Saturday, June 23, 2007

American Blogger

I said stay away-hey
American Blogger
Listen what I say-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay

Sometimes the freedom to write anything your heart desires (or, more to the point, that pops into your head) isn't such a good thing... but I am going somewhere.

What does the word "American" mean? I ask this because yesterday I saw a trailer for the upcoming Universal Pictures film AMERICAN GANGSTER starring Denzel Washington as the titular protagonist and Russell Crowe as the (anti-American?) cop.

I'm gonna get you, sucker.

I won't go into how dreadfully tired and cliché it all looked, but the title jarred something loose that I've been thinking about off and on for years: why is the word "American" so overused in movie titles year after year? And even further, what exactly are the powers-that-be trying to communicate about the movie when they use "American" as a title descriptor?

Some on-the-fly research, courtesy of

When you search for the word “American” in Film and TV Titles you get 1397 results. when you cull out all the times it turns up in "American Film Institute salutes..." or "The 12th Annual American Music Awards"-type hits, there's still close to a thousand.

If you search for the word “Chinese” in Film and TV Titles? 232 results
"Brazilian"? 12
"Australian"? 41
"British"? 132
"French"? 204
"Spanish"? 114

Why does "American" beat the rest of the world combined?

I worked for one of the companies (Civilian Pictures) responsible for the documentary AMERICAN MOVIE that won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1999, a banner year for American-titled movies. I'm very, very fond of AMERICAN MOVIE, but I've often thought that if it wasn't called AMERICAN MOVIE that it wouldn't have had nearly the same amount of success. Well done Mr. Smith (who continued to feel patriotic and/or satirical after titling his 1995 film AMERICAN JOB). Sundance 1999 featured AMERICAN MOVIE, AMERICAN PIMP, and AMERICAN HOLLOW all in competition, and 1999 also saw the release of AMERICAN BEAUTY and the AMERICAN PIE franchise (now with a startling five entries).

Do any of these films have something definitive to say about America and/or Americans? Does "American" find its way into so many titles because it's meaningful in selling/marketing the films overseas, where +/- half of a film's gross will be earned?

Or does it mark a distinct lack of imagination on the filmmaker and/or studio's part that they are willing to take a shortcut and use such a generic-yet-familiar title?

the definitive American hero

What makes Denzel's based-on-a-true-story 1970's gangster so authentically American? Is an African-American gangster more "American" than the Italian-American gangsters that we see so much of? Maybe the war profiteering/drug smuggling angle defines American ingenuity: Denzel's character gets fabulously rich smuggling heroin from Vietnam to New York hidden in bodybags of dead GI's. Maybe a lot of people just think it sounds cool.

(As grandiose-yet-indifferent as AMERICAN GANGSTER is as a title, it's still far better than their working title "Tru Blu.")

I was looking around for dictionary definitions of "American" that might shed more light on the meaning of the word outside of the obvious "of or relating to America" part, and the only meaningful (for my purposes) description was in the wiktionary which mentioned "or pertaining to the United States of America, or American culture."

That sounds a little closer to what I think many of these films are shooting for... that their particular subject is the quintessential representative of the Pimp, President, Virgin, or Gigolo as found in American culture, and therefore is worth your entertainment dollar.

The next best theory is that it differentiates martial arts films featuring American stars and/or locations (AMERICAN NINJA, AMERICAN SAMURAI, AMERICAN KICKBOXER, AMERICAN DRAGON, AMERICAN SHAOLIN, AMERICAN CHINATOWN, etc) from all-Asian films.

audience confusion with European cyborgs was niftily avoided

A cool feature of the imdb Title Search is that the working title of films often pop up too. Thankfully, a few films that were slated to have "American" in the title decided against it before release. Does "American Vacation" have the same iconic ring as VACATION (1983)?

How about all-time great CITIZEN KANE (1941)? The working title for Orson Welles' masterpiece was only one word... "American."

1 comment:

Sam said...

that's positively un-american. wait till the swift bloggers for truth hear about this.