Sunday, July 4, 2010

What to watch on the 4th of July?

America's Independence Day has a surprisingly prominent place among movie holidays. There's a sequence in Holiday Inn in which Fred Astaire plays with firecrackers. How about that black-and-white fireworks sequence that begins Manhattan? Born on the Fourth of July is a scathing critique of conventional American patriotism. Revolution was a hideous misfire, and The Patriot, despite good intentions, becomes a gorefest. Of course there is the kill-the-aliens epic Independence Day, but the most patriotic image in that film is the blowing up the White House. Best to stay with the more conventional choices:

1. 1776 - an unimaginatively literal transcription of a musical play (the failure to come up with cinematic solutions to stage ideas is most disappointing in a song about a slave auction - "Molasses to Rum" which never leaves the hall in Philadelphia), but that play does an astonishing job of creating suspense about an historically known outcome--the passing of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress on July 2, 1776.

2. Yankee Doodle Dandy - For the unreconstructed flag-wavers. What is about Michael Curtiz's movies that make them so re-watchable? Casablanca, Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce, this one--they never wear out their welcome. Curtiz was supposedly unable to talk to actors, but why do they provide such clear, economical and high-energy performances for him that they don't always provide for other directors? It doesn't matter anymore that the story is pure fiction or that Cagney hated Curtiz. The combining of those energies, together with a screenplay that is utterly relentless and uncompromising music and dance is irresistable. And Yankee Doodle Dandy, by resisting the conventions, especially musical conventions of its own time, has become timeless. (Can you imagine if the producers had insisted on adding a new song as they would today?)

3. The Music Man - Another filmed play, but the entire second half takes place on the Fourth of July. It celebrates and remembers small-town Fourths sort of the way I remember my own. And there's that strong, brassy music. Is it mere coincidence that Ray Heindorf was music director for Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Music Man AND 1776?

But there's a less conventional choice that I would like to urge you to try out in the days to come: Avalon the 1990 film by Barry Levinson. It is one of the finest films ever made about what it is to be an American. It is about 2-1/2 generations of an American Jewish family, beginning with the arrival of immigrant Sam Krachinski in the Avalon neighborhood of Baltimore on the Fourth of July at the turn of the century. He glows with wonder at the fireworks and supposes that this happens all the time in this wonderful country. His wonder and his pride never really fade away. America is truly a land of opportunity, of growth, development and improvement, even if Sam doesn't understand improvements like the difference between "can" and "may." Even the family councils, which continue to be maintained as the family stretches farther away from each other, feel like an echo of American democracy itself.

With time, the shine wears off for some of the rest of the family, as "being an American" comes to mean being a consumer and a television viewer. (Television is one of the main sub-threads of the story.)

The narrative revolves almost entirely around holidays, and mostly Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, underlining that the film is about being American, not about being Jewish. (Labor Day makes one guest appearance.) The cast is astonishing. This was my introduction to the brilliance of Armin Mueller-Stahl. (I will never forget how he sings under his breath, "We go to the river so we can sleep..") But Aidan Quinn, Kevin Pollak, Lou Jacobi ("You cut the toikey without me!"), Joan Plowright, Elizabeth Perkins and a very young Elijah Wood are all superb.

You will be entertained, provoked to thought and, if you are open to it, moved. Please see Avalon.

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