Every year during the Fourth of July, American cable and movie channels never fail to make an effort to run a slate of films perceived as ideal in representing the American brand. These range from war movies dripping with nostalgia and patriotism to pop culture pieces sympathetic to American history and ideals to macho action movies dedicated to American exceptionalism. But with every showing of The Patriot, Yankee Doodle Dandy, or Independence Day, the question becomes more and more pressing, what is an American film? Perhaps more specifically, what is an American director?
To be fair, any number of directors could be classified as quintessentially American. There is the shining humanism of John Ford, the political posturing and questioning of Oliver Stone and Michael Moore, even the capitalist excess of Michael Bay. Below are four directors that may not immediately come to mind as proto typically American filmmakers. The films of these four auteurs are devoid of flag waving or chest thumping, neither used as soap boxes nor monuments. These are directors that could only exist because of America, who bypass stereotypes to create images and characters entrenched in our nation’s culture, employ history as a fulcrum for contemporary ideas, and explore alternative renderings of classical American themes.
The Ohio born independent film auteur Jim Jarmusch specializes in characters who view America through an ironic detachment. Though this post modern iconoclasm of the country is dry and edgy, it’s never dispassionate. Beginning with Stranger Than Paradise, his black and white tone pieces play like love letters to the open road, elucidating a worldview more conducive with poetry than with documentation. The trio of escaped convicts crossing the wilderness in Down By Law move beyond loner isolationism to oddball brotherhood. The wounded accountant of Dead Man passes through the West–and the Western genre–like a specter crossing over to the land of the dead. Traversing the United States is merely a portal to self discovery. Jarmusch’s early anthology films apply an outsider’s outlook to the splendor of American pop culture–the Japanese couple obsessed with Elvis in Mystery Train, the cabbies and passengers in New York, Los Angeles, and three foreign lands appropriating the inveterate symbol of American transportation in Night on Earth. And underscoring them all is the director’s affinity for the most American of musical genres–blues and rock–made explicit by his casting of legendary musicians Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Joe Strummer, among others.
Perhaps no other American director is more fascinated by Americana than David Lynch. His Midwestern sensibility combined with a surrealist lens fashions him as a pitch perfect director for deconstructing the underbelly of American institutions. The Kincaid level kitsch of Blue Velvet’s postcard vision of suburbia, complete with Roy Orbison blaring on the soundtrack, is merely a glossy veneer painted over a small community no less vile and perverse than the big city. Whereas the big city dreams of Mulholland Dr.’s ingénue expose a soul shattering Hollywood spiral uncommon to the small town sheltered. But like all of the symbols of the United States’ enticing grip over the uninitiated, the epistemological heart of America resides in the open road, a magical expanse where legends can be made (Wild at Heart), a new identity formed (Lost Highway), and cross country reconciliation mythologized (The Straight Story).
Very few countries other than the United States have a past as customizable for visual and narrative storytelling. Throughout Terrence Malick’s career, it is almost as if the Texas born filmmaker has been quietly charting the course of American history on film. His intimate renderings of characters as the centers of their own universes contrast exquisitely with their statuses within history. The legendary Pocahontas and John Smith of The New World live inside of time, unaware of how history will perceive them as do the prosaic figures in the early 1900’s of Days of Heaven and World War II of The Thin Red Line. His first film Badlands and his most recent film The Tree of Life capture the nostalgic 1950’s landscape at opposite ends of the spectrum–the perversion of a country’s movie star icons through violent self awareness and the obscure navigation of childhood filtered through conflicted innocence, respectively. The allure of life on a grand scale attracts Malick to the demythologization of fashionable tropes of identifiable American eras, where history is just an alternative course to spiritual enlightenment.
Martin Ritt’s early foray into moving pictures began with television until he became egregiously suspected of having communist sympathies during the Red Scare. Ritt abandoned the small screen and emerged not as a filmmaker spurned but as a filmmaker invigorated. His response was less a vehement social outcry and more a proclamation of identity–1957’s Edge of the City about a union dock worker under pressure from his corrupt boss. His subsequent collaborations with silver screen icon Paul Newman–the actor practically a symbol of the rugged yet vulnerable Hollywood visage–reinforced the virile American leading man while redefining his context in society, most famously in Hud, which updated the cowboy as a hard drinking, misogynistic, free loading relic. Ritt’s social consciousness colored his films more as untold stories intended to educate than polemics designed to proselytize. Be it the black boxer up against a white paradigm in The Great White Hope, the black sharecropping family of Sounder, or the underrepresented titular textile worker of Norma Rae, Ritt saw American identity as intrinsic and irrevocable.