When Movies Mattered

Nick Clooney hit upon an interesting idea when he was approached about doing a book about film: that movies sometimes should be looked at outside the realm of entertainment. A persistent literary representative kept asking him to write a book, but he kept deferring because of his schedule as host of American Movie Classics. When he left the cable channel a few years ago, the representative told him, “Now you’ve got time.”

But time wasn’t the only obstacle. With list after list about great movies, and with the Internet democratizing film commentary, Clooney wondered, “What can anybody say about films that hasn’t been said before?”

He decided that the answer was to look at films that were agents of social change. “I thought I’d be able to dash it off in a few months,” Clooney said in a recent interview. “Two years later ... .”

The book, published in 2002, is The Movies That Changed Us. It features essays on 20 movies whose impact was felt far beyond a relatively small group of film buffs. Hence, classics such as M, Intolerance, and Citizen Kane are conspicuous omissions. Clooney went in thinking that those movies would make the cut, but when he went looking for their historical legacies, he found that “they remain at this moment isolated ornaments.”

His basic criterion for inclusion in the book was that “the movie would have to be before or on the cusp of change” — a catalyst, in other words. “This is not a book about great movies,” he stressed.

I interviewed Clooney for advance coverage of an event at which he was going to introduce Triumph of the Will — one of the movies featured in The Movies That Changed Us. Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 documentary — portraying a Nazi rally in Nuremberg — showcases her technical and aesthetic achievements while glorifying Adolf Hitler. Many consider the movie a seminal event in the development of World War II.

In his book, Clooney writes: “There is little argument that this was the best propaganda film ever made, and the most effective. ... Even now if you watch the film alone in a darkened room it has the power to clutch at your heart and make the roof of your mouth dry.”

Triumph of the Will is a good illustration that Clooney wasn’t interested in making a feel-good book. There is no Wizard of Oz or It’s a Wonderful Life or Forrest Gump here. Along with Triumph of the Will is D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, the infamously racist feature that introduced many technological innovations and changed people’s perceptions of the Civil War. “Not all movies changed us for the better,” Clooney said.

The author is the brother of singer Rosemary Clooney and the father of actor-director George Clooney, and he achieved fame of his own as a television and newspaper journalist. Beginning in 1994, he spent five years introducing movies on American Movie Classics. He is currently running for Congress in Kentucky.

Clooney looks at the book as an overdue acknowledgment of the impact movies once had, he said. “I thought pop culture was the throw-away tissue, ... that it really didn’t have much importance in the subtext of the human condition,” he said. “This was sort of an expiation of a time when I thought movies didn’t matter.”

Some of the choices in the book are curious, though. Clooney concedes that the influence of a few of the movies in his book was largely limited to the arena of film. The Jazz Singer, as the first “talkie,” is included because “the technical innovation changed the whole industry ... overnight,” Clooney said.

“Some of the films in here ... didn’t change society,” he added. “Many of them simply changed movies.”

But Clooney doesn’t apologize for that. He makes the compelling argument that well into the 1950s movies and the culture-at-large were inseparable. “When you change movies, you change society,” he said.

In the 1930s, he noted, 73 percent of people went to the movies weekly, and that number stayed in the neighborhood of 60 percent through the 1940s. Then there was a “deep dive in the 1960s” as television captured the American imagination. These days, even the biggest hits are only seen by about a quarter of the population.

The book features only three films made after 1967 — Taxi Driver (1976), Star Wars (1977), and Saving Private Ryan (1998) — and that’s mostly a function of film’s reduced reach. “It has nothing to do with quality,” Clooney said.

The author expected, for instance, that Oliver Stone’s JFK — as “a revisionist piece of history” — would change the way people thought of the Kennedy assassination. “I thought it was going to be an important movie,” Clooney said. “It turns out it wasn’t. Not enough people saw it.”

In that way, The Movies That Changed Us is a memorial for movies as culturally meaningful beyond entertainment, a reminder that the medium was once immensely powerful. The fragmentation of popular culture makes the impact that movies had from 1930 to 1955 nearly impossible to replicate today, in any medium.

But just as the theater shifted to underground phenomenon from mass entertainment when movies came along, film can now do important work on the cultural margins, Clooney argued. “They become the seedbeds of change,” he said.

This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, in the River Cities’ Reader.

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