Thursday, May 26, 2011

What About American Films?


For years I labored under a stereotype that European film is all art and brilliance and American film is all dazzling technology, car chases and explosions. It does seem that way. I think when one discovered European Cinema living in America and having known nothing but American films before, being so alone is loving the art film, one tends to look down upon the home grown product and not consider the good aspects. In the last few years I have began to explore the greatness of American cinema too. I discovered European art films in high school way back in the 70s with an early PBS show called "Film Odyssey." Now I'm going back and finding great films made in America. The following list are the top 15 because I want to counter the stereotype so I'll list more films. While it is true that a much greater percentage of American films are car chases and explosions there are many American films that I think stand up proudly beside the best European or Asian films. I must make a couple of qualifications:

First of all I only consider films made between 1931 (advent of sound) and 1972. I feel that in this period cinema really blossomed as art and the artistic aspect have waned greatly since then even in Europe. There were great art films before this period, they were silent (Fritz Lang Metropolis--1927-- and for America D.W. Griffith's Intolerance--1917). There have been great art films since I'm sure. Yet I think film as art flourished between 1931 and 1972 and it's just hanging on afterword. The reasons are summed up well by Jean Renoir in a lecture that is found in extra material in the DVD version of Elena and her men, put out by Netflix.

There are some films that are great within their genre but not compared to films at large. For example I would put Creature from the Black Lagoon in my top 10 Horror/sci fi genre but not on my top 10 of all time great films. Some films that are firmly in a genre but transcend it. Such a film is the Day the Earth Stood Still (see list below). Another would be (comedy) the Bell Boy by Jerry Lewis (see list).

(1) Citizen Kane (1941)
Directed by Orson Wells
starring Orson Well, Joseph Cotton, and with Agnes Morehead

This is not really my favorite movie. It's universally recognized as the greatest American film ever made, so it's obligatory to put it number one. It is a very great film. It's an open secret that it was patterned after the life of Newspaper Tycoon William Randolph Hurst, and that Well's film career was ruined by making it due to Hurt's anger, at least tha'ts been said by some. It was his first first film or at least fist major film. He did make other great films. Nevertheless it's really film about the American Spirit. A fascinating portrait of a sociopath who battles way to wealth power stepping on friends along the way, only continue to long for some forgotten childhood dream that he never found. The illusive goal of his search is incapsulated in his inignmatic dying utterance "rosebud." The film is about a reprise of his life by a reporter seeking to discover what rosebud really was. We find out at the end, the reporter never does it was a sled he had and loved as a child. We see the sled being burned at the end, just one item in a huge collection of junk once prized now useless to anyone after his death.

Wells shows his true brilliance by slicing together two desperate methods of film making, cinema vérité and Montage. The famous breakfast scene which crams 20 years of marriage into a five minute look at the couple at breakfast over the years, which is one of the most famous aspects of the film.

I love the Saturday night live parody which ends with the realization that he did not say "rosebud" but "ham, chase, henry." The reporter goes off trying to find who Henry was (french pronunciation) only to see a menu being burned featuring McDonald's advertisement for Ham on cheese with Rye (Henry, On-ree--on rye).


(2) Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

directed by Stanly Kubrick
Peter Sellers
Peter Sellers , Peter Sellers, and Peter Sellers.
(yes, he plays three different characters in the same movie)

George C. Scott George C. Scott...

Sterling Hayden ...

Keenan Wynn ...

Slim Pickens ...

Peter Bull ...

James Earl Jones ...

Tracy Reed ...

Jack Creley ...

Frank Berry ...

Robert O'Neil ...

Glenn Beck ...
Lieutenant Kivel (as Glen Beck)

Roy Stephens ...

Shane Rimmer ...

Hal Galili ...

This may be my most favorite film of all time. At least for an American film. As an art film I would put up with anything from Europe, except it's a comedy. It scared the hell out of me as a child. I expected the world to end any day and I worried, no I agonized over nuclear war for days after seeing it. It may have set me on the entire political path fo the left with that one film. The portrait of the stupidity of the military and the right wing politicians and the cold war is overwhelming. What I did not get as an eight year old child watching it was that is totally hilarious. The anti-war statement is far more powerful as a comedy. As a drama it's way to serious to think about. People would have dismissed it. The Day After was a powerful film but it didn't change that many attitudes I don't, Regan still won by a land slide. Nucelar war durning the cold war was the ultimate topic, way too serious to approach serous. As a comedy it's perfect for laying bare the stupidity of the times.

It's a remarkable film for many reasons. Peter Sellers pays three characters, everyone and his dog is in it. I'll never forget the line by Keenan Wynn (colonel Bat Guano), who is asked to break open a coke machine so the Peter Sellers in his guise as a British exchange officer call the President and tell him the general (Starlin Hyden as General Jack Ripper) has just started World War III, and Guano says "Ok but you are going to have to answer to the coca cola company." It so prefectly lays bare the stupidity of the mind set that created the cold war and the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) Policy. It's iconic last scene where Slim Pickins rides the bomb to the earth like a Bronco waving his cowboy had and shouting "Yeeeehaaa!" If only he could have gotten Regan to play that scene American history might have been very different. The world ends when the bomb hits and the last images are of mushroom clouds and a song "tell them I was singing" is playing.

(3) Paths to Glory. (1957)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
starring: Kirk Douglas

This is turely one of the greatest and most over looked American films of all time.It really is never mentioned, it was his first major film. I would put it up against almost any European film. I would compare it favorably with anything by Robert Bresson. That is whose style this film reminds me of the most. It's not like other Kubrick films. Very different form Dr. Strangelove or 2001 a Space Odyssey. It's much more traditional in the way it's made, it's a drama set in World War I and it's filmed in the older way of pre 60s "old cinema." Meaning the establishing shots are traditionally done, the camera is not looking for new angels and there no avaunt guard techniques, just a too story well filmed. It has a very European flavor since it's about French soldiers. It is about a group of soldiers whose commander realized are supposed to be wasted as canon fodder and they all rebel. They are all arrested adn face the firing squad and there's a race to find witnesses to save them while the top brass fix the proceeding to protect the incompetent general who caused the problem.

The French flavor of this film is so like a real French film, no Hollywood hokum no one saying "zat is zee ting" (no fake accents). Speaking as a consure of French film, if I saw this and didn't know who made it and was told it was by a French director I would believe it. Although I might notice no subtitles and no back over dubbing.


(4) On the Water Front (1954)
Directed by
Elia Kazan

starring: Marlin Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger

This is a great film and it's a joy to watch. Unfortunately Elia Kazan had a rough break in his directing career. He caved to the McCarthy hearings and named names. So he was counter black listed by liberals in Hollywood. He never really got to make this kind of film again. He never got the recognition he would garnered had that not happened.

On the Water Front is a film about the relationship of two brothers and the social oppression of labor unions by mobsters. Marlin Brando knows who killed a man who was going to be a witness at a Senate committee on organized crime, then he wants to come clean but he's under treat from his brother who is working with the mob.


(5) Salt of the Earth (1954)
Directed by Herbert J. Biberman
Starred:Will Geer

written and produced by the "Hollywood ten" the major film makers and witers black listed by McCarthy. This is like the counter to the previous, except it came out the same year. The black listed Hollywood writers decided to band together and make one film where they could get their social causes aired one last time as a film makers. It's about Latin workers in the American agricultural industry and the racism and hardships they face. It also strikes an early blow for feminism more than a decade before the feminist movement. The wives of the striking workers show their true strength as women.


(6) Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1966)
Directed by: Mike Nichols
Starred: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Denis.
Orginal Play by Edward Albee

Edward Albee was a major Play write in that day. He's been forgotten a bit I think, but in the early 60s one heard of him all the time. His place The American Dream was one of the first intellectual book I ever read. On the surfac this film appears to be just a vehicle for Liz Taylor and Richard Burton to show off their acting prowess, meaning long on weeping, wailing, crying, shouting, back biting and being drama queens, and short on plot. Below the surface it's an interesting existential drama. Two married couples, both associated with the faculty of the same university, get together to socialize and wind up spending an anguishing night the marraige of the older couple (Burton/Taylor) unravel but it refuses to die quietly. The two persist in verbal sparring and all sorts of back stabbing until one is forced into a situation where the other must expose himself/herself as a fraud.


(7) Night of Iguana (1964)
Directed by John Houston
Starred: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton,Deborah Kerr, Cyril Delevanti
Original Play by Tennessee Williams

More of the same existential drama. Defrocked minister winds up as a tour guide,a washed up Artist caring for and living off of a washed up Poet grandfather, all wind up in the same Mexican hell hole with no place to go and no place hide, and must finally confront themselves and their failures.


(8) Easy Rider (1969)
Directed: Dennis Hopper
Starred: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper

They take drugs, ride around on motor cycles and get blown away by rednecks on the highway. It set the stage for the new breed of independent film and new style of film making. It represented in the first clear step away form the Hollywood movie making system. It embodied the ideals and ambiance of the 60s counter culture. It was really cool when I was a kid.


(9) A Night at the Opera (1935)
Directed:Sam Wood
Starred: The Three Marx brothers, (Groucho, Harpo, Chico)
Margret Dumont, Kitty Carlisle

The finest film by the Marx Brothers the first of only two produced by Irving Thalberg. This one and its' twin A Day at the Races stand head and shoulders above everything the Marx Brothers did, and I am a total fan of the Marx brothers but I say that without hesitation. One of the finest comedies in American cinema, it transcends the category of comedy and features some fine Operatic performances. Thalberg was instrumental in re-making the Marx's with these two films. He proved that less is more by cutting the number of one-liners in half, and giving a new organization and attention to plot to the film, and making the brothers into characters that represented protagonists for a worth cause, all of which flew in the face of Groucho's theory of comedy but he was totally won over by the result. The films include generous portions of opera,
Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore.


(10) Lillie's of the Field (1963)
Directed: Ralph Nelson
Starred: Sidney Poitier, Lilia Skala, Lisa Mann.

This is an innocent little film. No car chases,nothing happens. A guy needs work some nuns hire him to build a chapel. They like him so they find reason to keep him on. He keeps wanting to leave and eventually he does. Beneath this seeming noting of a plot is a fine story. It's not a big psychological drama but does certer around an interesting battle of the wills. At a time when the civil rights movement was brewing, a black man pitting his will as a workman being exploited agaisnt that of the mother Superior needs a workman to give more than she can pay him for. It turns out that the nuns had escaped from communist oppression in Eastern Europe and had endured even more hardship then the black American carpenter had. In the end both the nuns and the carpenter grow to love and respect each other. The beset scene is the last one, where Poitier get's the nuns to singing a gospel song he taught them, and as they get wrapped up in it he just walks out. The Mother superior realizes he's leaving but doesn't try to stop him. He's still singing all the way to his car, then he get's in and leaves. No good bye, no words of parting but it's clear the reverend mother will miss him but is willing to let him go.

(11) The Bell Boy (1960)
Jerry Lewis directs and stars.

Probably Jerry Lewis' finest film. I would have chosen the Errand boy, bit's marked in a couple of scene by crass Hollywood sentimentality. The Bell Boy, on the other hand, is an avaunt guard approach. It consists of random scenes from the career of a bell boy at a hotel with nontraditional transitions and establishing shots. It lacks the sugary sentimentality of the Errand Boy. It's a series of gags. My favorite is one Jerry Lewis comes to stay at the Hotel where Jerry Lewis is the bell Hop. So Jerry as himself, in a parody of his life, surrounded by a huge entourage. Then Jerry is also the bell hop. Jerry the movie stars says to one of the assistants who isthat guy over there? Points to someone, the assistant says "that's' your tax man." He says "who is that guy over there? He points, that's your appointment secretary. "Who sis that guy over there," points to someone. He says "that's' the guy who keeps you informed about who all of us are."

(12) The Birds (1963)

Hitchcock: birds attack everyone. One of my favorites.

(13) Psycho (1960)

Also Hitchcock. It has an elaborate structure but the only scene anyone remembers is the shower scene, enough said.

(14) The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
James Stewart, Doris Day

Color re-make of 1936 black and white. Both films by Hitchcock, the remake is much better. It's actually more suspenseful. About a family that blunders into a dipolmatic espionage situation (in North Africa). The son is kidnapped and taken back on England by the spies and the Parents wind up rescuing him from a foreign embassy.

(15) Stage Coach
John Ford
John Wayne

The original of a movie re-made with different stars twice over. The other versions are trivial. This is an important film because it represents the first attempt to make a real film out of a Western. Before this westerns were just cowboys and Indians, the real point was shoot-em-up, chase the bad guys, have fist fights. This film tried to make a real story, a real plot, use film techniques to build suspense, and even though it's black and white, the land scape is beautifully filmed, with big skys of the American southwest and some of the most authentic looking Native Americans in any Hollywood movie.

In the Shoes of the fisheman
Michael Johnson


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