Films for the Fourth
By Mitch Brian
Now that movie studios are owned by massive international corporations, the desire to make quintessentially “American” movies has dramatically diminished. Marketing departments rule everything in today’s studios, and the business model relies on movies grossing hundreds of millions, hitting the broadest international demographic and staying as far away from politics, ideology and nationality as possible. Thankfully, home video allows easy access to the 20th century, when individuals controlled studios and American movies were made for largely domestic audiences. Here are some suggested 4th of July viewing, complete with cinematic fireworks.
“Citizen Kane” (1941) — Originally titled “American,”
24-year-old Orson Welles made a movie that still impresses through sheer technical wizardry, thematic ambition and showmanship.
Based on the life of newspaper baron William Randoph Hearst, Welles’ Charles Foster Kane begins as a committed champion of the little guy only to be corrupted by wealth, power and tragic ambition. Hearst hated the film, forbade his papers to run ads for the movie and attempted to buy and destroy the negative. Don’t be put off by this film’s rep as the greatest movie ever made; even if it isn’t, it’s still
one helluva’ show.
“The Right Stuff” (1983) —
Philip Kauffman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s sweeping and very funny history of the first Americans in space is grand entertainment. And though it may be about astronauts, it’s the lone test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepherd) who functions as the emotional and thematic heart
of the movie. Barred from the Mercury Program because he lacked a college degree, he provides an old-guard contrast to the new breed of hot shot test pilots who will soon be designated as astronauts. From John Glenn’s mystical sighting of orbital “fireflies” to Gus Grissom’s heart-breaking loss of credibility in a splashdown mishap, “The Right Stuff” offers fireworks aplenty. “Team America: World Police” (2004) — Rejected nine times by the MPAA (threatening an NC-17 rating) largely due to a sex scene between two puppets, this parody of action movies by “Southpark” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker has something to offend everyone. It’s also a scathing satire of American politics and popular culture. And a musical. Featuring an all-puppet cast with disproportionately large heads (just like real movie stars), it looks like the old “Thunderbirds” TV show. Much of its outrageousness stems from the fact that we’re simply not used to seeing puppets throwing up, having sex and machine-gunning each other, but it also offers razor sharp observations about American foreign policy and unfortunate collateral damage. This movie may not be to everyone’s taste, but bolder filmmaking is seldom seen.
“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (2006)
— Welcome to George W. Bush’s America. My academic colleagues may take issue with me, but I think 50 years from now, this movie will exist as a perfect time capsule of high-octane-Southern-fried-corporate-sponsored-red-state-dominated America. 2 As in so many Hollywood movies, this picture gets to have it both ways. It makes fun of NASCAR culture while delivering the pleasures of fast cars, celebrity drivers and lots of blonde women. Unlike “Team America,” it’s never too dangerous, but it’s just as knowing, opting for goofiness over cynicism and embracing the absurdity of its world. After all, Americans have always been good at holding onto contradictory notions and dreaming big.
— Kevin Willmott’s locally-made feature about Coach Phog Allen’s recruiting of Wilt Chamberlain to the University of Kansas is refreshingly void of corporate filmmaking tropes, resulting in a very American tale of race, character and basketball. Wilt’s belief that Lawrence, a town founded by abolitionists, will be a progressive place is quickly shattered when he is ordered to eat in the kitchen at a local diner. With Wilt threatening to leave, the pressure is on Allen and KC Chancellor Murphy to solve the problem … and for Chamberlain to challenge the segregated status quo. Shot in widescreen black and white and featuring a sweet jazz score, the movie manages to feel both period-accurate and poetic, with its ultimate “big game” climax balancing stylized theatricality with genuine sports movie pleasures.
Mitch Brian teaches screenwriting and film studies at UMKC and appears with Jason Heck as THE DVD
GURUS on KCUR’s “Up To Date” with Steve Kraske. Archived shows can be found at KCUR/UpToDate.org.