God and the movies love this big, dumb place
Everybody’s favorite quote from Alexis de Tocqueville is a fake.
The author of Democracy in America actually did not say, “America is great because America is good,” in his peerless 1835 tome. You can see why these apocryphal words have been deployed so often in blissful ignorance by pompous dinner speakers from the penny-ante to the presidential. Who wouldn’t like to believe that America is great because America is good? Damn it, compared with everywhere else on earth it sure seems to be true. But Tocqueville was far too sophisticated a thinker to offer a bromide where more qualified praise laden with ambiguity would do. The truth is, America isn’t great because America is good. America is great because it’s America and screw you if you think otherwise.
America isn’t great because America is good. America is great because it’s America and screw you if you think otherwise.
America is America, both good and bad. It’s a land that combined a radically brilliant political system where there had been none before with a continental mass so rich and expansive that just tapping its wealth was enough to produce the closest thing to paradise on earth the world had ever seen. When American popular culture takes up the subject of America, warts and all, it shows us a messy, crazy, friendly, lumbering blunderbuss of a place. America is the Jolly Green Giant. It’s cheerful, it’s rich, and it’s big.
A divided populace may put a socialist President in the White House in 2020. The result? Disaster. More here…
Case in point: the movie is literally called Giant. When I was a kid, I loved this gargantuan picture from director George Stevens, all three hours and 21 minutes of it. Movie geek that I was, one day in a boring math class I drew a poster I thought would sell the film perfectly (even though it had been released 20 years earlier). For Giant’s protagonist, Bick Benedict, I came up with this tagline: “He was as big and dumb as America herself.”
Giant is the great liberal epic of the American cinema. And by “liberal,” I mean it is suffused with mid-20th-century, all-we-need-to-do-is-have-love-between-the-races-and-everything-will-be-fine optimism. Its radio ads declared it a movie “about big feelings and big things!” It’s a story about Texas wealth over the generations and how that wealth moved from cattle to oil and from being possessed by men on horses to men who build shopping centers and airports. No matter what is happening, Rock Hudson’s Bick Benedict is clueless.
He doesn’t understand that the beautiful wife he’s brought from the Northeast (played by Elizabeth Taylor) isn’t just going to sit around and look pretty. He doesn’t understand that the black goop found by his ranch hand (James Dean, in his final role) is going to supplant his livestock and that his land will soon have derricks all over it rather than grazing cattle. And he doesn’t understand why his gentle son isn’t going to go into the family business and prefers being a doctor. He sure doesn’t understand his son marrying someone from Mexico who can’t get her hair done in the same salon as her mother-in-law. And when his daughter-in-law is denied service at a roadhouse, he really doesn’t understand that the racist who owns the place is going to beat him to a pulp when he challenges the guy to a fist fight.
Bick understands nothing. He’s basically a clueless shmuck. But he’s rich and is more or less happy and means well and is married to Elizabeth Taylor and everything is going to be just fine. He truly is as big and dumb as America herself. You want a movie about American greatness, you see Giant, a colossal illustration of Otto von Bismarck’s point that “God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.”
Years later a movie would come along that really would have fit my poster tagline, only with Tom Hanks’ image at its center. Forrest Gump is about a mentally impaired man who wanders through the second half of the 20th century in holy innocence and is rewarded with fame and wealth untold, which he neither sought nor understands. As he rises in his blessed ignorance, his whip-smart but emotionally damaged beloved is betrayed by the 1960s counterculture, beaten by her hippie boyfriend, gets AIDS, and then dies.
I once saw its director, Robert Zemeckis, say he didn’t actually understand why the movie had been such a phenomenon and that it would take decades to grasp why the country took Forrest Gump to its bosom. Well, the decades have passed, and I have the answer: It’s because Forrest Gump is as big and dumb – and lovable – as America herself. The movie came out in 1994, after we had won the Cold War and were living at the end of history. Forrest Gump was a victory lap. It was the cinematic illustration of the Tocqueville quote. America was great because America was good, even if it was more than a little stupid.
We have more Nobel-prize winners than any other country, but we also have Florida Man committing head-slappingly stupid crimes.
Sure, we have more Nobel-prize winners than any other country, but we also have Florida Man committing head-slappingly stupid crimes (“Florida man kidnaps scientist to make his dog immortal”). Yes, many other countries have Nobel prize winners, but what other country has Florida Man? Florida Man is a redneck crook idiot who deserves his Rube Goldberg punishments, and while many leftists believe America is less Forrest Gump and more Florida Man – especially the leftists who hate guns – they’re wrong.
For as Otter, the head of the Deltas, tells the Student Senate in National Lampoon’s Animal House in the most stirringly patriotic speech ever delivered in an American film:
The issue here is not whether we broke a few rules or took a few liberties with our female party guests – we did. But you can’t hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few, sick perverted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn’t we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you… Isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do what you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America!
We learn at the end of Animal House that Otter will become a Beverly Hills gynecologist –i.e., rich and happy – while the most ursine of the Deltas, John “Bluto” Blutarsky, will be elected to the U.S. Senate… and from there, who knows? As for the sticklers and sticks-in-the-mud who want to kill the party spirit at Faber College? One goes from the Nixon White House right to prison (where he is, shall we say, manhandled), while the other is killed by his own troops in Vietnam.
Interpose yourself between us and our happiness and buddy, you’re gonna get fragged. We love our fun.
Our founding document promises us the right to the pursuit of happiness. Interpose yourself between us and our happiness and buddy, you’re gonna get fragged. We love our fun.
The greatest of American myths – because it has more than its share of truth to it – is that the U.S. is a country that elevates the individual above the collective. This is true even when the individual doesn’t deserve it, like Florida Man. Here, the governed choose those who govern them, and nobody is truly the boss of anyone else (except financially). Therefore, the movies that both reflect and represent American greatness are the ones that show an American staking out his or her claim as an individual.
It’s a greatness that can be found in Tess, the Staten Island secretary of the comedy Working Girl, who poses as a Wall Street analyst and devises a brilliant idea for a trade. She is exposed and humiliated, but when her patrician boss steals credit for her brilliant merger-and-acquisition idea, Tess turns the tables and gets her boss’ “bony ass” fired.
It can be found in Vito Corleone, the quiet and deep one, who begins crossing to the other side of the law when he finds no other way to support his family. Soon he realizes he will be under the thumb of the self-infatuated and ruthless Don Fanucci, the Black Hand. During a festival in which Fanucci walks the streets like a king, Vito follows him from the rooftops until he descends and does some fragging. Vito is a criminal and a murderer, but he’s also a great American success story, just as The Godfather, Part II is the second-greatest American movie (No. 1 being, of course, The Godfather itself).
This greatness can also be found in Destry, the sheriff of the greatest of all comedy Westerns, Destry Rides Again. Played by the very exemplar of American greatness himself, James Stewart, Destry is a lawman who arrives in the hilariously named town of Bottleneck and disgusts all present by refusing to wear a gun and speaking in civil and gentle tones. Oh, he knows how to use a gun – it turns out he is a spectacular marksman – but he chooses not to… until he has no choice.
If the Texas of Giant is big and dumb, the Bottleneck of Destry Rides Again is small and quick. It is the very definition of a melting pot—everybody has come there from somewhere else, and quite recently, and the Polish and Yiddish and Irish and Scottish accents fly fast and furious. The thickest belongs to Marlene Dietrich, a chanteuse called Frenchy even though she is, of course, as German as sauerkraut. The folk of Bottleneck may hang out at a place called The Last Chance Saloon, but this place isn’t anybody’s last chance.
It’s the main chance. It’s the great chance. It’s America.