Assess any chapter in 20th Century cinema and it’s easy to point to this or that great film. It’s a little trickier to figure out which great films were honestly and artfully reflecting basic truths about their times. John Ford‘s The Grapes of Wrath, Howard HawksScarface, William Wyler‘s The Best Years of Our Lives — that line of country. As opposed to films that shovelled wish-fulfillment bullshit, which, I realize, can deliver a certain kind of roundabout truth.

For me the most lasting and resonant trait of any world-class film is a manifest reflection of the times and culture from whence it came, and almost always in some kind of profound light, or at least with a modest dose of spiritual nourishment or realignment, even if it’s bitter. I’ve always regarded The French Connection as a tangy, highly charged capturing of early ’70s New York City, when things weren’t so great economically or infrastucturally but when pugnacious street attitude and flavor were abundant. Anything but heart-warming, but a great urban film.

Do mediocre films reflect their culture? In some instances, yes. Alas, movie history focuses almost entirely only on the wheat and never on the chaff, and so mediocre stuff is usually forgotten while the great ones live on.

It’s probably too much to ask for a rundown of past films that didn’t reflect well on American culture and/or the film industry (or reflected American culture all too well), but what recent U.S. flicks might qualify in this regard? Films that historians will one day look back upon and go “Jesus God, who were these people? What were they thinking? Who were they deep down? Did they even have a ‘deep down’?”

I’m asking this because of a riff I came across this morning. Posted in late September ’08, the subject was Beverly Hills Chihuahua, a grotesque Middle-American family film that earned $149 million. Here’s the gist:

“The people who will make Beverly Hills Chihuahua (Disney, 10.3) a hit when it opens are are not ‘bad,’ but their support of this film, which I see as a metaphor for the shopping-mall plasticity and icky phoniness that has taken over this country’s middle-class culture, will signify a kind of spiritual tragedy in this country.

“Just as you can look at, say, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and say, yup, on some level that was America in 1937, Beverly Hills Chihuahua is a kind of reflection of us.

“All through the ’90s I used to take my young boys to every crappy kiddie movie that came along, and so I obviously get why today’s parents will be doing the same with Chihuahua. It’s just a movie and who cares…right? But the attitude and sensibility behind this film, to judge by the trailers, is wretched and stupefying. A spiritually healthy country — one with its head and heart in the right place, and its communal soul connected to something other than the latest cheap consumer high — would pay it little mind. And here I am sounding like a grouch for saying this.”