Monday, August 12, 2013

26 Thoroughly American Movies

Is there such a thing as "American cinema?" And if so, what makes a film “American?”

Ask a film fan to think of an American film and there is a good chance images of John Wayne, Rambo, and maybe even Batman or Indiana Jones will come to mind. When I thought about the subject, I got to wondering about other movies that are thoroughly American in the sense that these movies would not exist if not for the USA’s unique history and culture. These films don’t just reflect iconography, but distinctive aspects of American society.


Other countries produce love stories, gangster pictures, heist films, slapstick comedies, and tear-jerker dramas, but I think the following films could only be thought up and made in the USA. This is by no means a complete list - drop a line to this blog with comments and suggestions.

American-Style Comedy

When I think of contemporary American comedy, the words “broad,” “tasteless, “crude,” and “random” come to mind. Not that that’s a bad thing - when done well, this style can be as complex and funny as any British class-skewering or French slapstick or Italian surrealist narrative. Moreso than any other country, American comedy has developed a machine-gun topicality, poking fun at anything and everything that might get a laugh.

Two prime examples of the genre are The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), a series of unrelated (and often R-rated) setups based on American TV shows and movies, and Airplane! (1980), an end-to-end parody of the C-list disaster film Zero Hour! (1957) that uses visuals, wordplay, slapstick, satire, oblique references, and even political commentary to cram every frame with some kind of joke.
The style, pacing, and attitude pioneered by these two movies has influenced American comedy ever since, and their influence can still be seen from the Scary Movie franchise to Family Guy to Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.




The Myth of Hollywood

Once upon a time agriculture was America’s main industry. Then, for a while, it became manufacturing. Now, entertainment is America’s chief contribution to the world, and Hollywood is the capital. It’s is not just of a place, but a concept that combines the best and worst of imagination, fame, and money.

Every era manages to produce at least one memorable film about the movie biz. Sunset Boulevard (1950), a story of a young screenwriter’s fateful encounter with a washed-up actress, remains one of the best examples of Tinseltown looking at itself and its faded glory. Robert Altman's The Player (1992) also takes a biting insider’s look at the business of making movies and how the lure of making it big can lead some to take drastic business measures like blackmail and murder.

Mulholland Drive (2001), David Lynch’s fractured fever dream featuring a scorching performance by Naomi Watts, is a tale of a young actress and her attempts to make it in the Big Time. At least, that’s what I think it’s about. Either way, it’s solidly in the fraternity of movies that show the claws and bruises that lie beneath the glitz and glamour.

High School

In the movies, as in real life being an American teenager isn’t half bad. With no armed conflicts to fight, few (if any) massive natural disasters to contend with, and plenty of food, medical care, and free time (at least compared with their international counterparts), many American teens are free to ruminate on their internal struggles with identity and personal fulfillment.

One of the more common stages for these conflicts is the social caste battleground of High School, a place where the democratic ideal of education for all often ends up as a microcosm of the class struggles of the “real world.”

The 1980s in particular were a fertile time for displays of teen angst, thanks in no small part to John Hughes. The Breakfast Club (1985) gave opportunities for an ensemble of young hot actors to play members of various disparate social groups who find common ground in the detention hall of their obviously-well-funded high school.

Hughes’ follow on film Pretty in Pink (1986) further explored the intimacies that develop between one of the Cool Kids and someone from “the wrong side of the tracks.” In the end, it’s Love is what cuts across the class divides and unites us all in homeroom.

Heathers (1989) is a departure from the norm, a highly entertaining satire of high school clique struggles where students find much more permanent solutions to addressing their feelings of alienation.

College

If the average Hollywood film teenager makes it through high school, chances are they get to experience college as a young-adult playground where the average college student’s main goals are to party as hard as possible, have sex with sorority chicks, and stick it to the uptight administrators, stuck up rich kids, and lame-o townies that serve as stand-ins for parents and society in general.

The Iraq War didn’t have nearly as much planning as the average scheme put together by roving packs of college students in films like Animal House (1978), Revenge of the Nerds (1984), and Old School (2003).

I must admit that I expected college to be at least a little bit like these movies. A few months of the actual experience (including the anxiety, the hangovers, the obnoxious roommates, the exams, and the bills) quickly disabused me of the idea that college was just a four-year bacchanal with insignia. There are people for whom college truly is a place to screw around for a few years until it’s time to put on a suit and go work in Corporate America®. The other 90% of the college student population gets to live vicariously through the movies.

Guns

Firearms are a fundamental part of American culture, the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing their free flow throughout the country. Going hand-in-hand with Americans’ fascination with firearms is the interest in the outlaw, roaming around the edges of society, wreaking havoc wherever he or she goes in the name of vengeance or a brutal affirmation of individualism.

Two movies in particular found a large audience by combining guns, outlaws, and sex. Bonnie and Clyde (1967), a (somewhat) biographical account of real life bank robbers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker perhaps comes closest of any mainstream movie in fetishizing the act of shooting up the town – the movie’s main couple seems to need the thrill of larceny and mayhem more than anything else to keep their passion for each other alive.

Natural Born Killers (1994), Oliver Stone’s story of two abused young people who work through their problems and become media celebrities by going on an extended killing spree, was controversial when it first came out and, considering what has happened in places like Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, probably would not be touched by a major studio today. Possibly excepting the stylized violence of directors like Tarantino, the ability of unhinged individuals to get hold of a lot of firepower and do damage to their fellow man has lost some of its entertainment value.

Mass-Marketing Celebrity

One thing American media does better than any other country on the planet it’s how it constantly engages in the creation and mass-marketing of celebrities. A Face in the Crowd (1957), starring Andy Griffith in a rip-roaring role that’s the polar opposite of the TV character he’s most famous for, is incredibly prescient in its depiction of the blowhard pundits that currently roam cable TV news rooms across the country, where belligerence is passed off as “keeping it real,” ignorance is a sign of down-home folksiness, and yelling signifies conviction. If Lonesome Rhodes really existed and were around today, he would easily have his own daily show on Fox "News."
Under the hot glare of the spotlight, it’s often hard to distinguish between true inspiration and mental illness. Not that it stops media outlets from taking the ball and running with anyone who can capture audiences’ attention. Network (1976), one of the greatest American films ever made, is a satirical look at the TV news business that follows the travails of an anchorman who has an on-air nervous breakdown when he finds out he’ll soon be fired. The management at his station uses the event to transform him into an “everyman” spokesman who can bump up ratings. Hijinks and tragedy follow. Even though it’s fiction, the characters’ cynicism and professional desperation can easily be found in today’s modern media industries.

Race
Ever since the Civil War put an end to the issue of slavery in the US, the nation’s citizens have been trying to have a civilized “conversation about race.” Since the social-consciousness movies of the 1960s and blaxsplotation films of the 1970s, there haven’t been a huge amount of movies that address the issue, but now and again few films broach the subject, with mixed results.

Two movies in particular show opposite sides of how to address the debate. Black and White (1999), with its parade of celebrity cameos and attempts to shock the audience with its depictions of young nubile white girls hanging out with the “gansta-ist” of “gangstas,” quickly goes past provocation and into parody.

On the other hand, Malibu’s Most Wanted (2003), starring Jamie Kennedy as a rich hip-hop loving white kid whose father tries to “scare straight” by hiring black actors to play menacing hoods, is a parody that works quite well. Its heart is in the right place, and by allowing its characters to step out of their assigned typecasts to demonstrate the inherent ridiculousness of racial classifications, it manages to address a serious issue with a light touch.

Global Thermonuclear War

Ever since the events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the prospect of worldwide nuclear destruction has hung over the world like a ticking time bomb, with the United States acting as the main protagonist in the story, providing fertile ground for Hollywood storytelling like Dr. Strangelove (1964), Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant satire of the military industrial complex and how a deranged military officer sets doomsday in motion. This film was shot mostly in England, but the sentiment (including the iconic image of Slim Pickens riding a descending nuclear warhead like a bronco) is all-the-way American.

WarGames (1983), starring Matthew Broderick as a tech wiz who hacks into the Defense Department’s systems, potentially setting off Armageddon in the process, manages to play upon society’s fears about 1. nuclear war 2. computers, and 3. really smart teenagers. Stories about real nuclear conflict can be as gripping as fiction, as demonstrated by Thirteen Days (2000), a gripping reenactment of President John F. Kennedy’s face-off with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps more frightening than the thought of the pure destructive power nations possess is the main theme of all three of these movies, which is how one person’s decisions can lead to the end of mankind on Earth.

“Greed…is good.”

The immortal words of Gordon GeKko, played by Michael Douglas, the main man in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), echoes backwards and forwards throughout American movie history in stories of men who want it all and want it now. Orson Wells set the tone with his masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941), a biting critique of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. There will Be Blood (2007), a recent critically-acclaimed film starring Daniel Day-Lewis as oilman Daniel Plainview, goes back to the past to study a man who will use anything and anyone available to him to make his fortune.

Then there are the regular guys trying to make it big, from down on their luck drifters searching for gold (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948), to New York real estate guys looking to avoid being the one to get the sack (Glengarry Glen Ross, 1992), to the next generation of investment scam artists who grew up listening to and admiring the wisdom of The Gekko (Boiler Room, 2000). In a capitalist system, there will always be those looking to make a fast buck, and therefore a lot of ideas for Hollywood writers and producers.

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