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Illustration of Sarah Vowell

Moving pictures
Why have there been more good movies in the past eight weeks than in the past eight years?

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By Sarah Vowell

Nov. 17, 1999 | My mother telephoned the other day and asked me how I was and without even thinking I exclaimed, "Great! Movies are so good right now!" She gingerly hinted at wanting more personal details regarding my (contented, thank you very much) daily grind. But at the risk of sounding too society-of-the-spectacle, nothing in real life has thrilled me in the last few weeks quite like the moment in "Three Kings" when a jeep darts across the desert to the Beach Boys' "I Get Around"; or grabbed me like the landscape of Richard Farnsworth's face in David Lynch's "The Straight Story"; or captivated me like that floating bag sequence in "American Beauty"; or cracked me up like Terence Stamp's Joe Strummer snarl in "The Limey"; or made my stomach hurt as much as "The Insider's" ulcer-in-residence Russell Crowe; or -- despite recent river cruises and coast-to-coast flights -- taken me on a ride as scenic as "Being John Malkovich."

I have been more moved at the movies in the past eight weeks than I have been in the past eight years. And I've been wracking my brain for days and days trying to figure out if this spate of greats is some kind of fluke. Economically, the coincidence might be chalked up to the rise of independent film and a subsequent independent spirit forced onto the movie studios within the last three decades. (When the Disney logo appeared on "The Straight Story's" opening credits, something no one ever expected from a David Lynch film, the audience in the theater where I saw it laughed.)

Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell's column appears on the Arts & Entertainment site every other Wednesday.

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But spiritually, the last 30-plus years of truth and beauty in this country have been defined by those old standbys: Vietnam and rock 'n' roll. And in the age of Bill Clinton -- the first president to personify our fear and trembling at Vietnam's chaos as well as the first president to have a favorite Beatle (Paul, but still) -- Vietnam and rock 'n' roll have infiltrated every cultural corner, including, I'd argue, the current crop of cinematic thrills.

One of the smartest paragraphs ever written about American culture comes toward the end of Vietnam correspondent Michael Herr's book "Dispatches." Home from the war, he writes, "Out on the street I couldn't tell the Vietnam veterans from the rock 'n' roll veterans. The Sixties had made so many casualties, its war and its music had run power off the same circuit for so long they didn't even have to fuse ... What I'd thought of as two obsessions were really only one, I don't know how to tell you how complicated that made my life. Freezing and burning and going down again into the sucking mud of the culture, hold on tight and move real slow."

Or, as a character in "The Straight Story" points out, "There's a lot of weird people everywhere now."

Herr's weariness of pop, of the war, of too much sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll, too much death and freedom, too much fighting here and abroad, translates to the big picture too. The USA is a Vietnam veteran and a rock 'n' roll veteran. And aesthetically, for its citizens, this is a double-edged sword. What it has meant is that conventional authority (the authority, say, to send thousands of soldiers to die but not until they've killed thousands of Vietnamese for, let's face it, pretty much no reason at all) came to seem ugly, ugly and crude.

Whereas conventional ugliness (Ladies and gentlemen, Little Richard!) came to epitomize a new definition of beauty. As Nik Cohn wrote of the music biz before rock, "For thirty years you couldn't possibly make it unless you were white, sleek, nicely spoken and phoney to your toenails -- suddenly now you could be black, purple, moronic, delinquent, diseased or almost anything on earth, and you could still clean up."

Next page | Billy Wilder to Cameron Crowe: What is rock music?

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