10 Movies to Know America By

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One difficulty in thinking about America is that, from the beginning, there's never been anything to measure it by, no precedents, no frame of reference. That is our strength, but it's also how we've managed to hide from ourselves. Russians are Russians no matter what kind of government they have, but America is a "dream," an "experiment," an "American way," a floating, shifting thing difficult to address, much less know. I'm too restless to teach, but if I ever did, what sort of curriculum would be fit departures for discussion? I'd begin with films. Not our 10 greatest films artistically (though a couple rate as art), but 10 that show us at our most exposed:

1. High Noon.A town full of frightened people who back down and accede to evil, and an equally frightened man (Gary Cooper) whose sense of honor won't let him cop out. He wins his personal battle but loses faith in his community. Nothing has changed; the townspeople will be just as chicken next time. In the last scene, the disgust on Gary Cooper's face when he throws his badge into the dirt is the price many Americans have paid for heroism.

2. The Birds. Even in our loveliest, most out-of-the-way places, there is a sense of an impending, irrational, implacable danger--we feel so guilty for something that we fear even the birds may turn against us. What else can explain our constant need for scapegoats; our growing public fear, though crime statistics have gone down steadily for years; and our willingness to believe even the flimsiest lies if they offer temporary surcease from our pervasive, floating, unstated terror?

3. The Gay Divorcee. The eternally popular Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals were made during the worst years of the Depression. Something lovely and reckless in the American character is always ready to believe that a song and a dance will make everything all right; that the pretty, silly lyrics must surely be true; and that if only we can find love, the rest of our problems will solve themselves. Every one of us knows better, but that doesn't seem to matter. Europeans are amazed by this trait of ours, but I can't help thinking it speaks well of us--for without a certain suspension of disbelief about love, life loses its essence and savor.

4. The Godfather I & II.The most damning fact about the Godfather movies is that we take them seriously at all--for they are impossible to take seriously, much less sympathetically, unless you're willing to believe that evil is redeemable as long as it's done with consummate style. This is why we voted for Reagan and Clinton, and why we like to think that movie Westerns say more about the West than all those constricted, dull, gossipy, prejudiced, small, Western towns. We watch these stylish, merciless men do heinous things, and are we offended? Are we appalled? No. Underneath it all, we're charmed. From Public Enemy in 1931 to Pulp Fiction in 1994, we're charmed! And what does this say about us? That, as a people, we are merciless--or morally insane, which amounts to the same thing. For it takes little but style to short-circuit our reaction to evil.

5. The Civil War.Watching all umpteen hours of this documentary, what amazes me less than the carnage is the language. West Point-educated generals and ignorant privates, presidents and housewives, farmers and statesmen, aristocrats and slaves, are quoted right beside each other for many hours, yet the quality of the language is consistent. The elegance and profundity of Lincoln at Gettysburg is the pinnacle of these expressions, and yet it's not so far removed from the simple soldier (convinced, rightly, that he's about to die) writing his last words to his wife. Few of these people were, by our standards, "educated." They were taught, basically, by each other--most for only two to five years, in small classes, in backward structures, by people who didn't know much more than they. Their most common text was the Bible, and maybe a little Shakespeare. They didn't know from literary theory or standardized spelling, yet the vivacity, grace, and directness of their speech would put a similar contemporary cross-section of Americans to shame. (They were also willing to die more readily than we are. I can't help wondering if that enlivened their speech.) Since even in the age of computers speech is how we relate, it makes one think that those folks knew something about education that we don't.

6. Frankenstein.We love monsters. And we love the monstrous. We are a country of monstrous size, monstrous resources, monstrous appetites, and a monstrous history, and from Frankenstein and King Kong to Freddy we've seen a sweetness, even an innocence, in monstrosity. Frankenstein is created by the very talent that's enabled us to become powerful: science. Therefore he is not responsible for himself, he's the monster-as-victim. His strength is his curse. He cannot love without destroying. The eerie beauty of his face, his unspeakable baffled grief at his own actions, and the rage that compels him to kill again, are an ode to the helpless compulsions of strength. Even the hate others feel for him is tempered by their fascination, as the world is obsessed by America even as it despises us.

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