In Elia Kazan’s 1961 epic “America, America,” a Turkish family spends the entire film fighting to make it to the United States — the land of promise and freedom. Then again, it’s set in the late 19th century. If they arrived today, they may find a crumbling empire and a feuding people, some of whom don’t look on their types kindly.
“Movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” goes Roger Ebert’s famous line. The dozen or so films in “Immigrant Songs,” a new series at the newly renovated Quad theater, offer plenty of it. They’re stories of triumph, of assimilation, sometimes of strife. Some of their heroes are saintly, some not so much. You have the Guatemalan siblings of the 1983 hit “El Norte,” who trek to California, where demoralizing jobs and tragedy await them. You also have the coked-up gun nut of Brian De Palma’s “Scarface.”
In between are bittersweet odes to outsiders making their way in our fine country. The Russian immigrants of Barry Levinson’s “Avalon” and Don Bluth’s mouse-centric “An American Tail” more or less fare well, as does Eddie Murphy’s African prince in “Coming to America.” Then there’s the German vagrant of Werner Herzog’s “Stroszek,” who finds only despair and a dancing chicken. Robert De Niro plays two very different Mafioso in “The Godfather: Part II” and “Once Upon a Time in America,” who only nab the American dream by thinking outside the box.
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The series thinks outside the box, too, throwing in films about actual aliens, ranging from an alcoholic David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell to Earth” to the Man of Steel himself from the 1978 “Superman: The Movie.” Select screenings will be prefaced by a new restoration of Charlie Chaplin’s great short “The Immigrant.” Here, one of cinema’s great committed leftists sticks it to the man, and only the most soulless bigot wouldn’t laugh.
"Immigrant Songs" runs from May 19 through June 1 at the Quad Cinema, 34 W. 13th St., New York. Visit the site for showtimes and tickets.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge