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Published: Thursday, 6/29/2006

Which films of past decade best reflect American life?

Thandie Newton and Matt Dillion in <i>Crash</i>. Thandie Newton and Matt Dillion in <i>Crash</i>.

Here s a question for rolling around your head and arguing in the SUV during those long Fourth of July drives to the cabin, the cookout, the lake, or the campground: If I had to see one movie this weekend that best reflects what America is like right now, for better or worse, what would it be? What movie, in other words, if it were watched 100 years from now would best reflect what this nation was like in 2006? It s a tough parlor game.

There s no one America.

Mine s different than yours.

Making the question even tougher is that, at the moment, there are simply not many films that give us American life in a recognizable way. It s an odd but undeniable omission; if you believe the movies are a gauge of social change, then it s partly how we define the movies. It s a quality that appears in remission, yet the few films recently that have thrown us back at ourselves Friends With Money, Dave Chappelle s Block Party, Spike Lee s Inside Man, United 93 are among the year s best.

That said, I asked a batch of area residents this question: What film from the past decade or so best reflects American life, for better or worse? A sample of responses makes for a thoughtful (and eclectic) Fourth of July film festival, via your living room. Here s an edited version of what they said:

• Ramon Perez, community organizer for Lagrange Development Corp.: I had to do reflecting. I was thinking back on movies like Amores Perros, Braveheart, Gladiator, Motorcycle Diaries. But to answer the question, I thought of two. Number one would be Crash. To me, it validates me as a Mexican in this world. It really looked at different segments of our nation and we are all from various backgrounds and we love and hate and have extreme relationships, good, bad, and ugly. Sometimes people are in harmony, sometimes things come full circle.

The other one was this [direct to video] movie from 2002, The Gatekeeper. It s about a Mexican from the U.S. side who works as a border patrol agent. He wants to eliminate everyone coming over the border until he sees it from the other side. A lot of Mexican-born citizens have lost their connection with history. They don t know how to defend themselves. The Gatekeeper captured that.

• E.J. Wells, musician: I d say if one rented Todd Solondz s Happiness, that would be a fairly accurate view of today s America. It ain t a pretty picture. Probably one of my favorite films of all time, and certainly not for its entertainment value, but rather for its unflinching, brutally honest view of the underbelly of our society, which seems to be seedier in suburbia than in the hood.

• Pam Burns, co-owner of the Toledo coffee shop Downtown Latte: The first thing that comes to mind is Fahrenheit 9/11. Whether it s biased or not, I don t know, but it s certainly representative of the events that have been going on in this country.

• Dave Schulz, Republican Toledo City Council candidate: I would say mine is Apollo 13. To me, it showed America and Americans come back from adversity. It depicted our ingenuity and perseverance.

• Ellen Grachek, Toledo councilman, Democrat: You ve Got Mail. Because it gets at the impact the Internet has had on our lives, from how we buy things, to how to we socialize, to even how we fall in love.

• Joel Washing, co-founder of the advocacy group Toledo Filmmakers: The science fiction movie Equilibrium. It draws from a lot of other movies like Brazil and 1984, with their overarching governments, but it feels like today does. To me, anyway. The government in the movie controls the public s emotions with a drug, which gets at the ways we medicate ourselves but also at the way, it seems to me, the Bush administration works.

• Martino Harmon, interim director of the University of Toledo s African-America Student Enrichment department: Crash. That movie resonates real well. Not every day. It s not like that every day. But it resonates. It gets into issues of diversity and how people coexist and how they don t coexist. It s an extreme example, of course. But I deal a lot with these issues in my job. It s been on my mind.

• Gary Boehm, headmaster, Maumee Valley Country Day School: I m torn between Syriana and Crash. Neither one does it completely for me, though. I pick Syriana for its terrorism elements, and it has some racial ideas going through it. Crash has a commentary on immigration in it, as well as race and class.

• Sandie Heyneman, South Toledo resident: Erin Brockovich. It s the first thing that came to me. Probably because it s about the corporate greed and the cover-ups that seem so prevalent today. It s kind of a pessimistic choice, I suppose, but most of the movies I watch are for entertainment and comedy purposes. I don t like being all that depressed.

• Ed Ciecka, Rossford City Administrator: American Beauty. It talked about American life today, along with that whole male-going-through-a-midlife-crisis thing. Maybe it s a reflection on my age. On the lighter side, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. That s a great American story. It shows people just working hard every day. Which is what is going on.

• Jeff Nelson, co-owner of Discord Records: Some of the most politically, socially relevant movies recently, I think, were Fahrenheit 9/11 and Team America: World Police the one with the puppets. As one-dimensional as someone might have seen them, they re quite representative of how paranoid this country has become. It s like Germany was in the 30s, watching Hitler rise to power. They show the bad state this country is in, with humor.

THAT S REALLY SUPER, SUPERMAN: Is it possible to make a flick as enormous as Superman Returns (which opened yesterday, one of the most expensive movies ever made) and hear a deafening shrug? Apparently so.

I m not feeling the love.

Not this second, anyway. Not that it s stopped the ancillary overload from kicking into high gear, of course. Plans are plans, and this week finds no shortage of awkward red short-shorts and capes. Superboy: The Complete First Season (Warner, $39.98) is a mid- 80s warm-up for Smallville; though the series got moderately better in its second season (I was briefly addicted), producer Alexander Salkind wasn t prepared to spend on a weekly series what he spent on the first Super movies.

Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman: The Complete Third Season (Warner, $59.98), as corny as it got, has lots of cultural relevance: It was one of the first times a mainstream TV series regarded superheroes in anything like the same terms that comic book readers do. Basically, it suggested superheroes have human problems; they don t just fly crime to crime like George Reeves in Adventures of Superman: The Complete Third and Fourth Seasons (Warner, $39.98). (For a little background on the strange, sad history of the men who ve played Superman, including Reeves, Look, Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman (Warner, $14.98) is a glossy, entertaining pop history.)

No surprise, then, that the best superhero series to date have been animated. Arguably the highlight of the entire genre is Justice League: Season Two (Warner, $44.98). Originally aired on the Cartoon Network, it did what great comic books always have: It played an epic story on a personal scale. Fanboys go nuts for this show, and with good reason. Thank Bruce Timm. Superman: The Animated Series: Volume Three (Warner, $26.98), like Justice and his mid- 90s Batman series, approaches Men in Spandex with exactly the right measures of gravitas and winks.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.

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