A lot of movies hold the distinction of capturing the American spirit. The holiday classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story” are well rooted with imagery of enough Americana that would make Norman Rockwell swell with pride. How about other genres though? Throughout every decade we get tastes of Americana in movies. The cinema uses it to hold a mirror to society and in turn sometimes to see where we’ve come from and ask where we are going.
As a whole, many movies with Americana in them seem to have common elements. Take the protagonist for example. Most are either one of two archetypes or a combination of both. They are underdogs who come from humble beginnings. A perfect example of this is Rocky Balboa of the “Rocky” series. He is a loser with a heart of gold that just wants to prove that he can go the distance. The other archetype is the antihero. This is currently becoming more and more popular as audiences seem to enjoy more morally flawed heroes. The example of this could be Inspector Harry Callahan of the “Dirty Harry” series. Here is a character that believes in justice so much, that he is violent and sometimes murderous with suspects in order to avenge the victims.
Many movies that are considered classics of Americana have colorful secondary characters. Many of the Cohen Brother films have memorable side characters, like Jesus from “The Big Lebowski,” or from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” the character Big Dan. “Back to the Future” and even the Romero movies “Night of the Living Dead,” “Dawn of the Dead,” and “Day of the Dead” have side characters that are all colorful and often times just as quotable as the main cast. It shows a lot of care when you can watch one of these films and the clever writing has let it unfold into an entire ensemble of life as we know it (or knew it as the case may be).
With the exception of a few movies, the typical movie defined as your Americana film has adversaries that are really well defined. In “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” it’s the Nazis. In “The Good the Bad and The Ugly,” it’s Angel Eyes. Even if the adversary is more of a concept, it tends to at least attempt to be well defined. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was a search for the American dream despite the roadblocks that would slow down the strung-out narrator on his path. In “Scarface” one could argue that his true adversary is himself and since it’s a story of the rise and fall of a criminal immigrant, it truly encapsulated his greed, fear, and wanton destruction to the very end.
Americana has to be like a time capsule for a time period. It has to capture what America feels like. “Rocky” does that for a lot of people. Ask anyone in Philadelphia why so many folks have their pictures taken running up the same stairs Rocky Balboa does in his movies. “The Gangs of New York” felt like a bit of Americana in that worked in a big way. This movie was released after September 11th. A movie incorporating the draft riots during the Civil War seemed topical. It was a colorful setting to a dark time in history and it worked very well.
Many movies under the classification of Americana films attempt to challenge the status quo. They want people to think about something in a new way or to see a new side to American life. The movies of Clint Eastwood do this often. One of the prime examples is “Gran Torino.” In it the Hmong people befriend a man with many racist tendencies in his neighborhood. He comes to understand and eventually love and respect them. On the other side we have movies like “Harold and Maude,” a love story about a young man and a much older woman. With that, the movie’s theme is all about embracing life and love during an age when things were much more cynical and self-centered.
Americana films also reflect our own fears and views on the past and present. “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” has a filthy urbanoia to it that makes it quite terrifying. “Super 8” recently came out and is a big call out to the days of Spielberg style movies. It’s about personal loss and the fear of loss as well in a very fun setting. Even movies like “The Godfather” come from our view of how the mafia worked. You can thank Mario Puzo’s book every time you watch a mafia movie and it starts with a poor family of immigrants that start a criminal empire.
While I mentioned “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” another movie in the same genre has changed the way we see horror today. “Halloween” took the slasher, Michael Myers, into the suburbs and had him attacking a babysitter and her friends. Many who grew up in neighborhoods similar to Haddonfield, Illinois could see similarities to their own homes and that made it all the more terrifying. They saw a faceless killer stalking a person and that person screaming for help at a neighbors’ door only to get no answer. It was a nightmare that could be a reality in their hometown. The third movie of the series “Halloween 3:Season of the Witch” did something completely different and yet incorporated fear of corporate greed, and mass media consumption into the narrative.
As I mentioned earlier there is a lot of Americana in the movies “A Christmas Story” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “A Christmas Story” is filmed in a way that it comes off almost timeless. It could be told from the perspective of any little boy anxiously awaiting Christmas. It is like a Norman Rockwell painting and yet the humor is still fairly timeless for the most part. “It’s a Wonderful Life” does something somewhat different. Through its description of George Bailey’s life we come to know his WHOLE town of Bedford Falls. The town itself becomes a character and that makes it more of a loss when, in the nightmarish reality, it’s turned into Potterville. It becomes a story about a man and his town and that is almost the spirit of Americana.
Much like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Back to the Future” does this trick as well on a much grander scale because they are doing it through various time periods and realities. It also had three movies to help build an entire universe around it. The town Hill Valley and its residence become very well known by the end of the third film. It’s one of the few movies that goes into various genres (romance, sci-fi, comedy, teen movie and at the end even western) and still retain that home town charm.
Arguably, the truly American style movie belongs to the western. While the spaghetti western may have perfected the genre, the western seems to capture a lot of what was important during an age of rough and tumble individualism. Despite their individualism, classics like “The Magnificent Seven” and even “A Fistful of Dollars” owe much gratitude to Japanese cinema. At the time, works of directors such as Akira Kurosawa were making films that would inspire filmmakers for generations to come.
On a darker level, the films of John Waters take a look into a dark and deviant spin on Americana. He has the ability to come up with characters that are average people with uncommon circumstances that make them unique, dark, and disturbing. His characters intrigue audiences, while making them uncomfortable at the same time. “Polyester,” “A Dirty Shame,” and “Serial Mom” are all great examples of his vision of Americana. All involve characters that you would not expect to be anything extraordinary, and make them into something dynamic through unforeseen circumstances.
The Kevin Smith movies in his New Jersey trilogy are excellent examples of slices of 1990 American life. “Clerks” is the story of the underachieving working man. “Mallrats” became the ode to the slacker with no direction and no idea of where to go. Finally “Chasing Amy” was the tale of woe of love and coming to terms with your own boundaries in relationships. Kevin Smith has since grown as a filmmaker, making some good movies and some stinkers. There was a time when, as an indie-filmmaker, he made a mark on the films of Americana.
For the most part I am barely scratching the surface. As long as Americans make movies they will add their special touches to them to give them the feeling of home. Some give us an almost jingoistic look at America like “Red Dawn.” Others spoof the news at the time with satire such as, “Team America: World Police.” You can honestly find out a lot more about the state of the country by looking at older satire in movies. Movies like “Doctor Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” is the best example. Here is a movie about the total devastation of the world in a nuclear war because of a lunatic General. It’s played as a comedy of all things.
Still, as long as we have free speech and a marketplace of ideas we can be proud to know that there is such a plethora of Americana to choose from at the multiplex. Art will always mirror society. As a country we have had a lot of great movies that show us who we are and where we come from and in many ways what we value as a nation. Many futuristic movies seem to be post-apocalyptic films or ones where society dystopian and on the brink of collapse. I wonder if folks truly believe that is where we are headed or if people are only entertained by the concepts as outlandish flights of fancy.