WILD, DANGEROUS, IMPERFECT GRANDEUR: 11 DOUBLE FEATURES ABOUT AMERICA
The United States is “my country, right or wrong,” of course, and I consider myself a patriotic person, but I’ve never felt that patriotism meant blind fealty to the idea of America’s rightful dominance over global politics or culture, and certainly not to its alleged preferred status on God’s short list of favored nations, or that allegiance to said country was a license to justify or rationalize every instance of misguided, foolish, narrow-minded domestic or foreign policy.
And now more than ever we seem to be living in a country poised at the edge of some sort of transition, with all the attendant tension and conflict and intense conviction that can be expected on either side of the chasm that prevents us from a true state of national togetherness. Just last week we celebrated a Supreme Court decision that finally offered legality (and legal protection) to the notion of same-sex couples living together in marriage, a prospect many might have thought impossible only 10 years ago. On the very same day, we mourned the deaths of American citizens gunned down in a house of worship, the victims of a lone murderer warped by fear, paranoia and racism, the beneficiary of a culture which, in the face of increasingly bloody reason, maddeningly refuses to adjust its addiction to guns.
The emerging tolerance and new understanding has its dark underbelly. Those threatened by progress, by a lack of understanding of the fullness of love, by the exercise of intellect and articulate reason, by the looming Other, are already shoring up for battle, now ever further entrenched against the forces they see chipping away at American values. And there can be no darker underbelly than the taught and perpetuated rage still felt against African-Americans and other people of color who, 60 years after the first sparks of the Civil Rights Movement, still must fight against marginalization, against physical threat, even as they make inroads into American popular and political culture that prove that in many ways this country is not the same as it was even just a generation ago.
Even with all the increased tension and misunderstanding and violence, coexisting amid all the changing tide of tolerance and acceptance that moves America toward a more responsive and responsible nation for all, I still love this country, and I love looking at it with a quizzical eye and a sense of challenge. I believe that patriotism entails honesty, a willingness to celebrate not only the energy and enthusiasm of living in a society like ours, but also confronting the enduring implications of its wildness, its inequities, its self-delusions, its diversity, its restlessness, its brutality, its paranoia and its political and social mythologies. And movies are now, as they always have been, excellent prisms through which to judge the progress of our nation, its self-image, its myths.
So as “go-to” as a movie like Yankee Doodle Dandy might seem on July 4, my cinematic tendencies on this holiday run more toward films that look to examine the quality of a land that is more than ever bursting at the seams, in both the positive and negative, movies that attempt to grapple with America and all the shades of its messy, imperfect grandeur. I want to see movies that shed light on the dark corners which might somehow reflect back a heightened clarity about how we got to this point in our history, where increasing understanding of people who have been oppressed in this country for centuries still coexists with alarming, religious-based bigotry, intolerance and fear, and where belief in hard work and dreams of prosperity are continually dampened and smothered by economic hardship and unparalleled greed.
I love movies about America that deal with its blissful possibilities, the transcendent and potentially dangerous fireworks of its culture, the slumbering animal located under the surface of the country’s self-image that occasionally awakens and wreaks political and social havoc. And most of all, I love movies about America that celebrate its orneriness, its blue-collar professionalism, its pugnacious worship at the altar of an ever-shifting notion of togetherness, movies that recognize the cheerful comedy of our self-aggrandizement, that suggest the greatest myth about this country might be that of our collective loss of innocence, landmarked by whatever chosen, significant social event, as if there was ever any innocence to lose.
Here then are 11 double features, some unlikely combinations perhaps, that begin to encompass, for me, the vast wonder and folly of life in America over the past 239 years, the movies that make me grateful for the freedoms of artists who aren’t afraid (occasionally, anyway) to see America for what it is and also what it isn’t.
Ace in the Hole (1951; Billy Wilder) and Used Cars (1980; Robert Zemeckis)
Two masterpieces on the dissection of American hucksterism. Wilder’s brutal drama blisters upon first touch, an examination of the extremes (which if anything have become even more extreme) of our culture of rubbernecking and appropriation of tragedy as journalistic entertainment. Zemeckis and cowriter Bob Gale perhaps don’t cut as deep as Wilder does, but their vision of the gleefully pervasive nature of corruption in small-time American business and politics (which is, of course, a reflection of the big time) is just as cynical and difficult to refute. The added bonus comes in the release of all those toxins in the form of the bitterest of belly laughs.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976; Robert Altman) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1969; Sergio Leone)
A great American iconoclast examines the legacy of a great blowhard of the American west, locating the nexus of personal celebrity and national self-delusion, while a great Italian iconoclast tempers his romantic vision of that same West with an unblinking nihilism and digs deep into the iconography of a nation’s self-created mythological underpinnings. (It’s amusing to remember that Altman’s film, one of the bitterest comedies about America, was his bicentennial gift to the nation. America thanked him by largely ignoring it and heading out to a big summer picnic. And Leone’s movie didn’t do too well over here either.)
The General (1925; Buster Keaton) and The Right Stuff (1983; Philip Kaufman)
Technological progress in American history, courtesy of Keaton, in which he tours the landscape of the Civil War (and the first hints of the industrial revolution) while on a great locomotive chase that keeps him in dire straits and treacherous contortions for the entire hilarious ride. Likewise, Philip Kaufman’s treatment of Tom Wolfe’s brief history of the space program finds satirical purpose in sending western-infused American can-do integrity up against the well-oiled machine of patriotic promotion in contrasting flight pioneer Chuck Yeager with the Mercury astronauts. The two movies reflect ideas about the purpose of and control over the machines that helped make this country with brashly distributed energy and vision and not just a little insouciant charm.
The Godfather (I & II) (1972, 1974; Francis Ford Coppola) and Nixon (1995; Oliver Stone)
American history writ large, through the fictionalized saga of the Corleones’ rise to and fall from power, and the factually based, but also intensely speculative history of one of the country’s most reviled political figures. (Who knew RMN would have, less than 30 years later, such vigorous competition for that standing?) The tangled, bitter roots of the American dream have rarely been traced with the emotional gravitas that Coppola brings to his film, and Stone’s patented political hysteria (and surprising empathy) has never resonated more deeply or as sharply as it does here.
Lone Star (1996; John Sayles) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974; Tobe Hooper)
On the surface it wouldn’t seem these two pictures would have much in common beyond their setting somewhere near the Texas-Mexico border. Sayles spins a tale of mystery and the long-buried secrets of a small town in Texas which along the way refashions itself into a twisty meditation on race relations and, perhaps more importantly, familial boundaries that proves to be an even testier, more pertinent treatise in our current political climate than it was when the movie was released. Similarly, Hooper’s deceptively straightforward masterpiece cloaks secrets of its own. This guided tour through the halls of a ramshackle slaughterhouse of horrors connects up uncomfortable notions of the function of family as both a predatory force and an insulated defense against the apparent arrogance of sanity which deepen the sociopolitical influences of the times that shaped its making and continue to resonate within our national shadows. (Feel free to shuffle the cards and program The Texas Chainsaw Massacre along with The Godfather, or perhaps even Fall from Grace, for another rich reflection on the American family.)
Mandingo (1975; Richard Fleischer) and Fall from Grace (2007; K. Ryan Jones)
Fleischer’s lurid adaptation of Kyle Onstott’s lurid novel of degradation in the 19th-century American slave trade remains the great, underappreciated movie on the subject. (I wrote about it here in 2008.) And Jones’ searing documentary about Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church is all the evidence you’ll ever need that hatred and intolerance are alive and well and just as inexplicable in the 21st century. Seen together, in a semblance of art and reportage, the two comprise a despairing vision of a country that can claim some progress on the (overt) racism front but which remains hard-pressed in some quarters to remember that Phelps’ hysterical bile is precisely the sort of religious justification once used to prop up slavery and segregation.
Nashville (1975; Robert Altman) and 1941 (1978; Steven Spielberg)
The damnedest things I ever saw. Altman’s movie is a snapshot mosaic of a country in crisis that recognizes just how often joyous release and crippling despair go hand in hand. (The freeway accident that turns into a tailgate party is one of the movie’s great metaphors.) And Spielberg’s great, graceful mastodon (directed from another Zemeckis/Gale script) glories in how pop culture patriotism is often a disguise for every form of socially acceptable and unacceptable insanity. The two movies, in their form and attack, might seem quite dissimilar, but I think they’re united by a musically informed vision of America as a land where only the slimmest lines of red, white and blue separate exuberance from hysteria, and paranoia from indifference.
Night of the Living Dead (1968; George A. Romero) and No Country for Old Men (2007; Joel and Ethan Coen)
The sleeping beast in residence at the dark heart of the national soul wakes up and takes a lumbering, unstoppable stroll through the countryside. Romero’s brutal, vital nightmare vision of social upheaval and undead onslaught has been widely (and tediously) imitated—Romero himself would never live up to it—and it had ties to just about every crisis of the tumultuous decade from which it came. Nearly 40 years later, the Coens translated Cormac McCarthy’s searing vision of an America of lost dreams and despairing landscapes, accessing imagery derived from movies as diverse as 2001 and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and in the process setting loose a killer who would no more be denied than one of Romero’s flesh eaters. The countries glimpsed through the savagery of these two movies certainly aren’t for old men, and they bode sleepless nights for the young as well.
Only Angels Have Wings (1939; Howard Hawks) and Convoy (1978; Sam Peckinpah)
Two exhilarating celebrations of blue-collar American men and women at work and the independent spirit beneath their pursuit of professional, existential passions. Hawks’ band of pilots, stationed at a remote South American trading port, routinely risk treacherous conditions to get the job done, weaving a crackling camaraderie in between interpersonal struggles and tragedy. For them it’s as much about the ability to take to the air, to fulfill a purpose in flight, in motion, as it is about a paycheck. Similarly, in Peckinpah’s movie, what starts out as a small group of truckers hoisting a middle finger to the injustices of the highway patrol soon gathers momentum, and trucks, until relentless forward motion becomes its own sort of political statement. The highway continues in a seemingly endless stretch, its contours warped by heat and fatigue, but Peckinpah suggests, with customary orneriness, the cussed glory even at the bloody end of the road.
Quiz Show (1994; Robert Redford) and The Bad News Bears (1976; Michael Ritchie)
The aforementioned myth of American innocence lost gets a good thrashing from these two films. Redford’s movie, from a Paul Attanasio script detailing the televised Van Doren game show scandal of the ‘50s, suggests that while there may have been no real innocence to lose, there sure was a lot of integrity at stake— little of which has seemed to survive television’s ever-increasing hold on the reality-show-obsessed consciousness of a nation more grafted than ever to the electronic teat. In much the same way, Michael Ritchie and writer Bill Lancaster operate from the premise that Little League is no field of dreams but instead a scuffed diamond populated with familiar forms of corruption and less than stellar adult role models. It’s the fight in the Bears the filmmakers find admirable, a sense that, now as much as in 1976, there’s something representative of the citizenry in the great American pastime worth fighting for. Quiz shows and baseball have always harbored cheaters and ne’er-do-wells, but these movies suggest there are still ways to win by playing the game.
Smile (1975; Michael Ritchie) and The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007; Seth Gordon)
And by the way, forget American innocence— the shit gets knocked off that statue with a swift kick by these two surprisingly warm-hearted dissections of the spirit of self-aggrandizing, cutthroat competition at the heart of the American dream. Ritchie’s small-town satire, centered on the fictional California Young American Miss Pageant, was released just a month after Nashville, and the two movies would make their own great double bill of slightly soured, yet still exuberant Americana. But seen alongside The King of Kong, the ambitions which seemed affectionately exaggerated (and reflective of similar designs on a grander, national stage) in Smile gain a weird poignancy. Gordon’s documentary uncovers the desperation lurking beneath the attempt to best a long-standing world-record Donkey Kong video game score and suggests, as much as Smile does, the real costs of a shot at glory, no matter how trivial the pursuit.