100 American Movies to Save: Mania (1988-1995)

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

Torch Song TrilogyPaul Bogart1988Narrative feature
The AbyssJames Cameron1989Narrative feature
When Harry Met Sally…Rob Reiner1989Narrative feature
JFKOliver Stone1991Narrative feature
Color AdjustmentMarlon Riggs1992Documentary
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with MeDavid Lynch1992Narrative feature
The War RoomD.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus1993Documentary
GettysburgRonald F. Maxwell1993Narrative feature
The Age of InnocenceMartin Scorsese1993Narrative feature
ShowgirlsPaul Verhoeven1995Narrative feature

I don’t remember how old I was when I first came across Harvey Fierstein, but it was in one of two settings. Maybe it was in Independence Day, where he asks Jeff Goldblum why he just sent his mother to Atlanta, or maybe it was in Elmo Saves Christmas, where he sings the crossover holiday classic “Give Your Friend an Easter Egg for Christmas.” Saying that Fierstein was a punchline for young me is crueler than I mean it to be, but I had no idea that the guy was, like, an icon. I didn’t find Torch Song Trilogy until I was an adult, and I was completely unprepared for how lovely it was.

The subplot with Matthew Broderick is probably the grabbiest of the bunch, and I wonder if it would still feel as out-of-place in a film that was closer to the four-hour length of Fierstein’s original play. Maybe it would feel more folded into a longer drama rather than sticking out in a shorter one. Yet the rest of the film, which hits a number of the moments and types that one would expect from a gay drama about the ’70s and ’80s, never feels like old or stale. Ed can’t hack it in a relationship with Arnold and leaves Arnold for a woman. Arnold and his mother are too close to each other to disconnect from one another’s lives entirely, but she’s despite that connection to her son, she’s never really accepted that his homosexuality is an essential part of him. Shot straightforwardly and yet never falling into that “we filmed a play with a bigger budget and more realistic sets” trap that so many theater adaptations can’t wait to descend to, Torch Song Trilogy is unpretentious, and that’s at the heart of its effectiveness.

Avatar: The Way of Water is James Cameron’s ninth movie. Based on a set of rankings that I made of Cameron’s movies about a year ago, The Abyss sits pretty firmly in the bottom half of his oeuvre for most critics, and that’s with Piranha II: The Spawning gnashing its teeth in last place on literally everyone’s list. I’ll grant that this doesn’t have the thrills of T2 or Titanic, unlike one another as those are. All the same, The Abyss is one of the most personal blockbusters that any director has been able to squeeze out of Hollywood in the past five decades. It’s not a long list to begin with, and the other examples I’ve got tend to be much more recent: Get Out for Jordan Peele, Black Panther for Ryan Coogler, Joker for Todd Phillips. James Cameron would probably give a good analyst more material to work with than any other Canadian. Cameron’s fascination with water, and deep water at that, is enough to make any Freudian worth his cigar clench that metaphor with all his teeth. The Abyss is personal in the way that it addresses Cameron’s interests, which lie in the pitch-blackness of the deepest oceans, but it is also personal because it’s a bold new step forward for Cameron’s insatiable technovisual ambition. It’s not just an alien movie – it’s not just set underwater – it’s not just a disaster movie – it’s all of them from act to act. Cloud Atlas is my Cloud Atlas, but I can understand why if you’re like, Bilge Ebiri, this is your Cloud Atlas.

I went back through the blog to see if I could get away with cutting and pasting some stuff about this movie into this slot, because it felt like I’d written about this movie for basically every project I do. (After checking: it’s not literally every project, but it’s close!) When Harry Met Sally… is one of a very few romantic comedies which compare with its forbears from the 1930s and ’40s. Only Crossing Delancey and, depending on whether or not you even define Broadcast News as a romantic comedy, can stand higher. What all three of them have in common with each other, what sets them entirely apart from the other romantic comedies of the past forty years, is that they’re made for adults. When Harry Met Sally, even in this company, is the only one that can dream of a romantic pair where the woman is (ever so slightly) taller than the man. It’s the only one that can dream of a man who is not, to put it simply, all that handsome. And while Meg Ryan is a beautiful woman, her character is neurotic enough to play the Woody Allen role in a different kind of romantic comedy. Not depressed or elegiac or doomed, but genuinely neurotic and anxious. When Harry Met Sally has stood the test of time in the way that virtually no romantic comedy does because it wanted to be about people we could see ourselves in but never actually have to go home with.

The Zapruder film is in the National Film Registry, as it ought to be. It’s not funny that the Zapruder film is on that list. You know what would be funny to put on a list that’s kept by the government?

So what if Jim Garrison was actually a loony and he was nowhere close to actually deciphering who was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy? JFK is about Garrison and the Clay Shaw trial, about the assassination of John Kennedy and the murder (assassination?!) of Lee Oswald, about the military-industrial complex and, God forgive me, the deep state. It’s about all of those things to the point of obsession, and if you’re not on the film’s wavelength, to the point of skincrawling tedium. If you are an American, though, even if you’re an American who has no idea what a Pizzagate is nor how one would walk through it, even if you’re an American who does not know what the second half of a phrase beginning “Where we go one…” might be, you’re susceptible to JFK. Even if you’re flat wrong about every single conspiracy theory that has gone around like offshoots of the common cold, so wrong that you’re wronger than people who think Oswald acted alone on November 22, 1963, you know that there’s something off with our country. There are, as they say in The Crucible, “wheels within wheels and fires within fires.” It’s a distrust that goes back further than the beginnings of the republic, a doubt that we folk who pride the idea of thinking for ourselves have all the information to think intelligently for ourselves. No one has put that into a movie better than Oliver Stone.

Color Adjustment, which even I would admit is not the first Marlon Riggs that should be in the National Film Registry—I don’t say this lightly, but it is shameful that none of his documentaries are listed—is still totally engaging. Carrying on in the tradition of media criticism that Ethnic Notions had begun, Color Adjustment looks in the present and the recent past rather than more distant ones. In the 2010s and 2020s, the idea of “representation” and what that should look like (far more than that it actually does look like) has overwhelmed the political poles of media criticism. I don’t know that anyone’s done a better job at identifying, contextualizing, and then critiquing representation better than Riggs, or that anyone has done it in a more timely fashion. When he made Color Adjustment, his focus was the most powerful medium of the time. Television, and not just any television but ratings juggernauts like Roots and The Cosby Show, are given significant time, and programs which are still familiar today, like The Jeffersons, are put under the microscope. Color Adjustment demands respect because it is incisive about the events in its own time. He doesn’t need to create some kind of forced retrospective in order to make points about society then. Everything he discusses is aligned to talk about the society as it is right that very minute, to discuss how Black people on network television can only be accepted and beloved if they are safe enough for white audiences. Riggs does what many historians cannot in this documentary by making the past present and the present meaningful.

Like The Abyss, I don’t know that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is necessarily high on the average David Lynch ranking. Without including Twin Peaks: The Return, because it’s a television show dammit, I’ve gone through and compiled Lynch film rankings. Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, his two entries on the Sight and Sound list, come in the top two spots more often than not. Eraserhead factors in. Skip one or two and you get to Fire Walk with Me, which I don’t pretend to understand. This is easily the most Twin Peaks content I’ve ever watched; I saw the pilot for the TV show before this and that’s it. I am probably less confident in my ability to explain this movie, for lack of a better word, than I am to explain any of the other 99 I’m including in this project. What I know is that Fire Walk with Me is a unique picture. The next movie that I come across which reminds me of it will be the first. I’ve just never seen anything like this picture, one which dangles above comprehensibility for someone like me, but in its opacity Fire Walk with Me is mystifying and hypnotic rather than frustrating. It’s one of those films that leaves, well, a film on you by the end.

In All the President’s Men, Richard Nixon is the villain. More or less. Woodstein are tracking functionaries and aides and staffers, though, not Tricky Dick, and the names we hear over and over again are the men of the Committee to Re-Elect the President or the men who fill the White House. It’s a story where Nixon is elided and where people like Ken Dahlberg and John Dean and Hugh Sloan are the ones that the guys from the Washington Post are trying to pick up. Incredibly, not even two decades after the release of All the President’s Men, we have The War Room. Rather than seeing glorified flunkies as the way to destroy a president, The War Room instead views the Clinton campaign, from primaries through the presidential election, through its own glorified flunkies. James Carville and George Stephanopoulos are the protagonists here, and I’ve written before that one of the primary ideas of The War Room is that these two are very, very good at their jobs. I still believe that’s what the movie is after, and I don’t think the movie believes that’s such a bad thing. The War Room is stuck in much the same quagmire that so many Democrats are still living in today. If you’re a staffer for Clinton in 1992 and you don’t want to believe Gennifer Flowers because you don’t have another viable choice to vote for anyone else you remotely agree with, what do you do? If you’re a staffer for Joe Biden in 2020 and Tara Reade is visibly making her allegations against what Joe Biden did to her in the same year The War Room came out, what do you do? The War Room is a little credulous for my tastes, but if nothing else it understands the moral electoral calculus that so many idealists must go through. We can’t all be as cheerfully amoral as people like Carville and Stephanopoulos. Can we support the lesser of two (or in Bill’s case in ’92, three) evils as fully as they do?

A little sympathy for evil was not out of the question in Gettysburg, as far as that kind of thing goes. My first favorite movie, which my parents probably did not guess I would be off-book on by the age of seven, Gettysburg had the boy me fighting the boy William Faulkners on July 3rd, preserving history. This is a film I’m still very enamored of despite everything that’s just wrong with it, from minor sins (Martin Sheen’s weird interpretation of Robert E. Lee) to the major ones (a pretty significant Lost Cause bent, one Black character with no lines in four and a half hours).

As an adult, there’s no scene from this film that I’ve thought about more than this one. In two and a half minutes, Robert E. Lee is God. Or maybe he’s Christ en route to Gethsemane, with you-know-what mere hours away. The Ulysses S. Grant thesis is practically audible, being whispered underneath the stirring score, and while it damns it does so with some impossibly small iota of the force with which Grant’s army destroyed the main army of the rebellion.

I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.

If it’s simply disheveled white men covered in dirt cheering their heads off for a leader who is about to fail them and a battle flag that is about to be cast into the mud, then there’s something noble and doomed here, something as romantic as King Richard’s crusade. Even a moment’s thought about this campaign, the Third Crusade of the Civil War, forces us to ask some pretty important questions about the justice of the cause for which those banners rippled and for which those knives were raised. This scene is such a test of how one sees America, what history one reads, what emotions one cherishes. But I think it’s also important to believe that how one sees this scene is not a permanent referendum on a person. In other words, we have to keep living with people who are born under different stars.

Released in the same year as Gettysburg and set not so very long afterwards, The Age of Innocence is here for a host of reasons. I couldn’t leave Martin Scorsese out of this any more than I could John Ford, and I wasn’t going to pick one of the obvious Scorseses (or stump for The Aviator again like the simp I am). The Age of Innocence is here partly because this is one of America’s most lustily beautiful movies, partly because it has the kind of mannered and restrained horniness which is well-nigh impossible to find elsewhere, and partly because it’s one of a very few American movies that actually gets after the Gilded Age. It’s a terrifically unusual movie, indebted to Ingmar Bergman’s use of blood-red transitions in Cries and Whispers on one hand and reliant on ladies who had both been weirdo Tim Burton muses within the previous few years on the other. There’s Visconti in here in the courtliness that’s marred by realists, with Daniel Day-Lewis playing a man who is much more callow than Burt Lancaster must have ever been in The Leopard but no less devoted to ideals. It’s a movie with a slow resting heart rate, but that slow heart rate is proof of how powerful its heart is, pulsing the blood powerfully throughout an ironically pallid body. So much of Scorsese’s canon, whether it’s about gangsters or other slightly more legal types, has to do with new money. Here there is a contrast to old money, American nobility that was American nobility three or four generations ago, updating Dragonwyck and its patroons to a new type of New York wealth that has come into the city and adopted a posture both abstract and gritty.

You’re darn tootin’ this had to be here. I stand by my Letterboxd review of this movie, which is that even setting its impossibly aggressive salvos against the cruelly exploitative in America’s most gleefully, nakedly exploitative city, this has a pretty good plot. It’s almost old-fashioned. Any number of your old Hollywood films are about girls trying to schlep it out to New York or Los Angeles in order to get into show business, or, if it’s a different kind of movie, just about trying to get a better job than she could get in her podunk minor metro. This is the starting place for the vast majority of Joan Crawford’s 1930s oeuvre, for instance. Elizabeth Berkley is not the actress that Crawford was, but blow me down and pick me up she is absolutely wild in this picture. It’s incredible. The same is true of Gina Gershon and Kyle MacLachlan and the rest of the cast of this film, playing this with the kind of gusto that would give Joe Swanberg a titanic seizure. Unironically, it’s great. Verhoeven is perhaps not literally at his best here, but everything about this film, devoted to the vomitrocious excess of American wealth in the 1990s and its messy and malodorous results, is played to the highest possible key. America is not a subtle nation nor a quiet one, and while I don’t think anyone can live as loudly as Gershon does in this picture for more than two or three years without literally bursting into flames, Showgirls imagines an American melodrama that is much lewder than something that the ’50s semi-moralists would have dreamed up but only a dash tawdrier. It’s not based on a true story, nor is it a historical epic, but America is understood as well through Showgirls as it would be through Gettysburg.

2 thoughts on “100 American Movies to Save: Mania (1988-1995)

  1. I am amazed again and again at the bizarre, through-the looking-glass reviews on this page. First: “When Harry Met Sally” is the ONLY rom com that the author can think of that is A) Made for adults; B) The female lead is taller and (subjectively) more attractive than the male lead; and C) Had a female lead that is neurotic in a believable way. This “reviewer” even REFERENCES Woody Allen, for God’s sake, and is seemingly unaware of “Annie Hall”!??! How old are the reviewers here? Eight? Then, perhaps the same genius feels that “Showgirls” belongs in this list. “Nuff said. I love this blog if only for its sheer stupidity.

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