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.
In 2012, when this piece was first posted, it seemed like a good moment to throw the country’s history and contradictions into some sort of quick relief, and the most expedient way of doing that for me was to look at the way the United States (and the philosophies at its core) were reflected in the movies, and not just the ones which approached the country head-on as a subject. By the time I revisited “Wild, Dangerous, Imperfect Grandeur” and expanded it from eight to 11 double features, it seemed to me that we as a nation were more than ever 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.
When the 2015 version of the article was posted, we had just one week earlier 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 before. And on the very same day that life suddenly seemed opened up to so many people for whom repression and legal denial had always been a way of life, the nation 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.
In 2015 I wrote this:
“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.”
And now, only two years later, the United States seems like a different place, not in that the landscape of violence and hostility and fear of the Other has changed so much as it has been cynically amplified and exploited and allowed to fester rather than heal. Meanwhile, the American political arena has shed much of its pretense to service of the people and exposed itself as a true political circus, owned and operated by the scariest collection of evil clowns ever assembled, and dedicated to ensuring the well-being and enrichment of the already well and rich to the exclusion of just about everything else. The ringmaster of said circus is someone who, through an escalating farce involving underestimation of the public’s capacity to be mesmerized and outright fleeced by naked charlatanism, has the power of the Oval Office at his disposal and has proved, on almost a daily basis, his unwillingness or incapacity to understand what to do with it or even how to behave in a manner befitting the ostensible Leader of the Free World. The grimmest joke is, of course, that in a matter of months this ringmaster has denigrated his office to such a degree that he can’t even be considered a leader in his own country, let alone the free world.
Yet even with all the increased tension and misunderstanding and violence, the intolerance of a racist travel ban and fear of immigrants, “the Russia thing,” the co-opting of the Supreme Court through Congressional stalemating, the tragedy of our national health care system and the presence of a president in waters way over his head, relentlessly tweeting lies and outright refusal of reality with the bellicose temperament of a bitter 10-year-old, I still love this country. I still hold out hope for its future, for its sustained positive influence, even when the moments I despair for all that it has lost in the past couple of years alone tend toward the overwhelming, even the spirit-crushing.
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, its political and social mythologies, and the dark current of fear and anger that seem to be the most prevalent elements fueling our government’s current relentless pursuit of regression toward a mythical state of purity that we as a nation never possessed in the first place. I believe all that now more than perhaps I ever have.
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 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.
The first version of this essay was written in 2012, in a mood of celebration, I guess, a way of thinking about our country in a way that tried to be as far-reaching as possible within the format, gathering eight perhaps unlikely double features that could converse with each other and in some way illuminate some aspect of the American experience, maybe spark thought and encourage active contemplation about what it means to be an American. In 2015 I revisited the piece, expanding the list to 11 double features which 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.
Today, in 2017, on the eve of our nation’s 241st anniversary, the United States feels anything but united. So, I thought it might be worth coming back to this piece and expanding it even further, to reflect on what this country was, what it is now and some of the things that got us here, in the hopes that we might more quickly be able to consider ways of cleaning up the mess we’ve all made in the name of patriotism and love of country. As I see it, “My country, right or wrong” is a statement not of blind fealty, but instead of the acceptance of responsibility and the conviction implied within that acceptance of a commitment to right the wrongs within our cherished, wounded system. I think that’s exactly what these films, in their own very specific ways, are up to by examining the concept of America through the coexisting prisms of satire, tragedy, social commentary, farce, celebration and outrage. All those perspectives are part of everyday life in America v. 2017. It seems only fitting that on her birthday we should look to the films that have over the last 80 or so years most vividly reflected what American life is, in all its scrappy, contradictory, ragged glory, or lack of glory, and hope that there will be a similar spirit still in existence to be celebrated and examined in the films which will come from the next 80 years. Here then are seven more double features, added to the 11 already collected, which I believe reflect some aspects of America in all its wild, dangerous, imperfect, and now wounded grandeur, in the spirit of a happy and vigilant birthday for all of us.
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.
American Graffiti (1973; George Lucas) and Dazed and Confused (1993; Richard Linklater)
Traditionally, movies with the word “American” in their title tend to wield their makers’ statement of intent like a blunt instrument. But George Lucas’s paean to his Modesto youth circa 1962 seems at times almost as blissfully unaware as his characters are, perched on the precipice of college life and the abrupt end of the Kennedy era, which is to the movie’s benefit as well as the audience’s. Twenty years later, Richard Linklater looked back on his own generation (and mine), on the last day of high school for a collection of small-town Texans in 1976, and without aping Lucas’s movie he acknowledges its influence—DAC’s soundtrack is truer to its period than Graffiti’s was to 1962 charts– and locates the sweet spot of future anxiety that coexisted, as it did for Lucas, while kids partied their last nights as kids away.
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. Pass the hot dogs and sparklers!
The Candidate (1972; Michael Ritchie) and They Live (1988; John Carpenter)
Michael Ritchie’s political satire, from Jeremy Larner’s script, could simply exist as a nostalgic artifact of Watergate-era disillusionment, from the good old days when corrupt politicians could still at least muster the courage of their convictions, were it not for its prescience. Robert Redford is a liberal U.S. senator who, convinced he has no chance to actually win, cynically plays the system and ends up facing a rapt constituency who now actually expect him to do something. Flash-forward to a society posited in Carpenter’s post-Reagan-era They Live, in which the “politicians” have done something, all right. They’re aliens who have surreptitiously invaded the American social and political structure and saturated the cityscapes with subliminal platitudes and sloganeering clearly visible only to those who have been sublimated to the alien consciousness, leaving the evil undercurrent of their effects to corrupt the rest of us. Could this be the result of handing a country over to self-aggrandizing politicians, like Redford’s senator, who were elected despite having no clear plan other than the undermining of what has come before? Only your brainwasher knows for sure.
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, 40 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.
The Last Picture Show (1971; Peter Bogdanovich) and Matinee (1993; Joe Dante)
Two paeans to the specifically American experience of going to the movies. Bogdanovich’s Oscar-winner utilizes the structure of Larry McMurtry’s mournful novel to illuminate the lives of people in a rural Texas town in 1951, all of which in one way or another flitter about in the fading glow of the local movie theater’s carbon-arc projector lamps. If Bogdanovich’s Royal showcased dreams of escape from a dreary reality, the Strand of Joe Dante’s picture is a venue dedicated to a more celebratory tone. But it houses its own nightmares too—the nuclear sort, which are hooted and howled at by the rowdy kids attending a William Castle-esque atomic age thriller while the escalating tensions of the Cuban Missile Crisis continue to develop beyond the lobby. Both pictures end on bittersweet chords, and modern audiences of a certain age will respond to an extra element of loss for a way of seeing movies communally that seems in more danger than ever in an age of cineplexes, cell phone addiction and home theater streaming, even as the love for the movies themselves expressed by these pictures continues to resonate.
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, bile which is just as easily co-opted to justify the jingoistic fear and intolerance that are hallmarks of Donald’s Trump’s America.
Meek’s Cutoff (2010; Kelly Reichardt) and Ravenous (1999; Antonia Bird)
Perhaps the two most tonally dissimilar pictures of any of these double features, the harsh, desperate clarity of Reichardt clashes with Bird’s blood-drenched, near exuberant hysteria, and together they form a weirdly resonant assessment of the undeniable trajectory of manifest destiny. What more bitter metaphor could there be for a nation that, despite an insistent march westward, has already begun to lose its sense of purpose and vision, than a wagon party lost somewhere on the Oregon frontier, unwilling to trust their hired guide and unsure of the motivations of a captured Native American who seems willing to help them find their way? Maybe only that of Ravenous, which manages a rickety but entertaining equation between the doctrine of inevitable and justifiable American expansion and unapologetic cannibalism. Both visions offer little in the way of faith in the American dream to survive either nature or the rapaciousness of its own beginnings, instead suggesting that, given the reality of the cultures crushed in its pursuit, hope in that destiny might itself be a manifest illusion.
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.
Network (1976; Sidney Lumet) and Idiocracy (2006; Mike Judge)
When it was released in 1976, Network was already being praised by audiences for a satirical vision of corporate American broadcasting that still seemed to benefit from its willingness to traffic in exaggeration to make its points. Well, to paraphrase Al Jolson and Randy Bachman, they hadn’t heard/seen nothin’ yet. Not only did the reality of reality TV and corporate greed at the network level catch up with Paddy Chayefsky’s scathing vision, it passed it. And 30 years after Howard Beale, Mike Judge had posited his own logically acidic extension, the notion of an idiocracy of American politics and culture so familiar with the scrapings of the barrel bottom that a self-professed dunce could become the smartest man alive and “Ow! My Balls!” might be the clarion cry of an entire nation. But now Judge, like Chayefsky, is in jeopardy of being eclipsed by reality— the nightly news now seems an endless source of mind-boggling nonsense that could have only been parody a mere decade ago. The through line from The Howard Beale Show to The Real Housewives of Atlanta to Ow! My Balls! provides a sturdy argument for both Network and Idiocracy’s status as the most prescient satires since 1984. (I wrote about the movie when it trickled into theaters in 2006.)
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.
One Two Three (1961; Billy Wilder) and Doctor Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964; Stanley Kubrick)
Two classic satirical visions of Cold War conflict that stare down evil and horror with a laugh. Wilder’s light-speed culture-clash comedy– describing it as “machine-gun” would undersell the rapid-fire delivery of James Cagney, despite his previous connection to machine guns— is a relentlessly hilarious extrapolation of Coca-Cola capitalism in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate, even going so far as to imagine how the actual children of Marx and Coca-Cola might behave together if given half a chance. In Wilder’s vision, co-existence is possible, even if capitalism wields the bigger stick. But Kubrick and Terry Southern’s perspective passes Wilder’s irascibility and goes straight for the jugular. For Kubrick and company, it’s not product, not policy, but the corrupted personality of one madman– in this case Colonel Jack T. Ripper—that bends all the other sundry vagaries and corruptions of human nature, capitalist or otherwise, to his demented will as he sails us all into a sunset lit by a mushroom cloud and scored to the hopeful strains of Vera Lynn. Whichever madman you choose, whoever is puppet to the other’s puppeteer, it’s hard to miss the relevance of either of these approximately 60-year-old pictures to the geography of this generation’s very own “Russian thing.”
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. (And Ritchie, now with three movies listed among this collection, could easily be considered Altman’s equal in the arena of dissecting the proclivities of our red-white-and-blue citizenry.) 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.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974; Tobe Hooper) and Lone Star (1996; John Sayles)
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 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.)
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971; Monte Hellman) and Vanishing Point (1971; Richard C. Sarafian)
It’s somehow fitting that the two pictures, both obsessed with a journey that has no end, that most purely distill the car chase genre down to its basic hungers for the purity of speed, for the sensation of hurtling toward who knows what, would come out in the same year, during a moment in history when a good portion of their intended audience shared the aimless, almost non-verbal dissatisfaction which haunts the films’ characters. Though Barry Newman may feel it more acutely in Vanishing Point than Dennis Wilson, James Taylor and Laurie Bird do in Two-Lane Blacktop, there’s an element of desperation, of being haunted by visions of whatever it is that awaits where the white line ends which shadows both films. (That end proves elusive, like a rainbow, or the gate to another dimension.) Whether the momentary exhilaration experienced on the asphalt amounts to anything is a question both movies suggest is better asked while in motion. These two classics don’t exact subvert the American obsession with cars and forward motion; instead they imbue it with an undercurrent of melancholy to accompany that momentary exhilaration, a reminder that ghosts can’t be outrun. “(You can see this very double bill on the big screen in Los Angeles on August 12 at the Billy Wilder Theater as part of critic Charles Taylor’s upcoming series, “Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-in Near You,” based on his new book.)