It’s true–and a cliché–that Hollywood films hold up a mirror to American society. It’s equally true–and equally a cliché–that Hollywood films fail to reflect American society. Movies are clear windowpanes and opaque blinds, looking glasses and veils; they express and repress, elucidate and obscure, reveal and hide. Movies stubbornly tell the truth, and they constantly lie.
What’s less often remarked upon is that while the movies do (and don’t) tell us various things about our culture, each of us says various things about ourselves when we talk about the movies–especially about those we love and hate most. This is, I believe, what Oscar Wilde meant when he wrote that criticism is a form of autobiography, and why Kenneth Tynan described criticism as an exercise in self-consciousness. When an ebullient James Agee praised The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek for its “cynical comments on the sanctity of law, order, parenthood, and the American home–to say nothing of a number of cherished, pseudo-folk beliefs about bright-lipped youth, childhood sweethearts, Mister Right, and the glamour of war,” he was telling his readers something about Preston Sturges, but he was telling them a lot about James Agee too. When a heartbroken Pauline Kael decried Straw Dogs as “the first American film that is a fascist work of art,”she was judging Sam Peckinpah’s values, but she was also clarifying her own.
We asked ten notable people–including artists, political activists, writers and a cartoonist–to choose one film that they believe says something truthful, and insightful, about the social and political reality of life in the United States. Their choices range from Hollywood-studio B-movies to independent films, from slick features to documentaries, from Sam Fuller to Ridley Scott.
Each of our respondents explains something about the film they chose. In doing so, they also explain something about themselves, and about the particular country they inhabit, and about the one they wished they could.
, the creator of Maus and a staff artist at The New Yorker.
Directed by Sam Fuller. 1963.
By compressing so many social issues and making all issues into melodrama, this becomes the ultimate political movie. It takes place in a typical state psychiatric hospital. These guys don’t even have a rec lounge, like I did when I was put in the nuthouse–they just have to live on shock corridor.
If the film didn’t deal with race, it wouldn’t get to the heart of America. And what it says is: Race drives Americans mad. One of the scenes ends with a black inmate, Trent (Harry Rhodes), chasing another black inmate, shouting, “Let’s get that black one before he marries my daughter!”
And it’s a movie about tabloid journalism. The main character, Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck), an obsessed, monomaniacal reporter, wants to infiltrate the hospital to solve an unsolved murder so he can win the Pulitzer Prize. And at the end, his doctor observes, “What a tragedy: An insane mute will win the Pulitzer Prize.”
The tabloidization of America is also about the sin of overweening pride. That’s the problem of each of the characters. One is a soldier who went over to the North Koreans and doesn’t know how to love his country. He’s a guy who ended up on the wrong side of the cold war and has taken refuge in his poor damaged brain. Another character is a nuclear physicist who, as a result of the horrors of his work, has reverted to being a 6-year-old.