10. Pulp Fiction
What everyone thinks the message is: Tarantino values extreme violence and immoral, criminal characters
What it actually is: A selfish, violent life is one not worth living, and redemption is possible for anyone who wants it badly enough.
Most people who truly appreciate Pulp Fiction easily understand its message, but most of the twitchy, conservative, older generation who decried its violence and profanity completely missed the point. It’s easy to look at Pulp Fiction’s best scenes of violence and assume that Tarantino is glorifying the gangster lifestyle, until you consider that the only characters who end up living are the ones who (in some way or another) renounce their selfish ways and redeem themselves.
What everyone thinks the message is: War is really good! OR: War is really bad!
What it actually is: Respect your Marines.
Jarhead is a movie where you more or less get from it what you bring to it. If you are vehemently pro or anti-war, Jarhead will do nothing to change your mind in that respect. While the trailer made it seem like a modern Apocalypse Now – the gas mask football sequence seems a lot cooler when taken out of context – Jarhead strives only to tell the true story of what it it’s like to be a Marine. In this case, it involved a lot of waiting, masturbating, and getting cheated on by your girlfriend.
Kind of like high school.
8. Little Miss Sunshine
What everyone thinks the message is: Life sucks ass!
What it actually is: Life rules!
I didn’t say you had to agree with the true moral of every movie, especially considering how sappy and mainstream the otherwise-adequate Little Miss Sunshine is, but them’s the breaks.
Despite cramming as much forced familial dysfunction and philosophical cynicism as humanly possible into the first 90% of the movie, the writers make a complete 180 at the film’s climax and decide that, despite the fact that one of the characters is dead and the rest have had their lives ruined in literally every way conceivable, that life is actually pretty neat!
Even if your gay lover left you for someone who now has your job, and even if you can’t realize your dream of becoming a jet pilot due to biological defects beyond your control, and even if your self-help program didn’t sell (thus leaving you nearly bankrupt with two kids to support), everything can be okay if you dance!
If the movie had gone on for another week, most of the main characters would have committed suicide out of depression.
7. Raging Bull
What everyone thinks the message is: Determination and unwillingness to compromise can lead you to the top.
What it actually is: Don’t be an asshole.
In talking about Raging Bull, Scorsese frequently mentions La Strada, an old film of director Frederico Fellini. In it, an asshole strongman befriends a kind young girl, and then abandons her on the road where she later dies. Too late, the strongman realizes he’s made a horrendous mistake. THAT, in essence, is what Raging Bull is about.
If you have a friend who claims to be knowledgeable about movies, ask him what Raging Bull is about. If he says “it’s about the rise and fall of a boxer,” or if he talks about how the best part of the movie is the well-choreographed boxing scenes, then he’s an idiot and you should kick him in the penis.
If he says “it’s about a violent boxer whose intensity in the ring propels him to stardom, but whose same intensity in his private life drives away everyone he loves,” then you’re probably talking to me. In which case, you should probably give me money for my time.
6. Donnie Darko
What everyone thinks the message is: Donnie goes back in time and intentionally kills himself at the end, thus preventing all of the problems he causes later in life.
What it actually is: Donnie rips the engine off his mother’s plane and throws it through the time vortex making his death not an intentional desire to prevent his existence but rather a necessity in order for him to be sent to heaven and what the goddamn shit am I talking about?
Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding about Donnie Darko’s theme is the assumption that there is any theme at all. While emos have clutched onto this movie like their own cinematic Bible, and while it is an entertaining flick in its own right, a hard truth must be faced: if you watch the movie, and just the movie, and you think you’ve understood the plot, you are wrong. Very large, very important information pertaining to the movie is, for some reason, only available on the Donnie Darko website (which is structured more like an interactive game than a movie webpage).
Now, does that make the flick any less entertaining or weird or fun? No. But it does make whatever standalone message you thought you gleaned from the flick completely null and void.
5. The Searchers
What everyone thinks the message is: Nothing can break the bond between family, or the determination of one man’s love for his niece.
What it actually is: John Wayne hates himself some Injuns.
If you haven’t seen The Searchers in a really long time, you’ll probably remember it as a really great adventure story about some evil Indians and a heroic ex-soldier. And while it is a great adventure story, and a good movie in its own right, that’s not really what it’s about.
John Wayne, a racist ex-Confederate soldier, tracks down his kidnapped niece more out of hatred for Injuns than love for the girl. After finding out that she has become assimilated into their culture, Wayne seriously considers murdering her (against the wishes of his part-Indian nephew, who he pretty much treats like shit for the entire movie).
You may also remember a great tracking shot of Wayne riding through an Indian camp, pistols blazing in both hands. You may not remember the part right afterward where he grabs the incapacitated Indian Chief and then scalps him for his own enjoyment.
What everyone thinks the message is: Love conquers all, and saves the good guys from the harshness of war.
What it actually is: Love is a waste of time. Join the peace corps.
Rick makes Ilsa leave with Laszlo at the end of the movie. Period.
Everybody quotes the “you’ll regret it, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life” speech as if it was the most romantic thing in the world, but Bogie’s essentially telling Ingrid Bergman to get the fuck out while she still can. He figured she’d be better off as a freedom fighter in France than Humphrey’s bitch in Casablanca.
And yeah, his desire for her to have a better life is kinda sweet, but it’s hardly romantic. Romance would have been if he’d boarded the plane with her, instead of staying behind with the gay French cop and the dead German.
3. The Godfather
What everyone thinks the message is: The Mob values family above all else.
What it actually is: Violence is a vicious, inescapable cycle.
Hey, society, I’ve got an idea. Let’s ignore all the actual events of the Godfather and only quote certain things out of context! Like when Brando says that “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man”!
Ignoring, of course, the fact that Michael Corleone – who is initially the most levelheaded of the Corleone children – has no qualms whatsoever about killing his repentant brother-in-law Carlo or his misunderstanding, borderline-retarded brother Fredo. The whole point of all of the flashbacks in The Godfather Part II was to show that violence begets more violence: a crime lord kills Vito’s family, Vito joins the mob so he can go back and kill the crime lord, and his children have to inherit his legacy of violence (which is why Michael starts out as an upstanding marine and ends up claiming to renounce Satan at his nephew’s baptism while simultaneously killing the fuck out of the heads of the four other families).
Although, he DOES, technically, “spend time” with his family members. Right before he, you know. Kills them.
2. Gone With The Wind
What everyone thinks the message is: Nothing can stop love, or the will to survive.
What it actually is: Black people is dumb. The South shall rise again!
People heralded Hattie McDaniel’s Best Supporting Oscar win as a watershed moment in motion picture history: a moment that marked a more intelligent, more progressive Hollywood.
Too bad they gave her the award for playing a stupid, unrealistically kind slave woman.
Most of the troubles that Scarlett O’Hara faces in Gone With The Wind come from one of three sources: (1) The Civil War, (2) Postwar Carpetbaggers/Greedy Union Soldiers, and (3) Clark Gable’s dick. Two of these three problems go more or less unrecognized and unremembered in modern society.
While the film is pretty damn good, and does a fantastic job of developing the two leads (over the course of the movie, Scarlett goes from “prissy Southern bitch” to “prissy Southern bitch who doesn’t take shit from anyone”), nobody seems to remember the scene in which the Evil Union Soldier tries to rape Scarlett, forcing her to shoot him in self-defense. Or how grateful Mammy is to have such a kind, caring massuh in Miss Scawlett.
Appreciate the on-again-off-again-on-again relationship between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara all you like, just don’t forget that biggest problems these sympathetic, well-drawn characters have to deal with all come from evil men in blue uniforms who believed blacks should be free.
What everyone thinks the message is: Tony Montana is awesome!
What it actually is: No, he isn’t!
If there is any cultural phenomenon more widespread or more infuriating than the wholesale misunderstanding of Scarface by the gangster rap community, I don’t know what it is. Either every copy of Scarface in the ghetto has the last half of the movie edited out, or America is dumber than anyone could have ever truly considered.
Wannabe gangstas(z) look at Tony Montana’s rise, and they think, “That’s me. He’s uncompromising, he’s ambitious, he’s intelligent, and he’s got morals. He is a product of his environment, but he’s made the most out of it and is a relative hero amongst villains.”
Then they look at Tony Montana’s fall, where he abandons his mother, loses Michelle Pfieffer, fucking murders his best friend, involuntarily gets his sister shot, and then gets blown in half by a shotgun, they think, “Let’s watch the first half again.”
Honestly, how ridiculous a world do we live in where an entire generational subgroup admires the aesthetics of a drug-fueled gangster flick, but not its overall message?
Not to mention, this general attitude led to the creation of the alternate-reality Scarface video game, where Tony survives the shootout.
But let’s not think about that right now.