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.
And any movie about America has to deal with the insane sexual dysfunction of puritanism and its flipside. Constance Towers plays a stripper–the girlfriend of Barrett. She’s a heart of gold who happens to be a stripper; she’s doing it strictly for her man. Hers is the most asexual strip scene in any movie ever made in Hollywood. And at the end of the film she seems to go crazy: She wanders around, heartbroken, dragging her feather boa as if it’s her Linus blanket.
The film explores sexual politics, race and the wonderful progress of our century. It was almost made to answer your question.
, novelist and author of The Poisonwood Bible.
Directed by John Sayles. 1995.
Choosing just one filmmaker is easy: John Sayles. No matter whether his vehicle is a story that’s hilarious, as in The Brother From Another Planet; historical, as in Matewan and Eight Men Out; tender or fierce or both, as in Passion Fish and Men With Guns–his films reliably offer a scorching assessment of who we are and what we believe in. I think it’s fairly miraculous that he’s spent decades now working successfully outside the ideological quagmire of Hollywood, keeping his honest edge. His course, as far as I can see, is to pull apart our most cherished myths and icons and see what they’re really made of.
Choosing just one of his films is much harder, but since I have to, I’ll say Lone Star. A mystery set in a Texas border town, it opens right into the heart of what it means to be an American. Race, gender, culture, all of it. Our most fundamental national experience is to raise a ruckus over the lines dividing us, while knowing in our hearts that those lines of racial and cultural purity are probably false–that we’re all, at this point, related by a blended inheritance and obliged to find a way of carrying on together.
EDWARD W. SAID
, literary critic and author of Orientalism and the forthcoming Out of Place: A Memoir.
FIVE EASY PIECES
Directed by Bob Rafelson. 1970.
It’s always struck me as a special kind of American film for a number of reasons. There’s the extraordinary loneliness of the son, played by Jack Nicholson: We see his bleak relationship with his father, who is totally silent, and with Karen Black, the woman he lives with.
The setting–to someone who didn’t grow up in America–is very telling: the Texas oilfields. Humanly, they’re very unappealing. But at the same time they’re essential: This is the wealth of the nation. Then there’s the island in the Northwest where his family lives: It’s beautiful but desolate, which matches the desolation of the family. And this island had probably been populated by Indians–all of whom are now gone.
The Nicholson character is kind of a lost soul who is symbolized for me by two powerful scenes. In the beginning, he’s sitting on the back of a truck–playing Bach on the piano–as it drives on the highway. And at the end, he and Karen Black are at a gas station; there’s a truck parked, whose driver is getting gas. Nicholson gets into that truck, drives off and leaves her.
So there’s this destructive dislocation, the rootlessness, the purposelessness: Here are all these itinerant Americans, and we don’t know what they’re doing or where they’re going. But there’s also this tremendous power. The truck is a huge eighteen-wheeler, and Nicholson himself is very compelling–gifted, funny, smart, handsome.
At the core of the film is a terrifying emptiness. I think it’s a work of genius.
, urban theorist and author of City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear.
KILLER OF SHEEP
Directed by Charles Burnett. 1977.
We’re in a period when millions of Americans are losing their jobs, and whole industrial working-class communities are being torn inside out, and there’s no reflection of that experience in popular culture or film. It’s as if the Okies were being wrenched from the land but there were no Grapes of Wrath.
The film is about a blue-collar black family in South Central Los Angeles. The husband, Stan (Henry Sanders), works at a slaughterhouse; his wife is a maid. It’s about the impact of the loss of his job on his family, on their relationship, on him. It begins with these terrible, repellent images of sheep being slaughtered. But by the end you realize these images represent his dignity: his job, his work, his life.
Killer of Sheep contains one of the most subtly powerful scenes that I can recall in all of American cinema. Stan gets up in the morning, runs into the bathroom, begins to shave and all of a sudden realizes: I don’t have a job, I don’t have to go to work today. You see his big, powerful hands fall down from the tap. Then his teenage daughter comes in, immediately turns around and comes back with a wrench to open up the faucets because he’s turned the taps so tight. And you realize this happens every morning. Then it cuts to his wife on her long, tedious bus ride home, and her hands are lying loosely on the bar in front of her. And suddenly you see her eyes cloud over, and you know she must be thinking of that angry, defeated man back in the house. Then you see her hands tighten on the bar.
There are no spiked-up dramas, no gang shootings, none of the images of South Central LA that we usually see in the cinema. The film is just about how hard ordinary people have to try, and about how absolutely momentous the loss of a job, the closure of a plant, is. Every time I see this film, it just poleaxes me.
, lawyer, professor, former member of the Black Panther Party.
Directed by Martin Bell. 1992.
It’s a feature film set in a rundown section of Seattle where runaway kids, prostitutes and drug peddlers gravitate. The main drama concerns the efforts of a young boy to re-establish a relationship with his father, played by Jeff Bridges, who has just been released from prison. It’s about the ex-convict’s efforts to rejoin society and the boy’s efforts to have a family. And their efforts are met with failure.
The film says a lot about the very painful, and unassisted, struggles of ordinary white people to navigate the very high barriers placed on participating in so-called American prosperity. Which is not a subject that’s typically dealt with in film, and mainstream electoral politics ignores this reality. But it affects millions of people, especially young people.
The whole insidious right-wing campaign around family values refuses to admit how many families are devastated by economic hardship, and what this new global order, this high concentration of wealth, is doing to American families. It’s intolerably destructive, and that’s what this film is about. It’s heartbreaking.
Directed by Ridley Scott. 1982.
In the early part of the twentieth century, there was science fiction, and there was science. On the one hand, you had a fantasy world; on the other, a world of experiments, results, logic. But at this point in time, science trumps science fiction. Science fiction will have a hard time keeping up with science, which is on a trajectory to the future at an increasing velocity. Blade Runner is as close as anything I can think of to our suspicions about what that may portend. It moves with speed. Reality veers into the unreal, and the unreal veers into reality. We’re on firm ground, and we’re not; things are slipping, and things are stable.
I have mixed feelings about it. The film is saying that there may be no distinction between real and unreal. Is that pessimistic? Optimistic? It’s a fantastic, exciting prospect.
Science fiction, and Blade Runner in particular, are not only provocative as fantasy–they’re also telling it like it is. Or like it will be, tomorrow.
, film producer of Kids, Happiness, Poison and Swoon.
Directed by Todd Haynes. 1995.
Is it awful to mention a movie I produced? Because I’m thinking not just about the American experience but about the millennial experience. Safe takes place in 1987–just before the bottom dropped out of Reaganomics, when the culture of excess was starting to turn the corner. And we were making it when AIDS was at its peak.
It’s about an LA housewife who gradually realizes that she’s become allergic to everything around her–the “American disease.” It shows her gradual decline, until she goes to a New Age retreat.
It’s a film about excess: about how your acquisitions start to kill you. But it’s also an examination, and a critique, of the American impulse to take charge of everything, including illness. It sums up the last ten or fifteen years of the American experience.
JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN
, author of Two Cities and Brothers and Keepers.
Directed by Steve James. 1994.
It’s clearly one of the best treatments of African-American family life. One of the kids is a grasshopper; he lives in the moment. The other is a real worrier, an ant. The families that they come from make it quite clear why they’re that way. The secondary characters are not stereotypical, but have lives of their own–you only get that in really good writing and filmmaking.
Part of the film’s achievement is the direct presentation of African-American speech: This is not some scriptwriter’s idea of what sort of master narratives black people fit into, as in all those ghetto shoot-em-ups. That quality of letting people speak, of taking us into surprising terrain that is generated by individual voices–I haven’t seen that very much. I think Spike Lee’s Crooklyn works the same turf in a very effective way.
The fact that these kids are good basketball players involves them in a major force in American life. Today there is only one industry in the country, and that’s entertainment. The transition of these kids out of their families, out of their private worlds, into entertainment–in this case, “sports”–tells me a lot about the ethos of the country. How these kids are threatened by it, turned inside out, how they are consumed, commodified. In one sense, their private dreams are universal; but they are also dreams that young men probably wouldn’t ever have had except in late-twentieth-century America.
The kids are the true believers, and that’s where the tension comes in. I wanted to counsel them and say “Whoa!” But on the other hand, I wanted it to happen for them, too, because I’m an American. And maybe one of them could become Michael Jordan. I mean, when does anybody have the nerve to tell the kids that Santa Claus doesn’t exist?
I have to admit that I rarely go to see a movie. It seems such a momentous decision, debated for hours with friends. By the time the decision has been made, and the pain of disappointment (yet another bad movie) accepted, the recommended flick is in cableland.
However, there is a comfortable familiarity about the average Hollywood manifestation: Satan’s spawn, comets falling, aliens landing, the silly President, Debbie Does Dallas, Babe does Burger King. And the blond twitchiness of the Pitts and DiCaprios. What these films have in common–a horror of nature, and awe and respect for technology–reflects the current investments of the wealthy. What a surprise! The planet is not important, but war is. We have the fear and anxiety…and they have the software. The yet-unreleased prequel to Star Wars will no doubt resolve that old chicken-and-egg question: Which came first, the pre-strike nuclear satellite defense system or Amerikkkan kulture?
, anti-impeachment activist and self-described “smut peddler.”
THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT
Directed by Milos Forman. 1996.
I was very moved by it. Milos Forman did a magnificent job of capturing a character and of exposing the problems that exist in our judicial and political systems. But don’t get me wrong: Even with all our imperfections, I still feel we’re the greatest country in the world.