Social Studies

By David Sturm, Copyright © 1996

If such things could be measured, it could probably be shown that movies do as much harm as good to society. However, there are times when filmmakers, including those in Hollywood, sniff the winds of a troubled society, rouse themselves to a crusading mode and turn out something that is an asset to the discourse of civilization.

Lots of movies portray society and its discontents, but the ones that follow are particularly potent or single-minded.

"The Lost Weekend" (1945), directed by Billy Wilder, was not only Hollywood's first serious treatment of alcoholism, but one of the first non-exploitative treatments of a social problem to come out of Hollywood. Anyone who's ever had the craving, whether for a drink or something else, will relate.

"Twelve Angry Men" (1957), directed by Sidney Lumet, goes beyond being a jury room drama by exposing the prejudices that some Americans rely on in making judgments about others. Its plot gimmick of having one noble juror sticking to his guns against 11 others is stagy but effective.

"Inherit the Wind" (1960), directed by Stanley Kramer from play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, is about the 1925 Scopes trial to determine if the teaching of evolution could be barred from the classroom. The classroom issues raised here are larger than Darwin vs. the Bible and are, of course, still with us.

"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969), directed by Sydney Pollack from Horace McCoy's novel, uses a 1930s dance marathon as an allegory for the rat race. There's cash for the winner, pity for the rest.

"The Hospital" (1971), directed by Arthur Hiller from Paddy Chayefsky's script, turns the health care debate into a black farce without dispensing with truth. The stakes, it is sobering to note, are literally life or death.

"Carnal Knowledge" (1971), directed by Mike Nichols from script by Jules Feiffer, dissects male sexual attitudes with unnerving accuracy. This could be feminism's Exhibit A.

"Smile" (1975), directed by Michael Ritchie, appears at first to be a cute send-up of beauty pageant mania in California, but it gets into some dark territory about small town economics, domestic strife and the commodification of beauty. Some plot elements are swiped from the fiction of the master, Sinclair Lewis.

"Taxi Driver" (1976), directed by Martin Scorcese, is the most effective portrait of a dangerous sociopath ever put on film. Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle is the prototype for countless "quiet guys" who turn out to be presidential assassins, berserk postal workers, psycho killers, etc.

"Network" (1976), directed by Sidney Lumet from Paddy Chayefsky's script, depicting television as a slave to mammon, is almost breathtaking in its audacity and is astonishingly prescient. Ned Beatty's boardroom speech to Peter Finch actually predicts the end of the Cold War 13 years before it happened.

"Being There" (1979), directed by Hal Ashby from the novel by Jerzy Kosinski, offers stupidity and illiteracy as the supreme American virtues of the television age. The child-like utterances of a well-dressed dolt are taken as brilliant by the upper crust of Washington, D.C.

"Pixote" (1981), directed by Hector Babenco, is about homeless children in the slums of Brazil, focusing on one 10- year-old who begins turning from a child into a killer before our eyes. Urban pathology doesn't get much worse than this.

"El Norte" (1983), directed by Gregory Nava, portrays America as the Third World sees it. Two young Guatemalan peasants, brother and sister, become political refugees and make a harrowing journey to Los Angeles, which is hardly the promised land they envision.

"Working Girls" (1986), directed by Lizzie Borden, depicts life in a brothel, where the girls regard their work much the way most people do--boring but inevitable. Ever wonder what whores talk about when there's no men around?

"Matewan" (1987), directed by John Sayles, is an elegiac but unsentimental true account of a coal strike that tore apart a West Virginia town in the 1920s. This is Sayles' paean to a time when unions were desperately important in peoples' lives.

"City of Hope" (1991), directed by John Sayles, dissects the political and economic structure of an industrial city in New Jersey. Racism, cynicism, class conflict, and organized crime are behind the marble walls of city hall and the chamber of commerce.

"Malcolm X" (1992), directed by Spike Lee, is a biography of the American black nationalist leader that is unflinching in depicting how nervous Americans, black and white, become when confronted with a non-assimilationist black who is both honest and charismatic.

"American Heart" (1993), directed by Martin Bell, manages to be funny, shocking, and melancholy as it details life on the streets of Seattle for some homeless teenagers, including one who wants desperately to bond with his ex-con dad. The odds of prevailing under these conditions are daunting.

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