Easy Rider (1969)


So we all know Billy and Wyatt start off on their journey with Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” on the soundtrack. But it’s what happens before that and another Steppenwolf song on the soundtrack that makes all of Dennis Hopper’s countercultural masterpiece work. They collect the drugs from their connection that they plan to make their fortune from. They talk about getting to New Orleans in time for Mardis Gras, where they will make their money. They get on their bikes and we hear Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher.”

The song is used as kind of a prayer, very literally asking God to damn the pusher, and this is exactly what we see unfold in the rest of the movie. We see the results of their greed and their willingness to use people for their own gain without any regard for human life. “You know I’ve seen a lot of people walkin’ ’round with tombstones in their eyes, but the pusher don’t care if you live or die.” Every time Billy and Wyatt get off their bikes, we see this disregard in new, more profound ways until in the end the “prayer” is answered.

Along with playing Billy, Dennis Hopper also directed Easy Rider. He and Peter Fonda, who played Wyatt, co-wrote the screenplay. But the story unfolds so naturally, just following them on their bikes, encountering different people, that it would feel more like a travelogue than a movie if it weren’t for the opening with “The Pusher.” The two arranged everything we see in this remarkably strange and brilliant film in a way that is actually a lot like several of the psalms of the Bible. A prayer for vindication against enemies is followed with praise to God for his justice. Throughout Easy Rider, we see the results of an evil that is harming and killing many people and eventually something that looks very much like the divine justice expected in those prayers of the Psalms.

Billy and Wyatt talk a lot about freedom as they hang out with hippies and to some degree see themselves as hippies. But they’re not interested in the communal hippy lifestyle. They have their own countercultural movement that loves drugs and the idea of freedom just as much as the hippy movement did, but their idea of freedom is built on hypocrisy. The more money they get the more free they are, but of course that means that the more free they are, the more bound other people become since they have to get new people hooked on new drugs in order to reach the freedom they’re looking for. They hate corporate America because it’s too scared of freedom and wants to keep people bound, because it’s only interested in its own monetary gain at the expense of all other people. Yet they refuse to admit that their behavior is exactly the same. They refuse to admit it, that is, until they’ve just about made all they’re money. They think they’ve accomplished the point of their trip and are about to get all the money they need to make them free when Wyatt very randomly responds to Billy’s bragging about their gain by saying “Billy, we blew it.” This movie’s most famous line is an admission of hypocrisy, greed, and all types of evil that makes the way for a perfect conclusion to everything that started when they got on their bikes and headed to New Orleans while we listened to “The Pusher.”



List: The Movies of Chicago

Continuing our “summer vacation” in the movies that we’ll do every Thursday in July, this week’s list is the best Chicago movies. That doesn’t mean the best overall movies that happen to be set in Chicago, but the best portrayals of the city in film.


10. Harry and Tonto (1974)

Two unlikely travel partners join together out of desperation and eventually find great joy from each other’s company and friendship. Their travels take them to many parts of the country, but starting in Chicago we see many sites of the great city as they begin their journey together.


9. Chi-Raq (2014)

Dealing with the realities of gang violence in Chicago using the strange but brilliant background of the Greek comedy play Lysistrata, Spike Lee gives a darkly realistic yet shockingly entertaining view in a part of Chicago that is full of hurt and need but ultimately hope.


8. Some Like It Hot (1959)

Though most of the movie is set in Florida, Billy Wilder’s comedy classic begins with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, taking us into the world of 1920s Chicago organized crime and prohibition.


7. Airplane (1980)

Whatever isn’t set in the plane is in the O’Hare airport. Unfortunately, that’s the only part of Chicago many people know but it certainly is an important part of the city. And the insane brilliance of the Zucker Bros. anarchic comedy makes the most of the chaotic nature of the busy airport for some of its most hilarious moments.


6. Only the Lonely (1991)

Like Moonstruck‘s view of Little Italy in New York, Chris Columbus’s remake of the 1955 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Marty, feels almost like it’s set in a small town because the little Irish community we’re taken to in Chicago is so close-knit, closely linked to the culture of the old country. One of the most underrated and too-little-seen romantic comedies gives a very different view of Chicago than we’re used to seeing.


5. Home Alone (1990)

Kevin’s Christmas Eve escape from the armed robbers attacking his house takes us to one of the oldest, most beautiful church buildings in the country and many of the best decorated spots in Chicago at Christmas.



4. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1931)

Another interesting look at Chicago crime, this great classic is set mostly in a chain gang where we don’t see much of Chicago, but we hear the characters talk a lot about the city they either love or hate, what they miss about it, and we get a tour of the city through their conversations.


3. Chicago (2002)

Much more than just the title makes the hilarious musical that satirizes the American criminal justice system worthy of this list. Like Some Like It Hot, it shows the thriving of Chicago’s underworld during the time of prohibition.


2. The Blues Brothers (1980)

We get a thorough, though very fast tour of the whole city during what is probably the longest chase scene in movie history. Running from the police, Jake and Elwood drive past and sometimes even through some of Chicago’s most memorable places of interest.


1. The Sting (1973)

And at the top is yet another movie about Chicago crime. Set in the 1930s, there are enough different chase scenes to probably add up to the same amount of time as the long one in The Blues Brothers. But in The Sting, almost all the chases are on foot. Each chase scene is shot in a way that doesn’t just show the shot but gives a unique view of a part of the city.

Some Like It Hot (1959)


The funniest movie ever made is also one of the most intelligent statements fit ever made about sex, gender and morality. It’s also one of the first movies to use very violent situations as the basis of comedy, and it probably was the first to ever incorporate a real, violent event in its fictional story. The fictional characters Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) become Josephine and Daphne because they witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre that happened in 1929 in Chicago.

Most of the movie is about the hilarious charade that Joe and Jerry have to play to save their lives. But we do see the gangsters of the massacre several times in the movie. The mob may have a goofy name, The Friends of Italian Opera, and some of them may be pretty stupid, but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous since Joe and Jerry aren’t very bright either. There’s a moment when the head of the Friends of Italian Opera watches the hit he ordered. He was just speaking to a group and adjusts the volume on his headset when the noise of the gunshots is too much for him. He sits back in his chair and casually enjoys the show. This scene gives a parallel between the head mobster and Joe and Daphne. Joe and Daphne are innocent witnesses of the violence, so they’re not desensitized to violence but they are desensitized to the harm that can be caused by misogyny and too casual a view of sex.

Joe is unquestionably misogynistic. From the very beginning of the movie we see the results of his using and abusing women to meet his self-centered desires. Jerry is disgusted by Joe’s actions against women, but he isn’t much better because he has absolutely no self-control. Although its unintentional for him, he objectifies women just as much as Joe does.

Meeting Sugar (Marylin Monroe), another character who’s not very bright, is the perfect situation for misogynists to take advantage of to get what they want, except that they have to convince her and everyone else that they’re women to stay alive. Their con against the conmen didn’t just save their lives but also rescued them from their perverse views of women and their self-centerdness. They had to become sensitized to the personhood of women if they wanted any chance of their scheme working. They had to learn what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. They had to learn how to look out for the good of other people and not just themselves.

So the funniest movie of all times is a movie about organized crime, violence, social justice, and sexual morality. The humor never detracts from the message and the message never detracts from the humor. That’s quite an achievement. Thank you Billy Wilder.

The Movies of L.A.

Continuing our “summer vacation” in the movies that we’ll do every Thursday, this week’s list is the best Los Angeles movies. That doesn’t mean the best overall movies that happen to be set in L.A. but the best portrayals of the city in film.



10. What’s Cooking? (2000)

Set in one of the most multi-cultural parts of L.A. on the most American of all days, Thanksgiving, we get a glimpse into what it means to be American for several neighboring families, each from a different cultural background. We’re taken into the heart of the lives and families of a location that is truly a melting pot.

9. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Another set of intertwining stories combined into one perfect film, we follow the complex web of organized crime throughout many parts of the city, especially the San Fernando Valley. The sun and the palm trees almost make you feel like you’re there and all the sites of L.A. helped to make this groundbreaking masterpiece more palatable as it majorly pushed the limits of storytelling and how violence is depicted in film in 1994.


8. A Star Is Born (1954)

Judy Garland’s character first comes to Hollywood because she’s told by a former star that he can make her a star. Her first arrival at the studio gives us a small tour into the movie studios of 1954 Hollywood.


7. Double Indemnity (1944)

Almost all great noir is set in L.A. You’d never be able to tell that L.A. is one of the sunniest cities in the world with very little rain from the way it’s portrayed in noir. According to 1970s music, it never rains in southern California, but according to film noir, it always rains there. Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is one of the darkest of all the noir visions of L.A.

6. Magnolia (1999)

Set in various parts of the city all on the very long Magnolia Blvd., Paul Thomas Anderson gives a tour of what he seems to think is the city’s greatest demon, a lack of fatherhood. With many references to the biblical passage “The sins of the father are passed on from generation to generation” and even an odd retelling of the plagues that result from that, we see the hurt of the city told in an extremely compassionate way that somehow manages to leave us with much hope.

5. Anchors Aweigh (1945)

We tour the TV and movie studies, get a great dance sequence with Gene Kelly and the animated mouse that would later be known as Jerry (though this scene has nothing to do with L.A., it’s just too great not to mention), and a chase sequence through the Hollywood Bowl.  Anchors Aweigh gives as an inside look into many different aspects of the arts at work in L.A.


4. Sunset Blvd. (1950)

In an old mansion on the iconic street lives Norma Desmond, former silent film star, now a has been obsessed with the unrealistic idea of returning to the movies. The idolatry of fame and the devastating effects (to self and others) of the grief over the loss of fame are shown with dark, though often hilarious sharpness.


3. Blade Runner (1982)

It always rains in future noir L.A. too. Ridley Scott’s vision of L.A. in the future is a bleak reflection of the problems it dealt with in reality in 1982. Many traces of L.A. as it is can be seen in Blade Runner but only through the very bleak lens that shows the expected results of police corruption and the media’s exploitation of those perceived to be weak.


2. Rebel without a Cause (1955)

The famous knife fight at Griffith Observatory and the confusion at the planetarium are two of the most iconic scenes in film history both at iconic spots of L.A.


1. La La Land (2016)

Last year’s musical gem goes to the same places as Rebel with a Cause since Rebel plays a major role in the Mia/Sebastian romance. We also see the Hollywood hills. And it all starts with a musical number on the 405. I bet everyone in L.A. wishes that driving the 405 had that much joy and excitement!

Chinatown (1974)


One of the things that made the 1940s such a great decade for film was its development and perfection of the genres that remain favorites today. One of the things that made the 1970s such a great decade for film was its re-structuring and making room for fresh innovation in those genres. Most times 1970s films used the conventions of 1940s movies to end up doing their own thing. The Godfather movies and The Sting are definitely gangster movies, but they’re nothing like the ones in the 30s and 40s, in the same way that they’re nothing like each other. Annie Hall is definitely a romantic comedy but it’s a far cry from The Philadelphia Story and Woman of the Year.

Roman Polanski’s Chinatown isn’t the usual 70s movie, not that there really is such a thing as my last few sentences show. It doesn’t do it’s own thing. It inhabits the very same world, even the very same Los Angeles as the 1940s detective noir films. J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is the same type of emotionally detached detective as those Humphrey Bogart played whose every line crackles with dark humor and cynicism yet is deep down very concerned about justice. The first line he speaks is to a grieving man who has just found out his wife is having an affair. Instead of offering any kind of empathetic response, he crustily says “Curly, don’t eat the Venetian blinds.”

Inhabiting the same world of 1940s noir does not mean that Chinatown is unoriginal. All the great noir movies are loaded with twists that make sure everything revealed in the end is like nothing that could have been expected from the beginning. Chinatown offers that in ways many filmmakers probably wanted to do in the 40s but couldn’t because of decency requirements. But the main thing that sets Chinatown apart from 40s noir is its insistence on starting dark (what the French word noir actually means) without ever relenting.

Because J. J. Gittes is like all the great detectives in the 40s movies, he isn’t quite as hardened as he appears. He still had a desire to see justice accomplished,  and all the 40s detectives, at least in the movies I’ve seen, have gotten that pleasure. If you haven’t seen Chinatown, I promise I’m not giving anything way by saying that J.J. Gittes doesn’t get to see the justice he’s looking for. The movie has to work that way because although it is a 40s film noir made in the 70s, it is also an indictment on the American criminal justice system.

From the beginning, we see people who make their living in seedy ways. J.J. Gittes is accused of being the seediest, when we get to see that his attempt for justice is real and that he’s really the only protagonist the movie has. He’s the only character with any empathy, even though his attitudes and language constantly betray that empathy. Underneath everything we see, we can tell that J.J. is a man who has seen the rich owning the city and being able to get away with anything they want because they’re rich. But we also see a man who believes things don’t have to be that way. He’s hardened because of what he’s seen but he’s not so hardened to believe that it has to stay that way. But as it was true in the 40s and still in the 70s, it’s still true in 2017 that wealth often wins over truth and justice in America. Chinatown brilliantly uses all the conventions of a favorite genre and of a time come and gone to tell the truth of the culture of its own time, something that unfortunately is still very much true in the culture today. And because it is so bleak and hopeless, it helps us really feel that truth. As we feel that truth and own it, we won’t be as emotionless as J.J. Gittes, but we can have the same hope that he had, the hope that truth and justice are possible in our culture no matter how removed it is from them right now. Wealth is  still the highest priority in our nation; the rich keep getting richer, the poor keep getting poorer, the helpless don’t get helped, the criminals go unpunished and the inequity of the criminal justice system shows the rampant racism still alive in the U.S.A. But it really doesn’t have to be that way. The more we see the reality and the bleakness of the situations we live in, just like Chinatown did for its own time through a story set in the past, the more we are able to empathize with others and find small ways to make a difference in our surroundings.

The Movies of NYC

During the summer, Turner Classic Movies is spotlighting films in a series they’re calling European Vacation. Inspired by that idea, I decided to make my lists for the months of July and August a type of summer vacation. Thursdays in July, we’ll go to 4 great U.S. cities through the movies, and Thursdays in August we’ll go to 5 great European countries through the movies. This week’s list is the best New York City movies. That doesn’t mean the best overall movies that happen to be set in NYC but the best portrayals of the city in film.



10. When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

The scenes that take place at Christmastime see Harry and Sally out and about in many different parts of the cities and always some wonderfully decorated parts of the city but for the most part not the biggest tourist attractions. It takes us into what the city looks like at Christmas that most tourists don’t get to see even when they’re there at Christmas.


9. All about Eve (1950)

The competition, obsessiveness, vanity, and glory of the Broadway stage has never been captured better than this, shown through the eyes of the great Bette Davis and Anne Baxter characters.


8. The Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Like When Harry Met Sally…, we get another glimpse into the city at Christmastime. Except for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade at the beginning, it’s not so much the sites of the city that we’re taken to but the attitudes of the people. The movie portrays the fight between the materialistic narcissism associated with Wall Street, all big business, and the stores like Macy’s represented in the movie vs. the basic human goodness that the movie wants us to see in most of the city (and every city for that matter).


7. The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), & The Godfather Part III (1990)

From the olive oil company that Vito started to Michael and Kay walking down some of the most iconic streets of the city, the whole trilogy takes us on trips to Italy, Las Vegas, Hollywood, and Cuba. But NYC is the center of the whole story, where Vito’s criminal life begins and where the Corleone dynasty ends.


6. Elf (2003)

More Christmas in NYC with the delightful Will Farrell comedy where Buddy the Elf goes to the “magical land of New York City.” Buddy’s hilarious way of seeing the sites in his North Pole gear full of misunderstandings about what’s going on around him is one of the happiest trips to NYC the movies have ever given us.


5. An Affair to Remember (1957)

The Empire State Building is one of the most romantic spots on earth thanks to Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. She didn’t quite make it to the top where they were supposed meet because as she says, “I was looking up. It was the nearest thing to heaven.”

4. Moonstruck (1987)

Norman Jewison’s comedy takes us to Little Italy. We see the homes, the shops, and the food that looks so good we can almost smell it. For one part of the movie, we’re taken out of Little Italy to the Metropolitan Opera, and yes, it’s at Christmastime again. The movies love NYC at Christmas! We see the trees outside the theater, the majesty of the theater itself and the chance to hear just a little bit of Puccin’s La Boheme. Moonstruck gives us a tour of very limited, specific parts of NYC that we get to know very well.


3. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Though more excited about the siren on the fire truck than much of the city, Longfellow Deeds shows the excitement of the city common to tourists. Frank Capra uses this to spread his idea of the American dream where America can only be seen as a great nation when the people of its cities, the people its small towns and rural areas, and immigrants are all welcome in any part of the country and able to come together despite their differences. The way that all comes into play in NYC is something very special. I’ve sometimes thought of Capra’s Americana as something overly sentimental and cheesy, but that was before the current presidential administration. Frank Capra’s vision of what makes America great is something we can all use right now.


2. King Kong (1933)

The movies have never given us a view of the Empire State Building quite like the one in King Kong. With Faye Ray in the ape’s hands screaming and fighting for life knowing that it’s completely dependent on whatever the ape decides to do, we get a unique picture of the city and possibly the greatest single scene of a movie ever shot.


1. On the Town (1949)

Chip (Frank Sinatra) makes it his goal to see everything there is to see in NYC during the one day leave his navy crew has. After just a little over an hour and a half, we feel like we’ve pretty much seen it all with Chip and his friends. A broader view of the city than any movie has ever offered, so broad that I can’t even begin listing the sites they see and the things the day, and the very reason it’s the number one NYC movie.

Do the Right Thing (1989)


The character Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), who is remembered for his stuttering and pestering of the movie’s main character Mookie (Spike Lee), really has only one purpose in Do the Right Thing. Every time we see him, he is holding a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X shaking hands. Though this picture is the sole purpose for Smiley’s existence in the story, it is the essence of what makes Do the Right Thing a great movie.

The picture shows two very different people with very different ideologies but a common goal come together. That is something that never happens in the movie in any complete sense, though there are many attempts to make it happen and much resistance to stand against it. I’ve seen the movie several times now, and I’ve always thought of it as posing the moral question of which one of these great leaders was right. Some of the characters are extremely passionate in their stances of non-violence, and some are equally passionate in their stances for equality at any price including violence if perceived necessary. But Spike Lee wisely never answers the questions for us but allows his character to be right in their own eyes so we have to make our decision.

But the last time I watched Do the Right Thing, I came to realize that the point really isn’t to confront viewers so that we think about these issues and make up our own minds about this question he raises. The point of Do the Right Thing is encourage us to be people who allow the good that both King and Malcolm X accomplished to speak for itself and to let their legacies live in our society long after their deaths. Along with the passionate characters, there are just as many who really don’t care, people whose indifference would be equally despised by both King and Malcolm X. They just want to do their own thing, instead of doing the right thing. These are the people who need the passionate people to wake them up. By the end of the movie, everybody’s passionate about something, whether it’s real justice, self-preservation, or personal grudges and racial prejudices that have eventually become full-blown hatred.

In addition to the three types of characters I have mentioned already, there is Da Mayer (Ossie Davis) and Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), who along with Smiley and his picture (which is itself just as much a character in the movie as all the people) watch over the rest of the Brooklyn neighborhood. Smiley watches over the neighborhood hoping to someday see the unity represented in that picture.

Da Mayer watches over the neighborhood as the voice of sensitivity and reason. The movie’s title comes from Da Mayer telling Mookie to “do the right thing.” But Mookie’s one of the characters who just doesn’t care so he responds with the very capricious, “That’s it? I got it. I’m gone.” That’s how most people react to Da Mayer’s wisdom, because he’s known as a drunkard and nothing more, but he has opportunities to show that there is much more to him than that and that if the people around him would just be willing to enter the lives of others, to start caring about others, they can become sensitive to the needs of others and start respecting people for who they truly are.

As his nickname implies, Mister Señor Love Daddy is the voice of love. The greatest scene of the film involves four or five different characters, each of a different race, standing in front of the camera documentary style screaming racist epithets against the people group they are angry with. After the last one finishes, a quick cut takes us into the radio station where Mister Señor Love Daddy is the DJ. He’s just as loud, just as angry, and just as passionate as the people who have just been screaming hatred. But he’s loud, angry, and passionate in the name of love, screaming that all the hate and injustice needs to stop.

So, back to the question of who was right, Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. After this last time watching Do the Right Thing, probably my sixth time, I no longer think it’s Spike Lee’s intention to have us wrestle with the big morality question. I think he wants us to see that the question really has no purpose. They were both human, so that means they were both right about some things and they were both wrong about some things, but their goal was the same, and they came to a point of unity because of that same goal. The characters in Do the Right Thing all have very different goals, conflicting passions, and very different perceptions of what it means to “do the right thing,” but that doesn’t mean that they can’t all eventually come together, following the voices of those three characters watching over them. Do they come together? Some do, some don’t. Can they all come together? Because of those three voices, absolutely they can.

Do the Right Thing is an extremely important film for the time we live in, in America. Many liberals label all Trump supporters as racist, and many conservatives (especially Trump supporters) label Blake Lives Matter activists as anti-white racists. That’s just one example of the many polarizations in America right now. Spike Lee beautifully shows us that we can overcome those polarizations. In his movie, there’s really only one true racist, but many accuse others of being racist, and those accusations keep the divisions alive. That’s just like the current situation: on both sides, there certainly are very dangerous, racist people, but that does not give us the right to assume that the entire group is. We need to listen to the voice of reason and sensitivity, to come to understand why people have become the way we know them. We need to listen to the voice of the past, to the people who have made a great difference in our society whether we agree with the ways in which they did it or not (both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X). Most of all, we need to listen to the voice of love so that we can really know what the right thing is for any given situation so we can do the right thing. And that’s the triple truth Ruth.