Thursday, May 14, 2009

Buy the Book: Fifty Key American Films

While I collect my thoughts about the best of last year's performances by leading actresses, while I try to figure out why I was so stultified and put off by the Star Trek movie that everone seems to love, and while I subliminally urge you at all hours of the day to get thee hence toward Julia (reviewed here) and Sin Nombre, by far the grandest achievements currently showing on American movie screens, I shall less subliminally urge you to purchase a copy of Fifty Key American Films, a new book from Routledge Press that gathers together short essays by a variety of scholars on an unusual mélange of movies that proved pivotal, in one way or another, to film history in the U.S.A. The twist for these essays was that contributors were asked to sketch some of the broad strokes about what makes these films important and compelling, but also suggest some new directions that scholarship and thought about these movies might pursue.

Do I have anything personally invested in you buying and enjoying this book? How funny you should ask! I wrote the meditations on Dorothy Arzner's The Wild Party, Pixar's The Incredibles, and Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, the last two emerging as the chronologically latest films collected in the volume. Other contributors chime in about The Birth of a Nation, Sunrise, Freaks, Modern Times, Cat People, The Searchers, The Misfits, West Side Story, Night of the Living Dead, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Taxi Driver, Blade Runner, Aliens, Daughters of the Dust, Short Cuts, Dead Man, and Se7en. For the full list of titles, you'll have to buy the book—which is easier to do in Britain, since is happy to sell an actual book rather than the Kindle-only edition available on If you want to buy the book stateside, even though I am all about, you might also consider a direct purchase from the publisher.

Here are three short samples from my pieces, if they serve to drum up any extra interest:

On The Wild Party:
"The Wild Party was a sizeable hit for Arzner and for actress Clara Bow, a major star making her first appearance in a sound film. [Judith] Mayne reminds us how much the Paramount bosses must have trusted Arzner to enlist her as the shepherd for Bow’s transition into talking pictures. Yet what a frisky and peculiar picture The Wild Party is, showcasing Bow and protecting Paramount's investment without straining for "event" status. Compare The Wild Party to Sam Taylor's Coquette (1929), the bathetic and maladroit vehicle that ushered Mary Pickford into the sound era during the same year, and The Wild Party's spry energy and democratic embrace of multiple characters and subplots is all the more obvious. The film begins not with a bang or a sigh but with a giggle: Arzner's coterie of excitable co-eds titter off-screen while we behold a "Winston '30" pennant. The film immediately proposes school pride as a recognized value while simultaneously challenging such pride with generous doses of pent-up energy and jovial iconoclasm. Making excuses for her studious roommate and best friend Helen, [Bow's] Stella exclaims, "Someone’s gotta work around here—we don’t!" The Wild Party in fact keeps us guessing whether anyone else at Winston works, and whether they should, and at what."

On The Incredibles:
"Fans and critics alike invariably cited Bob's perturbed pronouncement that "they keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity." The archvillain, Syndrome, raises the stakes of this lament, weaving the recurrent Pixar anxiety about dubious commodities into his full-frontal assault on the gifted and talented: "When I'm old and I've had my fun, I'll sell my inventions so that everyone can have powers! Everyone can be super! And when everyone's 'super,' no one is!".... The trajectory of Dash, who intuits this same contradiction earlier in the film, challenges a pure-exceptionalist reading of The Incredibles. His family simultaneously cheers, micromanages, and confuses him on his way to the silver medal, and in his last line in the movie, indeed the last line spoken by any Incredible, he admits to his beaming Dad and Mom, "I didn't know what the heck you wanted me to do!" At this instant, the Underminer, the last in the movie's series of villains, crashes through the asphalt of the stadium parking lot. As the Parrs apply their superhero masks, the movie lays their images over the Underminer's stentorian threats: "I hereby declare war on peace and happiness! Soon all will tremble before me!" Does the family’s collective recommitment, then, to their extraordinary abilities entail its own kind of "war on peace and happiness," the very sort of pandemonium which prompted the outlawing of superheroes in the prologue? Is the superfamily as threatening to social order as the outcast or resurgent antagonist? In that sense, do the Underminer's endowments of evil genius and wit ("I am always beneath you, but nothing is beneath me!") invite comparison with the Incredibles' gifts for public crusading? The dizzying layers of nuance embedded across the film—right through these final, paradoxical tropes of violent eruption and reclaimed identity, ironized here as masked identity—trouble the stakes of exceptional self-realization, even as the movie appears to promote that principle."

On Brokeback Mountain:
"Brokeback Mountain is something old and something new, a threnody for outlawed ideals and felled amour, for Western grandeur and sublime loneliness, so romantic (indeed, Romantic) in its images and so elemental in its montage that D.W. Griffith could, with one momentous exception, have made it. That the eulogized lovers of this American pastoral are two male sheep-herders, Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), patently distinguishes Brokeback Mountain as a contemporary artifact. Then again, after more than a century of American cinema, the idea of homosexuality as an impossible love, an impossible life, particularly beneath the wide-brimmed hats and cerulean skies of the mythologized West, feels trans-historically familiar, a pure form of what the popular cinema has never embraced. By giving rich, spectacular life to such a romance, while maintaining the rule of a tragic trajectory—even today, few closets brim with as many skeletons as the celluloid closet does—Brokeback Mountain rehearses Platonic visions of majestic nature, of the aloof rancher and solitary rider, of the passion least likely to survive the political and thematic mandates of American movies, even as the film rejects the platonic in its small-p connotations of sexless disavowal. The film tells an old story (star-crossed lovers) in a new idiom ("gay cowboys"), or else a new story (men in loving bliss with men) in an old idiom (tombs and tears).
      "Thus this film, with its penchant for aphorism and its unexpected preoccupation with hetero marriage and bridal desires, is also something borrowed and something blue. Borrowed, yes, from the pages of Annie Proulx’s short story, softening her robust evocations of poverty and her hardscrabble spondees ("sleep-clogged," "broke-dick," "clothes-pole," "dick-clipped") with shimmering landscapes and gliding edits, but also from the long lines of antique weepies and queer doomsdays that prepare American film audiences for this otherwise sui generis drama. "Blue" not just in its resplendent vistas and sun-dappled lakes—"boneless blue" in Proulx’s words, another Big Eden in the lingo of modern gay film—but also, increasingly, in its emotional temperature and acoustic moods."

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Anonymous Lev Lewis said...

Does this mean your warming to 'Brokeback'? If I recall you weren't its biggest fan back in '05.

4:15 PM, May 14, 2009  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Rock out!

By the way, I forgot to tell you that one of my students used your Velvet Goldmine essay while writing about VG and Dorian Gray this semester and was so excited about it. Rock star! :)

4:58 PM, May 14, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Lev: Not particularly. It's probably clearer from the full piece (though one always accentuates the positive in a project like this), but to the extent BBM glosses up the social context of poverty and hard work, to the extent that it's not much different from a lot of narrative charges toward queer death, and to the extent it borrows a whole lot of shot-patterns and story points from all those old-old-school weepies I mention here, I still think it's a sharply limited achievement. And I feel like the construction of Romantic sublimity is magnificent (and the subject of a great student thesis I once advised) but doesn't fully compensate for Lee's inability or refusal to really dig inside a personally delimited point of view, either his own (it's awfully Arthouse-Glossy) or those of the characters (who suggest a much rougher, more impacted film than this one often turns out to be).

But I still like a lot of it just fine, and I happily concede its importance.

5:01 PM, May 14, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Dr. S: I know, because she wrote me! I still owe her a response on her follow-up message, but her project sounded really great.

5:02 PM, May 14, 2009  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

I really love your passage about Brokeback Mountain. It captures everything I really love about it.

I can also understand your issues with it... although I think its lack of self-assurance is a virtue considering the subject matter. Maybe that's a romantic notion, but a Romantic film it is.

I'll check the book out.

5:54 PM, May 14, 2009  
Blogger Guy Lodge said...

It's on my list. I am forever indebted to Routledge -- if it wasn't for their film book division, I think my Masters dissertation would have turned to jelly. They're great. As are you. "Two great tastes" and all that.

3:31 AM, May 15, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Cal: Thanks so much; I have decided to be excited rather than worried that my own description of what I like but firmly don't love about BBM has turned out to resonate with so many people's sense of what they firmly do love about it!

@Guy: Routledge is indeed a transatlantic treasure trove. From my undergraduate years onward, my education would be unthinkable without it, too.

12:49 PM, May 17, 2009  
Blogger Dr. S said...

I visited your book today in the BFI Southbank / National Film Theatre bookstore! It is so lovely!

5:50 PM, May 24, 2009  

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