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.

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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