13 September 2007

Help me choose films for my classes

In less than three weeks, I expect to join the adjunct faculty at the New Humanitarian Institute in Elektrostal, Russia, offering classes in American studies and conversational English.

Among the fifth-year students, mostly in their early 20's, I will be using American movies as part of the material for classes and other opportunities. What films would you recommend that would meet these criteria?
  • accurately portray the sector and time period of American society depicted
  • illuminate (whether through plot, dialogue, or background elements) how the characters' or their communities' values were brought to bear on important dilemmas or conflicts
  • no gratuitous sex or violence
  • superb English usage within the regional and social contexts portrayed
  • examples of cinematic excellence
  • (are there other criteria you'd recommend?)
In the "values" criterion I don't ask that "American values" be demonstrated. I don't want to imply that my purpose is to portray certain values as "American"--I'm more interested in showing how values that might very well be universal have been applied in the experience of the USA.

Here are some of the movies I will be taking with me or have already placed in the Institute's library on previous visits:
  • Good Night, and Good Luck
  • Citizen Kane
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou?
  • Martin Luther King: "I Have a Dream"
  • The Maltese Falcon
  • Standing in the Shadows of Motown
  • The Howling' Wolf Story
  • To End All Wars
  • The Fog of War
And here are a few that have already been nominated for my class list:
  • The Caine Mutiny
  • The Friendly Persuasion
  • Thirteen Days
  • Syriana
  • Dogma
Tell me what films you think I should definitely show the students, and also feel free to let me know which ones on the lists above you'd advise me to remove! Let me know if you have spare DVD copies of your must-show suggestions. (Regional encoding is not a problem.)

Television is also on the suggested list of topics. Some American TV shows make it onto Russian airwaves and cablewaves, but are there truly emblematic programs or series that I should attempt to purchase or download? I'm at a disadvantage here; I am a half year or more behind in the only programs I actually follow--The Wire and Battlestar Galactica.

Righteous links: The Rockridge Institute's Bruce Budner asks an excellent question: What do reactions to the revelations about Senator Larry Craig tell us about our values? ~~~ It's about time: one of the cheekiest periodicals in the world, The eXile, lowers a loud rhetorical boom on another periodical that wouldn't be caught in the same library: The Economist. Only, the rude, obscenity-ridden junior has it, I'm afraid, just about right. What set off eXile's shower of f-words this time? The senior magazine's consistent hatchet jobs on Putin and Russia. ~~ Speaking of hatchet jobs, today's rhetoric watch includes this winner, "The Politics of Global Warming," from the ecumenical journal First Things, a periodical that too often emits an odd tone of unctuous archness in place of the eXile's potty-talk. (And that's probably the only time you'll ever hear those two periodicals mentioned in the same sentence. But it's only fair to them both to acknowledge that each often has interesting commentaries that you aren't likely to find elsewhere.) Ostensibly a plea for a fair hearing for global-warming skeptics (for whom it's hard to feel too much pity, their demotion in the current U.S. administration having been so recent), the First Things article is a catalog of loopy logic. Just for the record, I would not be in favor of muzzling those skeptics for one minute, but as A Musing Environment's Karen Street points out, "When people are denied space in science magazines, some feel that prejudice rather than discernment is involved." In any case, does anyone believe that the pages of First Things are now the only platform available to global-warming skeptics? ~~~ The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has two interesting items (at least!) currently on its Web site. (1) A survey on "Religion in Campaign '08" (also see the earlier "Religion gap" article, and "Falwell's Son Urges Conservative Pastors To Get Out the Vote.") (2) An interview with Sari Nusseibeh, "Looking for a Way Out: Rethinking the Arab-Israeli Conflict."

Warning: This patchy video clip is rough as it can be, with no roadhouse blues cliché left untouched! (And it takes a half-minute or so for the cameras to decide where to look.) But those who love this energy will understand.... Lou Ann Barton is a "Natural Born Lover":


Anonymous said...

Movie nominations for your teaching:

The Color Purple

Harvest of Fire [a female FBI agent attempts to help an Amish community solve a series of arsons]


Bill said...

A movie that shows a part of our culture not represented on your list -- rural Iowa: The Straight Story by David Lynch

kwattles said...

"Saturday Night Fever" would be good, I think. The glitz of American culture, with the underlying social and personal turmoil. It's out-of-date enough that we can get a better perspective.

"Paris, Texas" is another good one, though it might get a bit tedious for young people watching it. It has the feel for the wide open spaces and smaller towns in many parts of the U.S., as well as big cities and car culture.

Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" would be a good counterpoint to "Saturday Night Fever." The characters are somewhat cardboard, which probably would help foreign viewers.

There's sex and violence in each of these, but not gratuitous. Wikipedia has good summaries.

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks, Vail and Bill. I have not seen any of these except The Color Purple.

Mentioning David Lynch and underrepresented cultures brought up lots of associations for me. Alternative spiritualities (Lynch's TM, for example) and synthesized religions are definitely part of Americam reality. (Forgive my shorthand labels!) Thinking about Iowa also reminded me of Field of Dreams, and going a little to the east, Hoosiers. After all, baseball and basketball are very much part of our culture. What would I use to represent Portland, Oregon? Fight Club?

Kirk--your suggestions came in as I was writing this. Thanks much. I've seen all of the films you suggested, and they all fit, one way or another. One film I won't use but wish I could is A History of Violence, a film that grows on me every time I see it.

Johan Maurer said...

PS: Speaking of "tedious" films that I love, what about Reds? I guess, on second thought, too much of it takes place in Russia for it to be truly a film about the USA, and I can't imagine how I'd carve out enough time to show it, but I think I'll at least add it to my library.

Nancy A said...


I think one of the problems you are going to have in finding "defining" movies about American culture is that it's a large country with a lot of regional diversity. What is true of New York is not true of Iowa; and what is true of Asian immigrants is not true of Southern ladies. Etc.

There was a movie a few years back starring Robin Williams (Moscow on the Hudson???) that showed how a Russian immigrant experience the dream and then the harsh reality of American life. It contrasted two ways of seeing American life; and the Russian protagonist may make the movie easier for this audience to relate to.

Robin M. said...

I'm really the last person to comment on classic American films, given that just about the only ones I've seen in the last five years have involved fictional wizards, but I still remember watching a Tom Hanks movie about a lawyer with AIDS that stayed with me. I think it was just called Philadelphia.

If I were to choose a TV series, I might choose Little House on the Prairie and analyze why this appealed to modern Americans so much.

In any case, I'm happy to be finally caught up enough on my blog reading to get to this the same week you wrote it!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Bill, for recommending The Straight Story. It is a truly great, and utterly quiet, film. I saw it with a fellow Quaker after meeting on Sunday and we both sat very still together after it was over, sharing the sweetness of the mood and not wanting to disturb it. Alas, the prairie landscapes don't translate well to the small screen. So the largest projection mechanism you can find would be the best.

Other movies that I'd like to watch with Russians would be All the President's Men, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and 1776. Speaking of musicals, what about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers?

And I'd love to come talk to your classes about the John Ford/John Wayne Westerns compared with the Howard Hawks/John Wayne Westerns.

I also commend to everyone's attention Sidney Pollock's The Interpreter. It's the only film I've seen that comes close to capturing the complexity of living in post 9/11 Manhattan. And 9/11 is never mentioned.

What a great post, Johan! I expect I'll be back with more.

Anonymous said...

First, let me correct myself on my previous post: it's Sidney Pollack (and Jackson Pollock).

Now, more titles, Johan. The Long Walk Home, a woman's eye view of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (filmed with the help of the Fellowship of Reconciliation), in which Sissy Spacek has her consciousness slowly raised by empathy for and connection with her black maid, played beautifully by Whoopi Goldberg.

How about a couple of legal system movies? Would they translate to Russia? Two David-defeating-Goliath stories are Francis Ford Coppola's John Grisham's The Rainmaker with Matt Damon taking on the health insurance industry. There is violence in the film, a battered-woman subplot, but I don't find it gratuitous. It's a stunningly made film. Then there's Erin Brockovich with Julia Roberts taking on environmental pollution with persistence and--again--empathy serving her.

Back to my Westerns, High Noon?

Then three cop movies come to mind. These may have too much violence for you, but they certainly present men in moral dilemmas in life-and-death situations. First is Peter Weir's Witness where a grievously gunshot-wounded Harrison Ford is rescued by the Amish. Then two first-rate Sidney Lumet films, both based on actual events in the New York City Police Department, of honest cops trying to go up against ingrained systemic corruption: Serpico with Al Pacino using his "birthright" Bronx accent in one of his best performances, followed by Prince of the City with Treat Williams. These are violent. People die. But, again, the violence seems integral to the gravity of the situation the men are in. It's not special effects stuff.

Not of the same quality but a movie I remain fond of is The Firm by Sidney Pollack. Tom Cruise gets seduced by the money a small southern law firm offers him fresh out of Harvard. Turns out this pleasant-seeming little law firm's primary client is the Mob, and Cruise has to figure out how to extricate himself without breaking the law himself. It's Hollywood stuff, and there's violence. People die. But Pollack isn't a hack.

Finally, I don't know if it fits your course but I have to mention Thunderheart with Val Kilmer playing an FBI agent sent to an Indian reservation to investigate a murder. Violence, again. The movie opens with the murder. And there are more shootings and deaths along the way, but this movie--more than any I have ever seen--captures what it feels like to have a vision, a mystical experience, a connection with a transcendent dimension. These experiences begin coming to Val Kilmer on the reservation as he talks to Indians. He's been sent there because he's part Mohawk, a part he's denied in himself but which begins to take over. Past-life stuff is involved. I suspect, from what you've told me of the Russians, that they might love this one.

Movies. Don't get me started!

Anonymous said...


I'm about to venture on a family history expedition with a Danish-American cousin and will be back online Sunday (and maybe in church, too). Meanwhile in response to your blog request, two suggestions:

*Station Agent
A neurologically challenged young man, an enthusiast about trains, becomes a station agent in a small town. It's a dear film. Our movie group at All Saints loved it.

*The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Movie of Carson McCullers book.

*Mississipi Burning
The civil rights case of the three murdered voter rights workers

*To Kill a Mockingbird
From the book by Harper Lee

*The Emigrants (1971)
Wikipedia entry:
The Emigrants can refer to: The Emigrants (novels), four novels by Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg:
The Emigrants (novel) (1949)
Unto a Good Land (1952)
The Settlers (novel) (1956)
The Last Letter Home (1959)
The Emigrants (film), a 1971 film adaption by Jan Troell of Moberg's first two novels

Anonymous said...

Then there's the sentimental, Ron Howard movie with Tom Cruise, Far and Away. It has a land rush scene that's very lavishly filmed, dramatic and exciting as the buggies and horsemen line up and then rush to claim land. It features the hardships of an immigrant pair as they journey toward eventual marriage and settling down.

Far and Away:

Ron Howard
Writers (WGA):
Bob Dolman (story) &
Ron Howard (story) ...
Release Date:
22 May 1992 (USA) more view trailer
Adventure / Drama / Romance more
They needed a country that was big enough for both of their dreams. more
Plot Summary:
A young man (Cruise) leaves Ireland with his landlord's daughter (Kidman)
after some trouble with her father...
3 nominations

Anonymous said...

I like a lot of the suggestions above.

I'd add John Sayles films to the list. They often discuss current American issues as well as give a sense of our culture with characters of some complexity.