The Quintessential American Movie of Every Decade, 1920s-Present

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BAMcinématek’s A Pryor Engagement retrospective, which we told you about a couple of weeks back, is unfortunately coming to an end this week — but not before tonight’s screening of a film that most consider not only lesser Pryor, but a fairly middling and forgettable effort in general. Your film editor disagrees. The picture is called Brewster’s Millions, a 1985 comedy that pairs up Richard Pryor and John Candy, and it’s not just a funny kick of a buddy movie (though it is that); it is, we contend, nothing less than the quintessential American 1980s motion picture. We’ll explain why in due course. In the meantime, inspired by this particular take on Millions, we decided to comb through the annals of cinema history and determine which films were most specifically of their decades. We’re not saying that these are the very best films of their time (though some were); rather, we feel that each is specific to their time, and summed it up in a unique way. We’ll go from the 1920s to the 2000s, and explain our choices along the way.

The 1920s: Sunrise

F.W. Murnau’s 1927 drama (occasionally given the subtitle A Song of Two Humans) is the story of a farmer tempted to murder his wife and flee his life by a sinful woman from the big city — a dramatization of the pull between simplicity and urbanization that split the nation in the “Roaring ‘20s.” As David Thomson wrote in his recent (and excellent) study The Big Screen, “What is most penetrating in Sunrise is leading it past the guidelines of a prim scenario. The film says ‘come to the city’ and ‘stay in love’ at a time when Hollywood was in confusion over both the town/ country split in America and the condition of marriage.” Murnau examines the split of the American psyche (as perhaps only a foreign artist could) with a complexity and nuance far from typical in cinema of the period.

The 1930s: Modern Times

There’s a timeless quality to the work of Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin, which was key to his appeal — he trades in images of melancholy and triumph, poverty and happily-ever-afters. But Modern Times, his Depression-era comedy of industrial malaise, looked its mid-‘30s setting right in the eye, and spoke directly to it. “More than any previous Chaplin film,” J. Hoberman wrote in The Village Voice, “albeit setting the precedent for all subsequent ones, Modern Times was a statement — Chaplin’s conscious, if sentimental, attempt to locate his alter ego in the context of class struggle.”

The 1940s: The Best Years of Our Lives

America spent four years fighting World War II, and decades afterwards coming to terms with it cinematically. Everyone from Spielberg to Malick to (God help us) Michael Bay took a shot at “the Great War,” but our boys had barely been home a year when William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives opened in late 1946. Adapting MacKinlay Kantor’s novel, screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood told the story of three veterans coming home from the war and coping with a very different world than the one they left behind. The picture isn’t always subtle, but that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful; its immediacy and realism (one of the three actors, Harold Russell, was a real vet who lost his hands in a training exercise) make it play less like drama than time capsule.

The 1950s: Rebel Without a Cause

Nicholas Ray’s 1955 drama is stuffed with the ephemera of “The Fifties”: fast cars, leather jackets, juvenile delinquents, James Dean. But it also embodied the uncertainty of the era, captured here in broad strokes of pop psychology and shifting gender roles, and in a widening generation gap that would define much of the cultural unrest that lay ahead. “Like its hero,” Roger Ebert writes, “Rebel Without a Cause desperately wants to say something and doesn’t know what it is. If it did know, it would lose its fascination. More perhaps than it realized, it is a subversive document of its time.”

The 1960s: Easy Rider

The filmmaking is often amateurish (how’s about those back-and-forth edits?). The pacing is deathly. It is self-indulgent, and frequently downright silly. But few films capture the urgency and rebellious spirit of the late 1960s the way Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda did when they headed out on the highway for this surprise 1969 smash. It hasn’t aged particularly well — most of the films from that era aimed at “the youth market” haven’t. But for many viewers of subsequent decades, this is “The Sixties.”

The 1970s: The Conversation

Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films made history by winning Best Picture Oscars in 1973 and 1975, but the quiet, personal film he made between them may well be the one that most succinctly captures its time. His story of a professional wire-tapper (beautifully underplayed by Gene Hackman) is one infused — suffocated, perhaps — by paranoia, by a distrust for everyone involved. It is a movie where everyone is up to something and someone is always listening, a hopeless and chilling feeling that the fallen Nixon White House instilled in everyone who made The Conversation, and in everyone who saw it.

The 1980s: Brewster’s Millions

Walter Hill’s 1985 Richard Pryor vehicle was a medium-sized hit that seldom gets mentioned today, aside from occasional remake chatter — which makes sense, as Hill’s was the eight-film version of George Barr McCutcheon’s 1902 novel. Its aged pedigree and the frequency of its interpretations would seem to make this a long-shot for consideration as the ultimate ‘80s movie, but stick with me here: the “go-go ‘80s” were a decade of conspicuous consumption, fast cars and designer threads and metric tons of cocaine, and conspicuous consumption is the very subject of Brewster’s Millions. (That is to say, it’s the explicitly stated subject; movies like Cocktail and Flashdance are less honest.) Brewster’s Millions concerns a loser (Pryor) who is left an inheritance of $300 million by a distant relative, under one condition: that he can first spend $30 million in 30 days, and have nothing tangible to show for it. In other words, spend as much money as you can, as fast as you can, as recklessly as you can. What could be more ‘80s than that?

The 1990s: Pulp Fiction

After a rather dry spell in in the 1980s, in which big business interests took over studios and only the occasional Blue Velvet or Do the Right Thing slipped through the cracks, American studio filmmaking was due for a shake-up. It came in the person of a fast-talking former video store clerk from Knoxville, Tennessee, whose second film solidified his distinctive voice and style. He merged multiplex and art house sensibilities with his triptych of crime stories, drawing inspiration equally from low and high art, from both Godard and Sonny Chiba, and creating a work that (thankfully) blurred the confining boundaries between indie and mainstream cinema.

The 2000s: 25th Hour

If 9/11 was the defining event of the 21st century’s first decade, Spike Lee’s 2002 drama seems more and more like the most poignant onscreen representation of the time following that morning in September. Unlike later films that dealt with 9/11 head-on, 25th Hour wasn’t about the attacks; David Benioff’s screenplay (adapted from his own novel) concerned a white-collar drug dealer’s last night in New York before heading off to the penitentiary. But Lee knew that no story set in NYC at that moment could ignore what had happened in Lower Manhattan, so he used imagery and offhand dialogue to make the attacks part of the tapestry. 9/11 isn’t in the foreground, but it’s not in the background either — it’s simply a fact of everyday existence for Lee’s characters, as it was for millions of Americans in those uncertain days.