It’s Thanksgiving! Well, not quite yet. We still have a few weeks to go to reflect on this strange holiday, one in which we celebrate a nation’s founding with a parade that essentially functions as a day-long advertisement for a retail outlet.
That not withstanding, there is something unique in how the American experience has been translated to film over the last century. The primary mode of expression for most filmmakers seems to be conveying how their specific group fits into the story of this big experiment. The interesting part isn’t so much the translation itself, which is essentially the same story of integration applied to many different cultures, but instead what happens in the aftermath; you never truly become a part of America until you take from it. The American story is often seen as one of heroes, men and women who courageously stand firm in the face of adversity. You immediately think of western stars like Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952) and John Wayne in Rio Bravo (1959), or possibly thrillers featuring performances like Meryl Streep in Silkwood (1983) and Frances McDormand in Fargo (1996). These are the people with attributes we associate as being uniquely American: obsessively persistent, unfailing in conviction and always cunning. I’m not here to argue those aren’t characteristics that can be applied to the American story; my argument is that we have it wrong when applying those virtues to heroes, because the essential American story is the crime story.
Crime is essential to understanding America because it’s a function that has determined our nature from the beginning. America was born out of crime, or rebellion if you’re on this side of the Atlantic. American expansion and Manifest Destiny is the story of theft, deception, and cunning. Our economy has entirely shifted into a model that alternately condemns and rewards criminal behavior. The true American hero isn’t the cop walking the streets as he quietly protects his community, it’s the deranged criminal looking to fight his way to the top. We’re not Ed Tom Bell, the aged, moral law figure in No Country for Old Men (2007); we’re Anton Chigurh, the violent sociopath with a dogged determination to finish the job.
Over the coming weeks I intend to illustrate how the primary hero in American film is the criminal. A nation founded on morality is only concerned with how best to upend those morals. The story of becoming American is one of transgressing and disobeying, not civilly or meticulously as in the Thoreau tradition but instead violently and instantaneously as in the Bronson tradition.
11/13/14: Horatio Alger, Crime Lord
11/20/14: I Am the Law: Vigilante Justice and Justification
11/27/14: Bad Cop, Badder Cop, Baddest Cop