Thursday, June 22, 2006

Comments on the AFI's most inspirational films

Here is the list of 100 films judged to be the most inspirational by the AFI. Here are some random comments about films on the list that I've seen.

4. "Rocky": This is a movie that is not only inspirational, but inspirational and set in Philadelphia with a hero who is a Philadelphian as well. In Phily, this movie is celebrated and loved to this day as the iconic Philly movie.

Being from South Jersey means that you're trapped with Phily as your cultural capital, but "Rocky" still has a certain resonance. South Jersey is just a little further out in the Philadelphia boondocks than Rocky's neighborhood. But there is no iconic South Jersey movie that I can remember. In Hollywood, South Jersey doesn't exist. In New York, South Jersey is basically known for things like:

  • Security camera footage of a suburban mom spanking her kids in a shopping mall parking lot that gets played ad nauseum on the Today show.

  • Donald Trump and his casinos in Atlantic City.

  • The relatively discreet men's rooms in the rest stops on the low-numbered end of the Jersey turnpike.
6. "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial": The last time I watched this was ages and ages ago when it was in its original theater release. My thoughts about the movie when it was over (and remember that I'm only about 9 at the time) was something like "That was so amazing that I'm actually crying in a movie theater. Wait a second. I'm a boy, so I shouldn't be crying at the ends of movies. That movie tricked me!" Welcome to Mr. Spielberg's world.

10. "Saving Private Ryan": I'm going to got out on a limb here and state that any movie that is about beating the Nazis counts as inspirational. Of course, in order to defeat Nazi Germany, American liberals were forced to make a cynical alliance with a nation that they viewed as thuggish, ruthless, imperialistic, and harboring expansive territorial ambitions for the post-war world. But, luckily for them, the British Empire gradually collapsed in the post-war years.

19. "The Right Stuff": A great movie because it had Chuck Yeager as a character. If your idea of a cool fighter pilot is "Maverick" from Top Gun, then you've got problems.

26. "The Wizard of Oz": It blew my mind when I found out that the movie is actually a giant metaphor for the problems plaguing 19th century rural America. The Wicked Witch of the East, for example, represents homelessness, which is why you can only kill her by dropping a house on top of her.

29. "Ghandhi": This is an absolutely stunning, wonderful movie. Long before "The Phantom Menace", this movie made the word "Viceroy" synonymous with the phrase "ridiculous bad guy". You've really got to admire Ghandi for taking on His Royal Majesty's Imperial Viceroy of India, the 5th Earl of Dumbbutt, and coming out on top.

30. "Lawrence of Arabia": This is a brilliant movie, although Andrew Sullivan probably views it as having been "sanitized for your protection". It also brings to mind the first mysterious omission from the list, namely, "Raiders of the Lost Ark".

32. "Casablanca": One of the best movies ever made. Nowadays, "Casablanca" has a reputation as being a "chick movie", which is a little wierd since it has Nazis, assorted scum and wierdos, and Peter Lorre in it.

37. "Forrest Gump": I remember reading an article that argued that this movie was a critique of the "great man" theory of history. The idea is that if history is really just a product of vast, impersonal forces producing a scientifically predictable evolution of trends, then, eventually, even someone like Forrest Gump could end up making great, historical achievements just by virtue of being alive. It's no accident that the fictional movie target for guerilla action in the last reel of "Cecil B. Demented" is called "Forrest Gump 2: Gump Again".

My candidate for an inspirational movie to replace "Forrest Gump" on the list is another glaring omission: "Henry V", starring Laurence Olivier (or, if you prefer, starring Kenneth Branaugh). In hindsight, this should be a no-brainer; "Henry V" is the Shakespearean play that English-speaking nations give to their troops before shipping them into battle. How much more inspirational than that can you get?

41. "The Sound of Music": This movie probably bored the hell out of me when I was kid, assuming that I got stuck watching it at some point. But watching it at an older age made me realize that it is a much better movie than I originally gave it credt for being. And the last reel is about beating the Nazis, which is another inspirational plus.

Here's an interesting historical irony. When America's Central European foe was a multinational empire (i.e. Austria in 1916), one of American liberalism's central principles of war was the "self-determination of peoples". On the other hand, when America's Central European foe was the dictator of a monoethnic splinter state engaged in aggrandizement via "ethnic cleansing" (i.e. Serbia in 1999), American liberals were willing to fight on behalf of "preserving multinational republics".

43. "Gone with the Wind": This is the second movie on the list that I've seen (to be honest, only in part in this case) that probably shouldn't have been included. The burning of Atlanta in the Civil War doesn't seem all that inspirational to me. Scarlet O'Hara does resolve that "as God as my witness, I will never go hungry again", but doesn't she screw it up at the end?

As a replacement for "Gone with the Wind", I offer the next film on my startling omissions list: "Jurassic Park".

44. "Spartacus": Another movie that probably shouldn't have made the list. I guess it got included at #44 for a nominal anti-slavery message, but that seems weak given that all of the escaped slaves end up getting crucifed at the end.

Ok, so half the cast of "Jurassic Park" gets eaten at the end. "Jurassic Park" at least has some freaking dinosaurs in it, man.

47. "2001: A Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick" was an amazing genius. It just boggles the mind that people can lionize someone like Quentin Tarantino as some kind of brilliant filmmaker when Stanley Kubrick's movies can still be watched. Even "Eyes Wide Shut" was a better movie than "Pulp Fiction". Beam me up, Scotty.

The first time I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey was on a Halloween night as a kid when my mom took everyone else out for trick-or-treating and I stayed home to watch the movie on tv with my dad. I remember thinking that this was a really serious (in the sense of being about profound things that matter instead of boring stuff like the nightly news) grown-up movie, although I think I took a nap somewheres between the monolith on the moon and "What are you doing, Dave?"


48. "The African Queen": Another great movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. And a nice candidate for a modern-day remake destined to send the brilliant careers of a certain husband and wife acting team currently cavorting around Africa down to the bottom of Lake Tanganyika. Yes, Brad Pitt, this movie will be your "Gigli". Muhahahahahaha.

52. "Dead Poets Society": This is another movie that I think probably shouldn't have been included, although my memory is a bit fuzzy on this one. Sure, every class of students trapped in the demoralizing world of the Herr Professoren wants to break free with a "cool" professor at some point. It's also not unheard of for the teaching staff to strike out at "the System" but lining up college students against it. Think of the myth of the agent V as freedom fighter that pops up early on in the movie "V for Vendetta". Is V interested in human freedom and civil rights as such, or is V posing as being interested in those things as a means of "sticking it to the Man", so to speak?

The next candidate on the egregious omission list is the controversial "The Passion of the Christ". But again, any movie about the life of Christ that doesn't involve sex is, by definition, inspirational.

56. "Ben Hur": There's only one man who can out-act Charlton Heston and that's Shatner. William Shatner.

58. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind": What is it with Spielberg and space aliens?

59. "Dances With Wolves": Another movie that I last saw ages ago and didn't really "get into". Back in the early 90's, I kindof bought the idea that Kevin Costner's character, after arriving at a fort in the middle of nowhere that's been burnt to the ground by Indians, would just continue normal fort operations as if nothing had happened. That's just him portraying a loyal foot soldier in Pharoah's army, right? And that army officer out in Missouri somewheres who wets himself was just driven harmlessly deranged by the isolation, right? I mean, nobody would just pack up and move to the middle of the unexplored wilderness just to see what happens when nobody else is around to watch, right?

62. "Braveheart": In the 90s, Mel Gibson's movie characters are usually exceptionally clever, but at some point they end up getting tortured by being too clever. William Wallace in Braveheart is a continuation of this trend: he wins battles and thwarts his foes with brilliant tactics and insight, but, hey, don't get captured by the English, dude. This movie is also notorious for displaying the non-existent English feudal right of prima nocte (It's the Middle fricking Ages people! A villlage full of dirt-poor medieval serfs with 15 children each aren't going to give a hoot.) This movie is also notorious for the comment about "Englishmen being good with their tongues", which in hindsight must have been a reference to the English soldiers being braggarts before losing battles to the Scots.

63. "Rain Man": Raymond. Rain main. Get it? There's also the horrible thing that happens in the casino, as if good things in movies ever happen to good people who go to casinos.

64. "The Day the Earth Stood Still": Another vaguely remembered movie, aside from "Klaatu, verada nicto". It's funny, but did you ever notice that they don't make sci-fi movies about advanced aliens who land on earth and shut down the world to keep George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden from nuking each other (as opposed to, say, keeping George W. Bush from nuking himself and blaming it on Osama Bin Laden)?

74. "Gunga Din": Should this really be on the list? Wasn't this one of those movies that came close to sparking riots in India?

79. "The Ten Commandments": I've seen most of this. If I remember correctly, ever in the Biblical account it's assumed that Pharoah's soldiers could never be so stupid as to venture down into the parting in the Red Sea. Even a total fool back in 1000 B.C. (or whenever) could see that that parting would close in on any Egyptian who followed the Israelites down into it. Again, assuming I remember correctly, the Bible has God driving the Egyptians mad with rage so they charge down into the parting after the Israelites and get destroyed.

And again, if "The Ten Commandments" can make the list, "The Passion of the Christ" should have made the list also.

98. "The Karate Kid": Kids today think they have it tough. Well, let me tell you something. In my day, you could flatten someone with a karate kick to the head and everyone would cheer. And we wouldn't wear helmets or boxing gloves or any other protective gear either.

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