Tag: american cinema foundation

ACF #12: Strong Women


Folks, the show is back — this is my second podcast with my friend Pete Spiliakos and he has another great idea to explore: Movie heroines of our times. First, we’re going back a generation to ask about the origins of these characters: Whatever happened with the last of the Boomers and the first of the Gen X-ers? We’re talking about the arrival of thrillers and horrors that thematize the problem of adulthood for young women. We start with Nancy, the heroine of Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street (1984); then go on to Laurie (played by Jaime Lee Curtis), the heroine of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978); and then Sarah Connor, the famous heroine of James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984).

Thoughts on The Terminator


Recently, director James Cameron started a public quarrel over what a strong woman looks like on screen. He’s angry that Wonder Woman, an obvious sexual objectification, should be considered a strong woman. It’s a step back for the movies! Well, you can imagine the woman who directed that movie did not take this kindly, nor decided discretion was the better part of valor… I know this is a very strange kind of controversy to come out of Hollywood, but these are strange times, and despite the silliness of it all, the question of how female protagonists face up to the world is important for American society in ways Hollywood used to reflect.

So says my friend Pete Spiliakos — we recorded a podcast on the DC movies seen through political philosophy — so we’re set to talk about strong women in film. He named his titles and, among them, The Terminator (1984). So you’re in for a treat for the next ACF movie podcast, as we see what a massive difference there is between the social situation of the earliest Boomers — see my recent movie essay on Nancy Meyers — and the very last Boomers, whose formative experiences were the late ’60s and the ’70s. Meanwhile, some thoughts you may not have encountered before on The Terminator, the movie that made Cameron and Schwarzenegger stars.

A generation later, what can we learn about the future from this story?

ACF#11 Damsels in Distress


This week’s podcast is the beginning of a series on the films of Whit Stillman, the poet of the preppie class, the ironist of the romantic comedy — as people sometimes say, America’s own Jane Austen. I am joined by our own @flaggtaylor and our common friend Carl Eric Scott for a discussion of Damsels in Distress, a delightful comedy about an American liberal arts college, constructed with an admirable respect for the rules of comedy and almost entirely free of the sordid. Almost everything you see is laughable and there is a sophisticated way of getting to distinguish what we are inclined to laugh at because of our common sense and what is merely laughable because of our prejudices.

ACF #10 The Nolan Brothers


Hello, everyone! I am joined on the American Cinema Foundation podcast by Jason Eberl and George Dunn, editors of the book The Philosophy of Christopher Nolan. They are professors of philosophy with an interest in pop culture, and editors of many books on America’s favorite shows and movies over the last 50 years. Our wide-ranging discussion of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s movies goes through Memento (2000), The Dark Knight (2008), Interstellar (2014), and Dunkirk (2017).

America and Marvel, Part V: Genres and Their Reflection on American Society


I will close this series with two brief explanations of how genre itself involves reflections on American society. I have recently been working on horror movies, so that is one of my examples. American horror comes down to two versions of an attack on progress. One is Christian — Hitchcock did it, his many imitators since John Carpenter do it, and endless others. These stories try to put together the universal and the particular in this way. They start with a social setting that is very broad and designed to show what’s happening with American freedom. They then move on to an individual story of the emergence of evil. How crazily implausible evil has become, and how maddening, therefore, is supposed to teach the audience that they didn’t see evil in the setting. The unwillingness of good respectable middle-class Americans to see the evil in their hearts, and therefore in their society, leads them to countenance or even provoke monstrous things.

The tragic poet in this case resorts to these shocking things rightly called horror on the assumption that nothing else will even get a hearing. This is also what David Lynch wants to teach Americans; or Neil LaBute. These are very sophisticated movie-makers, but they are basically Christian moralists. They mean to remind Americans that you can stop believing in God, but you can’t stop believing in evil. Instead of providence, you get God’s wrath.

The alternative to Christian horror is scientific horror. America has great examples in Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, more or less to correspond to the great British insights offered by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I note in passing that these two British books, answering to the Victorian century of progress, deal with science taking control over life and then over good and evil respectively. Those, you will recall, are the two trees the fruit whereof was forbidden to man in Genesis.

America and Marvel, Part IV: Show Business and the Marvel Identity


Let us now see how all this emerges from show business. The box office seems to be growing exclusively on the strength of pricier tickets, as fewer people go to the movies. Fewer movies are made every year, counting movies with any kind of broad release — not 4,000 theaters, but say more than 500. The number of studios and the number of sources for stories are also decreasing. In the business, the idea is called intellectual property. In that sense, a minuscule oligarchy sells what a massive democracy wants to buy. The view of America you get at the movies is concentrating, ignoring more and more of the country. So, let us look at what we buy or, rather, buy into, while only really renting.

Today, cinema is dominated by three genres:

  1. Superhero movies.
  2. Animation, mostly about cute animals, often about redeeming villains.
  3. Teenage horrors-with-a-happy-ending, that is, political paranoia.

These are replacements for, respectively, action movies, family movies, and social criticism movies. There are many changes to speak about, so far as society is concerned. The audience for all these stories is getting younger; the knowledge of American society required to follow the movies is itself decreasing. Observations on life in America are constantly replaced by symbols.

America and Marvel, Part III: The Role of Cinema


I will start with some eminently questionable remarks. Let us start from the place of cinema in American life. Americans are notorious for the great gap their society leaves open in-between personal, private experiences, particular to each one and interesting mostly to himself — and public debates or public discourse, which is dominated by abstractions.

Tocqueville famously said Americans are uniquely given to general ideas — whenever doubt should arise about anything, a principle will be stated with god-like certainty. What lies in-between the abstract or universal and the personal or particular is judgment. Judgment, in both common senses of the word, is frowned upon in America. Obviously, moral judgment is frowned upon because it is a form of discrimination and the ground and mode of discrimination — it also odors of inequality, as he who judges necessarily sets himself the superior of he whom he judges. But judgment offends not merely equality — it also offends independence, or individualism.

You will notice, if you pay attention to your fellow Americans, that they spontaneously desire to raise an individual objection to just about any general statement in order to ruin the credibility of that statement. In America, every word for generality becomes suspect — think merely of the scientific word stereotype, which is not something anyone would say about his own way of thinking or mode of argument. The sacred rage against general rules is the intellectual correlative of the moral problem of judgment. There is a kind of heroism in Americans that leads them to fight off the claims of the intellect, that their freedom or unpredictability may remain intact. The argument against judgment is that it traps people’s individuality in human types available to the intellect in abstraction from experience. Each one wants to retain his essential mysteriousness, his opacity to the scrutiny of reason. This is politically salutary in many ways — a people without this aggressive rejection of reason would be easily tyrannized, indeed, with its consent. But it also creates serious problems. In America, taste is impossible publicly to distinguish from prejudice. Judgment, however, requires a ground more amenable to the intellect than inclination, less shifting than preference, and more social than habit.

America and Marvel, Part II: Reflections of and on Society


A few days ago, I talked to my associate Prof. Harmon who raised a fundamental question by way of a preposition. This is not as rare an occurrence as you might think. He asked whether I meant to speak of American cinema as a reflection of American society or a reflection on it. As I said, the movies are our human way of seeing what we’re like, as humans. But what does that mean more clearly?

“Reflections of society” involves the obvious meaning of imitation. What you see on the screen is what the movie-makers saw looking around — America. But this could mean two different things, being that no movie can reflect America as a whole. American movie-makers might offer Americans the images they think will please them — they see what Americans approve, and are governed in their works by that experience. This would mean cinema is a kind of flattery; a barely concealed form of self-congratulation. Every theater-going experience is really an awards ceremony in disguise. There is more than a little truth to that. Do people leave the theaters of this great notion in a soul-searching mood, somewhat chastened by the experience, or rather smug, and even self-important?

Or on the other hand, you could have what in literature we used to call realism and naturalism: An impious, immoderate staring at ugliness and misery, to chasten the bourgeois materialism of modern society. That’s not fun cinema. Even in America, this paradise, there is misery and there is suffering. That could be reflected in the movies instead of the fun stuff. This is not unheard of, but is very rare; it’s been rare in every decade except the Seventies, and the vaguely suicidal public mood in America at that time suggests there is more than a little that’s questionable in this fascination with ugliness.

America and Marvel, Part I: Introduction


At first, this series may seem strange to you. All I can say by way of preparatory remarks is that cinema properly understood is the self-understanding of a society. It comprises individual taste, popular phenomena, prestige, and also great achievements. It is at once all-American and almost universally opposed in America. Cinema is part of civilization — it is an attempt to think through and therefore to educate Americans about what it means to be a human being. But it retains elements of barbarism — a surprising fondness for images, let’s say.

Cinema is remarkably democratic in that it shows us the bodies of human beings whom we instantly recognize, with all the moral and intellectual consequences that follow from that knowledge. But it is also aristocratic, in that it privileges stories which are impressive by reason of being unusual — we generally look for great beauty, great power, or great achievements in stories. Or at any rate, cinema inevitably produces celebrities, the most obvious form of inequality in America.

Cinema today is what books used to be in America. To define the thing by the work it does characteristically is to see that movies, like books or literature previously, are our poetry — our making up stories about the things that most interest us. Our poetry is defined by a concern with the wholeness of life or human action. This is not to say that the highest purpose of cinema is the only purpose — I start there because it is needful to do so in our times. I remind you of Tocqueville’s statement that poetry in democratic times is bound to lose its ambition. The greatest things somehow slip from view without our noticing it. So, what is typical of our situation is that cinema has overrun our lives while at the same time its every claim to consideration is collapsing.

ACF #9: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman


Hello, folks, this week’s podcast completes last week’s discussion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a discussion of the DC superhero movies. My friend and PoMoCon coconspirator Pete Spiliakos joins me–he is a columnist at First Things and writes for NRO, too. You can take my word for it, he’s the kind of conservative we need to hear more of!

ACF#8: Movies, Poetry, America, and Marvel


Hello, Ricochet! It is my pleasure to share my first public lecture on American cinema and society. I’ll start with thanks to my friends Tom Harmon and Matt Peterson, professors at John Paul the Great Catholic University–and, of course, to the university. And to the kids who did the audio-video work with precious little help from me. They’re too young I think for me to buy them a beer, but if they play their cards right… I’ll soon publish the written lecture, which is somewhat different, just in case not everyone wants to watch…

ACF #7 Dunkirk


Here’s the first in a series of podcasts on the movies of Christopher Nolan, starting with his newest, Dunkirk. Today, I am joined by my friend Eric and we’re talking about everything from Winston Churchill and Christopher Nolan to Edward Elgar and Charles Lightoller (yes, the second officer on the Titanic!). The crisis of confidence of the West is part of the discussion, too, as are America’s teenagers. And all that in about half an hour. Listen to our podcast — you’ll get details about the movie mentioned almost nowhere else, and assembled in a novel way. Pain and patriotism rate a mention, too!

ACF #6 The Birds


The American Cinema Foundation movie podcast is back. @stsalieriericcook and I are talking about Hitchock’s follow-up to Psycho, The Birds. We answer the basic questions about the bird attacks and we hope to persuade you that Hitchcock plotted his story not merely with a view to thrills, but from a serious moral perspective that should be of interest especially, but not exclusively, to conservatives. At the same time, our claim is that the moral perspective is as obvious as the images on the screen once you pay attention to the sequence of events, as well as the setting.

So we’ve taken to explaining both the shockingly obscure and the apparently throwaway, to put them together and show that they really do belong together.

ACF#5 Predator


The American Cinema Foundation movie podcast is back with an anniversary piece. Back in ’87, on the same day Reagan gave his famous “Tear down this wall” speech in Berlin, June 12, John McTiernan’s Predator premiered in America. This was his first studio picture and remains a contender among the best movies about manliness. What starts as a “special forces doing foreign policy in the third world” sort of story, winning the Cold War on screen as it were, threatens to turn into horror as the jungle comes alive and begins to kill these special forces operators, just as we start to admire them.

ACF #4 — “Psycho”


Welcome to the fourth episode of the American Cinema Foundation movie podcast! Today, I am joined by my friend and Ricochet compeer @stsalieriericcook. Eric Cook is a history teacher in a charter school in North Carolina, an organist in a church, and a builder of pipe organs, actually. One of Ricochet’s eccentric scholar-gentlemen, with an all-American upbringing in the working classes of Western Pennsylvania and a sometimes nostalgic, sometimes angry respect for the dignity of work, which is not faring well in our times. He also scores silent films–this is his BluRay of the 1922 movie Timothy’s quest–and leads the Ivy Leaf Orchestra!

ACF#3 Gran Torino


The movie podcast is back! @flaggtaylor and I are talking about the film Gran Torino, about Clint Eastwood’s last turn as actor-director, and his last great character, Walt Kowalski, an American with a legacy. We’ve got lots to say about who he is and how he deals with the world around him, what he says about America and what Americans are meant to learn from his story. It’s something we should have recorded during the election — it’s one of the few movies about making America great again that’s both serious, popular, and compelling.

This is the essay I mention in the podcast, over on National Review, about Clint Eastwood as a teacher Americans should learn from, about civic responsibility and manliness. And this is the book I mention on the podcast: Totalitarianism on Screen, about The Lives of Others, the great movie about East German communism. Flagg edited it and wrote it with our common friend Carl Eric Scott — who will also join me on the podcast as soon as I can get hold of him.

ACF #2 ALIEN: Covenant


Here, folks, another week, another podcast. This week we’re discussing Alien: Covenant. Ridley Scott wants to make the lowbrow genre of the blockbuster into a middlebrow work by adding a lot of highbrow art. I’m all for it! So my friend and I are discussing the two important conversations in the movie, in the beginning and in the center, in relation to the works of art on display and their role in revealing character and discerning intentions.

At the same time, we’re talking about the meaning of horror as a genre and the moral logic it obeys. Listen to the end for some shocking remarks about 19th-century British horror stories and the book of Genesis! At the same time, we’re continuing our elaboration of the conflict between life and science — this is Ridley Scott working in his Lovecraft-ian mode. And there’s more! Take a listen, and please share!

American Cinema Foundation, Podcast #1


Hello, Ricochet! Here’s the first of my projects through the American Cinema Foundation. I’m planning a weekly podcast talking about movies new and old, as they come into the news. What I want out this series of half-hour discussions is to give people a sense of the depth of thought involved in movies, even in popular movies that do not pretend to be sophisticated. It’s probably going to take me a while to figure out a format that works for an American audience, but I can guarantee that you’ll hear things that make sense as soon as you hear them, but which you haven’t heard before, as well as things that make no sense or seem very obscure.

I’m all about showing what’s serious about the movies I talk about, and so are my friends and guests. I’m hoping to make a bit of a splash, not least so that I find it easier to invite directors and writers on the podcast to talk about what’s worthwhile in American cinema. So please share this wherever you can! I’m grateful for whatever suggestions you can make, if you think they might help me improve the podcast and spread the word about my work here. Ultimately, I want to help people think about movies. Our leisure to a large extent is about movies and series. I’m all about giving people ways to get as much as possible out of the movies they love or even are merely curious about.