"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 7 August 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
The American In Me

Here she comes — she used to be Miss America, now she's called American Miss. She's Mena Suvari, American Beauty's bratty cheerleader, the nymphet Kevin Spacey lusted after to such universal acclaim. It's not only American Beauty that's made Mena the reigning American Miss. She's the all-American girl in the teen comedy American Pie, and she's set to salute the Stars-and-Stripes a third time as the title soubrette in the soon-to-be released American Virgin. Together, these three films form the Mena Suvari American Trilogy. Suvari is Our Dos Passos, whether she likes it or not. Her name may sound about as American as saag paneer, but she's the half-flag-draped torchbearer in a nationwide cultural movement that seeks to make the adjective "American" the first word in any title, especially in any two-word title. Movie, TV show, book, song, cigarette: it doesn't matter. Find a noun, any noun, and see if the people selling that stuff can't mix up some meaningful gravy to cover it with — just by adding the word American before serving.

Pasting American over a title isn't exactly a new idea, but the act of wantonly adding the patriotic adjective to everything has reached an epidemic level in a mere two years. It used to be that the serious author of a weighty novel only deployed American on a book cover as an indication of the grimness that lurked within. When Theodore Dreiser needed to let readers know they were in for something dire even by his standards, only the word American in the title An American Tragedy could prepare them for the pleasureless goings-on they'd encounter if they had the grit to face reality and crack the spine. Adding the word American also established the work's pedigree as literature in a nation desperate to prove it had some.

But if Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams could've predicted where that would end up, would they still have thrown American around like a football? After Norman Mailer got ahold of it for An American Dream, he drunkenly fumbled it at an open bar, where Bret Easton Ellis picked it up for American Psycho. Psycho seems a word sufficiently portentous to stand on its own, but, hey, it was already taken by Hitchcock. A psycho is bad, sure, but Ellis needed a way to get across just how bad. Crazy Psycho? No, but American Psycho — aah, that'll do it. Suddenly, it has meaning, it has significance. Dropping the An made it definitive. It also cleared the way for things like Mailer-pal Lawrence's Schiller's flat-out title swipe from Drieser, American Tragedy: The Uncensored Story of the Simpson Defense. Mailer's trying to pick up the ball again: he's written the screenplay for the CBS mini-series based on Schiller's book; we have O.J. to thank for the assist. And even though we're on the subject of screenwriters, the only thing worth mentioning about Joe Eszterhas's American Rhapsody is that now filmmaker Eva Gardos needs a new title for the Nastassja Kinski-starring movie of her prize-winning screenplay about the flight from Hungarian communism.

The 1998 release of Philip Roth's novel American Pastoral made American more respectable than ever. Whatever Roth's intentions were — and they were no doubt stern intentions — the adjective can now freely deliver unearned power in a culture where works have to impart meaning quickly, and the more ominous the better.

When Bruce Springsteen named his cop-baiting plea for tolerance "American Skin (41 Shots)," he probably couldn't help himself: as usual, for The Boss it was all about America. But what can explain the enormous popularity of Lenny Kravitz's blatantly unnecessary and notably turgid cover of The Guess Who's "American Woman"? Kravitz's Tommy Hilfiger-sponsored "Freedom Tour" seems like the work of two Canadians desperately trying to pass themselves off as natural-born citizens. If Kravitz, long described as a decades-late Canadian-style version of Hendrix, wanted to impress his audience with his commitment to American ideals, why did he choose an anti-American song by a Canadian band that had already been decisively dismantled by the Butthole Surfers? Besides, everyone knows that the allegorical "American Woman" espouses an untenable policy. If the "American Woman" is a simple substitute for America, and the song's "me" represents Canada, how can one "stay away" from the other? They share a border. They're already sleeping in the same bed. The anti-US Canadian nationalism movement should consider this before they use "American Woman" in a Molson ad again. "American Woman" has always been a wash-out as an anthem. If the US public's trangenerational embrace of the song proves anything, it's that people don't listen to lyrics. That fact turned "American Woman" into a celebration of American Womanhood in 1970; it's a secondhand one now, even if Kravitz meant it as a dig against his ex-wife, that exemplary American Woman, Lisa Bonet. Like a lot of people who play the American card, Kravitz wanted it at least two ways. To laud the American woman and condemn her at the same time isn't complicated, but "American Woman" can't carry it. It's nothing but the ur-poem of texts that make the adjective American sound ominous. That's why it was used in American Beauty, too. And now, as the soundtrack for a Tommy Hilfiger ad, it's in the strictest sense a paean.

The exponential increase in the number of movies claiming American pedigrees shows not the slightest sign of abating. In addition to the Suvari trilogy and the screen adaptation of the Ellis novel, there's been American Movie and American Pimp. The next two years promise (and may have already seen) releases with late-in-the-day gung-ho/sinister titles like American Babylon, American Detective, American Gypsy, American Heroes, American Hollow, American Intellectuals, American Neurotic, American Saint, and American Storytellers. Some titles have such cultural cachet that they've spread like stains all over the American fabric. Was it necessary to follow American Pie with a movie that forced Madonna's wan version of the overdetermined Don McLean chestnut on an already pie-stuffed American public?

Using American in a movie's title as a portent of significance goes back at least as far as Capra's American Madness in 1932, and films like Americans Grafitti and Gigolo (which, with, Grant Wood's painting American Gothic could form an O-American-G trilogy) are milestones in the history of an American cinema that turns a medium-sized message into a big statement with the addition of only eight letters. It's happening on TV, too. American High recently debuted on Fox, showcasing the kind of future Suvaris who until recently were still playing with American Girls.

The Guess Who knew you can't get that kind of oomph from the adjective "Canadian," and Michael Moore should've known that, too. Did he for one second expect Canadian Bacon to do any better at the box office than Canadian Pacific, the last movie (in 1949!) to offer Canadian as the first word in its title? American Bacon, that's a title! Thick slabs of meaning, shrinking in their own grease, that proudly crackle and sputter out the message: We are unique! Our bacon is different than German bacon! It's not at all like Portuguese bacon! Forget those kinds of bacon! Pale imitations of our smoky flavor. I ask you again, Canadian Bacon? Hell, it's round! The next thing you'll offer us is a Cuban Sandwich. Well forget it! Give me an American Sandwich, and American Soup and Salad to go with it!

The list of potential American titles that can be easily glommed by novelists, filmmakers, songwriters, and Joe Eszterhas is nearly infinite. A quick check of words that can be made fraught by putting American in front of them includes: Baby, Cicero, Clown, Dead, Decoy, Dick, Dictator, E.T., Flounder, Flu, French, Fun, Funeral, Garbage, Hat, Ho, Indian, Jaws, Kitty, Leisure, Liquor, Nietzsche, Pike, Pinky, Pinko, Poland, Shovel, Shriner, Sunglasses, Turtle, Vice-President, Virginian, and Wife. About the only word it won't work with is toenail. This should offer hope to American artists whose lightweight works could use more heft, or who are afraid globalization is turning everything into one big, undifferentiated-by-country-of-origin lump. That it's bound to be a lump as American as American chop suey shouldn't matter to them. Elbow macaroni, tomato sauce, and ground beef have been good enough for American audiences ever since they were in American grade school, and in American Country (formerly the United States of America), it doesn't matter what you call it as long as it's warmed-over and served up with a nice scoop of Suvari on top.

courtesy of Slotcar Hatebath
pictures Terry Colon

Slotcar Hatebath