07 September 2018 | Alex Hess | Independent
That carrier bag has a hell of a lot to answer for. The art of the movie title was doing just fine in 1999, when American Beauty came along and swept a generation of filmgoers off their feet with a scenery-chewing star turn from Kevin Spacey and its weird, emo-ish centrepiece: the hypnotic home-video footage shot by Wes Bentley’s pot-peddling boy-next-door.
While there has been a recent rush to revise judgments on American Beauty – with its gay-panic plotline, its half-baked earnestness and a disgraced leading man – it certainly left a legacy.
This week, American Animals will become the 76th film with the same two-word title format to be released in the 19 years since Bentley’s plastic bag took flight. It’s a deluge that’s delivered an Assassin, a Virgin, a Nudist, a Fetish, two Dreams, and a whole lot of frauds.
There’s a problem here, and it goes beyond the basic economic idea that the more there is of something, the less that thing is worth. The prefix has come to carry a certain promise: that the film will deliver some home truths about the country in question.
Perhaps it’ll lead an odyssey through the undiscovered heartlands, like American Honey. Perhaps it’ll tackle a thorny political issue, like American Sniper. Or maybe it’ll nudge the mask off a social subsection, like American Beauty.
The problem is that those are the exceptions. Most of the time, the films fail miserably to live up to their title. It wasn’t long ago that the format was used sparingly, its gravitas only invoked when warranted.
There’d been American Graffiti, George Lucas’s love song to the smalltown youth of the baby-boomer generation, and American Gigolo, which peered into the country-club culture of Beverly Hills’ chattering classes. And, with the occasional exception – an Anthem here, a Dreamer there – not much else.
American Beauty poster Even American Ninja, a 1985 cult classic about a clean-cut soldier sent to the Filipino jungle to dispatch a crew of foreign mercenaries, formed part of the Reagan-era action-movie canon in which the Vietnam war was restaged on screen with more flattering results.
If it was nonsense, it was at least aptly titled. Then, with the new millennium looming, came the game-changers. Spacey’s family-man-on-the-brink arrived sandwiched between two other iconic characters from similarly high-reaching films: American History X’s Derek Vinyard (1998) and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman (2000).
Fifteen years later, it’s fair to say the title is no longer the preserve of weighty pulse-taking dramas – as you’ll be all too aware if you saw last year’s American Violence, starring Denise Richards as globally renowned psychologist Dr Amanda Tyler (Tagline: “Payback… The best form of revenge”). Indeed an Exorcist, Frightfest, Exit, Dharma, Dresser, Chaos, Huaso and Woman will all hit screens before the year is out – all of them hailing from the land of the free.
Is America obsessed with itself? If so, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of self-examination. Trouble is, most of these films are just feigning it. And sometimes it works: would the intensely forgettable American Hustle still have got its 10 Oscar nominations if it bore a different title, one that didn’t confer zeitgeisty street-smarts? Would American Gangster have seemed half as portentous if it was called, as per its original script, The Return of Superfly?
Either way, the American invasion isn’t letting up yet. The coming years are set to give us a Wolf, a Radical, a Drug Lord and possibly another Psycho. And by all means go and see them – just don’t expect a state-of-the-nation parable. You’ll only have the same response that American Splendor’s dishevelled protagonist does upon looking in the mirror: “Well, there’s a reliable disappointment.”
Original Link: American [blank]: how one film title took over the cinem