Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Five Films for the 4th

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Forget Will Smith and the great big alien mothership - here are four films which are better suited to grace your DVD player on Independence Day than any other day of the year. What sets a Great Movie About America apart from what are simply Great American Movies its its ability to pick apart our society and the myths and harsh realities associated with it, while simultaneously celebrating its spirit - a national identity which is admittedly like none other in the world.

Nashville (1975, dir. Robert Altman) - the first film which immediately sprang to my head while making this list, and for good reason. Altman presents the glittering Country-Western Captial of the World, over the course of a few hectic days, as a microcosm of America. Following the intersecting stories of some 20-odd protagonists, both superstars and nobodies, the film beautifully captures the chaotic spirit of an America which was doing its best to be cheerful on its bicentennial anniversary, following the assasination of JFK and the Vietnam War. As Henry Gibson's character Haven Hamilton earnestly croons during the opening credits, "we must be doing something right / to last 200 years." But what exactly that is, it's pretty hard to say.

Patton (1970, dir. Franklin J. Schaffner) - scripted by a then-unknown Francis Ford Coppola, this is one of the rare war movies that manages to appeal to the Sands of Iwo Jima fans as well as the Full Metal Jacket crowd. As played by George C. Scott, real-life WWII general George S. Patton Jr. was only marginally less crazy than Dr. Strangelove's Buck Turgedson; a brilliant military strategist for whom the existence of war was the only thing which kept him from being an aimless, Beckettian drifter. Whether you read this film as a right-wing Valentine's card to a historic legend, or an ironic meditation on the nature of war and warlike people, you can't help but be moved when Patton, joined by his dog, walks off towards the windmills at the film's finale - a modern day Don Quixote in a world that no longer needs him.

25th Hour (2002, dir. Spike Lee) - following September 11th, while the rest of the entertainment industry were hard at work editing shots of the Twin Towers out of the opening of "Friends" and ensuring that Escape from New York and Dino DeLaurentiis's King Kong remake were never shown on TV ever again, Spike Lee was making a film which not only acknowledged the absence of the World Trade Center, featuring prominant shots of Ground Zero, but presented the personal tragedy of one man as a microcosm of post-9/11 America. When drug dealer Monty (Edward Norton) is arrested and facing a seven-year jail term, all the great questions surrounding love, family, community and duty come crashing down on his head during his last 24 hours of freedom. Despite Lee's reputation as a "soapbox director," the political subtext of this story is handled with grace and subtlety, while still retaining its heartbreaking power.

Scarface (1983, dir. Brian De Palma) - the tagline of this decadent, bombastic three-hour crime epic sums up the whole thing perfectly: "He loved the American Dream. With a vengeance." Those who pooh-pooh this movie and claim it isn't as good as The Godfather are missing the point - this was never meant to be a film with the meditative, Shakespearean tragedyesque power of Coppola's trilogy - this is a movie of raw, sledgehammer-to-the-face power that bludgeons us over the head with the all-too-American mantra that sometimes, you want what the other guy's got. Pacino's Tony Montana is simply a man who sought to remedy that desire. It's not exactly a noble goal, but one can't help but admire his honesty about getting what he wants. And when it turns out, as it often does, that money doesn't buy him happiness, but results in his downfall, one not only thinks of the scores of Cagney and Bogart gangsters who fell swiftly from their place at "the top of the world," but also of Charles Foster Kane, dying alone in his mansion after alienating everyone he loves. It's about as American a film as one can get.

King Kong (1933, dir. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack) - as a foreigner to these shores myself, few things are able to tug at my heartstrings more than the stories of immigrants, from The Godfather Part II to Dirty Pretty Things - especially stories about those who just couldn't hack it in their newfound home. Although conceived by its creators as "nothing more than the greatest adventure picture ever made," King Kong is in many ways the ultimate immigrant story. Lured to these shores by the the blonde-haired beauty of Fay Wray, he is met with shock, curiosity, and freakish awe when he arrives in New York - a place which has long been viewed as America's cultural capital by the rest of the world. Brought here against his will, with no way to return to his home, he eventually meets his death on top of th Empire State Building. Like Karloff's portrayal of Frankenstein's creation, Kong is a monster who inspires more sympathy than fright. Like the song goes, "if I can make it there, I'm gonna make it anywhere" - something which is just as true of America as just of the Big Apple - and Kong, the King of Skull Island, sadly could not.


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