B-Movies Extended: What Are ‘The Great American Movies?’

Last week we called Tree of Life one of 'The Great American Movies,' but what does that really mean?

Witney Seibold & William Bibbianiby Witney Seibold & William Bibbiani


From the Desk of Witney Seibold:


Regular listeners of The B-Movies Podcast have likely noticed that William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and myself, often caught up in the rapture of our brilliant and insightful film reviews not to mention our cynical/enthused/cynical reactions to the week's remake news often find ourselves running the podcast a little bit long. To rectify this, and to give Bibbs and I a chance to prove just how utterly brilliant we are, CRAVE Online has allowed us a new written feature, cheekily entitled “B-Movies Extended,” where we can both elucidate on a topic we merely brushed upon in the podcast. This new feature will serve as an in-depth addendum to the previous Friday's episode, and will, we hope, provide a few more bits of insight and entertainment to get you through until the next episode.

In the last episode, number 19, “Death Squat-Thrust,” Bibbs and I gave a review of Terrence Malick's Palme D'Or-winning film “The Tree of Life.” We both loved it, and I, perhaps still a bit too wiggly about it from the screening I had seen the previous day, and still coming down from my enthusiasm, awkwardly declared it “One of the best films of America.” That statement may prove true, provided I feel the same way after a months-long cool-down period, and a give “The Tree of Life” a merciful chance to pass into the modern American canon.  But amidst the conversation, both Bibbs and I gave a few words to the notion of The Great American Film. This got our respective mental gears turning, and we have decided to use our mental acumen and vast knowledge of film to make some declarative suggestions about what qualifies.

“Great American Film” may need some clarification, so here, briefly, are my criteria: The film needs to have been made in America. It needs to have been made with American money, in English, and by an American-born director. Or, at the very least, a director who has made America their permanent home. 


Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (dir. Frank Capra, 1939)

The Italian-born Frank Capra seems to have an unfortunate reputation as a talented director who too often cleaves closely to corny Americana, and skirts away from anything too edgy. This probably comes from people who haven't seen American Madness or The Miracle Woman. Of all the great films that Capra has made, though, it's his 1939 classic, about a naive local politician (Jimmy Stewart in full-blown aw-shucks mode) cynically deposited in the Washington machine by corrupt politicians eager to manipulate him, is probably one of the best films ever made about American politics. It's also downright hopeful about how the ideals of the system will ultimately outweigh its corruption.


The Tingler (dir. William Castle, 1959)

While horror movies are not unique to this country, the sheer, overpowering showmanship of William Castle is. America is known for its cinematic spectacle, and no one could make an ordinary, B-grade piece of genre schlock into a full-fledged cinematic experience like William Castle. The Tingler is about a scientist (Vincent Price) who discovers that fear causes a living monster to grow on one's spine when they are unable to scream. More than that, though, the film is about the power of sitting in a cinema, and sharing a communal artistic experience. Castle proves, through cheap gimmicks and corny horror flicks, that the art of cinema is pure.


Network (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1976)

David Foster Wallace once posited that Americans are decreasingly defined by their strength of character, and are increasingly defined by the entertainment they consume. No film better depicts the blurring of the infotainment line than Sidney Lumet's brilliant Network, and how what we consume from the great glass teat only serves to replace our lives. The amoral souls who create news programs are feeding us our central nourishment, and they sound great doing it. If Americans are obsessed with television and entertainment, Network is, then, a good hard look at what that can do to us. 

Next: Why does Bibbs take issue with Witney's rules? 


From the Desk of William Bibbiani:


The concept of the ‘Great American So-and-So has always greatly amused me. ‘The Great American Novel’ is a popular expression, and puts troubling imagery in my head of The Catcher in the Rye wearing a bright pink ‘AMERICA’ sash and strutting down the catwalk behind Anna ‘RUSSIA’ Karenina and Madame ‘FRANCE’ Bovary. Worst. Swimsuit Competition. Ever. But I digress. The Great American Movie is what we’re here to talk about today, and Witney’s already done an admirable job, even if I don’t entirely agree with all of his choices and criteria.

While I’m willing to accept that exceptions can and quite possibly should be made, I’m not entirely convinced that a ‘Great American Movie’ can be made by a non-native of this country “making America their permanent home,” unless they spent their formative years in the United States and/or had their perspective fundamentally altered by their experiences in this country. I have never been accused of nationalism before and I don’t think this is a reason for anybody to start now. I just believe that a ‘Great [insert country here] Anything’ only earns the ‘country’ qualifier if it actually represents the unique cultural perspective of that socio-political region.

Alfred Hitchcock comes to mind here. He spent the bulk of his filmmaking career in the United States but to my mind never made a truly ‘American’ film, even though his works came to define the Great American Genre that is the Blockbuster. His repeated perversions of the Upper Class, for example, have a decidedly British slant: a bemused, slightly perverse jab whereas most American observations of a corrupted hierarchy feel inherently judgmental. We went to war over that kind of thing. Hitchcock thought evil politicians and businessmen were kind of funny – socialites playing at villainy – but many of our greatest cultural villains fit this mold without irony: Lex Luthor, Richard Nixon, Darth Vader, Nurse Ratched and Alonzo Harris in Training Day are all in positions of authority and fundamentally corrupt (unless you try to kill Vader’s son, but that’s a pretty flimsy justification for claiming he ever reformed if you ask me).

Before I get into my picks I would also state that I’m seriously amused by Witney’s choice of The Tingler as a Great American Movie. Note that I’ve stopped using quotes now; I feel the point has been made and they’re starting to make it look like I’m questioning the validity of the phrase, like those ‘air quotes’ Seinfeld hated so much. Witney’s justification of what The Tingler represents – the carnival barker showmanship, and an inherent belief in the power of genre cinema – is apt but the movie itself just isn’t all that good by its lonesome… something I think should matter. Oh sure, for a William Castle movie it’s pretty good, but ‘great?’ Feel free to question those air quotes.

A few of my own choices for Great American Movies follow. Feel free to bitch at them as much as you want.


Citizen Kane (dir. Orson Welles, 1941)

The single most annoying thing about discussing Citizen Kane is admitting that its excellence has become a cliché. It’s still a great movie though. Young Orson Welles (all of 26 at the time) directed, starred in and co-wrote this saga of a boy who was raised to be a millionaire, as well as the millionaire he became, who acted like a bratty little boy. Many of the most incredible qualities of Citizen Kane are hard to appreciate now, with the revolutionary camera angles, innovative flashback structure and imaginative special effects now so commonplace in today’s filmmaking techniques that they seem old hat in an old production, even though it pioneered them. But even ignoring that, Welles’s film about living the American dream while never really living at all speaks volumes about the American ideal of capitalist achievement, and the tragic personal sacrifices necessary to get there.


The Night of the Living Dead (dir. George Romero, 1968)

This slot was originally reserved for John Carpenter’s insightful yet highly entertaining condemnation of Reagan-era class warfare They Live!, but after Witney’s inclusion of The Tingler I just couldn’t stop thinking about low-budget horror movies and, my apologies to Witney, if any of them qualifies as a Great American Movie it’s Night of the Living Dead. First-time filmmaker George Romero, working with co-writer John A. Russo, crafted this genre-defining horror fest about a group of hapless individuals trapped in a house on the day the dead came back to life to destroy us all. This particular breed of zombies has since become an institution, and it’s reasonable to suggest that Romero’s creation has directly inspired more artists and in particular filmmakers than practically any other director’s work. But it’s the stylish and understated way that he mined the iconic monsters for narrative depth that makes it a Great American Movie: using an otherworldly terror to investigate a microcosm of America at its worst, devolving into power struggles, paranoia and mistrust between individuals, races and classes at a time when something infinitely greater is at stake.


Do The Right Thing (dir. Spike Lee, 1989)

Spike Lee’s portrayal of a New York neighborhood over the course of a single swelteringly hot day remains as daring now as it was when it was released. A rich swath of characters interacts in small and often unexpected ways in a narrative that doesn’t seem to be moving towards any one moment in particular, and yet when tensions finally hit a fever pitch in the finale it’s officially impossible to imagine Do The Right Thing ending any other way. Beyond the exceptional cinematography and perfectly-tuned performances, its Lee’s personal statements that make Do The Right Thing one of the Great American Movies: what at first seems like a well-rounded look at the minute ways in which racial tensions affect our daily lives ends in a final, shocking statement that is as difficult to refute as it is to accept. Whether or not you agree with Lee’s conclusions, they will give you something to consider for a long, long time to come.


What do you think qualifies as a Great American Movie? Tell us below.