Proud to be an American

Exercise (for Americans): name an American movie that you consider to be a great movie that, in addition, makes you proud to be an American.

(If you’re not American, you can treat this as a hypothetical: … that, in addition, if you were an American, would make you proud to be one.)

(Corresponding questions for British, French, Italian, German, Swedish, Indian, etc. movies. And for books, music, art works, ideas, scientific achievements, etc.)

In my (recent) experience, the American movie question twists people into a knot. Name a bunch of great American movies, easy; many people have assembled such lists (ranked lists, lists in chronological order, lists in alphabetical order). Saying which ones make you proud to be an American, that’s hard. Some people just reject the idea that an American movie (or whatever) could make you proud to be an American.

Why do I bring this up? Because of a brief piece by Joan Acocella in the 12/5/11 New Yorker about the 50th anniversary of the film version of West Side Story, which she (rightly) celebrates. Her piece ends with this claim:

When you watch the movie you’ll be proud to be an American.

[Digression. It’s anniversary time. The 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth has been much in the news. (Does Dickens’s writing make British people proud to be British?) And 50th anniversaries are upon us (more are coming, as we re-live the events of the 60s and early 70s); here’s Ben Ratliff in “Jubilees and Living Histories” in the NYT on February 3rd:

In April 1962 the Beach Boys recorded “Surfin’ Safari” and “409” at Western Recorders in Los Angeles; the demo tape soon became their first single on Capitol Records. The following month El Gran Combo formed out of the remains of Rafael Cortijo y Su Combo, a brilliant band that had come to symbolize the new Puerto Rican popular music: black, working-class, Cuban-influenced, tight and urban but rustic at the middle. In July Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones gave their first performances, as the core of a band called the Rollin’ Stones, at both the Marquee and the Ealing Jazz Club in London. And in November the Chieftains, a group of virtuosos who sought to play traditional Irish music in a new way — in precise, small-group arrangements — started rehearsing at the house of Paddy Moloney, the group’s leader.

In my own life, in June come the 50th anniversary of my graduation from Princeton and then the 50th anniversary of my marriage to Ann Daingerfield Zwicky.]

Back to Acocella. The film, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, had a book by Arthur Laurents, score by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Robbins. Acocella notes the “amalgam of symphony, opera, jazz, and Latin” in Bernstein’s score and the similar amalgam of “Broadway, ballet, mambo, etc.” in Robbins’s dances.

As a dance critic, she focuses on Robbins’s dances, especially the opening sequence:

In “Prologue,” the first of the dances, the Jets are walking down the street when one of them — unthinkingly, it seems — does something extra: a little skip, maybe. After a beat, the others do it, too. This leads to something else, and then, apparently without a transition, a dance is under way. The screen bristles with detail. The camera angles shift… The dancers’ body lines differ. The Sharks, recent immigrants, are vigilant; they keep their arms close to their sides. The Jets, born here, are confident. They open their arms to the sky… in my opinion, “Prologue,” in its movie version, is the most thrilling film dance ever made.

It starts subtly, and then the energy builds. Just fabulous.

Ok, the creators were Americans. The characters are Americans (some of them recent immigrants). The setting is vibrantly American, but that’s true of a huge number of American musicals (Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!, The Music Man, to name just a few). So it’s high on the Americanness scale. And maybe it could have only been created in America. And it’s a great movie. Should those things taken together make me proud to be an American?

There are two sources of pride that involve group identity:

defiant pride (black pride, gay pride) is a push-back against negative judgments from other groups, a denial of these judgments;

reflected pride, which is, I think, what we’re dealing with in the West Side Story case, comes from the achievements of the group as a whole (“America is Number 1!”, America the City on a Hill) or from the achievements of specific members (America the land of Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, etc.).

Reflected pride can be powerful, as you can see from the enthusiasm generated by sports teams and specific players on them. Should Tim Lincicum (pitcher for the San Francisco Giants) make me proud to live in the Bay Area? A fair number of people think so.

I’m back to wrestling with the West Side Story case, trying to work out my discomfort with Acocella’s claim. I consider some other American movies I think are great (with their American Film Institute rankings) — Citizen Kane (#1), Casablanca (#3), Vertigo (#9), The Wizard of Oz (#10), Star Wars (#13), Psycho (#14), Chinatown (#21), Some Like It Hot (#22), High Noon (#27), Annie Hall (#35), Dr. Strangelove (#39), Bonnie and Clyde (#42), Midnight Cowboy (#43) — and don’t find myself filled with American pride because of them. A few of them fill me with delight in the way that West Side Story does, but many of them are dark, and West Side Story itself is a tragedy (several characters die, most notably the Romeo figure Tony; ok, the Juliet figure Maria survives in this version, but things don’t turn out well in general).

I spent some time trying to translate all of this into French, as it were. Beauty and the Beast, The 400 Blows, Jules et Jim, Breathless (American film noir with Gauloises, so to speak), Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima Mon Amour: if I were French, would these make me proud to be French? (My grand-daughter remarked yesterday, dismissively, that the French are proud of everything French. An astute comment from a 7-year-old. Maybe Americans are similarly proud of everything American. Well, within limits.)

My top candidate for the French counterpart of West Side Story would be the luminous Umbrellas of Cherbourg — and, as a bonus it’s a bittersweet, but not at all tragic, love story. A musical (music by Michel Legrand), with all the dialogue as sung recitative. Very much grounded in a specific place in France, and full of delights, including vibrant color cinematography. (Two nights ago I ended up summarizing the movie for people at Three Seasons, where I was having dinner, and inspired at least one of them to check it out.) It doesn’t get on many people’s N Greatest French Films lists, I don’t know why.

8 Responses to “Proud to be an American”

  1. mae Says:

    South Pacific

  2. Victor Says:

    Ah, the dilemma! To post or not to post… OK, if I were to post, I’d say, nothing like an ethnic-conflict version of Romeo and Juliet to make me proud to be an American. The problem with Acocella’s claim is that there is an inherent conflict between the film content/theme and the craftsmanship in its making.

    Just take a look at your list:

    Citizen Kane (#1), Casablanca (#3), Vertigo (#9), The Wizard of Oz (#10), Star Wars (#13), Psycho (#14), Chinatown (#21), Some Like It Hot (#22), High Noon (#27), Annie Hall (#35), Dr. Strangelove (#39), Bonnie and Clyde (#42), Midnight Cowboy (#43)

    Let’s see–##1, 3, 39 mock Americans and “the American way of life” (quite literally, in fact); ##9, 14, 21, 22, 27, 42, 43 to a large extent deal with criminals, crime fighting, drug problems, corruption (you can add Manchurian Candidate, Godfather and Unforgiven to that list); ##35, 43 are about socially dysfunctional characters (as is Gone with the Wind). ##10, 13 are fantasy and, despite some opposition to evil forces, are largely utopian. So from the entire list, the one that works best is probably The Wizard of Oz (Star Wars is even more idealistic, but it has some very blunt cult of personality elements that I, personally, do not condone–not to mention the award ceremony scene that is straight out of Triumph of the Will). But what makes the story work is the fact that the characters leave Kansas (which is a bleak, stormy place) not that they come back. (Of course, that’s the issue with the original, not the film version per se.)

    There is also a lot of crass propaganda–Apollo 13, Red Dawn, etc.–but, luckily, none of them make the list. Otherwise, these would certainly appeal to those with right-leaning political views (and no taste–but that’s being subjective, right?). But that actually points to the conflict that prevents the identification that you seek–those films made specifically to, for lack of better catchphrase, raise the American spirits, are largely going to suck cinematically–as is usually the case with “Ain’t [American] life grand?!” films, while thought-provoking, character-study masterpieces are not going to go heavy on patriotism (maybe in Sweden, but not here). Soviet Social Realism (or, as some American critics have redubbed it, Socialist Realism) does not have that problem (not to be confused with Tom Wolfe’s social realism). Nor do the French and the Germans (La Grand Illusion works quite well on both fronts despite being a war film; I’m not going to go there with Germany). The Brits might have had better luck if all their best films weren’t such deliberate downers.

    I will resist the temptation to say something about Umbrellas of Cherbourg for fear of blabbing something intemperate. Let’s just say that I consider myself lucky not to be French and having to make that decision. Besides, what makes the French proud of being French is very different from what makes Americans to be proud of being Americans. Still, I’ll stick with my claim that La Grand Illusion is a very pride-inducing film for the French.

  3. lousylinguist Says:

    Excellent question, with interesting nuances. I’m a film buff, so I’ll give it a shot. Here are some movies from certain countries and why I think folks from those countries would watch them and be proud of their culture:

    — Inherit The Wind (celebrates America’s fight for free speech and the role of science in education + great acting by legendary American actors)
    — Rocky (highlights America’s “Horatio Alger” myth; brilliant musical score, dark imagery)
    — Inglorious Basterds (Emphasizes America’s role in WW2 + Jewish empowerment + brilliant dialogue)
    — Kelly’s Heroes (odd choice at first, but a great movie and highlights the American misfits’ “I got mine” attitude; I love this movie and love being an American when I watch it; honorable mention to Three Kings for similar reasons).
    — Team America World Police (celebrates America’s cherished tradition of satire and free speech; proves most American’s do not agree with Empire-building, one of the best musical movies ever, utterly American).

    Norway (they’ve been producing a lot of great movies lately)
    — Rare Exports (emphasizes the Santa legend’s Norwegian origin + gritty tough-as-nails Norwegian cultural myth)
    — Elling (exposes the touching depth of emotion for a culture often stereotyped as cold).
    — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (establishes Norway’s ability to compete for the blockbuster trilogy dollars + produces two international stars + delves into Norwegian history)

    — Gabbeh – blends age old story-telling, colorful imagery, and allegory).
    — A Separation (worldwide admiration + important storytelling)

    — The Road Home (celebrates Chinese rural culture without infantalizing it + exposes pain of cultural revolution without dwelling on it).
    — Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (ground-breaking special effects, larger-than-life myth, great Chinese stars)

    — The Lion in Winter (three of UK’s greatest actors; one of the best screenplays ever; English history)
    — Shaun of the Dead (pokes fun at British stereotypes while employing clearly UK humour).
    — Every Monty Python Movie ever (nuff said)
    — Doctor Who (not a movie per se, but utterly British and the Brits are VERY proud of this franchise).

    Just a few choices to think on.

    • Alon Says:

      @lousylinguist: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo happens to be Swedish, and Rare Exports Finnish. Kind of sheds doubt on your claim to being a film buff.

  4. Ellen K. Says:

    Well, my answer was none. I was relieved to read on and discover this answer fit well with the content of the post.

  5. John Baker Says:

    It’s a Wonderful Life may qualify. To a significant extent, it’s a paean to American life and to the larger returns we see on our sacrifices.

  6. Frank Butterfield Says:

    Just found this fascinating blog and wanted to leave my two cents on this topic…

    As a very liberal and gay Texan, there are two movies that make me fall in love with Texas each time I see them (is that the same as being proud?):

    — Giant — I’m partial to this movie because my mom and grandmother were living in Marfa when it was being filmed there. My grandmother once chastised Rock Hudson for being outside on the street with his shirt off! But I do love the way Rock’s character finally comes to terms with his racism in the end. The final scene in the movie makes me love Texas every time I see it.

    — True Stories — This movie by David Byrne pokes fun in a very loving way at all sorts of aspects of mid-80s Texas culture. Among many other outstanding performances, there is an absolutely astonishing scene where Spalding Gray uses condiments and assorted vegetables at a dinner table to explain what is happening as the economy is becoming increasingly more technology-oriented. This was 25 years ago and it’s still totally relevant. Also — the church scene about the Trilateral Commission, et al., could have been lifted directly from many people I knew growing up in Lubbock.

    As for movies that make me proud to be an American, how about Stage Door Canteen and/or Screen Door Canteen? It’s unfortunate to have to go back that far in time, but I really love the very authentic scenes of different celebs of the day doing their part to help out the boys. There is very little of either that is against anything. They are very much for supporting the ones who were fighting the good fight.

    And Umbrellas of Cherbourg makes me very happy that a place called France even exists.

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