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The Reel America

The films that show us who we are.

June 30, 1996

"American Graffiti"--George Lucas recreates small-town California in the early 1960s, where a young man's ambivalence about flying East to attend college reflects the classic American conflict between home and the world beyond. Like "The Wizard of Oz's" Dorothy before him, the Ron Howard character decides home is where he belongs.

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Stephen L. Carter, Yale Law School professor and author of "The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law & Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion."

"Pollyanna"--The ability of one compulsively optimistic little girl to change an entire town's attitude about itself captures the American belief in the future as good and the individual as important. The key change in the story is that of Karl Malden, who plays the pastor of the local church. His preaching, in true American fashion, slips from pseudo-Calvinistic hellfire to a vague let's-feel-good-about-ourselves Protestantism. (But note the strong anti-socialism theme: Pollyanna's rich aunt, who owns everything in the town, gets to keep all her property but learns the virtues of noblesse oblige. Americans have never hated the rich, just envied them, and wanted them to be nice--Michael Jordan, not Dennis Rodman.)

"Unforgiven"--This portrays perfectly the American ambivalence about power. Clint Eastwood's murderous gunslinger comes out of retirement to avenge a terrible crime, but of course, once called to arms, he cannot be controlled and a blood bath ensues. We like to see the guilty punished, but we are scared of the power that can do it, so we wrap that power in a tight web of constitutional restrictions. Thus we pretend to control the natural violence of the sovereign. When the violence slips through--the Rodney G. King beating or, a generation ago, the shootings at Kent State--we are capable of enormous outrage. But we are still generally glad that the capacity for violence is there--in case we need it.

"Star Wars"--This is the American film of the modern age. Good conquers Evil. Good is a handful of adventurers. Evil is a vast hierarchy. Good is plucky and individualistic. Evil is bureaucratic and arrogant. Good just wants to be free. Evil's motive is a bit unclear--but isn't it always? (Was world domination the only motive of communism?) Good does not want to fight, but Evil forces the battle. (Compare the famous line from Abraham Lincoln's second Inaugural Address.) Good looks like us. (Well, in the first movie, the good guys, at least the humans, were all white. But this was fixed.) Evil wears masks. And, one more thing: Good always shoots better than Evil. That, too, is part of the American credo.

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Carlos Fuentes, Mexican novelist and essayist. His new book is "A New Time for Mexico."

"Singin' in the Rain"--The supremely optimistic U.S. film. Almost Cartesian: I sing and dance, therefore I am.

"Citizen Kane"--But innocence can be lost and the American dream of happiness and success can founder in the warehouses of Xanadu.

"Taxi Driver"--Which announces that U.S. civilization can break down in the dark alleys of urban neurosis.

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Angela E. Oh, head of the Korean American Family Service Center.

One movie that explains our American character is "Do the Right Thing." This movie does a good job of raising the issue of race relations and the collage of our national persona. The perspectives of working-class whites, blacks and newcomers--all struggling with their common humanity and deep differences--speaks to what I believe is the greatest challenge facing this nation today. If we fail in meeting this challenge, we face a bleak future.

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Christopher Buckley, novelist and editor of Forbes FYI. His most recent book is "Thank You for Smoking."

"Smile"--A satirical gem of Americana. Bruce Dern plays a glad-handling, slap-on-the-back car salesman who runs the Young American Miss pageant in Santa Rosa, Calif. Barbara Feldon (remember her, from "Get Smart"?) plays a frigid former Young American Miss who's so tight-assed that she drives her husband to drink and to shoot her (in the arm). What could be more splashily vulgar and American than a beauty pageant? And more innocent? It manages to display our worst and best tendencies simultaneously. And on this movie's small stage both are deliciously amplified.

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