Films, shows, videos, imagery representing success and failure in American culture?
January 3, 2013 8:31 AM   Subscribe

Depictions of success and failure in American culture? Films, videos, commercials, shows, songs, and other (non-literary) media requested.

I'm teaching a class in literary representations of success and failure in American literature and culture, nineteenth century to present. We'll be looking at works that factor in gender, race, and class in figuring economic and other measures of success. Readings will include Ben Franklin's Autobiography and John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me.

One catch: it's a summer course that meets four days a week for three hours at a time. In order to stave off inevitable exhaustion for both me and the class (to make matters more fun, I'll be late in my third trimester of pregnancy!) I want to weave in some visuals/audio/multi-media.

I plan on showing GlenGarry Glen Ross in its entirety toward the end of the term. What other films, TV episodes, scenes, music videos, songs, art, etc. might be fun to include? I'm open to depictions from other cultures, since they might offer interesting points of comparison.

Witty, weighty, trivial -- all welcome, as long as they represent some spin on the topics of success and/or failure. Just FYI, I'm mostly thinking in socioeconomic, racial, or gendered terms, but I also want to keep the theme open at this point; in fact, alternate readings of the (admittedly VERY broad) "success and failure" label could provoke new insights as I plan the class, so bring them on!

Thanks, guys!
posted by cymru_j to Education (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It's a Wonderful Life offers an interesting perspective on how success and failure are defined in American culture (or were defined in the World War II era.)
posted by punchtothehead at 8:33 AM on January 3, 2013

Mildred Pierce
Citizen Kane
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Door to Door
Bloomsberg's recommendations
posted by Ideefixe at 8:36 AM on January 3, 2013

Working Girl (success)
Death of a Salesman (failure)
Breaking Away (success)
Leaving Las Vegas (failure)
posted by xingcat at 8:41 AM on January 3, 2013

Little Miss Sunshine
posted by shibori at 8:42 AM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Jerk is a comedic take on the rags to riches to rags trope.
posted by usonian at 8:44 AM on January 3, 2013

You have GOT to have some Horatio Alger in there. That's the romanticized view of success, but it's done a lot to imprint a mindset on the public even today.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:49 AM on January 3, 2013

Slumdog Millionaire
Trading Places
The Secret of My Success
Wall Street
Baby Boom
On the Waterfront
Breaking Bad? Depending on you define "success"!
Maybe the website "If Celebrities Moved to Oklahoma"
And maybe browse the "class" tag at Sociological Images.
posted by Ms. Toad at 8:54 AM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Hudsucker Proxy
posted by cazoo at 8:55 AM on January 3, 2013

Grapes of Wrath
posted by empath at 8:58 AM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels:
Sullivan is a successful, spoiled, and naive director of fluff films, with a heart-o-gold, who decides he wants to make a film about the troubles of the downtrodden poor. Much to the chagrin of his producers, he sets off in tramp's clothing with a single dime in his pocket to experience poverty first-hand, and gets some reality shock.
posted by bcwinters at 9:31 AM on January 3, 2013

The Simpsons:

Simpson and Delilah
Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
Brother Can You Spare Two Dimes?
Homer's Enemy

I live in an apartment above a bowling alley, and under another bowling alley!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:32 AM on January 3, 2013

Mildred Pierce and The Hudsucker Proxy are both excellent movies, and both show business success/failure/whathaveyou. They're worth watching even if they weren't relevant to the class.

I'd also recommend a movie called Children of Invention. It's about two Korean kids (living in America) whose mom gets tied up in a pyramid scheme business, gets into legal trouble, and they have to fend for themselves while things get sorted out. It's pretty decent, and definitely hits race/class/gender issues.
posted by phunniemee at 9:34 AM on January 3, 2013

Response by poster: These are great, everyone! Keep 'em coming. So far, lots of promising films to check out. I'm also eager to watch me some Simpsons!
posted by cymru_j at 9:38 AM on January 3, 2013

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
The Color Purple
The stupid Little House on the Prairie TV movie where Albert is dying and they climb the mountain at the end
The Wedding Banquet (the father gets the grandchild he wants; painfully dated)
posted by Melismata at 10:03 AM on January 3, 2013

The Jerk.
posted by CheeseLouise at 10:13 AM on January 3, 2013

Just thought of Six Degrees of Separation, which looks at what it means to be successful/cultured versus merely appearing to be so.

Also, American Psycho (the main character is a successful Wall Street banker.)

(They were originally a play and a novel respectively, but the film adaptations are probably most convenient from an A/V standpoint.)
posted by usonian at 10:39 AM on January 3, 2013

The Venture Brothers, an animated series on the cartoon network, is expressly about failure and failuring to live up to your potential, all the characters are now adult boy wonders or budding superheroes who went off the rails and became strange head cases. The creators of the show have talked about the importance of failure as a narrative motif for the entire series and Tdd Alcott has written a lot about how the show takes totally positive, always winning characters ( 50-60s era adventure genre characters, Bond, Johnny Quest, etc) and shows them all in horribe mid life crisises.
posted by The Whelk at 10:49 AM on January 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh, and of course, Community, which is essentially a show about a group of people who have experienced failure in a variety of areas (career, education, relationships, life) and are now attending community college.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:00 AM on January 3, 2013

-Taxi by Harry Chapin.

-The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit about the soul-death that was the 50s.

-Reality Bites, about the generation who had it drilled into them since childhood that "You'll be the first generation not to do as well as your parents, you slackers".

-Mark Twain did not think much of Horatio Alger, his contemporary

-The Candidate, on the general soulessness of our media-&-money driven politics.

-Bob Roberts on how to succeed as a right-wing Republican.

-Born Rich, a documentary about people who are rewarded with STAGGERING, MIND-BLOWING WEALTH for doing nothing more than having successful grandparents.

-Tucker: The Man and his Dream, about what happens when the little innovator goes up against the corporate big timers.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:49 AM on January 3, 2013

Hoop Dreams.
posted by Smallpox at 12:56 PM on January 3, 2013

Salesman is an excellent documentary by the Maysles brothers and truly haunting.

Everything Must Go for a somewhat humorous, more contemporary story with Will Ferrell.
posted by thenewbrunette at 1:05 PM on January 3, 2013

Two portraits of successful women fighting for better treatment in the workplace:

Norma Rae--Based on a real person who successfully organized her textile mill co-workers to bargain for decent work conditions. Deals with gender and socioeconomic issues.

North Country
--from the IMDB description: "A fictionalized account of the first major successful sexual harassment case in the United States -- Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines, where a woman who endured a range of abuse while working as a miner filed and won the landmark 1984 lawsuit."
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:10 PM on January 3, 2013

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter is a silly film but does contain some truths about the personal compromises one has to make to achieve career goals.

A lot of UK sitcoms are essentially the stories of losers. The Office is a recent-ish example - it's either the second series or the Xmas special, can't remember which, where David Brent goes from being a success to a man in decline.

Ed Reardon's Week is a radio sitcom about a struggling impoverished writer whose coming of age novel, Who Would Fardels Bear?, was made into the hugely successful Hollywood movie 'Sister Mom' by his friend Jaz. The contrast between Ed's complete lack of money and his friend's success, and the bitterness it invokes in him, may be interesting to you.
posted by mippy at 3:41 AM on January 4, 2013

Response by poster: Oh, and just to add one in response to my own question... I just watched the documentary Queen of Versailles. It's a fascinating look at staggering wealth that ends by puncturing the American dream/bootstraps ideology. The film also has the TV show spectacle factor--- viewers are watching a modern day freak show filled with greed and trashy/garish spending, and the movie is continually asking us to analyze our own disgust/envy, or at least that's how I felt watching it.
posted by cymru_j at 5:01 AM on January 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

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