Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Meme Time: America the Beautiful and ... Action!

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

I spotted this meme at Kung Fu Monkey and a few other sites. It’s an interesting one to think about. I was all set to let it pass when my friend Noelle asked me to take a crack at it. And around here, we aims to please.

The Searchers (1956). Let’s get the obvious choices out of the way early. Any such list has to include a western. John Ford’s film isn’t necessarily my favorite example of the genre, but it’s certainly the richest in terms of themes – our relationship with the land and the people who were first on it, the westward journey, the toll of civilization.

Chinatown (1974). The conclusion of the westward journey, and a movie that teaches a key lesson: when everything costs, someone always has to pay.

The Godfather, Part II (1974). Another obvious selection. One of the best treatments of the immigrant experience, and an unblinking look at how deeply corruption is woven into the warp and weft of American life.

Gone With The Wind (1939). That the best movie about the most shameful period in American history is a grandly entertaining soap opera says volumes.

Mildred Pierce (1945). Class in the classless society, and a sharp look at the extra burdens women must face to get ahead.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957). To be American is to be a hustler. And like no other movie, it captures the spirit of my favorite place in America, New York City. Kinetic, alive, filled with an animal indifference to your fate that only intoxicates you further.

The Right Stuff (1983). One of two movies that push my personal patriotism button. A tribute to America’s greatest modern accomplishment and to our sacred notion of teamwork, but one that acknowledges the parts as well as the whole.

The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996). The other film that can make me stand up and salute. A uniquely American life, and an examination of the prurient/Puritan divide.

Dr. Strangelove (1964). The shadows of WWII and the tumult of the 1960s conjoin here. A movie that boldly proclaims that the United States of America stands astride the world like no other power in the history of mankind – and that we don’t really know what to do about it, either.

His Girl Friday (1940). For presenting Americans at their best, as fast-talking cynics with hearts of gold who not only want to believe, but secretly do.

Bonus Musical Selection #1: Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Because we put on a happy face. And because the movie as an object has always represented a kind of American exemplar for me, combining individual achievement, collaborative effort, and corporate identity.

Bonus Musical Selection #2: The Music Man (1962). For making the heartland both enormously appealing and more complicated than the myth would have you believe.

Put ‘em all together and you get an interesting look at the national character. Of course, if you ask me tomorrow, you’ll get a whole new list. I will point out that none of these movies is exactly a chore to sit through. Because I, like the country that I love, am all about razzmatazz.