Here then are 11 double features, some unlikely combinations perhaps, that begin to encompass, for me, the vast wonder and folly of life in America over the past 239 years, the movies that make me grateful for the freedoms of artists who aren’t afraid (occasionally, anyway) to see America for what it is and also what it isn’t.
Ace in the Hole (1951; Billy Wilder) and Used Cars (1980; Robert Zemeckis)
Two masterpieces on the dissection of American hucksterism. Wilder’s brutal drama blisters upon first touch, an examination of the extremes (which if anything have become even more extreme) of our culture of rubbernecking and appropriation of tragedy as journalistic entertainment. Zemeckis and cowriter Bob Gale perhaps don’t cut as deep as Wilder does, but their vision of the gleefully pervasive nature of corruption in small-time American business and politics (which is, of course, a reflection of the big time) is just as cynical and difficult to refute. The added bonus comes in the release of all those toxins in the form of the bitterest of belly laughs.
Lone Star (1996; John Sayles) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974; Tobe Hooper)
On the surface it wouldn’t seem these two pictures would have much in common beyond their setting somewhere near the Texas-Mexico border. Sayles spins a tale of mystery and the long-buried secrets of a small town in Texas which along the way refashions itself into a twisty meditation on race relations and, perhaps more importantly, familial boundaries that proves to be an even testier, more pertinent treatise in our current political climate than it was when the movie was released. Similarly, Hooper’s deceptively straightforward masterpiece cloaks secrets of its own. This guided tour through the halls of a ramshackle slaughterhouse of horrors connects up uncomfortable notions of the function of family as both a predatory force and an insulated defense against the apparent arrogance of sanity which deepen the sociopolitical influences of the times that shaped its making and continue to resonate within our national shadows. (Feel free to shuffle the cards and program The Texas Chainsaw Massacre along with The Godfather, or perhaps even Fall from Grace, for another rich reflection on the American family.)
Nashville (1975; Robert Altman) and 1941 (1978; Steven Spielberg)
The damnedest things I ever saw. Altman’s movie is a snapshot mosaic of a country in crisis that recognizes just how often joyous release and crippling despair go hand in hand. (The freeway accident that turns into a tailgate party is one of the movie’s great metaphors.) And Spielberg’s great, graceful mastodon (directed from another Zemeckis/Gale script) glories in how pop culture patriotism is often a disguise for every form of socially acceptable and unacceptable insanity. The two movies, in their form and attack, might seem quite dissimilar, but I think they’re united by a musically informed vision of America as a land where only the slimmest lines of red, white and blue separate exuberance from hysteria, and paranoia from indifference.
Night of the Living Dead (1968; George A. Romero) and No Country for Old Men (2007; Joel and Ethan Coen)
The sleeping beast in residence at the dark heart of the national soul wakes up and takes a lumbering, unstoppable stroll through the countryside. Romero’s brutal, vital nightmare vision of social upheaval and undead onslaught has been widely (and tediously) imitated—Romero himself would never live up to it—and it had ties to just about every crisis of the tumultuous decade from which it came. Nearly 40 years later, the Coens translated Cormac McCarthy’s searing vision of an America of lost dreams and despairing landscapes, accessing imagery derived from movies as diverse as 2001 and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and in the process setting loose a killer who would no more be denied than one of Romero’s flesh eaters. The countries glimpsed through the savagery of these two movies certainly aren’t for old men, and they bode sleepless nights for the young as well.