And why should we? The advantage of examining the question at a great remove from our current policy fights and power brokers is that we can see how the thing itself works or doesn't, independent of our own pet priorities. Not a small contribution to our perspective given that the federal government of the United States is the single largest organizational creation in the history of human civilization. Never forget that, by definition, government is force. It shows in the way our government does its business. (No clip available. Sorry.)
4. The Caine Mutiny
Commenter DW made an impassioned case for this movie, and I'm including it here for two reasons. First, because the navy was the only branch of service excluded from the three WWII movies on my list of 25. Second, because of a point made perhaps more clearly in the book than in the movie DW remembers: the Captain Queeg who is so vilified in the course of the plot was an officer in the peacetime navy -- part of that FDR-ravaged corps of professional military men who served faithfully and uncomplainingly in the years before a Depression-distracted country realized they still needed an army, a navy, an air force, and a marine corps. Without them, the massive miltary machine that won the Second World War couldn't have been created. That's why the military attorney played by Jose Ferrer was so enraged at having to destroy Queeg on the witness stand. It's a fair addition to our understanding of the largely civilian military which helped win the war that they were, for the most part, constitutionally incapable of appreciating the professionals who were there before them and would remain there after them. (clip)
There have been maybe a hundred Hollywood movies about baseball. That's how important it is to our history and national psyche. So I have (modestly) selected the best one for your enjoyment and education. It's about a minor league team from parts unknown. We follow the team and watch what they endure to be able to keep playing the sacred game of baseball. No Kevin Costner. (Yes!) No acting stars to speak of, although there are numerous cameos by real major league baseball players, which should tell you something about their perceptions of the honesty of this low-budget, unmarketed ode to their sport. The emphasis here is on the continuum, as an old player trying to hang on for one more season helps a talented youngster adjust to the vagaries of fortune and life on the road. Something about life and passion and following your dreams. In a venue that used to be the American pastime. (No clip available.)
6. The River
With the possible exception of John Ford, American moviemakers have always considered farmers and farming a huge yawn and box-office poison. When farms do appear in the movies, they're usually just a departure point for some much more exciting adventure (Wizard of Oz, Walk the Line) or an ironic background for some surreal or otherwise improbable drama (Field of Dreams, Witness, Signs). OR a flat-out horror show (Texas Chainsaw Massacre et al). So it's yet another hole in our cinematic history of America. The River is about a farm family. Unlike Places in the Heart, it's not about unqualified and mostly helpless amateurs making farming heroic because of who they are. It's about a farmer who is trying desperately to keep his farm. Period. Do we have room for that in our understanding of our nation's people? I think we do. (clip)
7. Running on Empty.
The main list didn't cover the sixties generation of sex, drugs, rock'n'roll, and insane politics except through the lens of the Vietnam War. This is a big hole, but it's not a terribly interesting one in many ways, being mostly a story about brats whose over-indulgent parents never really taught them the essentials of growing up. Brats are largely the same whether they're drug dealers or rock groupies or hippies or anti-establishment narcissists in any number of professions and lifestyles. I considered a lot of possible candidates here, ranging from the documentary Gimme Shelter to the lame cinematic artifact Easy Rider to the most epic tale ever told of the American drug culture, Blow, but I finally settled on Running on Empty because quite serendipitously it manages to kill two birds with one stone. It demonstrates the rank idiocy of those who got caught up in the "revolutionary" politics of the sixties in a country which was and is the envy of the world. And it demonstrates, via the real-world facts surrounding its star, that the legacy of that time remains incredibly destructive. The plot concerns the plight of a radical couple who have lived hand-to-mouth in hiding for decades since setting off a bomb back in the good old days and now have a teenage son who would like to have a real life of his own now, please. The son is played by River Phoenix, who was soon to die (for real) of a drug overdose as one more victim of the "if it feels good, do it" generation of idealists portrayed in middle age in this movie by Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti. Empty is the operative word here, despite the movie's clear attempt to make all the characters sympathetic. That's why it's here. Such attempted manipulation of our judgment is a trick, and it's a trick that's still being played at this very minute by all the glib apologists for Bill Ayars and his murderous wife. See the trick in action. Watch this movie. And remember River Phoenix. And who must have been the parents who named him 'River' in the first place. (clip)
8. The Great Debaters
This one's here because it represents an almost invisible hole that has nevertheless always bothered me. It's the road not taken by black people in America. There was a small and intellectually proud nucleus of black colleges in this country who were absolutely dedicated to the principle of overcoming though learning, accomplishment, and impeccable character. Due to a variety of causes -- black and white both -- what should have become a mainstream liberating movement never acquired critical mass. Today it's only a sad footnote recalling what might have been. That's what this movie is about. A small black rural college in Texas develops a debating team so skilled that it wins the national college championship. Not surprisingly, the key to their success is not money or government assistance but an incredibly able and demanding teacher, who is as controversial in his own community as he is feared and monitored by the white authorities for his secret (and, yes, marxist) political activities. The movie is deeply flawed, but it is based on fact. The Wiley College team did win, against all odds, the national championship. In the movie, the deciding event was placed at Harvard for maximum impact, which is inaccurate. In reality, the team did defeat Harvard in a debate but won the championship against USC (which would make me mad if I were a USC alum). And more inexcusably, the Wiley debaters are never seen having to argue a proposition they don't agree with, which is absolutely a requirement of collegiate debating. The result is that their arguments in competition become an increasingly annoying political argument about the rights of black people and the injustices of life in America. I wish Denzel Washington, the director, had understood that the movie itself was making all those arguments more effectively than the script's sermonizing could. Still. It's heartbreaking to realize the huge contributions a few generations of such highly educated and fiercely proud achievers could have given our nation. To drive this perception home, I'd suggest a double feature. Watch The Great Debaters and then watch 8 Mile, in which the natural impulse toward verbal achievement is hobbled and rendered ridiculous by the bankrupt cultural tradition of black anti-intellectualism. (clip)
9. We Were Soldiers
I debated long and hard before choosing The Deer Hunter over this movie as my Vietnam entry. But I can't leave it out altogether. It's about the professional military that existed at the beginning of the Vietnam War and their victory in one of the only full-scale battlefield confrontations of the entire war. It's about discipline. It's about valor. It's about the wives and families and religion and fidelity. Sam Elliott almost steals the show, as he frequently does, but there's also a touching performance by Greg Kinnear as a chopper pilot and, yes, Mel Gibson, too. The music alone is worth watching the movie for, but so is the rest of the movie. And ironically, this movie may be the best filmic effort yet that illuminates the extraordinary heroism of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. It helps us understand what "professional" means in the context of war. It encompasses so much, and it seems to ask for so little in return. It is humbling. Like this movie.Which, unlike many on the list, is a great movie. (clip)
10. A Christmas Story
Full circle. We close with another comedy. You've all seen it. You know that it's deeply true in a variety of ways and hilariously funny because it is so true. Is it true of today? Almost certainly not as much as it was. It's rapidly becoming an artifact. Which lends it pathos. But it's still impossible to understand who we are now without first understanding who we once were. It's a deceptively simple movie. But there's nothing simple-minded about it. That's all I have to say. Except for two more words: Darren McGavin. (clip)
That's it. I'll save my generalizations and pompous inferences for another post.