To Kill a Mockingbird
Gregory Peck as Atticus? Dignified, steadfast, and impossibly handsome. The story? A masterfully acted and scripted morality play that elevates honor, courage, and human decency above all else. It’s a great film, fondly remembered, and one of the few cases where the adaptation exceeds the source material. So what’s the problem? Whenever anything is this unceasingly noble, it becomes standard; not simply one of the most beloved classics of all time, but the one movie that aspiring politicians cite again and again as the bestest, most favorite they ever did see. Honest! For inspiring several generations of pandering, no-account, gutless politicos from North to South, East to West, Republican to Democrat, to rip open their shirts and show that they too have a beating, colorblind heart, I lay all blame at this movie’s doorstep. At bottom, it taught all of us to believe that safe, feel-good, impossible-to-hate entertainment represents a tough choice on the campaign trail, when in fact nothing could be more market-tested and predictable. Also the top pick of every vanilla, glad-handing milquetoast and soccer mom clogging up the bleak, uniform suburbs of our land.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Frank Capra, unabashed champion of the little guy, master of
Americana, ruined the world in so many unimaginable ways, but not so despairingly as with the eternal Jimmy Stewart classic about politics, small-town gumption, and the corruption of the big city. For force-feeding us the maniacally populist pap that “the people” know best, this is the movie that started it all; an aw-shucks slab of balderdash that so twists and distorts reality that it ends up promoting a form of democracy that, if it actually came to pass, would reduce the national landscape to a sewer of small-minded ineptitude. Only buffoons and simpletons want Boy Scouts literally stalking the halls of Congress, but that’s exactly what we have in Jefferson Smith (Stewart), an idealist from the old school who actually believes that business as usual can be changed simply by wishing upon a star. It’s a monstrous, insidious lie, and because of this movie, everyone eschews the so-called “professional” politician, elitism and all, in favor of the one who would have us believe that inexperience, naiveté, and good intentions are enough to tackle the complex issues of state. We’ve been paying for it ever since.
It was the real shot heard ’round the world. When Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) took a bullet in the tub for having the audacity to invade hearth, home, and marriage, conservatism’s decade-long ascendancy finally reached its peak. Alex — single, unloved, sans children — had to die so that heterosexual, monogamous unions could once again rule the culture. Adultery will bring you pain and violence, stay-at-home wives and mothers are nobility and stability incarnate, and women are never so dangerous as when uncoiled sexually; fiendishly unburdened by restraint and custom. Independent women are hysterical, shrewish devils in disguise, and they will use all the cunning at their disposal to hunt, trap, and kill all unsuspecting prey who dare stray from the sanctioned family unit. More than that, though, it linked sex itself — at least the variety that traffics in uninhibited pleasure, rather than ritualized, procreative brain death — with all that is evil in the world, and let us know in no uncertain terms that the guardians at the gate were watching, waiting to punish with an unforgiving force. It took at least five years before sex could be mindless and fun again.
The hooker with the heart of gold has always haunted the cinema, but no movie has done more lasting damage to the expectations of johns everywhere than this insipid fantasy from Garry Marshall. High-priced escorts working in Washington, D.C., or the corporate world might have the cleanliness and stature of Julia Roberts, but the average streetwalker? Where are the cigarette burns, nappy wigs, C-section scars, and glassy-eyed stares resulting from crack addiction? Men everywhere have every right to get their dicks wet for a reasonable price, but part of the exchange is that Wal-Mart prices always produce chicks at least no better than the average Wal-Mart greeter. And who the hell has ever fallen in love with a whore, except perhaps a serial killer bent on adding sliced butt cheeks and bloody scalps to his basement collection? Prostitutes exist to be probed, punched, kicked, and left in seedy motel rooms to clean up their remaining teeth from the roach-infested floor, not wined and dined like royalty. Two-bit tramps were never as uppity as in the years following this film’s release.
Knute Rockne, All-American
He was on-screen for all of 15 minutes, but Ronald Reagan’s star-making turn as George Gipp led not to the grave as a just universe would have allowed, but rather the California governor’s mansion and eventually the White House. When Dutch, wasting away in bed, uttered the immortal line, “Win one for the Gipper,” exploding debt, SDI, Iran-Contra, and Antonin Scalia were born. At that moment, he captured our hearts, emptied our minds, and never looked back. And as came Reagan, so came Bush Senior, Bush Junior, and eventually our total loss of credibility around the world. Just as bad, though, was the film’s establishment of the sports hero as secular saint; the elevation of the “tough but fair” coach who helped transform us all into breathless dolts wanting (needing) the big score to define our lives. Look here for an early source of the paralyzing practice of reducing all of life to a sports metaphor, and the notion that true honor is to be found on the field of battle.
The Color Purple
While frustrating beyond belief, this is not the place to debate director Steven Spielberg’s sanitizing of Alice Walker’s decidedly lesbian underpinnings, nor is it the time to blast the unnecessary slapstick that compromises the emotional power of the epic story. No, this film ruined the world because it gave us Oprah Winfrey: eternally aggrieved, victimized, martyred, and eventually cast in bronze as an untouchable hero. As bad as it is, though, one can only imagine the egomaniacal ravings that would have resulted from an Oscar win, rather than a mere nomination. From this point forward, Oprah relentlessly and firmly inhaled the world as her personal playpen and self-help seminar. As a result, emotion triumphed over intellect; suburban hausfraus emerged from mom-jeaned shame to pound the pavement each and every time their sense of self was violated; and politicians, entertainers, and professionals were judged not on their wisdom or talent, but rather how “right” they were with the chocolate messiah. And you best be spiritual, girlfriend, lest Oprah excoriate you in front of her Roman Colosseum of a studio audience. Careers were killed not for lack of ability, but an unwillingness to kiss copious ass.
Sure, there have been far worse chick flicks that have been inflicted on unsuspecting viewers since this film’s release, but given this weeper’s critical and commercial haul, the genre’s legitimization started here, forcing otherwise good men everywhere to endure hysterical crying fits, unfair romantic fantasies, and the enduring lie that there’s nothing more tragic than an attractive female dying young. Clearly, the movie’s establishment of the “Ali McGraw Disease,” whereby a woman gets sexier the closer she is to the grave, helped send cinema into a tailspin of melodramatic excess, but civilization itself felt the pinch, as we learned how to deny death with good cheer and care only for the pain of rich, empty-headed drones. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” is surely one of film’s most ridiculous taglines, but it simultaneously killed the modern romance, as our imaginations stopped considering any other couples-related activities save walks through the meadow, giggle-filled ice skating, and standing up to mean-spirited in-laws. And no, rich guys and poor chicks do not interact unless a Bangkok madam is involved.
While aiding the cause of homoerotic love well into the next century, much to the delight of 80s action fans everywhere, no film signed on to President Reagan’s military juggernaut with such gusto as this jingoistic madhouse of horrors. Stopping just shy of justifying a full-tilt invasion of the Soviet Union, China, and the entirety of Latin America, Tom Cruise and his well-oiled pals single-handedly boosted military enlistments during the decade, while also inspiring a generation of young men to believe warfare was no different than a video game, both in execution and moral detachment. One can rail against Tony Scott’s slick, vacuous direction as ushering in an era of MTV entertainment disguised as cinema, but never before or since has a single motion picture so encapsulated – and promoted –
America’s arrogance, illusion of invincibility, and engorged-cock sense of global entitlement. And in terms of the armed services, we got all of the cool without the requisite bloodletting and social upheaval. Tragically, grown men could never again play volleyball without declaring their buried desires for ass.
Reducing the self-indulgent 60s generation to a charred motorcycle might have kept this all-too-influential time capsule off the list, but rather than celebrate the death of the hippie, Dennis Hopper’s acid trip laments his passing, as if the world lost its opportunity for greatness with those whose firmest social stance was the refusal to sink into a weekly bath. In terms of the cinema, this movie nearly killed the industry outright, as it gave every stoned prick with a silly dream the inspiration put his rambling thoughts on camera, but more than that, it romanticized – into eternity, apparently – the very sort who nearly brought the country down with indolence, narcissism, and wasteful hypocrisy. Sadly, the movie’s self-important tone also helped fan the flames of conservatism’s counter-revolution, and it is impossible to imagine President Reagan or the Moral Majority without it. In many ways, we’ve never escaped the substitution of untenable idealism for rational thought, and all social change has been doomed to failure in its wake.
As obvious a pick as it is, the film nonetheless hits the trifecta of reprehensible cinema: demonizing social awareness and activism, lionizing apathy and outright retardation, and reducing all of American history to quips, clips, and humorous anecdotes. That it transforms a supreme dolt to the level of hero is beyond debate, but who knew it would also set the table for the presidency of George W. Bush, a man who, like a feather, floated along until being thrust into events he couldn’t possibly understand? Civil rights marches, anti-war protests, and even literacy itself led one to drug abuse, violence, disease, and death, while an all-consuming self-absorption typical of the brain damaged brought down the angels from their heavenly perch. Arguably the most reactionary motion picture ever conceived, it ruined the world most of all because it made deep, unshakable idiocy acceptable, even valued, in our families, our neighbors, and yes, even our world leaders. Still, the most appalling image of all remains Forrest’s shameless mugging while George Wallace blocks the schoolhouse door from the forces of integration. Now, instead of equating Wallace’s act with vile, pandering hatred, we have cheap laughs to carry us home.