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Inspire Me Vaguely

How Hollywood thinks the movies inspire us vs. how they really do

This June the American Film Institute (AFI) will count down the 100 most inspirational movies in Hollywood history. I’m not sure what that final list will look like but I’ve seen the 300 nominees and I’m disappointed that one of the most inspirational movies of all time—well, for my older brother anyway—was inexplicably left off.

That movie is “Evel Knievel,” a B-picture from 1971 starring George Hamilton as the daredevil motorcyclist. My brother saw it upon its release, and, 11 at the time, immediately set to work. He took my sister’s medium-sized play refrigerator, relegated to the garage, and laid it flat on the front sidewalk; then he found a sturdy wood plank and laid it on the prone refrigerator for his ramp; then he got on his banana-seat bicycle.

Initially it was enough to catch air but just as quickly he looked for things to jump: stuffed animals (too boring), then real animals (too disobedient), then real people (just right). It amazed me how many kids in the neighborhood would lie down on the wrong side of the refrigerator for him. At one point I think he jumped seven kids—all huddled together, scared and thrilled and giggling. The fun promptly stopped when a neighborhood mother glanced out her window and saw her youngest child, Geof, last in line, inches from my brother’s landing back tire.

So, yes, “Evel Knievel” was inspirational but not the kind of inspiration AFI has in mind. They’re thinking stand-up-and-cheer fare: “Rudy” and “Rocky,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” They want movies that inspire us vaguely (swell our chests) rather than specifically (give us the idea to jump the neighborhood kids on our banana-seat bicycle). They want good lawyers (“To Kill a Mockingbird”), good coaches (“Hoosiers”), good baseball players (“The Pride of the Yankees”), good prophets (“The Ten Commandments”) and good Gods (“King of Kings”). They want to counteract claims that Hollywood doesn’t represent American values anymore.

Shame. What a discussion we could’ve had otherwise. You want inspiration? How about “Taxi Driver,” inspiration for John Hinkley, or “Death Wish,” inspiration for Bernie Goetz, or “The Candidate,” inspiration for Dan Quayle. Hell, let’s go with the granddaddy of them all, “The Birth of a Nation,” whose story of heroic whites protecting southern womanhood from rapacious darkies inspired William J. Simmons to reorganize the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. Ah, for the days when Hollywood represented American values.

Movies are actually tailor-made for this kind of specific inspiration. What happens in a movie theater? First it gets dark, then you disappear. Then characters appear, larger than life. You become them. The are generally idealized human beings: better-looking and better-dressed, stronger and braver. You’re dazed when the lights go up. Who am I again? What am I supposed to do now? Woody Allen captured this feeling perfectly in “Play it Again, Sam.” While watching the final moments of Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca,” Allan Felix’s upper lip curls under his top teeth a la Bogart; then the lights go up and he turns into plain old Allan Felix again. We laugh at his predicament because we recognize ourselves in it. Drama is who we want to be; comedy is who we are.

I’ve felt that again and again at the movies. In the early 1970s my brother and I went to a re-release of “Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid,” and when it was over and we were walking out of the theater, swaggering slightly, I was convinced, convinced, that the gaggle of girls a couple of rows back were looking at us and were amazed, amazed, by our resemblance to Paul Newman (my brother) and Robert Redford (me). What were we really? A skinny 12-year-old with brown hair and freckles and a blonde-banged 10-year-old schlub. This is close to dementia. It took me years to realize that not only was I not Robert Redford, I was Allan Felix.

Did you see “The Incredibles”? All the little boys running around afterwards like Dash. Parents think it’s cute, and it is, but Dash is the ultimate wish-fulfillment for a 4-year-old. Their whole lives, whenever they’ve run towards something interesting, someone picks them up and brings them back to a place that isn’t so interesting. But Dash is the fastest boy alive. A kid running like Dash is saying, “You will never fucking catch me again.”

I ran after seeing a movie, too. Mine was “Rocky,” which is on the list of nominees, and will probably make the top three. When I got out of the theater it was evening, and, feeling pumped up, I began to run down the street. I ran all the way home without stopping. In high school I wound up on the cross-country team.

I biked after a movie, too. Mine was “Breaking Away,” which is also on the list of nominees and might make the top 100. At one point in the film Dave Stoller rides his bike on the freeway. He’s trailing behind a truck, and every time he appears in the truck’s side mirror, the driver indicates how fast they’re going by sticking fingers out the window: 4 for 40... 5 for 50...and then the triumph: 6 for 60! Afterwards I scoffed, “How can someone possibly ride their bike 60 miles an hour?” but my brother told me, “No no no, he was drafting. He was being pulled along by the truck. You can do that.” “Oh,” I said. Biking around one weekend, I came upon a freeway entrance, thought, “I should try that drafting thing,” and pedaled furiously onto the 77 North on-ramp. A minute later the freeway, thank God, drained into the south Lake Nokomis area. There had been no proper shoulder so I had been riding on the freeway, with cars honking and whizzing by me, drafting nothing. Afterwards I felt like a cat that had scurried across a busy street and found itself safe on the sidewalk again, wide-eyed and freaked but trying to maintain its dignity. Both of us probably with the same thought: “Well, that didn’t work.”

My most inspirational film may be “Annie Hall,” another unnominated film. I first saw it as an impressionable 14-year-old and upon watching it again 20 years later I suddenly realized that the loves of my life have tended to be like the title character: sweet, pretty, slightly daffy girls with long straight hair who are fun to be with. Maybe my heart would’ve gone in this direction anyway, but the fact that I don’t know is exactly the point. Woody Allen once said “The heart wants what it wants.” But does my heart want what Woody’s wants?

AFI will seem to be cheerleading for the industry with their list of vaguely inspirational films such as “Rudy” and “Erin Brockovich” and “Seabiscuit,” but they’ll actually be shortchanging it considerably. The movies are so powerful, we don’t know where they end and we begin.

* * *

For this article I did something I hadn’t done in over 30 years: I watched “Evel Knievel” again. Unfortunately they copied the DVD from a bad print—there are pops and scratches and skips—and while George Hamilton isn’t bad playing Evel as public mischief-maker and private hypochondriac, the movie is awful. It obviously had no budget, and Evel’s career is glossed over in favor of, yes, how he won the love of his life. At the same time, there’s this kick-ass song, “I Do What I Please” (surely an anthem for any kid), and the footage of the real Evel jumping cars is still cool after all these years. Many of our cinematic forms of inspiration involve superhuman qualities—running like Dash, trying to bike 60 miles an hour, the Lone Rangeresque Klan of “Birth of a Nation”—and Evel fits right in. When he jumps, he’s defying gravity. Here, this is how inspiring the movies are: I sat there, a 43 year-old critic with notepad out and analytical abilities working, watching this stinky, low-budget thing, and man if I didn’t want to be that guy.

—"Inspire Me Vaguely" originally appeared under a different title in The Rake, a now-defunct, general-interest, Minneapolis magazine, in June 2006, and has since disappeared from the Web. Consider this both resurrection and refitting.