I spent a lot of time thinking about this and one of the things that bugged me was, why would anyone want to know that? Before it wouldn’t be films, but novels – what is the great American novel? What I did, in the end, because America has given us some of the great movie genres, was come up with a list of genres that you need to see. And you need to see them over a period of time, so that you can see America develop.
One strategy for this would be to watch five Westerns. Maybe don’t go right back to the silent era, but if you pick one per decade of Westerns, you’ll see the development from the frontier through to being under threat, through to guilt and worry and anxiety.
You could do the same with the gangster genre. Again, if you start in the 1920’s and 30’s, it’s like they’re bragging about it, everything’s open and they knock the door down – if you’re James Cagney that’s a good thing. But then you go through a whole series of things like ‘Scarface’ which is all about anxiety. You’ve got the question of is it glamourous like ‘The Godfather’ or is it violent and unpleasant like ‘Goodfellas’.
You can do it with musicals as well. Again, take musicals, one per decade, from the 30s through to now and go, ‘what’s that about?’ You’d go back to Busby Berkeley, and then on to where it’s all become self-referential, because much of American culture is just about American culture and especially so in musicals. And you’d have Scorsese’s ‘New York, New York’ in there as well. Westerns echo their times – just look at the haircuts and you know which decade it was made. What the American musical is now, such as ‘La La Land’, is ‘Trump World’ and ‘wouldn’t it be great if everyone believed in America again and sang a song?’ And then he comes on to Sinatra’s ‘My Way’. It all ties together!
Another thought is that you can just do all of this through the films of Martin Scorsese. The immigrant filmmaker, quintessentially New York and American, energetic, powerful, deep down quite romantic but with an edge of violence to it. And if you wanted a film to sum up where America is this week, ‘Wolf of Wall Street’. Just put that on, it’s what we’re living through. I just don’t think Scorsese realised the ruling class were going to become like that.