America is not a nation known for its subtlety, so it’s hardly surprising that there’s an extensive list of films announcing their Americanness: American Beauty, American Psycho, American Hustle, and American Gangster, to name just a few. There’s even more when you consider the televisual American offerings such as American Horror Story, American Dad!, and American Gods. However, these ‘American’ films hardly have a consistent through-line. A double bill of American Sniper and American Pie is not a natural pairing. So with no obvious recurring theme, why is there such a range of films centring their titles on the United States?
Going back to the beginning of the trend in the prehistoric era of the 70s, the first film to use this prefix (according to IMDb), is George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973). American Graffiti tracks a number of high school teenagers over the course of one night and its setting of 1962 allows for an exploration of the rock and roll culture of the 60s. This begs the question of whether we can organise these films by the periods of American history they represent, as an attempt to get at the essential psyche of a cultural moment. For example, American Psycho probes the extreme materialism of late-stage capitalism at the end of the 20th century, and American Sniper centres on the post-9/11 War on Terror. But is this too simplistic an analysis? The rebellious teens of American Graffiti are not confined to the 60s, materialism and capitalism certainly hasn’t ended, and America was waging war for dubious reasons long before 9/11.
America says so much about itself that something must be said in response
That isn’t to say that these films don’t draw upon various time periods to criticise their contemporary moment, but there are far too many in the collection to simply paint them all with the brush of social satire. So perhaps these films are more atemporal, and are instead attempting to tap into something essentially American. American Pie’s title, which comes from a hit song of the same name and refers to an iconic scene in the film, also refers to the desire to lose your virginity in high school, which writer Adam Herz claims is as “American as apple pie,” boldly suggesting a certain uniqueness about the horniness of America’s teens. One of the taglines for American Gangster states that “there are two sides to the American dream,” drawing on another building block of the US collective consciousness: the apparent ability that every citizen has to make their own success. This might help us get closer to the reason behind this prevalent convention: America says so much about itself, that something must be said in response.
American society is fixated on its founding principles, regardless of how much founding in reality they actually have. The notion of freedom, the importance of the constitution, the cultural mannerisms that are figured as solely American; all of these things and more are hammered home to Americans and to the world on a daily basis, making them ripe for commentary, whether that commentary is a critical response (American Psycho) or one that reinforces those ideals (American Sniper).
When viewed as a single unit, this plethora of ‘American’ films creates a complex jigsaw of life in the US, delving in and out of time periods, dissecting social relations, and exploring some of the darkest recesses of American life. Perhaps only America could inspire such a volume of film about itself, because where a nation is so insistent on its moralist foundations, there will be those insistent on creating films that support them. But at the same time, art that is critical of those foundations will start to grow out of the cracks, and with America there is no shortage of cracks.