100 Exceptional American Movies in 10 Genres: Sprawling, 5-1

You can read up on the basis for this series here, and also find links to other posts in the series.

Movies I’ve reviewed on this site have a link in the title which you can follow to read my full review.

5) Fantasia (1940), directed by (deep breath) Samuel Armstrong, James Algar, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, Ford Beebe, T. Hee, Norman Ferguson, and Wilfred Jackson.

Fantasia is like the moon landing of American movie animation. In this analogy, Snow White is like putting Al Shepard or John Glenn into space, but almost immediately following that up with an event beyond popular imagination. I can’t imagine how Fantasia played in 1940, just three years after Snow White premiered, but it must have been sensational. It takes uncommon ambition to go from “let’s tell a fairy tale in under an hour and a half” to “let’s make a two hour feature in several parts using classical music as our inspiration.” Unsurprisingly, not all of the movie works. The adaptation of The Rite of Spring, more or less stolen from Stravinsky and then badly performed, is a drag. Not all of the Nutcracker segments are effective, although some are of course very beautiful. “Meet the Soundtrack” feels like a throwaway amidst the rest of the picture. But those mediocre elements are countered with some of the most remarkable animated images ever put on the big screen. The Pastoral Symphony, once the racist parts were purged out of it, is this dainty, vibrant, and captivating sequence. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is exciting, and maybe the most lasting impression of Mickey Mouse that many moviegoers have. Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria scared the dickens out of me when I was little, but I’ve come to appreciate its powerful point/counterpoint structure.

Although eight pieces of music are highlighted in seven different sequences, it never feels like any one piece of music or any one scene gets short shrift from the animators. Fantasia works hard to give us a reason to stay interested in each of the different sections of the movie by appealing to different parts of our brain. The beginning of the movie is by far the most experimental portion. Bach’s Tocchata and Fugue in D Minor leads off, followed closely by some adaptations from the Nutcracker Suite, and while there are some characters to follow in the latter, they are nameless and outside any sort of serious narrative. Mushrooms dance. Flowers dance. Fairies float and the seasons change. The first two sections, while not necessarily engrossing, are timelessly beautiful. Even though the post-Soundtrack portion of the movie is unfailingly plot-heavy, if somewhat odd (see The Dance of the Hours in particular), the style is never too distracting from the music itself. The music is always primary in those sequences, even when there’s a drunk fat man on his equally drunk donkey or a great Slavic demon calling the dead to him on a dark night.

4) Giant (1956), directed by George Stevens.

It’s in the name, I guess, but it takes a heck of a lot to live up to it. What’s giant about Giant is the land, Texas itself. And the many Benedicts across three generations, who have a giant place in the local economy and society alike. And, of course, the egos are pretty big too. Bick Benedict and Jett Rink, both tremendously rich men at the end of the movie (though only the former was rich the whole time) are locked in a long rivalry which has no clear genesis in the story. Neither man seems particularly friendly or enjoyable even when Bick was merely a cattle baron and Jett was merely a hired hand. The fight between the two of them appears to be much older than either man; it’s the war between landholder and laborer. Jett might take a message from Oklahoma! as his guide (“I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else/But I’ll be damned if I ain’t just as good”), where Bick is annoyed by his inability to own Jett the same way he owns Reata or his many beeves. Certainly Bick’s inability to control Leslie is troublesome to him. In Bick’s eyes, Leslie is not much different than the expensive stallion he bought at the beginning of the movie; both of them are beautiful, both of them are irresistible, and both of them are basically untameable. As it must be for any capitalist with the wealth Bick has and the history his family has made, it is galling at best and infuriating at worst to see his plans go awry because of some inferior. Jett Rink, laconic and imperturbable, is the epitome of that inferior who gets the better of Bick Benedict, a fact which fuels Bick’s hair-trigger temper. Even the smallest thing, such as his four-year-old not enjoying the horseback ride that Bick wants him badly to enjoy, hurls him into a great anger.

If Jett’s ambition and Bick’s temper are both giant forces, then so too is Leslie’s sensibility a mighty one. Jett crumbles due to his alcoholism and pounding loneliness, and Bick loses a few feet off the top of his own mountain as men like him go extinct. But Leslie is perpetually strong, never given to self-pity or the foolishness of rich people. She recognizes that times change and sees that she maintains her moral authority as powerfully in the ’40s as she did in the ’20s. After years spent trying to improve the lot of the Hispanic workers at Reata, she welcomes her son’s Hispanic wife with open arms. She tries to protect her daughters from stultifying men and wasted ones alike. (She can do little to keep her youngest daughter from marrying a man with her father’s cultural values, but is more successful at prying another away from Jett Rink once he becomes both successful and embittered.) And in perfect ’50s style, she does not take part in the fistfight that her husband gets into at a diner in order to defend a Hispanic family, but on the couch at home she tells Bick that she’s never been more proud of the Benedicts than she was at that moment.

3) Heaven’s Gate (1980), directed by Michael Cimino.

More than a decade before everyone lost their mind about Clint Eastwood playing an old-timer in Unforgiven (and more than a decade after Sam Peckinpah made the geezers of The Wild Bunch immemorial), Michael Cimino directed a pretty fair interpretation of the “aging lawman faces a modernizing world” movie himself. Averill is not the average marshal in turn of the century Wyoming. He’s an Easterner, a Harvard graduate, born the heir to some unknown hereditary fortune. He’s abdicated most of the power that comes with that wealth; men like Canton and Irvine, the latter an old college friend, have consolidated that power to its greatest effect. But like those men, he cannot stop himself growing older. As Wyoming begins to bustle, as a town like Casper seems to have the energy of a San Francisco or Denver on its main streets, Averill seems withdrawn from its excitement. In a moment of vulnerable egoism, he suggests to his lover, Ella, that the whole world might be slowing down in order to accommodate his aging. It isn’t. He finds out quite the opposite in a two-day battle which expends some incredible number of bullets and the lives of several plain folks. But he seems able, in his graybeard middle age, to recognize all sides. He understands the malicious intent of moneyed men and their capacity to execute that hatred; he also understands the good time to be had by average citizens at a roller rink, the value of a woman’s embrace, the right that people ought to have to be farmers or merchants without fearing for their lives. In the words of Joni Mitchell, he’s seen life from both sides now. After giving it a try with the poor and middle-class, with the climbers, the end of the movie makes it clear that he does not have the will to fight his class forever. He’s last seen on a yacht outside Newport, not so far from his old stomping grounds at Harvard.

Heaven’s Gate shows us that for the wealthy, it’s not such a journey to go from New England to Wyoming and then back again. For the rest, it seems like destinations are outside of their social class as surely as security is. Huge crowds traipse the dust between mountains, walking to who knows where in order to reach their plot. One of Averill’s friends, a station master, rides out from Casper to try to give a warning, but of course the distance is too great for him to ride in a single day. He wakes up the next morning with a river and a mountain behind him and a loaded gun in front of him. The site of battles in this movie, from Champion’s last stand outside his cabin to the engagement between capitalists and townspeople, are framed by their natural settings. Both are totally distant from anything else, separate from town or the next building as far as the eye can see. Champion’s little cabin, wallpapered with newspaper in an attempt to make Ella look at it like it’s a proper domicile instead of a holding pen for some smelly good-time Charlies, is in a clearing surrounded by good green grass and further out by coniferous trees. The battle takes place in a little sandy pit, almost, with only the odd clump of trees functioning as a rallying point for the rich. And when the rich are rescued by the military, an exhausted, defeated Averill walks off to the only bedrock of stability that we can see: a mountain, far off in the distance, which had impassively watched the fight.

2) Gettysburg (1993), directed by Ronald F. Maxwell.

Gettysburg is one of my ten favorite movies of all time, one of my ten most-watched movies, and I think in the twenty or so years I’ve been watching this movie, I watched it straight through once. I was recovering from an illness and popped the movie in, not guessing I would actually finish it. But four-plus hours later, I did. Gettysburg is the kind of movie which should have been a miniseries, and had it been a two-night event, it would have been a remembered as a chronological and thematic flip side of Roots. Instead, it became a standard cinematic feature saved by the intercession of Ted Turner, and bolstered by the presence of literal thousands of Civil War re-enactors. The movie does not often leave the realistic perspective of its characters; only a few shots of Pickett’s Charge from above contradict the basically realistic look that generals have at their mobilized troops, or that scouts have of their enemy’s movements. Pickett looks through binoculars to see how his men are repulsed at the stone wall just in front of that little clump of trees, each one just a splash of color far in the distance. Harrison, using a telescope from his relatively secluded spot on a hillside, spies Union troops faster than he has ever known them to move before. We’ll get the view of Union soldiers shooting at charging Confederates from one side and then another. Hand-to-hand combat places us right in the middle of the fray. Maxwell is no auteur – in fact, given how uniformly bad Gods and Generals is, it’s a miracle Gettysburg is a legitimately good movie – but he seems to understand how to let us get into the majority of the action across three days of “bloody conflict” and three nights of repose, regrets, and recriminations.

The length of the movie, in the end, is one of its great strengths. Buford’s melancholy prediction about the way the battle will pan out – not a bad prediction, given the proclivities of Northern commanders in the East for the first two years of the war – is paired with his long wait for Reynolds to come and relieve his cavalry brigade of its outsize responsibilities. Likewise, it can drive us to a fever pitch at Little Round Top, beginning with Lee’s plan to take the “little rocky hill” and seeing through Longstreet and Hood’s deep misgivings about the assault; it then moves seamlessly into Chamberlain’s defense of the extreme flank of the Union army, a battle that is marked by wave after wave of Confederate troops throwing themselves at a thin line of Yanks. Only a few scenes in the movie feel like obvious places to cut an epic with this kind of scope; Armistead’s monologue about the Virginians under his command to Fremantle, the English observer, is obsequiously Lost Cause. (Fremantle seems to bring out the worst of that in the movie; he has a conversation with Longstreet the day before in which the Southerner expresses the opinion that the South should have “freed the slaves, then fired on Fort Sumter,” as if that was an option.) Sometimes Pickett’s Charge itself, with its sweeping panoramas and loving detail to seemingly each step of the march, feels alternately interminable and Riefenstahlish.

Out of the scenes which might be cut in the hands of a director trying to get the movie down to, oh, the 200 minutes mark is a scene where Lee rides out into a gathering of his men. He is mobbed by adoring soldiers. They put their hats on their bayonets and scream at the top of their lungs. There are only a few coherent words (“Lee! Lee! Lee!” being among them), and Lee himself doesn’t say anything. He reaches his gloved hand out into the throng, and dozens of hands reach out desperately to clench Lee’s. The scene ends with the Confederate flag waving gallantly in the breeze. Gettysburg is a rarity among really epic movies, which despite their length rarely have time to bake in opportunities for their viewers to feel two ways about something. When they do as Gone with the Wind does, one finds the problem is the movie’s outdated and ugly politics. When they do as Lawrence of Arabia does, it’s the mark of a masterpiece. Gettysburg is admittedly much closer to Gone with the Wind than Lawrence, but I think that scene of Lee closed in upon by a mass of men he’s about to send to their deaths is essential to the picture. It’s chilling, scary even, which are words that I don’t know I would use about any other part of the movie. If the intent is to push the Lost Cause a little further forward, it certainly must do that for some viewers. Yet it is possible to read that scene, as I do, as pride before a fall. Despite Longstreet’s counsel, Lee has treated his army as if it were invincible and its commander infallible. Nor is it possible to ignore in the aftermath of Pickett’s charge the sheer number of Confederate flags littering the ground.

1) Life of Pi (2012), directed by Ang Lee.

At a shade over two hours, Life of Pi is far shorter than the average epic. It keys in, in its second half, on just three characters: Pi, Richard Parker, and Yann Martel, and Martel is barely relevant to the story of Pi’s seven and a half months on the Pacific. In other words, “sprawling” doesn’t seem like an obvious descriptor for one of the most personal stories put on film in the past ten years, but Life of Pi exemplifies many of the best qualities of this type of movie. Aside from finding its anchor in a single person, Pi also travels an incredible distance. The movie’s most arresting moments happen on the sea, but it’s worth remembering that at least a quarter of the film takes place in Montreal or Pondicherry, on solid ground and in botanical gardens, in cozy apartments and at festivals of light. The ocean is changing and difficult, far too independent to ever appear the same, but the film covers too much ground otherwise for us to become bored with a single location. Pi’s upbringing in India is also essential to the story. Not only do we mourn for his parents and his brother – as he does when he screams their names as the ship goes down in a tremendous storm, as he does when he sees his mother’s face lit large in the depths of the ocean – but we appreciate his pluralistic religious approach that gives him leave to curse God from half-a-dozen perspectives. in the same vein we see the story of a boy and a tiger as tragically similar, synonymous to the point of identical, to the story of a boy totally alone on the ocean.

These films with sweeping eyes and distant looks must be able to pin us to a soul if they are to succeed. Longstreet and Chamberlain do in Gettysburg as Leslie Benedict does in Giant and as Pi does in Life of Pi. Eclipsed by and large by his CGI tiger co-star, Suraj Sharma gives one of the great first performances in the history of movies. Pi’s father tells his son that animals don’t have souls, that people inflect their own emotions into the eyes of animals and go from there. Anyone on screen quite literally by himself for this amount of time must have the ability to make his emotions the feelings of the audience, and Sharma does so flawlessly. He is resourceful and inventive, capable of moments of humor as well as crushing pathos. His cry of grief for Richard Parker at the end of the film, who has left without saying goodbye, is so heartrending. He may go from India to Mexico on little more than a lifeboat, swept across the ocean by currents and the hand of God; in short, his journey is one of the most imaginative ever put on the big screen. Still the most captivating element of Life of Pi is Pi himself, who we discover as surely as he sees the great wonders of the Pacific.

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