100 American Films to Save: Awe (1966-1977)

You can find the introduction and index for this series here.

BatmanLeslie H. Martinson1966Narrative feature
“You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby”Philip Morris Company1967Industrial
A Boy Named Charlie BrownBill Melendez1969Narrative feature
Diary of a Mad HousewifeFrank Perry1970Narrative feature
Watermelon ManMelvin Van Peebles1970Narrative feature
1776Peter H. Hunt1972Narrative feature
The Texas Chain Saw MassacreTobe Hooper1974Narrative feature
Bound for GloryHal Ashby1976Narrative feature
Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our LivesMariposa Film Group1977Documentary
¡Alambrista!Robert M. Young1977Narrative feature

There are two superhero movies among the several hundred total in the National Film Registry: Superman and The Dark Knight. I have no qualms with Superman, which is this wonderful vaudeville of a movie, something with a little bit of tragedy, a little bit of special effects, some fun romance, a catchy tune, a vast store of comedy. It’s a delight. The Dark Knight is the kind of movie I tried to avoid putting on here because this is a list I want to take joy in rather than be condescending about; that it’s included says more about Americans than I think Americans would really care to have said about them. Not so with Batman, which is the most blissfully unpretentious superhero movie ever made in this country.

If there were a person next to you at the circus murmuring about the profound depth of the clowns’ act, how the slapstick mocks greater violence, how their makeup and costume exaggerate human feeling to the nth degree, you would probably tell that egghead to shut up. (Alternately, if you were also an egghead, you could congratulate your compeer on having figured out an idea which is literally thousands of years old all by himself.) Batman is built from jackanapes and tomfoolery, clowning that is done with winking craft. The lunacy of the shark repellent is so winning, a statement of purpose which is unmistakable and delightful. Batman running around with a sizzling bomb over his head looking for anywhere to dispose of the thing is a bit done to perfection, cooked with the delicacy that a great chef cooks a scallop. I’m on record as saying that a film like Mask of the Phantasm is probably a better path forward for Batman movies than any other that’s been made in that franchise. Even if this is take on Batman is one of my favorites, I don’t think we’re any more likely to get another Batman with Adam West any more than we’re likely to get another Batman Returns with Michelle Pfeiffer. We aren’t pure enough to deserve them.

Speaking of purity: “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.”

The ad that I’m pulling from this group features a woman in the costume of a woman from the 1900s or 1910s, the look that we ascribe to Pankhursts and other suffragettes. By removing or cutting away pieces of her ensemble, as well as touching up her hair and mascara, she transforms herself into a new kind of woman. She’s fun. She looks like fun. “You’ve come a long way, baby,” the music coos. It’s brilliant stuff. The ad is hocking Virginia Slims, and the cigarettes are certainly an important piece of the puzzle. The box, the look of the cigarettes, the way she fingers the cylinder easily in her grasp, all of those take their time. But the idea is more important than the cigarettes, like a whole-body massage for the ego. You are the same type of woman as the ones who led the 19th Amendment, but you are an improvement. A few years before the ERA started to become a household name in legislation, Philip Morris made a commercial which seized on that zeitgeist. As the ERA was first written by Alice Paul in the early ’20s but came of age in this period, just as cigarettes went from impolite for women to ubiquitous, Philip Morris stepped above the fray and spoke the feelings of its audience into a bullhorn. It’s the elevator music en route to the glass ceiling.

“Return victorious, Charlie Brown,” the children cry in unison. The boy whose kites are invariably eaten, who earlier in the film was subjected to a slideshow of his faults (“Even your nose is fat!”), who does not merely give up hits but gives up screaming liners that disrobe him on the mound: he is the avatar of their hopes. He’s won the class spelling bee and now the National Spelling Bee awaits Charlie Brown in New York. But the voice of Anxiety itself, which sounds like a pushy little girl, pipes up like a grace note on those cheers. Lucy threatens, “Or don’t come back at all!” He does anyway, after misspelling “beagle” of all things, and proceeds to spend as much time as he can under his covers with the shades down, hiding from the world and disappointment and, most of all, expectation. Back when they were still calling it “analysis,” you could point to Charlie Brown and show the doctor where it hurt. A Boy Named Charlie Brown is my Death of a Salesman, probably because I’ve never been an old man but I have been a child. Even a child who is good at a lot of things is still going to wind up like Charlie Brown, losing a spelling bee or falling for an obvious practical joke or studying a lot and finding that it comes to naught. The consolation of A Boy Named Charlie Brown, like the consolation of Death of a Salesman, is in the moments of art that normal people can conjure up. Snoopy figure skating is well and good, but the best of it is in Schroeder’s love of Beethoven and the impossible difference between his toy piano and the richness of the Pathetique sonata. Even if Charles Schultz’s favorite composer was Brahms, the images and flashes of the Pathetique sequence in this film are adoring and new; if he wanted to work for Disney, it must have been because of Fantasia. Even the catcher who has to go to the mound to tell his pitcher he can’t keep getting dressed after every pitch can find “So attention must be paid” or “I’m not bringing home any prizes anymore” sometimes.

Tina Balser, the titular loony little woman in Diary of a Mad Housewife, can’t hear Beethoven. How anyone could hear Beethoven over the mewling cries of Richard Benjamin is beyond me. (Good golly is Benjamin good in this. I don’t care if he’s in his mid-80s, if I saw him on the street tomorrow I’d deck him for how good he is as the asshole husband, Jonathan.) Pretty easily my favorite Frank Perry, one of our chief chroniclers of one-percenters and snobs, Diary gets deep into two psychologies that are fascinatingly revolting. The one that makes me feel a little airsick is about the psychology of a person who is entirely unsuited to her environment. “Your mother made Phi Beta Kappa at Smith,” Jonathan tells one of their children, “but I don’t think she can make a four-minute egg.” This is around the same time he tells her to pack his suitcase with great specificity for an upcoming business trip. Tina is a Komodo dragon who has been airlifted to the Himalayas, and the view from up there is an awfully tempting one for anyone with a unfulfilling life and who falls at 9.8 m/s². What has she ever done that would prepare her to be good at eggs and packing and childrearing? What good are an anorak and a bunch of carabiners to a Komodo dragon? The other psychology on display is that of the vapid man of means, which is where Jonathan has set up housekeeping. Jonathan wants to be a Renaissance man who owns a vineyard and dabbles in letters in much the same way that Elon Musk wants Proud Boys to think he’s @dril. Less is more on that front, I suppose, but it’s an exceptional portrayal.

Marital strife from 1970 gets a slightly different approach from Melvin Van Peebles, although Estelle Parsons is not playing a character entirely dissimilar from Carrie Snodgress in Diary of a Mad Housewife. On the other hand, you sort of wonder if Tina would have welcomed a Black Jonathan just to break the monotony.

Watermelon Man has this tightness in its back that it never does manage to work out all the way. Is this about the fundamentally segregationist mindset of white people towards Black people, a revulsion which is stronger than any kind of professional or personal bonds that can exist between them? Or is this about how the impossibility of Black people getting any kind of honest chance in a world that white people run? The fact that these two ideas can work together means that Watermelon Man can work even if the film isn’t always on its wavelength. No matter how good a liberal Althea is, even if she’s the kind of person who’d have thought that In the Heat of the Night was more salient to the present than Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, she still can’t stay in a marriage that has turned miscegenist. No matter how tolerant Jeff’s doctor is, their association is still going to end with Dr. Wainwright asking if Jeff wouldn’t be more comfortable with a Black doctor. Those chapters speak to the former, and they’re the movie’s funny, cutting scenes. But the movie is a little scarier, a little more proto-Peele when it’s about that second idea. White Jeff used to “race” the bus in an effort to prove his fitness, a game that he liked playing and that everyone else barely tolerated. Black Jeff tries racing the bus and gets arrested because the only reason a Black man would need to run is because he’s a thief hightailing it from the scene of the crime.

I’ll grant that Hamilton has the catchier tunes, but at least the politics of 1776 survived Richard Nixon. Not until The New World would anyone make a movie that was so committed to the stench in the delivery room when America was born. The New World chooses Jamestown, and 1776 chooses the dark predawn of July 2nd in Philadelphia. John Adams and his co-conspirators (Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, etc.) have a choice to make. They have managed to wrangle enough support for a unanimous declaration of independence. They have brought Caesar Rodney up from Delaware and malady in the middle of the night. New York will abstain. Colonies which had previously been instructed to vote against independence are now for it. In return, they take some words out of a document which will only matter if they win the unlikeliest of military victories. The words in that for now symbolic document denounce slavery and intimate that the practice will be done away with in an independent America. Taking umbrage against the words (and the hypocritical, precious sentiment which the slaveowning Jefferson and his hardly innocent pals incorporated them), the Southern colonies have walked out. In the end, Adams chooses the confederation over the African-Americans. In the darkness, alone, he sells out a race, hoping that in the future all Americans will be free. The cries of a child conceived by rape echo in the delivery room, and the father holds it first and pronounces the infant’s name.

William Daniels, singing in that forcefully scrawny voice of his, is the American superego. The American id lives somewhere else, probably in “Muerto County,” and its singing voice is mechanical, almost tinny, but its lungs are vast.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the three or four best American movies which isn’t already in the National Film Registry, and unlike movies like The Master or Before Sunset, it’s not from this century. We all feel what this movie wants us to feel every now and then; we usually feel it in the wake of a mass shooting or the latest Supreme Court ruling. We know that there is something more powerful than us that will take advantage of our existing. We will simply happen or be in some place and that’ll be it for us. We’ll be hung up like shoats and bled, or we’ll be struck down and hacked to pieces. The central irony of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is that for such a flat piece of earth, it does an incredible job of depicting what it’s like to live inside the lip of an active volcano.

Of Hal Ashby’s holy ’70s, Bound for Glory might well be the least loved of the bunch, maybe even less popular than The Landlord. This one’s not fun. It lacks the humor of his comedies from that decade (of which only Being There and Harold and Maude are in the National Film Registry), and compared to Jon Voight or Warren Beatty, David Carradine is no dish. If Days of Heaven had never existed, then this would have to be the great cinematographic triumph in depicting ’30s migrant farmers. The beauty in the cinematography by Haskell Wexler is alienating, like we’re watching the drama unfold behind the glass in front of a painting in a museum. Bound for Glory isn’t even a good history of Woody Guthrie, for whatever that’s worth; Inside Llewyn Davis might be a better biopic about Dave Van Ronk than this is a biopic of Guthrie. Three reasons, one cocksure, one clinical, and one childish, compel me to suggest this as my Ashby rather than Shampoo or Being There. This is probably Hal Ashby’s most personal movie. Ashby was a truly bad husband, and he proved it across fifteen years or so of being married to five different women. The way that Guthrie, an activist and an artist, chooses the obvious nobility of his work (and the fun that comes with it!) at the expense of his family life is not so far from Ashby’s life. I also like the idea of a movie about labor at some nascent level of organization from the New Hollywood era; it’s a lefty era in presentation more than solidarity, and Bound for Glory at least cares about class struggle. And sucker that I am, I love that the film restrains itself and ends with “This Land Is Your Land” rather than sneaking it in someplace else. It’s not every movie that crowns itself with the song which unquestionably ought to be our national anthem.

Let’s take a minute to talk about a movie that will never, ever make the National Film Registry: Dear Evan Hansen. The great emotional centerpiece of that movie (two adjectives and a noun that I’m using pretty freely) is “You Will Be Found,” which is hashtag material that the show and the movie alike treat as like…not hashtag material. Here’s the first six lines of the song:

Have you ever felt like nobody was there?
Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere?
Have you ever felt like you could disappear?
Like you could fall, and no one would hear?

Well, let that lonely feeling wash away
Maybe there’s a reason to believe you’ll be okay

It goes without saying that everyone has felt like that. Those are feelings that literally everyone has had at some point. People who have gone to prom without a date have probably even felt those feelings twice. Dear Evan Hansen tries to draw its power from a nonspecific feeling, something which has the universality of “I flip my pillow over so I can fall asleep on the cold side” and none of the pinpoint accuracy of that action. And “You will be found” is a phrase which is nonspecific and future-oriented, a phrase I think has to be about as helpful as “It gets better.” Compare those statements about hope without basis to the title of this film. Word is not coming out. It will not be out. It is out. Now, irrevocably, personally, and most of all specifically. Word Is Out is one of this nation’s most unpretentious movies, and even if it turned forty-five this year, I can’t help but think that it’d feel more immediate and helpful for a teenager coming out than something as vacuous as “It gets better.” The people interviewed in Word Is Out aren’t like, deliriously happy people without problems. But they’re present-tense people, and nothing salves the fright of fear like living in a now.

¡Alambrista! (which translates as “Walker” and which, spoiler alert, is going to give me two movies with the same name going forward) is one of those movies that I kind of can’t believe isn’t already in the National Film Registry. It’s such an obvious choice that I’m almost a little bit ashamed to be including it on my list, a movie which has all the now of Word Is Out but has maintained at least that level of nowness for going on five decades. Roberto is looking for work, there’s more of it in the United States and for more money than he’d get in Mexico, and so he crosses the border. He finds some friends, men who can tutor him a little bit in how to keep moving, how to escape the cops, how to hitchhike well. There’s a really fine scene in there where they try to teach him how to order coffee, ham, and eggs for breakfast in decent enough English so he won’t attract attention to himself. Domingo Arubriz is outstanding in this movie. There’s a fatigue in him, one that might even be real given that the movie was shot more or less in sequence. That fatigue grows until at the end the weariness of always being on the move, always being in some low level of danger, never being able to settle down, never being able to trust that the same friends will be with him from one day to the next. ¡Alambrista! knows that it’s filming someone living a life which is, strictly speaking, illegal, and at the same time Roberto’s evasion from the law makes it clear that the law is much more wrong than he is. What has he done that is so terrible that he must always be on the run like a man who has escaped from prison? The answer is self-evident, and yet the self-evident truth in this fictional piece which has the authenticity of a documentary has still not penetrated American policy.

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