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“American” Movies: What’s the Titular Attraction?

HBO’s new show How to Make It in America is billed as the East Coast’s answer to Entourage, but one big difference between the two shows jumps out immediately: their titles. The creators of the new program didn’t choose an innocuous, could-be-about-anything name like its precursor; nor did they go with the relatively straightforward “How to Make It.” Instead, they opted for the grand, sweeping “How to Make It in America.”

It made us think about all of the other works of art that have laid claim to that loaded word over the years. Though musicians (Green Day’s American Idiot), playwrights (Tony Kushner’s Angels in America), authors (Philip Roth’s American Pastoral), and TV shows (American Idol, which, notably, was called “Pop Idol” in England) have all co-opted the word successfully, it’s filmmakers who seem to enjoy naming their creations after this enigmatic nation of ours most of all.

From American Gigolo to American Beauty to American Gangster, recent cinematic history is full of examples; right now, you’re probably thinking of a few we left out. American Pie. American Movie. American Splendor. Yes, even that childhood standby, An American Tail. That we can easily rattle off, and remember, so many of these movies is a prime reason that filmmakers keep going back to the well. After all, in Hollywood, repetition is the sincerest form of flattery, and many of the aforementioned examples have made lasting marks, commercially and culturally. So the real question is not “Why does this phenomenon keep repeating itself?” but “What’s so attractive about naming movies after America in the first place?”

Sure, America is the world’s dominant military and cultural power, and also a lovely, three-syllable word that rolls off the tongue. But more than any of those things, America has always been an idea — perhaps just as powerful in the realm of myth than in any tangible way. Ever since the Pilgrims landed and declared Boston their “City Upon a Hill,” the concept that America is a novel, special — even exceptional — place has been embedded in the country’s DNA. And, as the Guardian has observed, it’s that idea of the United States and its folksier, more approachable name, America — that is often the inspiration behind the movie tie-ins.

So how have the America movies wrestled with the shopworn, sentimental notion of their namesake? Some have embraced it with open arms:

In America (2002): a validation of America as immigrant heaven

American Graffiti (1972): a seriously nostalgic look at the early ’60s, when, as the movie would have it, a spirit of pony-car optimism ruled the day

The American President (1995): a portrayal of America’s leader as a regular guy

But hold on a sec: Didn’t that close reading of Huckleberry Finn in high school make it clear that the American Dream is a tad more complex than all that? Well, yes. And that’s where the majority of the American movies come in. For this crop of films, one of the central functions of Americanizing the title is to underscore that the national myth is basically just a sham — that the whitewashed, idyllic, platonic ideal of our country doesn’t mesh with the muddled place it actually is. Like John Cheever pulling back the curtains to reveal the dark side of suburbia, this film will unmask our so-called values for what they really are: prettily maintained illusions. A few examples:

American Psycho (2000): a conventionally successful preppy who murders homeless people is perfectly consistent with the capitalist excess of trading mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street

American History X (1998) Edward Norton’s hate-filled Neo Nazi spouts bigotry that’s a tribute to our country’s unhappy racial history

American Gangster (2007): a ruthless drug kingpin who kills his enemies to get ahead is just hustling to make it like the rest of us

American Beauty (1999): a simplistic depiction of the ‘burbs as a giant facade (try watching it again — it’s pretty damn heavy-handed)

Whichever way you go, though — America as land of the free or as land of the freaks — there are a couple of problems here. First of all, America-titling has become trite. But more than that, it’s a bit of a thematic crutch. An American title instantly signifies that your movie is supposed to mean something — it’s become a facile kind of shorthand for Big Ideas. The word itself is so suffused with whatever one wants it to mean that it gives titles an instant cachet. But is that cachet earned? If American Beauty had been called The Sinister Suburbs, it wouldn’t have been taken seriously. And yet the “America” in the title is almost more overt, at this point, as coming out and naming your film after the point you’re trying to get across. As any Screenwriting 101 student could tell you, that’s a bad idea.

In sum, that old storytelling adage — show, don’t tell — should apply to movie titles as well as the stories they advertise. So here’s an idea: in our movie titling, let’s get back to another one of those old-time qualities that make this country stand out: originality. In the end, that’s about as American as… America.

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