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January 15, 2006

Explain America in 10 movies

Julia is disseminating an intriguing meme that she picked up from Lance Mannion. It's called America at 24 frames/second.

Lance outlines the rules:

Explain America to someone from somewhere else by giving them 10 movies to watch.

The idea is not to give them a history lesson, so you don't have to start with The New World and end with Jarhead.

What you're trying to do is give them a sense of who we are---your take on our dreams, our attitudes, our idioms, what we think we are, what we are afraid we are, what we really might be.

My List
1. The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
-The media, demagoguery, striving, class in an ostensibly classless society
2. Apocalypse Now (1979)
-Imperialism, brutality, exuberance
3. The Godfather: Part II (1974)
-Immigrant experience, mafia mystique, slow destruction of the self through moral compromise
4. Citizen Kane (1941)
-The rise of a media empire, corruption, isolation
5. Salesman (1969)
-Striving, intersection commerce and religion, futility
6. Manchurian Candidate (1962)
-Good old fashioned American paranoia
7. Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)
-One of the best old school propaganda movies ever made
8. Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control (1997)
-Individualism, independence, exuberance, ingenuity
9. Inherit the Wind (1960)
-Clash between science and religion, the cultural and emotional roots of anti-evolutionism
10. Annie Hall (1977)
-A glorious icon of the culture that "Culture Warriors" want to destroy

I'd also like to add a wrinkle to the game. Explain what's missing or underemphasized your list. What's critical to understanding America that your list doesn't capture?

What's missing from my list*
-Race relations
-Interesting statements by women or about women's role in the American experience
-Regional themes (Westerns, rural settings, the South, etc.)
-Non-American directors' perspectives on America
-Bad and/or disposable movies. The temptation is to restrict yourself to movies that you respect and admire, but maybe movies like American Pie and Left Behind would be better anthropological documents.

*Obviously, I'm not saying aren't plenty of good options to fill these gaps, just that it's hard to cover everything in such a short list.

I'm inviting the following people to play, too: Nurse Lebo, Digby, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Stoller, and John Rogers.


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- Race relations.
Blazing Saddles

-Interesting statements by or about women's role in the American experience.

-Regional themes:
Good, Bad, and the Ugly, Blazing Saddles
rural settings
American Movie; Vernon Florida; Paper Moon
the South
Down by Law

-Non-American directors' perspectives on America
Good, Bad, and the Ugly, Dogville, Leningrad Cowboys Go America

Oh hell, how could you leave out Dirty Dancing or West Side Story?

I feel like Citizen Kane and Godfather: Part II are much the same movie for your purposes.

I think Wall Street has to be on this list. You're also very short on feel-good movies, which may just be because there aren't a lot of feel-good movies that illustrate a point.

"What you're trying to do is give them a sense of who we are---your take on our dreams, our attitudes, our idioms, what we think we are, what we are afraid we are, what we really might be."

Is Julia talking about our 'ideal'? or actual inner most realism?

I don't understand how anyone can make a list like this without Casablanca. To me it says everything you need to know about what America wants to believe about itself and about masculinity. It also comes with nice built-in side comments on race, gender, and foreign policy (again, all from the perspective of the myth we chose to believe about ourselves at that point).

Nicholas, I agree with you on both counts. CK and GF2 have a lot of classic American themes in common. CK was a big influence on the Godfather saga.

My strategy for constructing the list was to build in a lot of overlap so that a viewer could see how a handful of American preoccupations played out in different contexts.

The truth is, I don't watch very many feel good movies, so I'm not in a very good position to pick out the really significant ones. Offhand, I'd say that "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" are feel good movies that say a lot about America. Is "12 Angry Men" a feel good movie? It always makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside, but I'm weird.

-Interesting statements by or about women's role in the American experience.

Posted by: Karl the Idiot | January 15, 2006 at 04:05 PM

I thought Beloved is a movie about Oprah winfrey's ego?

Oh, and follow Casablanca up with Glengarry Glen Ross for a more realistic view of where we actually are on most of the above.

SL, I decided to mix and match--some glimpses of reality, some myth-making, some meta-commentary. I think the part of the fun of making the list is interpreting the rules. What do you think it would be important for an outsider to learn about us, and how would you go about teaching them?

Class: Matewan (1987)

Class, race, and gender: Salt of the Earth (1954)

Masculinity: Billy Jack (1971)

Anti-democracy within democracy: Cobra (1986), Starship Troopers (1997)

I think the self-critical movies are deceptive, because most of America has not yet reached that stage.
We are talking about our deepest concepts of ourselves?
I don't worry about propaganda, it no longer works outside of the US.

Slavery and entrepeurship are important, so Gone with the Wind.

But ethnic exploitation and private initiative aren't unique to America, and every Iraqi would immediately understand Charles Foster Kane. What is unusual is the 300 years of Westward expansion and mobility. Does any American look at a map of the 13 colonies and our current map, and say the growth was a bad thing? Imperialism is the very soul of America. There are many Iraqis or French who can say my family has lived in this town for a thousand years. Americans can barely conceive it.

Free and available land. A new town. A fresh start. These things are alien to the rest of the world.

So Westerns, Westerns, Westerns. From Drums Along the Mohawk to Red River. Hell, give em Deadwood.

Office Space

His Girl Friday

dan: I was going to suggest Casablanca, but since 0% of it takes place in America, I think that rules it out.


madness. Star Wars strikes me as a pretty credible choice, and it's not even in the same galaxy!

I was also thinking of Chungking Express, which has nothing whatever to do with America, except that one of the characters longs to go there, another does, and everything about the film is about the way american culture has been exported (makes more sense on a top 50 list, though).

Other movies:

Raging Bull (almost an alternative to Glengarry Glen Ross)
Dr. Strangelove
Hoop Dreams (you want the role of race in America?)
The Producers (the Wilder/Mostel version, of course)
Days of Heaven

Is Julia talking about our 'ideal'? or actual inner most realism?

I think that's what makes this so difficult to do in 10 movies. Because in order to properly explain America, you have to cover our ideals and mythology as well as the reality. Very few movies do both.

I think Lindsay's approach of overlapping movies is problematic if you're limited to 10 movies. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a perfec t example of a movie that covers multiple topics quite well (the West, the Civil War, and a foreign perspective). I would add To Kill a Mockingbird for the same reason (race, the South, the Depression, the myth of good people doing what's right in the face of injustice).

Free and available land. A new town. A fresh start. These things are alien to the rest of the world.

Barely on topic, but I have to mention it because it's such a good movie: Northfork. The sense of scale it conveys is almost painful. I don't think I would have understood it as well before I moved to the West* myself...which might make it incomprehensible to non-Americans.

*Y'all might remember that where I live, it sometimes rains mud.

What do you think it would be important for an outsider to learn about us, and how would you go about teaching them?

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein | January 15, 2006 at 05:12 PM

hmm. 'mkay...

i read it somewhere, people more often interprets foreign film through their own lens of experiance. This specially filling the gap of 'slang', 'body language', 'unsaid train of thoughts' (ie. if somebody shows Godfather to an average Italian, he probably will see it from Italian mafia experiance plus quirks, instead of the dessolution of family politics and power in America)

bla bla...

My pick, I think, will emphasize more on snapshot at personal level, scenic impression and fiction rather than grand narrative pretending to reveal what's real.

in ten movies with 12 titles. (what, you think I am going to start following rule? feh...)

Modern Times (1936)
12 Angry Men (1957)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Star Wars (1977)
Blade Runner (1982)
Platoon (1986)
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Lost in Translation (2003)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

1. The Seven Samurai
- we are not the samurai, but the selfish villagers
2. Conan The Barbarian
- a large part of the population are fanatical cult members, the only way we know how to solve problems is through violence
3. American Beauty
- non-conformity to American ideals can be deadly
4. Birth Of a Nation
- its racist glorifications still describe the mindset of many Americans
5. Apocalypse Now
- nightmarish vision of American imperialism taken to its extremes
6. Star Wars
- how we idealize ourselves and our War of Independence
7. Clerks
- two very real underachieving characters who for better or for worse with whom we can easily identify
8. Titanic
- its unbelievable immense popularity shows how we're suckers for love stories and tragedies
9. The Man In the Gray Flannel Suit
- average man finding his way through post war America reveals what hides behind the American dream
10. Ghostbusters
- we love to laugh

What's missing?
- exploration of women's roles
- realistic depictions of life for minorities
- how we treat our elderly

To Kill a Mockingbird. Race relations, legal culture, and Gregory Peck. "Jean-Louise, stand up. Your father's passing."

Posted by: ACW | January 15, 2006 at 06:25 PM

one of the best come of age movie.

You're missing movies about ordinary, day-to-day American life. You are also missing movies which embody the sometimes unrealistic optimistic striving that many Americans experience.

I would add "Ordinary People", "Breaking Away", "Sixteen Candles" and "Crossing Delancy" (an obscure, but nice, movie about a romance between a NYC literary intelligensia and a grocer). Both "Sideways" and "About Schmidt" might make this list, too.

And I second the nomination of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Robert Redford's "The Candidate" would be a good one as well. Instead of "Wall Street" you might think about "The Insider" as a study in corporate influence in America.

And what about "Norma Rae" for labor relations? And "Hoosiers" for the classic American sports story?

"Kramer v. Kramer" (divorce) and "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (infidelity, and the moral trade-offs of material happiness) also deserve consideration.

(speaking of Crimes and Misdemeanors, it starts in 5 minutes on HBO-S, if anyone hasn't seen it. Really terrific)

I am overwhelmed by the topic---
--anything by charlie chaplin or Buster Keaton or Harold lloyd
--- how the west was won
--- the last picture show
----the searchers
---- mr smith goes to washington
---- 7 days in may
---- it happened one night
---- Dr strangelove
----- the day the earth stood still
---- bambi
---- the treasure of sierra madre
--- animal house
---- war of the worlds (1953)
----- groundhog day
----- mash (or nashville)
----- sergeant york
----- high noon
------ all the king's men
------ singing in the rain
------- sullivan's travels
------ on the waterfront
------ death of a salesman
------ some like it hot
------ cat on a hot tin roof
----- it's a mad mad mad mad world
------ the grapes of wrath
------ a night at the opera
------- platoon
------ woodstock
------ jaws
------ elmer gantry
---- bringing up baby
----- arsenic and old lace
------ the thin man
------ touch of evil
------ my friend flicka
----- it's a wonderful life
----- rambo (1st one)
------ the adventures of huckleberry finn
-------- raiders of the lost ark
------- key largo
------ the plow that broke the plains
-------- the truman show
------- mr deeds goes to town
----- superman
------ north by northwest
------ the wizard of oz
sorry, I just couldn't make up my mind

"Fargo", "Repo Man", "Shakes the Clown", "Chinatown", "Easy Rider".

Watch each movie twice.

Yeah, my taste is suspect. I would have named "Aguirre, the Wrath of God", "Throne of Blood", "Potemkin", "The Magician, and "Brazil", but they're foreign.

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