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The Reel America

The films that show us who we are.

June 30, 1996

The Opinion Survey

The movies have long offered a refracted view of America. When Federico Fellini won his honorary Oscar, he explained the phenomenon: "I come from a country, and I belong to a generation, for which America and the movies were almost the same thing."

If you were explaining the American character to a foriegner, what three movies best sum up the national persona, and why?

A selection of responses:


John Baldessari, artist.

"Hud"--Ambivalence--having your cake and eating it, too. The film features these oppositions: 1) Looking out for No. 1 versus doing the right thing; 2) Protecting nature versus making a quick buck, and 3) The business of America is business versus the business of America is the public good.

"The Hustler"--The desire to win and what that means and how it blinds us to other values.

"Touch of Evil"--Our sense of black and white morality and how the end justifies the means. We don't like messiness or loose ends. Recent pertinent example: the Simpson trial. Our xenophobia-- if you act white and/or look white you are above suspicion. Otherwise you are up to no good.


Roger Wilkins, history professor at George Mason University.

"The Birth of a Nation"--It is like the United States: an ingenious technical and artistic virtuosity, yet the magnitude of the achievement is undermined by racism and cultural arrogance. That is a fundamental story of America--dazzling achievements undermined by a lack of humanity which flows from the cultural arrogance that made our forefathers think they had the right to move Native Americans out of the way. It is a tragic mixture.

"Casablanca"--Rick is our American male fantasy: tough and adroit socially on the outside and at the intersection of legitimate commerce, shady activities and the world of spies. But underneath he's a sentimentalist--a good guy. People's fantasies are revealing. That's the America we told ourselves we were when we fought World War II. It's who we thought we were up until the Vietnam War, which destroyed many of our illusions.

"Pretty Woman"--There is an American fantasy that says everyone is innocent--even prostitutes have hearts of gold and can be redeemed with the application of enough American money and charm. The defining moment of the movie was when the character played by Julia Roberts is in the bathroom. She wants privacy and Richard Gere's character thinks something serious is going on; so he goes in and there she is--flossing her teeth. So we know she is not, deep down, a bad person. With Gere's money and charm everything turns out swell and the pretty woman and handsome man will live happily ever after.


Wendy Wasserstein, Pulitzer prize winning playwright whose works include "The Heidi Chronicles" and "The Sisters Rosensweig."

"Singin' in the Rain"--Because of its exuberance and its love of the movies.

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"--Because it has to do with nobility of character and Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur as the smart woman reporter. But mostly it has to do with nobility and honor and individual rights.

"Pulp Fiction"--Because it has to do with the sexiness of violence.


Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombian novelist and 1982 Nobel Prize winner for literature. His most recent book in English is "Of Love and Other Demons."

"Safety Last" (Harold Lloyd)--An intrinsic part of the American character is its idealistic liberalism. The Founding Fathers introduced it in the nation's governing institutions and it persists in the universities, in the arts and sciences and in the philanthropic spirit of the individual. It is a historic irony that this idealism has not found its way into the American political reality. I find this spirit in the films of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.

"The Loved One"--Americans believe happiness is attainable and anyone can achieve it. This belief allows them to feel happy without realizing how much unhappiness there is in the world. It has even made them unafraid of death because they know that once they're in the casket they will be more beautiful and better dressed than when they were alive. There they are, all pink, with lots of makeup on their faces.

"The Gunfighter"--It's about a gunfighter (Gregory Peck) who wants to retire but can't, because all the new, up-and-coming gunfighters want him as a prize. It is the same with Americans. They cannot retire into isolationism. They are condemned to police the world. It is their fate, their destiny.


Isaac Mizrahi, fashion designer.

"2001: A Space Odyssey"--This movie perfectly represents America's terror of the present and its belief in the mystery, promise and resolve of the future.

"Peyton Place" and "Return to Peyton Place"--The visual aspect of these movies offers us a glimpse of America at its happiest and most prosperous, in contrast with the script which portrays the misery of a typically provincial attitude that continually threatens to represent our national thinking.

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