American films beginning with "American"

A recent discussion of Shame led to one of those conversations that is not alien to me. I said I hadn’t seen the film, but had read that it was a kind of American Psycho for the teens … or whatever we are calling this decade (consider other compelling definitions of Shame here and here). Now, sometimes these comparisons are superficially illuminating. So we might say that The Social Network is the Citizen Kane for Generation Y. Something like this is a stepping stone to getting to another point in the conversation – they are a slimy, moss covered rock on which we might precariously balance as the deluge of half-formed opinions and almost-thoughts gush past. They are a way of saying “X is the new black“. They are a conversational conceit, to be picked up and dropped as required. Sometimes, however, I don’t know when to drop it. Years of having such conversations (starting in their Ur-form when I worked in a video shop) means I find it all too easy to get swept away, and what is a blog good for if it isn’t a black box to transform a drunken idea into a tendentious argument. You need some structure for this if it is to be useful, however, so the matrix of my model is the following:

-The film must be the manifestation of a particular idea, X
-The film need not refer to the time in which it is made
-The film must note some change in the presentation of X

Of course a film illustrates, on a basic level, the lives of others as a means of getting us to understand more than ourselves, but it can also illustrate the life of an idea. My idea, X, is that of solipsism in an American context. A film is an artwork, and so it is the overcoming of a limit. This is the limit of our own thoughts and experiences, because a work of art helps us to think what we might not have thought, and to feel what we might not have felt. The suspension of disbelief how we ask the question “what if…?” Thus the film begins, “once upon a time in america…” and each new film fills in the dots. The downfall of this approach is that you might disagree with my chosen idea, but I will drive on anyway in the hope that we will catch a big fish in this mystic river of opinions.
American Psycho is where we will start, as it is what started off this conversation. My idea is that this film has been taken to represent the worst of the worst of American ideology and culture, circa the 1980s, but looking back from the 1990s (the book was published in 1991, the film released in 2000, so it’s looking at one decade from the perspective of the next). This man, Patrick Bateman, is apparently successful in all ways, but this success is used to tell us that something is very wrong with this way of life. There is an entire book predicated on this idea, The Psychopath Test, which suggests that the American dream is a nightmare for all but the ill (interview here). The camera tends to linger on Christian Bale (above) making us party to his pathological self-regard. This is so easily achieved that we don’t notice it, as the camera wallows continually in regard of Bale’s body, letting us appreciate it as sensually as he does (as if we have reversed what takes place in Peeping Tom). It’s as though we’re watching soft-core porn with suspiciously high production values. Whether this body is covered in sweat, water, suds, or blood doesn’t make a difference. All he thinks is “me me me” and all we see is “him him him”. He doesn’t need to become sympathetic as a psychopath. All he needs to be is visible. It is solipsism taken to its pure, hysterical, murderous conclusion.
My next example is American Gigolo, and in the picture above on the right, we see Richard Gere as said gigolo. Here solipsism takes the form of narcissism rather than psychopathy. The character, Julian Kaye does what he wants, but all the materialism and consumption of expensive goods is still somehow acceptable (his appreciation of stereo equipment is nowhere near as deranged as Bateman’s for example). Julian Kaye is not averse to clothing in the same manner as Bateman, and he is naked because his outward behaviour will have a personal result. We see vanity, narcissim, but not psychopathy. He is a prostitute (how come he gets called gigolo, but in Pretty Woman Julia Roberts’s character is a hooker?), and so his body is his advertising board (this an early version of Rick Owens’s second rule of style). Paul Schrader shoots Gere accordingly, and there is a softness in the cinematography which is conspicuously absent in American Psycho. This is what has made the poster for American Gigolo such a design classic, it visually tallies with the style and content of the film. The side by side shots above comparing these styles is a telling contrast. Kaye doesn’t look at us, but we can tell that his gaze is directed elsewhere; Bateman in contrast has his back to us, we are to contemplate his body visually as he contemplates it with touch. His gaze is directed inward. With American Gigolo there is still some hope for something better in the promise of consumption. This film was released in 1980, and so it is projecting what the 80s could/will/might be like. This tells us more about where this film is coming from (the 1970s) rather than where it is, strictly speaking (1980). Solipsism here is of a decidedly different flavour to that which comes later. It asks the question “why shouldn’t I?”
I want to go further back now, and consider what might have happened to make this solipsism appear to be a valid alternative to other attitudes, and to do this I want to use American Graffiti, George Lucas’s second film, and an early indicator of his chronic propensity for nostalgia (Star Wars is just this…but IN SPACE, swords and sorcery at faster than light speeds). Filmed in 1972, and set in 1962, it has the same decade long gap that, according to me, should allow us to see some difference between these two periods. Does this happen? Well, its inevitable that this film would take on a certain weight of history (perhaps more than it can bear) by virtue of the amount that went on in these ten years: the advent of the counter-culture proper, Vietnam, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, &c. American Graffiti cannot bear the significance of these events. It’s a cartoonish view of the early 1960s (consider the poster), but let this not be a criticism. It is effectively pre-solipsism in the sense I want considered. These events I note above are but a few that took place, but fundamentally what we have is the fracturing of the American dream. The kids are baby boomers, post-WW2 children of randy returning G.I.s and their girlfriends/wives who had to give up their wartime independence for the sake of reconsituting the ideal of a family where the man is the breadwinner (in both book and film, The Hours flays this ideal apart in excruciating detail). If solipsism is a circle, then this is the solipsism of a nation (which is of course as contradictory as solipsism itself) which assumes “we’re all in it together”, cheerily whistling past the graveyard of its own demise. It gives us the ideal of the time when life was less complicated, but like all ideals it is guilty of selective amnesia. Let us not forget that Rebel Without a Cause had exploded this myth already in 1955. It needs to be torn apart regularly. Lucas doesn’t do this.
Belize in Angels in America here is one of the quickest denunciations of the American dream, and it is one of my favourites, but it is not engaged with the solipsistic side of things (of course, there’s Roy Cohn and Louis, but the latter knows he is failing as a person to be such a mé féin-er, and Roy as a gargoyle of High-Reaganism is balanced out by the hopeful-to-the-point-of-delusional aspect as in Joe Pitt). Another film that does deal with this solipsism at a point after Patrick Bateman, and conveniently sticks to my perverse need to keep things within my adjectival corral is American Beauty. I need not repeat the plot of this movie, since basically everybody has seen it. What interests me is that it is aesthetically self-conscious in a way that none of the other films are. That is, I believe it it congnisant that its aesthetic is not simply a stylistic patina, a glittering sheen that is sprayed on after manufacture. The beauty of the title is central because it is the great hope that the solipsism that is at the root of the American dream might be overcome. The scene with the plastic bag captures the essence of this, and in the process has become a kind of cliché. The character asks “Do you want to see the most beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed?”, and we are given this:
Beauty is being used as that which might effect an overcoming of individuality. The ideal of the individual (positive and negative, gigolo and psycho) has given way to the portrait of a family, the Burnhams…but it is a family of solipsists. They are unable to communicate to each other from their bubbles unless they scream. It is as though we view a Venn diagram of three never intersecting circles, and the introduction of another family (the Fitts, who don’t fit each other or the world) is destructive. Ricky Fitts is “damaged”, but the trope must play out to the end. There will be blood, and there is. The apotheosis of the flowers that kicks off Lester Burnham’s crisis (as it might be dismissed) is fulfilled by its parallel, the all too inevitable apotheosis of blood. There is, as Ricky Fitts notes, so much beauty in the world, and this film hopes that it might be a way to cross the barriers of solipsism. It was made, and presumably is set in 1999, before that great lost decade where America wandered in the wilderness, and so this adds another level of poignancy to what Sam Mendes must knows is a failed enterprise to return us to beauty, to overcome our limits of what we think we know and what we expect, but a no less noble one for that. That this is what we want (I seem to be agreeing with Le Monde of September 12, 2001 that we are all Americans now…). Even the nakedness in all these films (missing only in American Graffiti) serves a function that tallies with my idea. The skin is either a barrier, a limit set up by the solipsist (Kaye, Bateman), or it is the expression of a hope that there might be a transcendence out of the skin, beyond material confines. We see this with Lester Burnham working out in his garage gym, as well as the film poster, and I might even say that in the dream of the flowers is not sexual and that the flower petals are a wishful conduit of beauty from one being to another.
But then there’s American Pie, and that just fucks everything up completely…
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