100 Exceptional American Movies in 10 Genres: Period, 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) Gangs of New York (2002), directed by Martin Scorsese

Ironically, the flaws that keep Gangs of New York from being a great movie are the same pieces which make it an awfully strong period drama. For the entire run of the picture, there’s at least one eye and usually two on the growing population of Irish immigrants in New York. Sometimes they are mostly anonymous men who get off of one boat to America and are put on the next one so they can go fight in Tennessee. Sometimes they light candles to put into the windows to signify that their riot against the military draft will continue unabated into another day. Sometimes it focuses on Monk McGinn, who becomes sheriff after an electoral “Roman triumph” on the votes of those Irish. And sometimes it gets into the collaborationist Irishmen, not least among them Amsterdam Vallon, who are forced to confront how they caved to the powerful “native,” Bill Cutting. The movie doesn’t always know what to do with all of those threads, which resemble a mostly-finished braid by the end, but it throws enough out there that we see something of the Civil War that is usually kept to a couple of paragraphs in long books. Scorsese does not shy away from the fact that New York was a Democrat town during the war, for example, where Lincoln was widely disliked. The plight of Irish immigrants is frequently limited to “potato famine” in the grand narrative, and thus in the minds of many the story of Irish immigrants more or less ends in the ’50s as if they didn’t matter during the Civil War. Indeed, a movie which uses the Draft Riots as its climactic historical moment is staking out some turf that I’m not sure any other Civil War movie has ever landed on; heck, even a Civil War movie which takes the action away from the battlefields and sends it on to a seriously realistic New York City instead is an absolute rarity.

In the Leonardo DiCaprio retrospectives, Amsterdam will stand out more as his change of pace or as his first Scorsese collaboration. In other words, the actual acting is going to be ignored, and that’s not unjust. But Amsterdam is most interesting when he is placed alongside McGloin, Mulraney, and Johnny Sirocco. As a group, each of them held some loyalty to Priest Vallon in the 1840s as the Priest fought Bill the Butcher for dominance in the city; each to a man kowtows to Bill in the 1860s, since the Priest died back in 1846 under Bill’s knife. There’s an uncomfortable truth here about what marginalized or oppressed people are forced to do to eke out their livings when their original plans go six feet under. Of the Dead Rabbits of ’46, only McGloin manages to cling to any sort of self-respect fifteen years on. Of course, he was a hired killer for the Priest, and his motto is “If you’re not strong, then you’d better be smart.” Yet he draws a line between canniness and caving in. “For all his faults,” he tells Amsterdam, “your father was a man who loved his people.” It’s not a quality that anyone else in the movie seems to have; perhaps it’s a luxury that men could have during the Polk administration which can’t be replicated during Lincoln’s time. Amsterdam and Bill are united in the responsibility they feel towards their constituents. McGloin and Happy Jack and especially Johnny are in it for themselves, unable to win the comfort or safety they crave without crawling up to somebody else’s boots.

4) Schindler’s List (1993), directed by Steven Spielberg

Regardless of how uneasy any movie which leans on the Holocaust makes me—there are some things that I’m just really nervous about turning into narrative mainstream film—this is a brilliant period movie. There’s obvious care taken to ensure that the costumes and settings are recreated faithfully. The movie wasn’t allowed to film at Auschwitz-Birkenau, thank God, and so they built their own Auschwitz. (Being able to write sentences like that is, incidentally, why Schindler’s List bothers me.) On the other hand, the historicity of the Schindlerjuden is the heart of this movie’s effectiveness. Of course Oskar Schindler and Amon Göth existed, but it’s another thing entirely to recognize the Poldak Pfefferbergs and Danka Dresners of history and make them characters in this sweeping drama. Many of the events of the movie are verifiable—the real-life Poldak Pfefferberg, who browbeat Thomas Keneally into writing Schindler’s Ark in the early 1980s, bears as much responsibility for that as anyone—and those that are harder to know as factual history wear the patina of truth regardless. It is believable that the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto might have been scored by a German soldier who came across a piano; it is believable that Göth would fall for Helen Hirsch in the only way an evil man can understand. The black and white cinematography means something different to audiences who, say, came of age watching Spielberg movies, but to Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski it can credibly replicate newsreel footage. In the 1940s, audiences conflated color movies with fantasy (Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz being prime examples); in their own backhanded way the director and the cinematographer recollect the realism that audiences read into black and white.

One of the running trends in my judgment of period pieces is how they keep an eye on the present in which they were made; in other words, it’s not enough merely to depict some historical time period without recognizing how they change us now. Schindler’s List does not make many accusations—that’s for The Sorrow and the Pity or Shoah to do, frankly, not the guy whose other movie in 1993 was about a dinosaur theme park—but at the end of the movie Schindler has a moment. Itzhak Stern and Rabbi Lewartow give Schindler a golden ring with “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire” etched upon it. Schindler is moved not because of the gift itself but by the sight of how few people he managed to take from the jaws of hell. Everything is measured not in reichmarks but in lives. His fancy car, Oskar reckons, is ten people. The fine Nazi pin he takes from his lapel is gold: that’s two people. “I threw away so much money,” he says. He’s right, too. One of the elements of the film that I don’t think most people recall is how long it takes for Oskar Schindler to genuinely develop a conscience: it’s half an hour longer than you remember. Schindler’s List has many harrowing moments, but this is the one that I think of as the most unflinching. It is willing to accept that Schindler has done something profoundly good while many others shied away while at the same time realizing that he could have done more. Of course the finger is pointing at everyone who knew, might have known, could have known: you could have done so much more. It’s one of the finest moments in Spielberg’s entire oeuvre.

3) Zodiac (2007), directed by David Fincher

I wrote in my original review of Zodiac that it rarely calls attention to itself as a period movie outside of Robert Downey, Jr. looking like he came from a costume party, the wardrobe they toss on Chloe Sevigny, and of course Mark Ruffalo’s Toschi sideburns. I stand by that general idea because I think Fincher and company hit on this front. One of the mistakes that a period movie can make is to be a little too excited by when it takes place, overcompensating to ensure that everybody knows just what decade or era is being represented. (If one were in an uncharitable mood, it might be called “The Forrest Gump Effect.”) Zodiac isn’t jumping for joy that it has a late ’60s and ’70s setting to manage. It just has those things, and everything falls into place accordingly. I think the costumes are tremendously important here; everything is just slightly too colorful or too big, but nothing is egregious. Sevigny wears some fascinating sweaters and keeps those big glasses on; all the way through the movie, Elias Koteas can be seen in dress shirts in colors which no longer exist. As important as anything else is that brief montage where the Transamerica Pyramid goes up. Fincher, in that rapid little construction montage, makes San Francisco’s most distinctive skyscraper into the change in San Francisco itself. Before 1972, San Francisco is where the hippies came and then turned, bit by bit, into yuppies. It’s diverse and lively, sure, but Zodiac seems to remember that Dan White was elected to office in that city as well. After 1972, San Francisco is the gayest city in North America and the home of the Peoples Temple. The Zodiac killer bridges both of those time periods. He was there before and is like a ghost to haunt the after, even after the threat of him dissipates into the fog over San Francisco Bay.

The CGI in this movie is a relic of that mid-2000s overuse, when it was obvious that the movie was using CGI and thus it was largely ineffective but directors didn’t have many other economical ways to work around it. One thinks of the amber lighting in the scene where the Zodiac killer offs a taxi driver, and then again when Toschi and Anderson come on the scene to collect evidence. It’s a little more than real, which I find a little off-putting but still effective. Serial killers are carny freaks in the present-day, fascinating enough to pay to gawk at but not something any of us really want to touch. Let them escape, though, or at least elude capture, and they take on the mythical quality of Jack the Ripper. Zodiac purports to come up with the identity of the man himself, even if he’s less august and far-reaching a murderer than he’d like to pretend. (As much as I don’t like to put directors in their movies as a general rule, there’s certainly a lot of David Fincher in Robert Graysmith.) Arthur Leigh Allen takes the rap in this movie, but aside from the fact that Robert can look him in the eye in that hardware store and know that he’s the Zodiac killer, he never comes to trial. In his ubiquity and in the way that the killer is played by different actors, he gains mystery. More than that: for a mostly unseen and unknown presence, he seems to have an effect on an entire city in the way that regular folks in medieval Europe ascribed certain actions to God. No one knows for certain when he’ll pop up and strike you down, if it will be in the middle of a tryst or when you’re at work or when you’re simply minding your own business. He is always on television even if you never see his face; his voice is on the radio even when it’s not really his voice at all; he is inside the Graysmiths’ house or the Toschis’ bedroom because the people who live there can’t get him out of their heads.

2) The Master (2012), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

The great double-vision which our country looked through after World War II is endlessly fascinating to me. There’s a glorious optimism in the United States, a baby boom, a GI bill, the only seat at the atomic table. They just won the greatest war in human history: what can possibly stop them? And there’s also a dark undertone: hundreds of thousands dead, an economy slowing down, the knowledge of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, PTSD, the looming threat of nuclear annihilation. The Master looks through both of these lenses and lives with the disorientation, huddling down deep inside this mood which permeates a movie which is frequently rather like concrete. Freddie Quell is a veteran whose mind was conspicuously absent from the war itself, which leads the brass to assume that he’s suffering from combat fatigue or some other psychosomatic illness; treatment is wasted on Freddie. There’s nothing there for them to fix. He is merely erratic, and wartime only served to make him more so. Whether or not he would be likely to harass a customer in a department store, pick a fight with him, and then lose before the war is unknowable, but he seems perfectly willing to delve into his own violence on the slimmest cause. He doesn’t appear to be a tremendously useful soldier, but all the same he is the fodder that victories are made from; he is the kind of man who can be thrown at the shore in order to buy time or establish a beachhead.

On the other hand, Lancaster Dodd represents the optimism of the time. Everything can be, will be revealed as more and more people join the Cause. The fact that it’s little more than a personality cult with even less evidence to support its veracity than exists to support Christianity or Islam or Hinduism is the neglected underbelly of the optimism, like an appendix begging to burst inside of it. Lancaster knows in his heart that he’s no prophet—surely he must—but that doesn’t stop him from thinking about the Cause as a distinctive and important quest for truth. In much the same way this similar “Damn the torpedoes, but on the other hand not so fast” state of mind must have underlined post-World War II thinking for many people. How could a thinking person go back to church and worship God after the wholesale slaughter of his children? How could people have faith in their institutions after watching them allow Hitler and his followers open a new chapter in inhumanity? How could people wake up and go to work with the dead lying all around them? Yet they did. For whatever doubts Lancaster has, which are only obliquely noted in Hoffman’s manner, he still gets out of bed each morning and is the leader of the Cause.

1) American Graffiti (1973), directed by George Lucas

It’s Indian summer, 1962. The teenagers are crawling around this town in Northern California in their late ’50s cars, the cherry cokes are cold, and the night isn’t over until past dawn. In a month and a half, all of them will watch the world as they know it tiptoe to the brink of disaster, but for now everyone seems blasé. Curt’s ex-girlfriend teases him about wanting to shake President Kennedy’s hand, but other than that there isn’t a single reference to any of the political turmoil which is about to envelop the world. There’s only Wolfman Jack on the radio; there’s only the band singing “Louie Louie,” sweating through their red blazers; there’s only the threat of an interloper who might outrace the local tough. Dazed and Confused, its most obvious descendant, cares a little more about the people than the moment. As befits a Lucas movie, American Graffiti cares a little more about the moment than the people. Some characters, like Milner and Carol are sketched out with generous moments; even Toad, who is so thoroughly humiliated he’s practically English by dawn, receives that humanity. Curt is less interesting than his setting, which is filled with Pharaohs and creepy teachers and, of course, the Wolfman himself. Steve and Laurie are the straight characters, and they’re as interesting as you’d expect. But all of them fill a role in the early ’60s world the movie inhabits, regardless of how interesting they are. We can see the nerd and the motorhead, the cheerleader and the popular boy, and amazingly they all seem to coexist harmoniously. There’s nastiness all around on the Strip Serengeti, but there are little pockets of warmth here and there, safe places to shack up for a few moments. The effect is that no one seems particularly stressed out. Steve and Laurie break up a couple of times. Terry has a bad time buying booze, loses his friend’s car, and gets beat up pretty thoroughly. Curt is another day in town away from a blood ritual that one make him one of the Pharoahs. (I honestly could watch Richard Dreyfuss run around with a bunch of hoods for another two hours. Everything about them is hysterical.) But they all manage to get up in the morning to wish Curt well as he flies somewhere on the East Coast for university.

One of the best parts of the movie, and what is as important to the movie’s period bona fides as a hundred classic cars, is that epilogue at the end. It reports that in 1964, a drunk driver killed John Milner. In 1965, Terry the Toad was reported MIA at An Loc. Steve is an insurance agent. Curt is a writer living in Canada, which is code, of course, for “draft dodger.” It’s a shroud placed over a movie which is, at its best, tremendously funny, and it refuses to keep the movie in that candy-coated past. Milner has a couple years left on the strip, being the guy who’s already a little too old for that role, but he won’t have to get a real job and mistily recall the days when he had the hottest deuce coupe running. There’s a scene where the Toad is walking with Debbie; she’s talking to him about a “Goat Killer” while they’re making their way out of the woods. One can’t help but wonder if he will disappear in much the same way, perhaps in the same kind of blue darkness that Steve surprises him in. The thing about kids like these is that they have to grow up at some point. Lucas knows, too, that those kids will have to die in ways that signify the last hours of a time that even ten years later had disappeared without a trace. Nothing could be more fitting than the cruiser dying on his streets, or the wimp unable to survive the war.

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