National pride

(Please note that this post is not intended as America-bashing. I’ve met a few Americans and they seem perfectly pleasant and normal. Although they do talk funny). 

The recent release of “American Gangster” got me thinking – Why so many movies with the word “American” in the title? There was the Oscar-winning “American Beauty”, “American Pie”, “American History X”, “American Psycho”, “American Splendor”, “American Dreamz”, “An American Tail”,  and, of course “American Ninja 4: The Annihilation”.

Apart from the fact that these films are set in America and feature American characters, is there any reason to highlight their nationality in this way? Are the stories they tell quintessentially American – could they not just as easily be about Koreans, Australians, the Swiss? And yet if they were, I’d bet that the titles wouldn’t be “Korean Psycho”, “Australian Gangster” or “Swiss Beauty”.

Searching other nationalities on, the results seem to suggest that, for example, the words “British” or “English” in a title denote feeble comedy, the word “French” in a title either means a feeble American comedy poking fun at cheese-eating surrender monkeys, or else the US distributor changed the title in order to warn unsuspecting movie-goers “Careful! This film contains subtitles and the occasional wardrobe malfunction!”

Or maybe it’s just a lack of imagination. “It’s about gangsters. It’s American. What can we call it?” I suppose they felt that the title would give an impression of mythic epic-ness (i.e. Oscars), of sociological and cultural importance, of gravitas, of coolness. 


11 thoughts on “National pride

  1. rasman1978 December 10, 2007 / 5:43 pm

    A couple things…

    1) Great “bashing” link!

    2) I saw that wardrobe malfunction on live tv from the UK at 4:00 AM.

    3) Yes, it is a lack of imagination. However, the rise of a minority mob boss in a rich, racist nation fighting a pointless war that provided a way to traffic narcotics, just as a huge narcotics boom was beginning, is rather unique, and American, in history. And they can’t really call it “black gangster” because the US is particularly sensitive to racial terminology. Plus, a lot of yanks seem to think that racism is a uniquely American problem.

    4) Is Denzel a brilliant actor, or what? He really nails that Pacino-Corleone power stare.


  2. simonlitton December 10, 2007 / 6:09 pm

    I like Denzel, but I don’t really have any desire to see that film (no, it’s not because of the title).
    I’m still not sure about the situations you describe being uniquely American but my lack of historical and sociological knowledge prevents me from backing up my arguments with facts.
    I’d never actually seen the “malfunction” until I searched for it today. I am shocked and appalled and I want it all (breasts, music, television) banned and legislated against immediately.


  3. rasman1978 December 10, 2007 / 6:34 pm

    Oh, I thought you’d seen the film. It’s not bad and not great either.

    Shortly after The Malfunction, I was listening to the BBC radio interview some yanks about the incident. One man said, “It was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen on television.” There are just so many things wrong about that statement and what it implies about the speaker that I don’t even know where to begin. He’s got one thing right, though. As we all know, if there’s one thing that men can’t stand the sight of, it’s breasts.


  4. tinafrench December 10, 2007 / 8:29 pm

    I’ve got to be careful what I say here…

    Americans don’t have as much of a deep-rooted national identity as, say, the Swiss. I believe the incessant use of the word “American” in company names, film titles, etc. is a way to compensate for that.


  5. jagosaurus December 10, 2007 / 8:35 pm

    i don’t get the American thing either. I think Erik does make a good point about American Gangster (#3 above), but even then I don’t know if the whole American bit is really necessary.

    And good lord the wardrobe malfunction…. I was watching the halftime show when it all went down and after a short pause said to the people watching with me, “Was that … a breast?” I wasn’t shocked or horrified; I was surprised. And then, of course, I was further surprised (as well as shocked and horrified) by the shitstorm that followed. What a tempest in a D cup.


  6. V-Grrrl December 11, 2007 / 3:38 pm

    That wasn’t a breast, that was a silicone balloon! That’s what made it so disgusting. : )

    Yes, the uproar over Nipplegate was too ridiculous. Showing people shooting, battering, and killing other people is FINE, but a one second glimpse of nipple , oh yeah, that’s a bigger threat to the fabric of society.

    As for the film titles, I believe American Beauty is the official name of a rose, which was a symbol that was prominent in that movie. And the film itself captured the dark underside of suburban life and lust, so the title seemed appropriate in an ironic way.

    Likewise, American Splendor is a film named after a comic book. Once again, the title is ironic. The comic related the very ordinary, true life adventures of a middle aged guy. The title contrasts the expectation that American life is full of possibility and wealth with the boring reality of the author’s experience.

    Haven’t seen the other films….


  7. simonlitton December 11, 2007 / 3:47 pm

    V-grrrl: good point about the name of the rose (hey – that would be a good title for a film…). I’d forgotten that part.
    As for American Splendor, it’s a good film, and I can see your point. In fact, much of it strikes me as very Finnish (there are scenes of misery and misanthropy that would look right at home in a Kaurismaki film), but would they have called it “Finnish Splendour”?


  8. jagosaurus December 12, 2007 / 4:28 am

    “Americans don’t have as much of a deep-rooted national identity as, say, the Swiss.”

    Yes. I suspect this is true. We’re a young large country and, despite the efforts of various groups with mostly nefarious purposes, pretty fantastically diverse.


  9. birdandpickle December 15, 2007 / 6:30 pm

    I think you’re right about the producers going for that “epic” feel. And I think it’s all about marketing. “American” is a powerful brand that I think is meant to convey something like hope and corruption.

    There are plenty of terrific non-Hollywood-formula American films (like American Splendor) but they have trouble getting seen because the big money controls it all. So, sadly, the rest of the world might think “American” means only sweeping, formulaic big-budget flicks. That’s too bad. American Splendor, Bottle Rocket, Our Song, Ghost World, Melvin Goes to Dinner, Pretty in the Face, Manny & Lo–all great American films.


  10. Peter December 18, 2007 / 2:30 am

    Watch these:
    “Belgian Beauty”, “Belgian Pie”, “Belgian History X”, “Belgian Psycho”, “Belgian Splendor”, “Belgian Dreamz”, “An Belgian Tail”,
    and, of course,
    “Belgian Ninja 4: The Annihilation” [A work in progress!] LOL 🙂


  11. V-Grrrl December 22, 2007 / 11:12 pm

    Ha, ha, ha. The very idea of a movie called Belgian Splendor really makes me laugh.

    Belgian Pie? That would be a political drama about slicing the country to pieces, no?


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