Roger Ebert did some snooping around to see what the favorite films of Joe Biden, John McCain, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin might be — and while he couldn’t find anything for either of the vice-presidential nominees, he did find some interesting stuff on the presidential ones.
For McCain, Ebert found this exchange at Entertainment Weekly:
We read somewhere that Viva Zapata! is your favorite movie of all time…
Elia Kazan made three movies with Marlon Brando. One was A Streetcar Named Desire, one was On the Waterfront, and the third was Viva Zapata! Many people think Brando’s performances in Streetcar and Waterfront were his best. I think Zapata! was his best. I’m in the minority about this. But go back and watch the scene of his wedding night, with [Brando] and Jean Peters — the actress who later married Howard Hughes, who made her give up acting — when she teaches him to read by taking out the Bible and reading it with him. That’s a poignant scene.
Now what do we learn from these answers? First of all, we are impressed that McCain names three great Kazan-Brando movies. He even knows which title he’s in the minority on. How many people know who Kazan was? Conclusion: He knows his movies.
Quite so. Of course, McCain was in his teens when those three films came out between 1951 and 1954 — so for him, knowledge of Kazan may come as naturally as knowledge of current filmmakers comes to teenagers today. It’s not something he had to study or learn about decades after the fact, as it was for people like, say, me. But it’s still an impressive answer, I think.
Ebert also notes that McCain lists two other films among his favorites on his Facebook page — Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) and Some Like It Hot (1959) — while Obama lists five films on his: Casablanca (1942), Godfather I and II (1972-1974), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).
Now, I certainly can’t quibble with any of these picks, at least where the ones I have seen are concerned. (The odd one out is Viva Zapata!, which I have not yet seen.) But my gut reaction is that McCain’s list feels rather personal, even eccentric — an impression bolstered by his recognition that he is “in the minority” on at least one of his picks — whereas Obama’s feels pretty generic, almost poll-tested. I mean, couldn’t he have picked at least one film that wasn’t an Oscar winner for Best Picture?
That said, Obama’s picks are certainly interesting in their own way. For example, Lawrence and the Godfathers both concern characters who are caught between cultures, just as Obama, the bi-racial son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from the United States, has been caught between cultures.
T.E. Lawrence, like Obama, was the illegitimate son of a man who already had a wife and at least one child somewhere else, and the film draws an explicit link between Lawrence’s illegitimacy and his uncertainty regarding whether his primary cultural allegiance should be to the British or to the Arabs. The film also concerns Lawrence’s frustrated efforts to unite squabbling tribes, as well as the tension between Lawrence’s romanticism and the realpolitik practiced both by his British superiors and by the Arabs with whom he works.
Michael Corleone, on the other hand, is a second-generation Italian-American, the son of an immigrant, who has Americanized his family yet remains an outsider to mainstream American society. He has ties to the old country, and he can speak his father’s language when he wants to, but on a certain level, he has lost touch with what “the family” was supposed to be all about. And while he has sometimes tried to assimilate himself into American society — most notably through his military service during World War II — he is still subject to racial or ethnic prejudice.
So it’s not too hard to imagine why these particular films resonate for Obama, who wrote an entire book about how he has grappled with issues of “race and inheritance”.
I haven’t seen Cuckoo’s Nest in years, so I wouldn’t want to begin to guess what the significance of that film is for Obama. And as for Casablanca, I will simply note that the film is essentially an argument against American isolationism — which may or may not be at odds with Obama’s own stance — and that the words “casa blanca” are Spanish for “white house”. Hmmm.
Anyway, after offering his own analysis, Ebert concludes:
For me, the important thing is that they both attend movies and care about them. As I’ve written many times, the movies are an empathy machine, drawing us into other lives, allowing us to identify with those of other races, genders, occupations, religions, income levels or times in history. Good films enlarge us, and are a civilizing medium. Bad films narrow us. No films at all impoverishes us. There is a splendid projection room in the White House. I hope the next president uses it a lot.
Amen to that.
Final thought: Canada is in the middle of an election right now too. I’ll see if I can find any info on the favorite films of Stephen Harper, Stephane Dion, Jack Layton, Gilles Duceppe and Elizabeth May.