click to buy “America First” at Amazon.comWILLIE [John Lurie] (eating a TV dinner): Eva, stop bugging me, will you? You know, this is the way we eat in America. I got my meat, I got my potatoes, I got my vegetables, I got my dessert, and I don’t even have to wash the dishes.

Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1984)

…our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night – every night, every night – the moment I feigned sleep.

– Humbert Humbert in Lolita (1)

At least two classical music stations I’m familiar with program nothing but American music on major holidays. This past Labor Day (which is celebrated on the first Monday in September) was no exception. Music lovers are guaranteed a day of symphonic, chamber, choral and instrumental music by Howard Hanson, Virgil Thomson, William Grant Still, Leonard Bernstein, Amy Beach, John Corigliano, Samuel Barber, Roy Harris, George Gershwin and that most American of composers, Brooklyn-born Aaron Copland. We are sure to hear his Third Symphony from 1946, and, if you’re lucky, we even get his brawny Fanfare for the Common Man, which is embedded in the symphony’s final movement. The fanfare’s triumphant series of three-note figures are as recognisable as the firefighters, policemen, labourers, homemakers and soldiers the piece is meant to identify, if not honour. For us sentimental Americans, this piece takes on a special importance on Labor Day, and we forget, for a few minutes anyway, that American labour union membership is dwindling.

The common man (and woman) is one of several recurring and over-lapping conceits that run through America First: Naming the Nation in US Film, edited by Mandy Merck, a professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway, University of London. Others include America’s place in the world and a lack of tolerance of others that often corrodes into racism. This often illuminating but occasionally frustrating collection of 14 essays about American films helps to identify, if not define, America as it is portrayed in its cinema. She has set herself a daunting task. One problem that limits Merck’s chances for success is that the premise – addressing only films that have the national identifier in their titles – means that films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) or Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002) or even Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) (not to mention many others) cannot be part of the discussion, despite their windows on American values and rituals, to say nothing of what lies behind the public lives of Americans. Murder, betrayal, sexual peccadilloes, racial barriers (and the penalties of crossing them) and attempted suicide are just some of the subjects in these three films alone.

Merck creates a second problem for herself, one of credibility. She writes in her introduction, “Thus America First seeks to examine the repeated use of the terms ‘America,’ ‘American’ and to a lesser extent ‘United States’ (more commonly ‘US’) in the titles of films from the earliest era of their production.” (p. 4) But of the 14 essays in the book, 13 are about films with “American” in the titles. “American” is of course embedded in the 14th, The Americanization of Emily (Arthur Hiller, 1964). But none of the essays treats any of the 63 movies Merck identifies as having ‘America’ in the title. Coming so early in the book, this broken promise is especially troubling. Did she lose track of her design? For reasons she does not share with the reader, she obviously settled on ‘American’ for her keyword. And it does not help Merck’s cause that the names of actor William Windom (p. 138) and literary critic Leslie Fiedler (p. 264) are misspelled (the latter by Merck herself). And I still can’t figure out what the mysterious word “thef” on p. 128 means. Fortunately, the strength of most of the essays, including Merck’s own analysis of the all-American gross-out comedy American Pie (1999), salvages these early problems. Perhaps a better title for the book would have been “Americans First: Naming the Nationals in US Film”.

America isn’t the only country concerned with national identity as it manifests in its films. In his seminal study from 1947, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, the cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer fuels the idea of the national in a nation’s cinema.

The films of a nation reflect its mentality in a more direct way than other artistic media for two reasons: First, films are never the product of an individual.…Second, films address themselves, and appeal, to the anonymous multitude.…To be sure, American audiences receive what Hollywood wants them to want; but in the long run public desires determine the nature of Hollywood films. (2)

Likewise, in Silent Film and the Triumph of the American Myth, Paula Marantz Cohen writes of the inherent link between early American film and its country of origin, and how the birth of American film fulfills the cultural wishes of the great American poet Walt Whitman. Whitman himself was following the sentiment of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose “notion of a country stripped to its essential components and of an art built directly from them” would be fulfilled when Whitman “called for a new kind of cultural expression proper to the form of American life.” (3) That new form would turn out to be film, and the new mode of expression (not to mention documentation) was “primitive and naïve”, revealing “unmediated slices of life: people kissing, trains arriving, boxers throwing punches.” (4) Its “ordinary subject matter…made it an object of contempt to a cultured audience.” (5) It fell to Walter Benjamin to argue “that it was precisely film’s distance from traditional, ‘high’ art that gave it the potential to reach the people and transform their relationship to established power relations.” (6)

As early as 1915, the poet Vachel Lindsay asserted that American film was “a ‘new hieroglyphics’ proper to America’s democratic character” (7). Five years later, the French critic Elie Faure declared,

It is natural that when a new art appears in the world it should choose a new people which has had hitherto no really personal art, especially when this new art is bound up, through the medium of human gesture, with the power, definiteness and firmness of action. (8)

He adds, “the Americans are primitive and at the same time barbarous, which accounts for the strength and vitality which they infuse into their cinema.” (9)

Regardless of what label we apply to them, America’s common men and women – its anonymous multitude – feature prominently in America First, from Angela Moore (Mary Pickford) in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Little American (1917) and Steve Dangos (Brian Donlevy) in King Vidor’s An American Romance (1944) to the white, middle class teenagers in George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973) and comic book writer Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) in American Splendor (2003).

The Little American

In her essay on The Little American, which explores America’s reluctant entry into World War I and the attendant parallels to melodrama and immigration, Kristen Whissel sets the stage by offering the first view in the book of one of America’s common people. Linking action and perception, Whissel, an assistant professor of Film Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, writes that the film “ties American neutrality to a previous failure to see the true nature of the war as a struggle between extremes of villainy and virtue.” (p. 26) Americans would see their leaders echo this reluctance a generation later when they entered World War II only after its naval base at Pearl Harbor was attacked. President Woodrow Wilson’s assertions of a moral justification for entering the war in Europe follow the moral instructions of DeMille’s film, which exposes the blindness of Angela, an ordinary American girl born on the Fourth of July, to the incursion of German spies on American soil.

Whissel also examines the relationship between Angela and Karl (Jack Holt), a German-American torn between two homelands, and its effects on the film, as well as the larger relationship between America and its soon-to-be enemy. After they are captured by the Germans, “Angela and Karl effectively condemn German brutality and American neutrality” (p. 41) as an unacceptable combination, in both the cinematic and political realms. This early film shows that American identity is in part derived from an ability to see it reflected in (or perhaps absent from) other cultures.

The common man as immigrant, seen through the lens of King Vidor in An American Romance, is taken up by Rembert Hüser, an assistant professor of German at the University of Minnesota. Hüser’s themes, and the themes of the movie itself, are captured in his assertion that “What we are supposed to have witnessed in this film is the formation of the American character.” (p. 84) The protagonist, ironworker Steve Dangos (whose Czech name is Stefan Dangosbiblichek), and America are forged as one:

What makes the immigrant and iron ore not only comparable for Vidor but also embodiments of the essence of America is the idea of “refinement,” a version of the utopian concept of perfectibility updated for the industrial age. (p. 88)

Literally and metaphorically, Steve is on a journey through America:

He repeats the expeditions of American explorers, discoverers and pioneers in changed terms. The itinerary begins, highly symbolically, along a railroad in construction. Stefan walks and sees smoking chimneys, fields with harvest, a dog behind a fence. He chops wood behind a house and is offered a sandwich and a glass of milk. He encounters industry, agriculture, property, hospitality and work. (p. 92)

He also unwittingly encounters irony. Three signs on his way west read “Punxsutawney, Wapakoneta and Kankakee” (p. 92), names that are as unfamiliar to most Americans as they are to Steve. These Native American names are a remnant of the original Americans, long since confined to reservations and the enclaves they spawned. But, as Hüser points out, these are also “names of ‘small towns,’ an integral part of American national ideology.” (p. 93) As an immigrant who does not speak the same language as his fellow (white) Americans, Steve has a better chance of survival and financial and social accomplishment than the original Americans whose names he (and we) find so foreign.

I was glad to see Merck include William R. Handley’s discussion of George B. Seitz’s The Vanishing American (1925), one of hundreds of early American movies based on American Indian themes or featuring Indians in the cast. An associate professor of English at the University of Southern California, Handley shines a light on the racism that infected this adaptation of a Zane Grey western and, to a larger extent, the nation at large. To paraphrase a line attributed to former Union General Philip Sheridan in 1869, “The only good Indian is a vanished Indian.” (10) Only after they have disappeared and been sent to live on reservations can Americans (latecomers though we were) accept the Indians as true Americans. Until then, they were the enemy who needed to be routed from the lands explored and populated by pioneers who came before Steve Dangos.

That Nophaie, the Indian protagonist, is played by Richard Dix, a white actor, while real Navahos and Hopi are relegated to background scenes as cliff dwellers, serves the notion of humiliation in two forms: contradiction and irony. “Actual Indians simulate their ‘vanishing’ for an American audience, who believe in their vanishing despite appearances.” (p. 48) Handley summarises these ideas neatly, first addressing Frederick Jackson Turner’s oft-repeated ritual of the pioneer, who must resettle the frontier with each move west:

In short, the Indian (as “wilderness”) teaches the American to act like an Indian in order to become an American. In The Vanishing American, the American heroine Christianizes the Indian character played by a white man and teaches him to act like a noble Indian in order to become American. (pp. 57-58)

Hollywood adds insult to injury when it insists that the only way Nophaie can become a true American (in the white man’s eyes) is to die a Christian death and achieve grace. Put another way, the only good Indian is a Christian Indian who dies a sacrificial death.

Eric Smoodin, a professor of American Studies and director of Film Studies at the University of California, Davis, argues (not entirely convincingly) in his examination of Frank Capra’s American Madness (1932) that America’s Americanness in its cinema springs from a sense of the international in American film culture, not just film. He writes, “at least during the 1920s and 1930s, ‘average’ American audiences understood that American cinema, and American film culture broadly, was international in scope.” (p. 66) While he tries to anchor his argument to the reaction of audiences to Capra’s film, Smoodin provides the reader only with evidence given by film exhibitors, whose reactions were regularly captured in Motion Picture Herald, a trade publication. We hear nothing from audience members. The best he offers is: “And the film’s audiences, whatever their ideological beliefs, may have rejected both the image of America that they saw in the film and the very form of American cinema – centred purely on the domestic – that the film represented.” (pp. 69-70)

American Madness

American Madness mirrors the crisis in American banking that preceded the Great Depression. It is as American as any of Capra’s pictures. And that’s why I was further confused by Smoodin’s insistence that the film is a link to an internationalism in American cinema. He uses words like “may”, “might well have” and “possibility” too many times to convince me of his theory. Links between Americanness and internationalism, and America’s place in the world figure more prominently – and their relationships are more successfully defended – in essays about An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951), The Quiet American (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1958 and Phillip Noyce, 2002) and The Americanization of Emily. In the first film, Gene Kelly, playing another “ordinary American guy” (p. 106) is a painter in postwar France. Pam Cook, an emeritus professor of European Film and Media at the University of Southampton, tells us: “Kelly’s populist credentials, conflicted persona and reputation as an innovator were all at the heart of the ‘Americanness’ portrayed in An American in Paris.” (p. 106) (Actor Christopher Walken describes Kelly as “the Marlon Brando of dance” and “a dancer of the people” in a brief tribute on the American cable channel, Turner Classic Movies.) Kelly’s romance with Leslie Caron, a Parisian shop girl, advances Minnelli’s exploration of “national difference and conflict.” (p. 107) Cook’s contribution, in one of the better essays in Merck’s collection, is to marry Minnelli’s film and the Marshall Plan, which sought to jump-start the European economy and cure the many political and ideological differences between Americans and Europeans (particularly the French) after years of war. Cook uses words like “infantile, young, arrogant, optimistic, materialistic, wealthy, puritanical, conformist, pragmatic and addicted to popular culture” to describe the French view of Americans and “culturally superior, sophisticated, snobbish, backward-looking, intellectual, bohemian and dominated by tradition” to describe how Americans looked at the French (p. 110). Kelly is both entranced and put off by French culture. The ambivalence that infuses An American in Paris more accurately reflects the state of the nations’ attitudes toward the other than the simple mission of the Marshall Plan, suggesting that, in this film at least, there is no single American identity, even as far as the French are concerned.

Postwar contemplation of American identity of another sort is the subject of The Quiet American, the first version directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the second by Phillip Noyce. Accustomed to winning wars, America found itself after Korea and Vietnam like a boxer after 15 rounds of hard fighting: wobbly in the knees, unsure about just who it was or where it stood. Both films are based on Graham Greene’s novel of the same name; all three works deal with “the attempt by the French to re-colonize the country (Vietnam) in the wake of liberation from the Japanese.” (p. 125) Peter William Evans, who teaches film at Queen Mary, University of London, writes that in Mankiewicz’s version, Audie Murphy’s character, Pyle, is a “pocket-sized bundle of 1950s energetic American masculinity” (p. 129), who represents “a country blind to its own follies,” (p. 129), much the way the nation was blind to the rising winds of war in Europe 40 years earlier. Evans describes the differences between the Mankiewicz and Noyce versions this way:

Fowler’s [Michael Redgrave] role in Mankiewicz as an objective, sharp-eyed journalist is compromised by jealousy. Noyce’s Fowler [Michael Caine] modifies guilt through a more committed politics.…he defines the American’s ‘caddishness’ not only as the meddling politics of a superpower but also of ignorance of foreign cultures, admiration mixed with arrogant disdain for Europe and an unshakable belief in the material and moral superiority of America. (p. 134)

Evans’ wry conclusion invites us to look ahead to the end of another war led by a US president not given to the kind of reflection inherent in both film versions of Greene’s anti-American novel.

James Garner’s slick public relations approach to diplomacy during World War II introduces America as marketer of its economy, political will and gritty confidence, all of which yield an America the world came to hate in the Cold War era. Garner’s Charlie Madison waves the American flag throughout The Americanization of Emily, setting off fireworks between him and his object of desire, Julie Andrews, the British driver for Garner’s boss, Admiral Jessup (Melvyn Douglas). Beyond explicating the film’s value in contrasting two views of America, Sharon Willis, a professor of French and Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester, writes that it

reflects on cinema’s place in the production of cultural identity, collective memory and rhetorics of political persuasion, but it also consistently explores its own status as a commodity in global exchange. (p. 139)

In one of the most helpful observations in the book, she points out that “Americanization” has two meanings in the film: “as an occupation of consumer culture and popular media by U.S. products” and “the exchange of luxury and consumer items largely unavailable in wartime Britain for companionship and sexual favours.” (p. 144) Charlie is a hustler, the guy who can get you the best of anything, from a bottle of good whisky or perfume to a woman. He even “seeks to ‘brand’ the British women around him as ‘Americanized.’” (p. 144) The war exists for Charlie and his boss to exploit.

There is one sour note in the collection: Paul Smith’s discussion of American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998). Smith, who teaches in the doctoral program in Cultural Studies at George Mason University, gets it mostly right when he says that Americans lack a sense of history (their own as well as the world’s), but he seems confused about some of that history as it deals with America’s “war on terror” as well as the role of memorials in America. He fails to defend his thesis.

Smith dismisses the memorial to the 168 victims of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City as too “literal” (p. 244) because it doesn’t describe the historical context of the attack on the office building, an attack that while significant in terms of lives lost, is not in my view “the most significant terrorist event on American soil” (p. 244) before the attacks on September 11, 2001. Would Smith also describe the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, as too literal because it contains “only” the names of the 58,249 men and women killed in that war? For many, the Vietnam Memorial, with its simple, elegant black granite walls, is one of the world’s most moving and meaningful remembrances to reluctant warriors. No historical or political reference is needed. Smith conveniently forgets (as have many American citizens, politicians and policymakers) the first bombing, by foreign terrorists, of the World Trade Center in 1993, in which “only” six people died. Smith fails to share with the reader which memorials fit his strict criteria that describe in detail the historical and political contexts of the event they memorialise. This is because there aren’t any, except perhaps the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, DC. Memorials are meant to honour people who succumb in events, not the events themselves, and we must conclude, because he does not give any examples of a memorial that offers historical perspective along with its tribute to victims, that Smith’s ideal memorial does not exist.

American History X

His discussion of American History X leans too heavily on Americans’ lack of “historical consciousness” (p. 256) as embodied by (in his view) the flawed memorial in Oklahoma City. Had Smith employed the kind of redemptive mechanism that director Tony Kaye uses to allow his characters to mature, learn and change and to liberate Derek (Edward Norton) from his self-imposed prison of white supremacist racism, his argument might have succeeded. Instead, we get a brief synopsis of the film and a few flimsy threads of argument that can’t bear their own weight.

Two of the films examined in Merck’s book, American Gigolo (Paul Schrader, 1980) and American History X, feature an important black character. In the first, he is a gay pimp named Leon (Bill Duke); in the second, he is a teacher (Avery Brooks) who figures largely in the near-redemption of Derek’s brother Daniel (Edward Furlong). Both serve their white stars in strong supporting roles, but neither character is complex, and neither is offered the opportunity for his own moral or political redemption. Spike Lee, one of the few American directors who have given audiences a richly layered portrait of African-Americans and their struggle to become part of America, needs to make a movie with “America” in the title.

Hispanic Americans fare much better, in American Me (Edward James Olmos, 1992). But in an essay by Ana María Dopico, associate professor of Comparative Literature, Spanish and Portuguese at New York University, the prose was so dense and craggy, I drew little from it. With sentences like “American Me refuses us a safe point of identification through which to assimilate the film or to imagine sacrificial or redemptive trajectories for American identity” (p. 227), and

The movie’s agonistic social parable and documentary realism, its ethno-poetic analysis and dramatic autobiography, its celebrity auteur activism, its implied pop-sociology of underdevelopment and criminal pathology all offered familiar generic currencies for identifying and interpreting minority American communities (p. 218)

a reader unused to academic writing style is likely to give up. Dopico is not the only guilty party in Merck’s collection. The words “trope”, “foreclosure”, “foregrounding” and more words ending in “-tion” than I’ve seen in one place in many years appear in this volume with such astonishing frequency that I wondered if Merck hadn’t limited her contributors to a certain list of words. Isn’t one use of “carceral” enough in Dopico’s essay about a movie about prison? I began to see it so often I was tempted to begin counting, but she had already lost me. I think one of her points was that, today, Hispanics are regarded by some whites the way Indians were almost a century ago. The rest is anyone’s guess.

* * *

Before he could write his quintessentially American music, Aaron Copland went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, teacher of many young composers and conductors. Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, writes that Copland later “seized the nation’s attention by forging a universally recognizable national sound.” (11) Ross aptly concludes his essay: “Copland conjures a perfect American Sunday in which the music of all peoples streams from the open doors of a white-steepled church that does not yet exist.” (12) But this conjuring could not have taken place without his time in Paris, to see what at least one other part of the world was like. Ross might have been writing solely about America and an identity that is ubiquitous but slippery in its reluctance to be pigeonholed. Maybe there is no American identity, despite (or perhaps because of) its melting pot of ethnic slumgullion. When you all but rub out your indigenous peoples and corral the rest in cesspools of poverty and alcoholism and call them reservations, how do you pin an identity on the people who came from all over the world and did the corralling? The writers in Mandy Merck’s difficult but ultimately worthwhile book seem to know: You watch the movies made in America, whether they brand themselves as American or not, and follow, decade by decade, director by director, film star by film star, to see what America was at a given moment. America is a series of moving Polaroid snapshots. The old ones at the back of the desk drawer are faded and blurred. The new ones, like the movies still coming off the assembly line, are blurred too, still forming an identity. Watch carefully for the moment – and that’s all it is – for the image to crystallise. There. That’s America. Until the next American movie hits the theatres.

America First: Naming the Nation in US Film, edited by Mandy Merck, Routledge, London and New York, 2007.

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  1. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, Vintage International, New York, 1997, pp. 175-176.
  2. Phillip Lopate (ed.) American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now, The Library of America, New York, 2006, pp. 168-170.
  3. Paula Marantz Cohen, Silent Film and the Triumph of the American Myth, Oxford University Press, New York, 2001, p. 6.
  4. Cohen, p. 7.
  5. Cohen, p. 7.
  6. Cohen, p. 7.
  7. Cohen, p. 7.
  8. Cohen, p. 7.
  9. Cohen, p. 7.
  10. Wolfgang Mieder, “‘The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian’: History and Meaning of a Proverbial Stereotype”, The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 106, no. 419, Winter, 1993, p. 38.
  11. Alex Ross, “Appalachian Autumn”, The New Yorker, August 27, 2007, p. 34.
  12. Ross, p. 40.