The video team here at HitFix constantly impresses me with not only the volume of work that they produce, but also the quality. We've gotten very lucky with the people we've hired, and they make any of our collaborations both easy and fun.
Last week, they approached me about a new ongoing feature that they wanted to do, and tomorrow, we're going to shoot the first episode of “Ask Drew,” which is exactly what it sounds like. I am constantly asked questions via e-mail and Twitter and in our comments section, and I feel like I never fully answer all of them, something that makes me feel terrible. I am grateful for each and every reader of the work we do here at HitFix, and if I can answer something, I try to.
To that end, we are going to try something a little different here starting tomorrow. I want you to send me your questions about anything [Email: Video@HitFix.com]. Any topic. But they're not going to come directly to me. Instead, you'll send them to the video team. They'll pull the best questions, and then ask them to me as we shoot the video, with no prep and no warning. It's going to be unfiltered and off-the-cuff, and hopefully it'll give you a chance to let us know what you're most interested in.
You're not even going to be able to leave a comment in this article, because I don't want to have any idea what you'll want to discuss. While you're thinking about your questions, I want to share a rather lengthy response I wrote to someone over the weekend.
It started with an e-mail from a longtime reader, one of those guys I'll chat with occasionally on Twitter, where he asked me to send him a short list.
When someone asks me for something like that, I can't just fire off a cookie-cutter response. I especially can't do it if they ask me something that requires some interpretation. Here's a bit of what he said to me:
“I wonder if you would like to help me in choosing a dozen movies (or tv-series for that matter) in which you think one can actually take a very formative look at your society and its culture while also having fun… WOULD YOU?! *please say yes*”
So let me see if I follow. You want 10 – 15 films that I think sum up America, that give you an overall picture of who and what we are as a collective, both past and present?
That is nearly impossible, of course. He included some titles he'd already considered like “Jackie Brown,” “Dallas Buyer's Club,” “Boogie Nights,” “Election,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas,” “Charlie Wilson's War,” “The Ides Of March,” “The Apostle,” “Moneyball,” “Gangs Of New York,” and “True Grit.” Those are all fairly recent films, as he pointed out, and he wondered if there were titles I'd add or suggest instead or simply highlight as particular viewpoints on our national character that are worthwhile.
Indeed there are.
There are Big Films about America and small films about America, and some of the films that I think are most revealing aren't even directly about our country. There are films I would recommend as a record of a time and a place, films that illuminate chapters of our history that fill me with both pride and shame. I am well aware that being born American in 1970 was a sort of winning cosmic lottery card. I grew up white and middle-class, and by the standards of most of the planet, that means I was unspeakably pampered and protected. My viewpoint on America is no doubt influenced heavily by the films that I watched growing up, by my experiences as an American here and abroad, and by my personal take on our history and our inability to fully come to terms with it.
“My Man Godfrey” (1936)
This film says more about the way class worked in America after the Great Depression than any documentary I've ever seen. It is a whip smart comedy about one man who has lived in both high and low society and who takes great pleasure from demolishing one family's bubble of privilege from the inside. William Powell is at his most awesome here, and considering how awesome he was even when he wasn't trying, that's saying something. “Trading Places,” another smart film about American class separation, owes a huge debt to “My Man Godfrey,” in which a rich family hires a “fallen man” to be their family's butler to prove a point. There is real anger in the way Powell shreds everyone in the family, and it must have been catharsis when people got to laugh at this from just enough of a safe distance.
“Invasion Of The Body Snatchers”
Pick a version. Any version. Every version. The point is that no matter when you make this movie, it still works. One of the things that makes us who we are is a distinct fear that someone is going to try to force us to be something else. There is nothing America hates worse than when someone tells America to stop acting so damn American. It is an indictment of our tendency to solve things as a mob, something which we see now with Twitter making that a brand new version of an age-old impulse. Having our identity stolen is literally one of our main technological age nightmares at this point, so it's little wonder the metaphor bends and bends and bends, generation after generation, and never breaks. The greatest modern film about America's deep-seated paranoia is Oliver Stone's “JFK,” where the point is never that Stone wants you to believe his solution to the JFK murder. Instead, you're supposed to realize that Americans never really believe that they get the answers, and that is just who we are. When our President is killed, we need to believe that there is some massive concentrated hand of darkness at work so that we feel safe from the truly random nature of the universe.
“The Right Stuff” (1983)
I maintain that this is not a conventional film about a historical event. Much like “The Thin Red Line” is a poem about war and nature and man”s warlike nature, “The Right Stuff” is a poem about dreams and determination and heroism and celebrity and ego and optimism. The cast is note perfect, from the largest role to the smallest, and Philip Kaufman”s adaptation of the sprawling non-fiction novel by Thomas Wolfe is ambitious and bold and surprisingly funny. He finds the humanity in everyone, and he turns what could be a dry slice of history into a personal story. He shows us the faces of these men who challenged the rules of the world as we understood them, these foolhardy daredevils who pushed the envelope just to see if it pushed back.
The texture of the film is wonderful, with DP Caleb Deschanel and Kaufman using documentary footage, newsreel material, and the actors themselves to create a persuasive permanent record, a snapshot of the very best that we have to offer one another. The men that “The Right Stuff” celebrates are the kinds of men who do not come often, and who can never be celebrated enough. They are pioneers in every sense of the word, and they embody that part of the American Spirit that we are all dared to rise to, playing at a level that almost none of us can ever hope to reach. It”s an intimidating portrait, even though it lets us inside and shows us the frailties that keep the men real. Kaufman knows that the thing that makes them truly great is that they aren”t superheroes. They aren”t any different than any of us, except for the fact that they did it. They didn”t talk about doing something great. They didn”t make plans and wait for an opportunity. They pointed at the horizon, said, “I”m going there,” and went. They broke the sound barrier, broke free of the orbit of this fragile little globe, and changed us all from citizens of the world to citizens of the universe.
“The General” (1926)
Buster Keaton taps into the truth and still comes away with his optimism intact in “The General,” a film in which nothing will stop Buster. Set against the backdrop of the Civil War, this film offers up some spectacular war footage that is beautifully mounted, still some of the best on record. Keaton moves through this moment in history, an unstoppable force for good. He is the very best of what we all hope we can be, pure energy, directed with compassion and heart, able to accomplish anything. The fact that he never breaks a sweat while doing it only makes him more of an ideal. I hope that when I close my eyes at night and make my plans and dream my dreams, I am able to retain the purity of focus that Keaton has in this film. It”s a standard I think we all secretly hope for.
Oh… and in the film? Buster's fighting for the South. And he's the hero.
“Gates Of Heaven” (1978)
“Vernon, Florida” (1981)
Errol Morris has had a long and amazing career, but for my money, the two best movies he made about America are “Vernon, Florida” and “Gates Of Heaven.” His strongest suit as a filmmaker has always been his interviewing style, and while he does not appear in his work, the things he gets people to do and say in his films, and the ways in which he manages to get them to reveal themselves, is nothing short of magical. “Gates Of Heaven” is about a pet cemetery in California and all the people who run it and have pets buried there. It is amazing in the way it outlines just how good Americans are at building these insulated worlds for themselves in which their particular interest is the single most important thing. It is a great character piece, and I suspect that no one in the movie could ever watch the movie because it seems to do such an amazing job at laying everyone in it completely emotionally bare. And “Vernon, Florida” is like a celebration of small-town eccentricity and the heady lure of obsession. Watch the amazing interview with a minister who builds an entire Sunday sermon around the way the word “Therefore” is used in the Bible. It is as drilled-down-crazy as any of the narrators in “Room 237.”
“Secret Honor” (1984)
“Waco: The Rules Of Engagement” (1997)
I don't trust our government. I don't trust anyone who actively wants to play a role in government. I don't trust our media. And I'm not even sure I trust my own eyes. Such is life in the shadow of Richard Nixon. My first political memories involve Nixon on TV, Nixon resigning, Nixon disgraced, and it was not lost on me that our President was revealed to be a shabby con man in a cheap suit. I think good people sneak through sometimes. I think it is an accident, running counter to the system, and for the most part, I view the Military Industrial Complex as a faceless bully who does whatever it wants and then bald-faced lies about it. Philip Baker Hall may be my favorite movie Nixon, and I think Robert Altman's stripped-down low-fi record of the stage production is harrowing precisely because of how close we get to Hall. You can smell the fear and the contempt pouring off of him. I think “Waco” does a tremendous job of showing just how pointless it is to make rules to restrict what our government and its various armed branches if they are going to do what they want anyway. It is also a riveting and extended “F**K YOU” to the media who went along with the official story no matter what logic, evidence, and their own eyes told them.
“The Searchers” (1956)
“How The West Was Won” (1962)
You cannot discuss American films without discussing Westerns. They are our samurai films, our past written as myth, and our tribute to the pioneer spirit that carved our nation out of a massive landscape. They are also our way of confronting the tools that built the great American expansion like genocide, slavery, and violence. Watching these three films will give you three different ways that filmmakers have grappled with all of the contradictory ingredients that make up the Old West. “The Searchers” dirtied up John Wayne in a way that no other film ever managed, “How The West Was Won” pulls audiences into a trip through decades of Western history punctuated with a ton of movies stars, and “Unforgiven” takes one of the great cowboy icons, Clint Eastwood, and shows him grappling with the ghosts of all of his brutal gunslinging life. You could probably find a hundred other Westerns with equally interesting takes on the West, but these three give you a real sense of just how wide-open the range really was.
“Out Of The Past” (1947)
Film noir is just as much an American-defined genre as the Western, but they communicate very different takes on society as a whole. There is no optimism or reverence in film noir. Instead, noir rubs our noses in our own weakness and vices, and it punishes us for it. Jacques Tourneur's “Out Of The Past” tells the story of a private detective who is hired by a criminal to track down a woman who stole $40,000 from him. You can probably guess that things do not go well, but that's just the beginning of how things play out. Robert Mitchum is at his very best in this film, a sad-eyed cynic who knows how terrible everyone is simply by glancing at them. The film is built around a central flashback, and the story is about how we can never escape who we are, and how our appetites are the things destroying us.
And as a special added bonus, Jane Greer is all that is woman. Wow.
“The Man Who Fell To Earth” (1976)
“The Mosquito Coast” (1986)
America is a disease, and, to be more specific, it is a terminal one. Nicolas Roeg's amazing brain-bender starring David Bowie as an alien sent to bring water back to his planet. Trouble is, as soon as he gets his first hit of America, he is hooked, and before he knows it, he's mainlining America from the moment he wakes up to the moment he numbs himself to sleep, ruining vein after vein as he chases that first rush to no avail. In “The Mosquito Coast,” Harrison Ford plays Allie Fox, a man who tries to go cold turkey on America, moving his family into the Central American jungle to try to save their souls. He never shakes it all, though, and he ends up becoming the worst version of himself because of the cancer that's deep down in him by that point.
“City Of Hope” (1991)
Cities are an exercise in agreed-upon insanity. We were never meant to live piled up on top of each other for miles and miles and miles in every direction. And even if we were, would that justify the insanity that it requires to keep a city running? John Sayles has made a number of amazing films over the years, and I'm not even sure I'd say this is his best one. But it is the movie that “Bonfire Of The Vanities” wanted to be, an x-ray of the forces that keep a gigantic city functioning, no matter how shabby and precarious it is. And that ending? The only logical response to living in a major American city.
Paddy Cheyefsky's greatest screenplay is one of those rare examples of a black comedy that gets more and more true every year, while Mike Judge's brash and vulgar barely-released comedy is a vision of the future that makes me laugh simply to keep from crying about how very, very right he is.
“Taxi Driver” (1976)
One is who we wish we are. One who is who we're afraid we are. The scary thing is, which one is which is not going to be the same for every American.
I could go on and on. I could list off films like “Born On The Fourth Of July,” “Melvin & Howard,” “Stranger Than Paradise,” “Sullivan's Travels,” “Days Of Heaven,” “Breaking Away,” “One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest,” “Menace II Society,” “Lost In America,” “Dead Man,” the almost-identically-titled “In America,” “Glory,” and dozens of others. But for now, hopefully some of these titles are not ones you'd already thought of, and hopefully you get some ideas from this list.
Thanks for asking, man. Greatly appreciated.
And for the rest of you, please send all your questions and let's kick off “Ask Drew” in style.