Thursday, February 05, 2009
Some Thoughts on My List of
25 (uh, 35) American Movies
We've come a long way since the first blockbuster.
WE ALSO LIKE UN-MOVING MOVIES. For anyone who didn't follow the list as I was posting it, here are the entries in order:
I almost didn't follow through on my promise to do a reflective final post, but once again I have a commenter to thank for bringng me back on task. In a response to this fairly optimistic IP post, Dirty Rotten Varmint (his choice of name, not mine) had this to say:
...While "the truth" is, sometimes, out there in Interwebland, the worldview of the vast majority of Americans is still shaped by popular media. The MSM is not so much dying out as becoming formally a state-run news system (whereas previously, since 1973 a least, it was an informal state-run news system). The universities, the popular media (MSM), Hollywood, popular culture, the government, and even major corporations conspire to promote a view of the world and of America that is distinctly un-American. Name the last major movie in which the hero is an entrepreneur who builds a business providing a valuable product or service and gets rich doing it. Which news reporter, other than Mike Yon and a few others, delivers completely honest and accurate reports about the war while at the same time clearly stating that he is pro-American and admires the heroism of American soldiers? And is Mike Yon the director of a well-funded news room with resources and funding, or scraping by on his own?
Our children are brainwashed, from the time they enter school, to believe that America is evil. Their cultural icons show them that popular girls are whores, successful boys are pimps and thugs, and people who are good at math are losers. If they manage to go to college, they are taught Marxist class, racial, and gender warfare propaganda at every lecture. Women learn that being mothers is somehow a betrayal of "feminism"and that sexual promiscuity is their "right". Men are taught that they are are evil, hormone-controlled animals who are incapable of being strong, caring providers and leaders - or that they are self-interested, monomaniacal misogynists who are to blame for all the world's evils.
America failed when FDR was President and railroaded through the national socialist "New Deal". Beyond the economic catastrophe, we put American citizens into concentration camps on American soil. Obama clearly plans to model himself after FDR. We can fail again.
Make no mistake, while America is resilient, she can be dragged through the gutter just like any other nation, and at some point she will be too sullied to climb out of the stink. [boldface emphases mine]
I understand all his points. I even agree with some of them. But he is wrong that popular culture is a monolith. It's more complicated than that because Americans are more complicated than that. Liberals are consistently wrong about how ignorant, prejudiced, and inflexible the people they call rednecks are. And conservatives are at least often wrong about how anti-American and nihilistic the people who prefer to be called progressives are. Drawing up this list was an exercise that whittled away at the easy polarity of the opposing manichaean perspectives. We're far more interesting than that, as the List of 35 demonstrated, to me anyway. Which is especially interesting given that most of the creative people behind the movies on my list were/are the (frequently) propagandizing progressives Dirty Rotten Varmint (DRV) is talking about.
For example, I was struck by how many movies on the list were the work of directors who seemed to be defying simplistic characterizations of their worldviews that might be inferred from their other movies and even their public political utterances. In Malcolm X, Spike Lee celebrates a painfully acquired self-education and self-discipline in the life of his protagonist that he appears not to require of other African-American characters in his movies. Despite his pitiful Obama commercial and distasteful Bush-bashing, Ron Howard in Apollo 13 executes a beautiful homage to detached whitebread nerds and heroes who undoubtedly come from Kansas and Texas and Nebraska and probably vote straight-ticket, flag-waving Republican. Columbia grad James Mangold made Walk the Line, which defies his east-coast influences by offering a sympathetic portrait of a country singer who exhibited every white-trash male stereotype and yet steals your heart. And in answer to DRV's challenge, "Name the last major movie in which the hero is an entrepreneur who builds a business," Martin Scorsese's The Aviator is one slam-dunk example. This perpetual champion of the disadvantaged immigrant underclasses manages to deliver a multi-faceted portrait of a rich boy who was also a technical and business genius, a heroically brave pioneer of aviation, and a creative polymath. Not to mention every bit as tortured a soul as the icon Scorsese made of the brutish fighter Jake LaMotta. (DRV: For another example of positive entrepreneurship, see Sea Biscuit from the list. There's nothing jeering about the terse success story that leads to his wealth. P.S. You didn't read my whole movie list, did you?)
Are such performances against type hypocritical? No. They're indicative of something much more positive and profound. No American ever really escapes the power of the archteypally American story. It's bred into all of us, and even the ideologues who are at base talented storytellers tend to see their stories in human rather than allegorically political terms (For an example of the latter, see the original Italian version of Swept Away, whose political climax is a rape replete with communist-bourgeoisie rhetoric. By all means look it up. The politics are so transparently obvious they result in unintended hilarity, and the actress is an ultimate gorgeous bitch who should have deterred Madonna from her disastrous remake. But, you know... ) The reduction of human individuality to mere political symbolism is distinctively not a feature of American movie-making. This is where the American impatience with ideas actually pays dividends. If there is a political, topical, or ideological message, it still has to be sold through the personality of an engaging character. Which makes all such movies more American story than political manifesto.
Which, in the context of DRV's pessimism, is all good news. People can be politically naive, superficial, and simplistic and at the same time emotionally honest and keyed in to the verities of human life. That's the way human beings are. It's especially the way Americans are. Politically, in my opinion, Ron Howard is an idiot. But there is genuine merit in his movies Backflash, Cinderella Man, and Apollo 13. Politically, in my opinion, Tom Hanks is an idiot. But there is genuine merit in his performance in Saving Private Ryan and in his miniseries Band of Brothers. In a variety of ways, in my opinion, Mel Gibson is an idot, but there is genuine merit in his movies The River and We Were Soldiers.
The larger message is that Hollywood, despite its much publicized political excesses, is not wholly the enemy of a distinctively and traditionally American lifestyle. Movies, in fact, have a disproportionate influence on the self-images and aspirations of young people. It's true that teen sex comedies are lewd and possibly destructive, but they are less than half the message Hollywood sends to young people. The other half, the larger half, consists of absolutely traditional American stories, many of them concerning comic book heroes who are laughable to social critics but instrumental in perpetuating a distinctively American mythology of individual goodness and sacrifice against malignant evil, either pure or misguided, but indistinguishable in its requirement to be opposed and terminated. Hollywood may be anti-American in its expressed policies, but it is red-white-and-blue when it iconizes the selfless heroism of Spiderman, Batman, and the X-Men -- and the brave, virtuous women who love them, even if they're superheroes too. The messages are unambigious: evil exists, it must be fought, it can be overcome by heroic individual effort, and all the consequent sacrifices are worth it in the end.
Another way of saying that movies -- written, directed, and performed by America-hating leftists -- are counter-intuitively pro-Amreican, Christian in iconography, and firmly focused on the primacy of individual character.
Despite its showy leftism, Hollywood is still in the business of promulgating Americans' mythology of themselves. Winners. Achievers. People of humble origins who become superheroes. Routinely.
So they make nasty little political diatribes on the side and give themselves awards for it as a kind of raspberry to the audience they can't quite live up to. How would you feel if you always had to play the hero when you just knew you didn't have it in you? Resentful? Envious? Hostile? If you knew that there really were heroes who are actually as good looking as you are but don't spend hours in the mirror every day making sure of it?
Remember. We don't pay the actors to write the scripts We pay them to live out our dreams. Our American dreams. And they've done that very well for close to a hundred years now.
At their best, they've shone us ourselves, in admittedly idealized terms. But those ideal terms enshrine our values and encourage each new generation to dream of accomplishment and victory against all the banes DRV is so afraid of: poor, misguided education, sloth and surrender to mediocrity, cowardice, treachery, and, most of all, untrueness to self.
Back to my list. It represents all parts of the political spectrum. All the political lines are crossed. Rightwinger Eastwood does a moving portrayal of Charlie Parker. Leftwinger Ron Howard does an equally moving portrayal of NASA geeks. All are bound by their allegiance to American stories. And what makes those stories American is not collectivist politics but individual aspiration, spiritual commitment, and incredibly focused effort. Men, women, black, white, young, old, right, left, strong, weak, and whatever combination of the above floats your boat. In short, America. As it was, is, and will be. When it gets down to its most influential work, Hollywood is generally doing a "right" thing.
I rest my case.