June 21, 2006

Not so wonderful


The recent network broadcast of another one of those silly AFI "best of" lists gives me a good contrarian opportunity to rant about their #1 and #5 picks. As Tim Cavanaugh puts it, "If your idea of a great movie experience is to line up for Gone With the Mockingbird Who Came To Casablanca While Saving Schindler's List of Arabia, this year's list is for you."

In the case of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (#5) we have a supposed paean to American democracy featuring a protagonist who wasn't elected to anything. More importantly, set against Senator Paine's pork barrel dam project is Senator Smith's idiotic proposal to build a national park in his back yard. Corruption aside, the federal government has a real interest in building dams, and zero business building Boy Scout camps. Herein we see the justification of a disastrous political philosophy that condones the extension of federal control into any aspect of life as long as our politicians "mean well."

The real disservice, though, is the film's groveling before populist myths about representative governance. Our Founding Fathers rejected the Athenian model for exactly the reasons depicted in the movie. If a junior senator could shove a bill through Congress simply by delivering a stirring speech, think of the wreck this country would really be in. Even as powerful a Senate majority leader as LBJ could not accomplish anything without twisting a lot of arms. The whole reason for a separation of powers and checks & balances is to make it difficult for the government to act so arbitrarily.

As for It's a Wonderful Life (#1) Greg Kamiya sums it up well. But I'll throw in another cheap shot from A.S. Hamrah: "[It's] a dark movie about a guy who realizes what a loser he is: He never even got out of his hometown, and he's suicidal because he realizes his life was pointless."

To which I'll add that the movie proposes an insidious thesis--that the sum of a person's life is limited to a handful of documentary moments. If George Bailey didn't exist, none of those particular "lifesaving" moments would have evolved to exist either. But since George Bailey's life is considered by others so important to their own welfare, the world is dumped on his shoulders, in disregard to his existence as an individual human being. His happiness comes from the realization that this Borg-like assimilation of his soul is just and deserved because the ends justify the means. Hello Orwell.

As for a truly inspiring movie? Blade Runner (before Ridley Scott recut and ruined it). Rutger Hauer's death soliloquy ("I've seen things you people wouldn't believe") is suffused with a poignancy and love of life rarely matched by deliberately "inspirational" films. Another good example from an unexpected quarter (and one inspired by Blade Runner) is Ghost in the Shell. Motoko Kusanagi sets out to catch the bad guys and by the end of the movie has pretty much solved the existential riddle of her life in the process (though it's kind of a bummer for Batou).

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