Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

All American, all the time

To the roughly half of my readers who reside in the U.S.: Happy Turkey Day! To the other half: no, it isn’t President Bush’s birthday. Show some respect.

This most American of holidays seems like an appropriate time to take up a very interesting point that was raised last week by Irish Times film critic Donald Clarke in his review of American Gangster. “Americans will insist on slapping their national adjective on films, books, songs, plays and poems,” he wrote. “American Pastoral, ‘American Idiot,’ American Pie, American Graffiti, American Gigolo: the artists of the New World never tire of seeking ways to encapsulate their entire nation—its follies and glories—through the investigation of one archetypal entity.”

Added Clarke rhetorically, “You wouldn’t call a film Irish Gangster, would you?” Well, you might as well have called John Boorman’s The General that. But the fact is that it wasn’t. On the other hand, as Clarke fairly points out, American Gangster was actually helmed by a Brit (Ridley Scott), but his point remains that plenty of Yanks have made movies with the adjective “American” in the title.

Now, I find this question interesting, coming from a country where major daily newspapers, like the one Clarke writes for, feel obliged to put the modifier “Irish” into their names. I mean, if they are published in Ireland, aren’t names like The Irish Times or The Irish Independent redundant? The reason seems to be to differentiate from major papers in the United Kingdom, which are named simply The Times and The Independent. This brings my mind back to the days before I first came to Ireland, when I wondered, naively and with my usual linguistic obsessive-ness, if that wonderful concoction made from coffee, sugar, cream and, most importantly, whiskey, would be called “Irish coffee” in Ireland, as it is in the states, or if it would be called, simply, “coffee.” But I digress.

It is clear in most, if not all, movies with “American” in the title, that this inclusion does telegraph an intention to say Something Very Significant about the American character. Notably, Clarke omitted American Beauty, which had a particularly jaundiced take on American life and values. But there are plenty of other examples, going back as far as the earliest day of the flickers—at least as far back as (Italian-born) Frank Capra’s American Madness, about a run on a bank during the Great Depression. Americans are the main ones to play this game, but by no means the only ones. Mr. Scott is not the first European to make a comment on the American character and then stick the word “American” into the title to hammer home the point. Exhibit A: Wim Wenders’s The American Friend. Sometimes the word “American” is used to differentiate a movie from another one which has inspired it: An American Christmas Carol, Divorce American Style. Sometimes the modifier is emphasized by the prefix “all”: Knute Rockne, All American, Jim Thorpe—All American, The All-American Boy, Everybody’s All-American. Sometimes the usage is to suggest inclusion, perhaps ironically, in the melting pot: The Americanization of Emily, An American Tail, American Me, Geronimo: An American Legend. Some movies really signal their high intentions by adding the word “great” on top of it all: The Great American Broadcast, A Great American Tragedy, The Great American Cowboy. And sometimes the word “American” merely establishes that the movie is about a Yank in a foreign setting: An American in Paris, An American Werewolf in London, An American Werewolf in Paris.

Sometimes the use of the modifier “American” is meant as an indictment, as in Rainer Werver Fassbinder’s The American Soldier or Mary Harron’s American Psycho. Sometimes it implies what is appealing about the U.S. character, as in Rob Reiner’s romantic comedy The American President or Jocelyn Moorehouse’s How to Make an American Quilt.

A cursory glace at film titles does not find such a preponderance of titles proclaiming any other nationality, at least not in English-speaking cinema. There are several movies that do contain “Irish” in the title but none of them, as far as I can tell anyway, produced in Ireland.

So, what accounts for this usage of the word “American” in so many titles of American movies? I don’t know for sure, but here’s a possibility. Given its size and immigrant history, the United States does not have the ethnic or cultural cohesiveness that older, smaller nations have. Perhaps the emphasis on the word “American” is a subconscious attempt to nail down the American identity once and for all. We Americans frequently talk about whether this or that is “American” or “un-American.” Other countries don’t do that so much because what is, for example, Irish is pretty well-established by this time. (The French do say, ça ce n’est pas français!, but by that they mean you have made a grammatical error.) Also, in being the world’s largest political, economic and military power, the U.S. is controversial. People all over the world, including within the U.S., have a stake in defining just what this country is about. Then again, maybe the “American” gambit is really just a ploy to get one’s film listed as high up as possible on alphabetized movie lists.

Rosemary’s baby’s father (1929-2007)

Continuing my time-delayed series of tributes to recently deceased movie figures…

New York playwright and novelist Ira Levin died a week and a half ago. As Hollywood writers continue one of the major labor actions of recent years, we in the audience are reminded how few of that army of scribes are known to us by name. Levin was a writer with a recognizable name and, when you went to see a movie with his name in the credits, you pretty much knew what you were going to get. He was a practitioner of what I tend to call mainstream horror—as opposed to niche horror, which appeals primarily, if not exclusively, to a particular segment of the movie-going public. Movies based on Levin’s writing featured major stars and drew people who normally did not go to scary movies.

He wrote only seven novels during his four-decade career, but the titles of three of them are eminently familiar to everyone, if not because of the books themselves, then because of the movie adaptations: Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives and The Boys from Brazil. The first was directed by Roman Polanski, starred Mia Farrow and earned a Supporting Actress Oscar for Ruth Gordon. The second starred Katharine Ross. And the third featured a triumvirate of veteran major stars: Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier and James Mason.

Interestingly, Rosemary’s Baby did not exactly become a film franchise, although the various Omen movies could sort of be seen as unauthorized sequels. There was an ill-conceived TV movie sequel to Polanski’s classic in 1976, called Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby, starring Stephen McHattie in the now-grown-up title role and featuring Patty Duke and Broderick Crawford and even bringing back Ruth Gordon. The Stepford Wives, on the other hand, spawned two sequels (Revenge of the Stepford Wives and The Stepford Children) and a remake (in 2004, starring Nicole Kidman). It is safe to say that the word “Stepford” is clearly ensconced in the language, denoting anyone who has been turned into a mind-numbed robot by their unimaginative (usually, suburban) environment.

Among Levin’s other novels, his film noir-ish A Kiss Before Dying was adapted twice: in 1956 starring Robert Wagner and Joanne Woodward and in 1991 starring Matt Dillon and Sean Young. And Sliver became something of an instant Basic Instinct reprise in 1993, with an adaptation by Joe Eszterhas and a starring turn by Sharon Stone.

Three of Levin’s plays also got the big screen treatment. No Time for Sergeants helped make a star of Andy Griffith. Critic’s Choice provided a comedy vehicle for Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. And Deathtrap kept audiences guessing, as they watched every possible romantic triangle combination play out among Michael Caine, Dyan Cannon and Christopher Reeve, putting some serious daylight between Reeve and his stalwart superhero persona from the recently completed first two Superman movies.

-S.L., 22 November 2007

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