Grizzly Man (dir. Werner Herzog, 2005) is two documentaries in one: the first is video shot by Timothy Treadwell, the self-described bear-whisperer, of himself in the Alaskan wilderness; and the second is edited and narrated by director Werner Herzog, about Treadwell’s controversial life and death. Herzog weaves these two voices together, the naive enthusiast and the experienced adventurer, while the conflict between man and nature plays itself out to its tragic end.
The Magnificent Ambersons – 1942 – dir. Orson Welles
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), based on the Booth Tarkington novel of the same name, focuses on an Indianapolis family around the turn of the century. The most important family in town, with an impressive neo-gothic mansion, horses and buggies, beautiful clothes, and perfect pedigree, the Ambersons represent “old money” at a time when there wasn’t any other kind. “Old,” at least, for Indianapolis. But times they were a-changing, horses were yielding to horseless carriages, agriculture was shifting to the new industrial economy, and the old society, in which you are born to it, was being pushed aside by the new, in which you can become what you make of it.
“Rosebud:” possibly the most famous single word in cinema.
Orson Welles was only 25 when he made Citizen Kane (1941), consistently nominated as the greatest film ever made. Said to be based not-so-loosely on the lives of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and the comedienne Marion Davies, and often taken as a psychological study of Welles himself, Citizen Kane traces a classic American rags-to-riches trajectory, as it examines the true cost of getting everything you want.
Recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, It’s a Wonderful Life (dir. Frank Capra, 1946) has been variously described as a heartwarming celebration of family values, an historical appreciation of vanished small-town life, “sentimental hogwash,” an indictment of centralized banking, and a communist manifesto. It is all of these things. And yet, it is also something more.
So. Here you are, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), a young woman in your twenties, newly hatched and out and about in the world, meeting the usual suspects. Among them is Victor Laszlo (Paul Heinreid); he’s handsome, passionate, committed to a good cause, the only cause: liberté, égalité, fraternité. In fact, he’s actually the leader of the resistance! And single. And he singles you out. You cannot believe your luck. There are many late nights in the café, and then later nights at his apartment. Your relationship is secret, this is for your protection he says, but that just adds to the aura. There’s a lot of travel, too; it isn’t safe to stay too long in one place, especially for him. There seems to be one “it” city every half-century, Paris is currently “it,” and you’ve arrived.
Then the Nazis pick him up. Then you fall in love. But not with him.
By Peggy Nelson Pickpocket – 1959 – dir. Robert Bresson
He sidles up to her. A quick glance, suspicious, complicit. Does she know? Does she notice? Ostensibly they are betting on the horses. His long fingers spread, ever so slowly, over the purse. The pressure is subtle, slight, relentless. His fingertips tease the edge of the clasp. Gently, gently, yes! he pops it open. His eyes flicker. Her face is still calm, a nimbus of white against his dark intensity. The fingers slip inside the folds: one, two, three . . . we suddenly hear the horses thundering along the track. Louder, more insistent, until—he emerges with the money! The horses are unstoppable! The finish line is breached! And, it is over. The crowd disperses, he blends into the Brownian motion. He has gotten away with it! Drained by the effort, he walks/stumbles away.
In Moon (dir. Duncan Jones, 2009), Sam Rockwell plays the scruffy hipster-next-door on the moon, who turns out to be both more and less than what he seems. With impressive set design, constructed with tiny models instead of CGI, Moon inhabits not the 1960s techno-future of visible progress, but the 1970s paranoid present of hidden ulterior motives. In a way, Moon recalls not so much the actual space race, but the aftermath of plastic modules on the kitchen table, with an excess of glue and tiny pieces that don’t seem to fit anymore.
Easy Rider (dir. Dennis Hopper, 1969), like it’s lesser-known sibling, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), poses the question, where are you going when all the roads are mapped? In their constant motion, Wyatt/Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) are seeking unmapped territory, but the only unmapped territory is within. By refusing to settle in one place, by being nomads, they are refusing the predetermined categories of social role and occupation.
Freedom has been synonymous with freedom of the open road since before this country was founded: freedom to wander around in space, to break free of the boundaries of town, city, job, habits, and self, and simply go, to wander in space and see what and who you might find. The hippies in Easy Rider are icons now, and were icons then. But they’re on a journey much older than hippies – the Beats, too, had their road, the hobos theirs, the frontiersmen and pioneers their roads, stolen from and grafted on top of the Native Americans’ trajectories in space.
In Five Easy Pieces (dir. Bob Rafaelson, 1970) Robert Eroica Dupea, played by a young-ish Jack Nicholson, has “dropped out” by dropping down a couple of levels in the class structure. Frustrated by the constraints of a serious classical music career, when we first meet him he is working on an oil rig, hanging out with his working class buddies at the bowling alley, and dating a diner waitress (Karen Black), in a thorough rejection of his upper class background and ideals.
Set in Nashville, Tennessee, home of the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville (dir. Robert Altman, 1975) follows musicians, con artists, politicians, and weirdos as their lives overlap and intersect over the course of a fateful few days. The film showcases Altman’s signature style of combining multiple story lines, noisy, overlapping dialogue, and realistic, scattered camera angles into a complex yet consistent narrative whole. Considered by many to be Altman’s best film, it sashays between dialogue and song, the individual and the political, and humor and tragedy, without missing a beat.