10 Movies to Know America By

7. Thelma & Louise. In a free country where wage-earners can't speak their minds from 9 to 5; in a classless society, where to be a woman (or anyone) with a high-school education is to be doomed to servitude--in such a place, liberty and even individuality are bound to be seen as outlaw qualities. To be free is to be criminal, but to be criminal is to be doomed. Our films have always equated true liberty, and even self-discovery, with doom--and nothing says more about us than how much the average American identifies with this equation. In the end, Thelma and Louise are happy to pay with their lives for a few days of liberty and companionship--which measures how bound and lonely they've really been all their lives. In the end, we're happy to see them die because it is a choice--and we, who accept so slavishly what we're given (whether it's a political candidate, an education, or a job), make so few true choices, that to see these women live out Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" is almost a happy ending.

8. A Woman Under the Influence. If Marilyn Monroe had borne the children she wanted, this might be her version of family values. Gena Rowlands's blond beauty-in-a-housedress, her frantic lyricism, her ruthless sweetness, her sudden spells of lucidity and practicality--this is what happens when the images and hopes of "the movies" are locked inside the head and heart of a person bound to the daily demands of how we really live and speak. There is no bridge between the dream and the reality except madness. Madness and betrayal. And nothing is resolved. She goes mad, is institutionalized, then simply comes home--not cured, merely rested. Then must go mad again, for she has no other choice, no other possible rhythm. (What good can psychology do her, when it can neither expunge the dream nor change the reality?) She's tolerated, finally, only because everyone around her shares the same unbearable tension, though to lesser degrees, between their reality and their dreams. It is the story of people who've signed on to a dream they can neither escape nor fulfill--"the American Dream," from which no one can wake. Yes, Marilyn Monroe as hausfrau. While all her man can do, in the face of such inner power, is work and grouse and care--and, helplessly, love... love the embodiment of the dream in the only form in which it can possibly accept his embrace. It's either that, or watch TV. And the only false thing about this film is that it portrays suburban life without TV.

9. Gone With the Wind. The only way to see this film as it truly is, is to imagine it in photograph negative, black for white: Sidney Poitier as Rhett, Billie Holiday as Scarlett, Ella Fitzgerald as Melanie, and Denzel Washington as Ashley, with Roseanne or Lucille Ball as Mammy. All the silly slaves (for all but Mammy are constantly stupid) would be white, all the Confederate lads and lassies black. Yes, some hypnotist should put us all in a trance in which we played GWTW in our minds' eyes with this cast. I believe that would be the only way for most whites to experience the overwhelming racism of this (and almost every) film. When we came out of that trance, we would know what a racist trance we live in every day.

10. The Mack Sennett-Charlie Chaplin short silent comedies. Made mostly in 1914, this is not the whimsical Tramp of the later, more artistic films, but an almost inhuman blur of fantastic, inconsiderate, relentless energy that knows no bounds nor any authority except itself. This is comedy as intrusion and assertiveness: The Tramp insists on having whatever he wants, on butting into any situation he fancies, regardless of the degree of disruption--and then running, running, running, from cops and every other form of officialdom, uncatchable, untouchable. It is comedy as unfiltered, unfettered desire. No plots, not really. Nothing but mishap and chase. No one who sees these films can be surprised at our desire to have it all without consequences. We have only to remember that it was the popularity of these Sennett-Chaplin comedies, more than any other single factor, that made "the movies" an American institution--for Chaplin played not a man but an imp, a voracious comedic symbol of the hungers that have driven us to the brink. CP

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