Essays on a handful of contemporary classic films and what they reveal about American politics.
Shepard (English/Williams Coll.; The Book of Aron, 2015, etc.) began writing these essays in 2003 for the Believer, and they have some mid-2000s must on them, given his use of the George W. Bush administration’s adventures as hooks for pieces on Chinatown, GoodFellas, Badlands, and other movies. However, as the author writes in the introduction, his larger, more evergreen concern is with “the power and resilience of the lies we tell ourselves as a collective.” In Badlands, Terence Malick’s fictionalization of teen serial killers Charles Starkweather and Caril-Ann Fugate, Shepard finds a challenge to myths about America’s innocence and rugged individualism, while Martin Scorsese’s mob epic GoodFellas is a portrait of undiluted national selfishness. Steven Spielberg, arguably America’s most successful myth purveyor, gets skewered twice. In an essay on Saving Private Ryan, Shepard argues that only “the most beautiful and deserving find justice" in the director's vision, while Schindler’s List proffers a facile salvation narrative that looks weaker in comparison to Roman Polanski’s darker The Pianist. The author is a precise and careful fiction writer, and these looser, more meandering pieces, padded with plot summaries, read more like a busman’s holiday, and he's susceptible to abstruse gassing. (Do we really watch Douglas Sirk movies because “they enshrine what seems to us an antiquated masochistic selflessness, if not self-eradication”?) Shepard dives so deep sometimes that one wishes he’d come up for air more often. However, because he is not beholden to conventional film theory, his ideas can be intriguing and surprising, as in his exploration of how Babette’s Feast undercuts melodrama tropes or how the 1988 Dutch thriller The Vanishing reveals our inherent capacity for violence (and for rationalizing it).
Shepard’s ruminations occasionally get caught up in knots, but he finds new relevance in every movie he endeavors to explore.