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City Lights: Documentary provides change from American obsession

December 30, 2013|By Michael Miller
  • A screenshot from "Karama Has No Walls," a short documentary that will play in January at the Irvine International Film Festival.
A screenshot from "Karama Has No Walls," a… (Irvine International…)

When I saw the ads for "American Hustle," the new Jennifer Lawrence movie that's fast racking up Oscar buzz, I realized I had reached a breaking point of sorts.

It's easy, after all, for a tried-and-true property to cross the line into media saturation. I can only see the same image on movie posters and magazine covers so many times. No doubt it's in Hollywood's nature to beat a brand name into the ground, but it's high time we moved on to the next marketable commodity.

Do you think I'm talking about Lawrence? Not at all — I'm talking about that blasted word "American" in the title. Has any country in the last hundred years had such an obsession with branding itself at the local multiplex? (Most likely the Roman Empire would have insisted on sticking "Roman" on every other movie poster, but D.W. Griffith hadn't come along yet.)

Yes, I'm sure "American Hustle" is a wonderful film and I plan to see it as the Oscar season rolls out. I wonder, though, how an American hustle differs from simply a regular hustle. And I had more or less the same question regarding "American Beauty," "American Pie," "American Gigolo," "American Graffiti," "American Psycho," "American Outlaws," "American Dream," "American Movie," "American History X," "American Pop," "American Me," "American Pimp," "American Gangster," "American Splendor" and probably about 36 others that I've forgotten.

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Sometimes, when studios pin the word "American" on titles, it has an ironic subtext (we watch Kevin Spacey stumble through suburban ennui and think dolefully, "This is what passes for beauty in America"). Other times, it has a jingoistic tone ("These aren't just outlaws — they're American outlaws!") or a signal to hang our heads ("It's American history, whether we like it or not"). Regardless, I've often wondered whether filmmakers in other countries do the same thing. "Scottish Psycho"? "Czech Splendor"? "Bolivian Pie"?

Maybe there's a deeper reason, though, for our "American" film obsession — it's because we're so used to American films in general. And I hope viewers will keep that in mind when they see "Karama Has No Walls," the short documentary by Sara Ishaq that will play in January at the Irvine International Film Festival.

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