Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Five Films that Represent America

Five Films that Represent America
                I am not one of those  Americans who is convinced beyond all reason that America is the greatest country in the world and that no other country can do it as well as we do.  So in showing someone who has just immigrated to our country I would be willing to show America’s weaknesses.  While America has some strengths and we all enjoy a certain amount of freedom and success, We have our list of social problems and ills.  My perspective of what it is like to live in America through cinema is illustrated in the films The Grapes of Wrath, Milk, The Graduate, Jesus Camp, & Chicago.  In the above-listed films we discuss the issues of poverty, equalilty, justice, religious extremism, and what it means to chase the American Dream.
            The oldest film I have selected for this celluloid history and commentary on the United States of America in John Fords’ The Grapes of Wrath (1940).  This film was based upon John Steinbeck’s novel by the same title.  John Steinbeck wrote the book after his real world Depression-era experiences.  The characters in the film were real world people he fictionalized.  The film used both social commentary and a unique documentary film style that was barely noticed by the industry in its era.  This film serves as post depression commentary on organized labor, exploitation of labor, the plight of the poor and the failures of capitalism in the 1930’s.  At the same time it illustrates the government cannot fully fill the gap when the economy fails.  Because of the gritty content of the novel and the film, children were restricted from admission.  The film was also filmed under the code name ‘Route 66” to avoid issues with the unions.
            The Grapes of Wrath  for its social commentary is also a story about the American Spirit and the grounded wisdom that its population represents in time of crisis.  Though the depression tale is told from an American perspective the resilience of the human animal resounds through many cultures.  However, so do the issues of tribalism as represented by this quote: (Gasoline Attendant) “You and me got sense. Them Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain't human. Human being wouldn't live the way they do. Human being couldn't stand to be so miserable.”  Even white Americans were discriminated against if they were perceived to be outsiders.
            The Graduate (1967) is the next film.  While the Grapes of Wrath discussed the awakening of America out of a financial crisis The Graduate discusses the slow awakening from the malaise of the 1950’s and 1960’s.  The film is set in Vietnam era 1967.  Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has just graduated from college.  Benjamin who should have his future firmly set wants no part of his father’s commercial success.  He instead walks through life in a very dysthymic stupor.  He goes through the motions attempting to partake in every expected American convention or vice but find’s little happiness. While this film is well known for the relationship Ben has with Mrs. Robinson I see her as more of a metaphor for the establishment class.  Graduate School, corporate America, and Mrs. Robinson may offer the fringe benefits of American culture but they won’t guarantee happiness.
            The film follows the general American film tradition.  Against all odds the protagonist always wins.  When Ben decides he is in love with Elaine and pursues here despite her engagement and quickly approaching wedding, nothing can stop him.  The final scenes of this film have become iconic in the imagery of Ben racing to the church and pounding on the glass, screaming, ‘Elaine’ and swinging the cross to ward off those who would try to stop him.  Ben and Elaine escape from the church and board a city bus to make their life together.  However it is in this final scene that the director makes his loudest statement in total silence.  The characters seem to be asking, ‘now what’.  Despite what we hear through the news media and our idealistic high school history class, following the formula does not always guarantee success or happiness.
Milk (2008) is the story of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) and his eventual election as the first openly gay City Supervisor in San Francisco.  This film comments on the nature of discrimination in the United States.  However, in the case of Milk discrimination is not race-based it is lifestyle-based.  Milk plays back out attitudes toward homosexuality as a culture through visual images in 1960’s and 1970’s America.  Stock news footage gives us the idea in the beginning we are watching a documentary.  It is apparent from the beginning that Harvey Milk will be assassinated.  It is not apparent that the culprit would be a fellow (Dan White) city supervisor who has difficulty with the idea that Harvey can be successful, liked and gay.
Milk represents the current civil rights battle going on in the United States.  It is relevant in the context of this discussion because it is happening today.  It is not from our distant history and to someone looking at the United States it is important to understand that we don’t always behave ourselves.  Milk comes at the viewer as a vehicle to allow them to assess their attitudes and propensity to discriminate.  This is apparent in Harvey’s trademark line used over and over,  My name is Harvey Milk and I'm here to recruit you!”.
Milk also frames the contemporary arguments that infect the discussion on equality today.  This exchange between Harvey Milk and Dan White illustrates one of those arguments.  Dan White: Society can't exist without the family. 
Harvey Milk: We're not against that.
Dan White: Can two men reproduce?
Harvey Milk: No, but God knows we keep trying.”
I think, like with every preceding civil rights struggle, Harvey Milk makes clear that this fight is not about his own ego; it is about being accepted and having a place free from bigotry and violence.  This is illustrated in the following speech, “I am here tonight to say that we will no longer sit quietly in the closet. We must fight. And not only in the Castro, not only in San Francisco, but everywhere the Anitas go. Anita Bryant did not win tonight, Anita Bryant brought us together! She is going to create a national gay force! And the young people in Jackson Mississippi, in Minnesota, in the Richmond, in Woodmere, New York, who are hearing her on television, hearing Anita Bryant telling them on television that they are sick, they are wrong, there is no place in this great country for them, no place in this world, they are looking to us for something tonight, and I say, we have got to give them hope!
September 11, 2001, changed the rhetoric in our country dramatically about how we view religion and where we place it in our society.  Unfortunately our acceptance of others who come from religiously diverse backgrounds has diminished.  The film Jesus Camp (2006) shows where that conversation has led us and how that conversation has been less and less about tolerance.  Becky Fischer gives the following narrative, “It’s no wonder, with that kind of intense training and disciplining, that those young people are ready to kill themselves for the cause of Islam. I wanna see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam. I wanna see them as radically laying down their lives for the Gospel as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine and all those different places, you know, because we have... excuse me, but we have the truth!
Then there is this statement from a young Levi’s mom, “We believe that there's two kinds of people in this world: people who love Jesus and people who don't.” 
Equally concerning is the continued movement to keep science and alternative points of view from our children.  The idea that we can opt out of things that we don’t believe in, in exchange for teaching things that we know are not true or accurate.  Again Levi’s mom leads the conversation while she is home schooling him using a text Physical Science and Creation,Did you get to the part yet where they say that science hasn't proven anything?
 “I think Galileo made the right choice by giving up science for Christ,” Levi responds 
The rejection of popular culture such as Harry Potter is equally odd. Becky Fischer says, “And while I'm on the subject, let me say something about Harry Potter. Warlocks are the enemies of God! And I don't care what kind of hero they are, they're an enemy of God and had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death! 
Crowd: Amen!
Becky Fischer: You don't make heroes out of warlocks!”
Chicago (2002) is the final film that I have chosen to illustrate what American Culture is about.  Chicago was a best picture winner in 2003 at the Academy Awards.  Continuing on the theme of showing the underbelly of what American Society is really about; Chicago tap dances through the entertainment industry of Chicago in the 1920’s.  Chicago plays heavily on the stereo types and iconography of America.  Those icons include the femme fatale (Roxy Hart, Thelma Kelly), the prison matron, the impotent husband (Amos Hart), and the slimy attorney (Billy Flynn).  Of course Utah and the Mormons did not escape stereotypical poke as well.  Annie says, “I met Ezekiel Young from Salt Lake city about two years ago and he told me he was single and we hit it off right away. So, we started living together. He'd go to work, he'd come home, I'd fix him a drink, we'd have dinner. And then I found out. "Single" he told me. Single, my ass. Not only was he married... oh, no, he had six wives. One of those Mormons, you know. So that night, when he came home, I fixed him his drink as usual. You know, some guys just can't hold their arsenic.” 
Also indicted in Chicago is the pursuit of fame and in that the American Dream.  Roxy, Thelma and Billy Flynn are chasing fame and using each other up.  As Billy Flynn says, “This trial... the whole world... it's all... show business.” Billy Flynn is the ultimate in narcissistic personalities and he utters gems like, “I don't mean to toot my own horn, but if Jesus Christ lived in Chicago today, and he had come to me and he had five thousand dollars, let's just say things would have turned out differently.”  For the three it is about the pursuit of those 15 minutes of fame.  The idea that you are only as good as your last press release leads the to the ridiculous distortion of truth and spin.
Ultimately, I chose Chicago, because as bad as America may seem from my first four films and slimy as Billy Flynn is and as farcical as the narrative is; Chicago represents our freedom of expression.  We live in a country where the “spin’ isn’t just presented by our government.  The “spin” is also presented by our art and our media and frequently the government is the recipient of that spin.  I also chose Chicago because there is nothing more American than the Broadway-style musical.
The five films that I chose to represent what culturally it means to be an American take a critical and cynical look of what it means to be an American.  I believe that we many times get caught up in the chest thumping assertions that ‘this is the greatest country in the world.’  We lose sight of the fact that we have problems in the country that are incumbent upon us to fix.  The Grapes of Wrath, shows poverty… we have that.  The Graduate shows that the American Dream does not always bring happiness.  Milk shows discrimination… we still have that.  Jesus Camp shows religious extremism and intolerance…. We have that and it’s home grown. Finally Chicago shows corruption…. We have that… but it’s forgivable in a slick production number with jazz, beautiful people and great choreography.  What it means to be an American is that we have creativity and when not blinded by our success, we have the creativity to solve problems that protect our minority and despondent populations and to reinvent what it means to live in America.

Works Cited
"Chicago (2002) - IMDb." The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 20 Apr. 2011. .
Chicago. Dir. Rob Marshall. Perf. Renee Zellweger, Catherin Zeta-Jones, and Richard Gere. 2002. DVD.
"The Graduate (1967) - IMDb." The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 20 Apr. 2011. .
The Graduate. Dir. Mike Nichols. Screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. By Charles Web. Perf. Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Katherine Ross. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1967. DVD.
"The Grapes of Wrath (1940) - IMDb." The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 19 Apr. 2011. .
The Grapes of Wrath. Dir. John Ford. Perf. Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1940. DVD.
"Jesus Camp (2006) - IMDb." The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 20 Apr. 2011. .
Jesus Camp. Dir. Heidi E. Ewing and Rachel Grady. By Mira Chang, Jenna Rosher, and Enat Sidi. Perf. Mike, Papantino, Lou Engle, and Becky Fischer. Magnolia Pictures, 2006. DVD.
"Milk (2008) - IMDb." The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 20 Apr. 2011. .
Milk. Dir. Gus Van Sant. By Dustin L. Black. Perf. Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Emilie Hirsch. Focus Features, 2008. DVD.

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