Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Stifling Fog that is America

The interesting thing about European cultural anti-Americanism is how unfocused it is. The America that oppresses the European intellectual is not a specific place or a particular people or a well understood set of attitudes. It is instead a miasma, an unsettling odor in the air. It surrounds them, pervades them, worries and troubles them. And, most of all, it reminds them of America.

Consider this excerpt about Danish filmmaker, Lars von Trier, from a Reuters story about this year's film festival at Cannes:
Von Trier, whose fear of flying has prevented him from visiting the United States, won thunderous cheers at the world premiere and a news conference, where he said he enjoyed bashing America on screen because it invades his life even in Denmark.

"We are all under the influence -- and it's a very bad influence -- from America," said the 49-year-old Dane. "In my country everything has to do with America. America is kind of sitting on the world.

"America has to do with 60 percent of my brain and all things I experience in my life, and I'm not happy about that," von Trier said. I'd say 60 percent of my life is American so I am in fact an 'American' too. But I can't go there and vote or change anything there. That is why I make films about America.

Von Trier is a very capable filmmaker by all acounts. My daughter, whose taste and sensibility are impeccable*, is a huge fan, and his films, especially Dogville, are on my list to watch when time allows. She tells me that von Trier sets his films in the US and that his films explore some of the darker sides of human nature. Many people (von Trier included) think that this makes his films somehow anti-American, but there is nothing exclusively American, or even particularly American, about the vices he illuminates.

It is rather more likely that von Trier sets his films in America because he wants them to be about the the problems -- not about the setting. If a filmmaker does a film about corruption in the police force in Sophia, Bulgaria, then the film will be about Sophia, but the same film set in Chicago will be about corruption in the police. The international ubiquity of American films makes a midwestern American setting the least intrusive neutral background against which international filmmakers can tell their stories. At some level the filmmakers realize this and they resent it. Add to that the sense that all the annoyances of modern life somehow arise in America and you have the roots of an unthought anti-Americanism.

Of course the "America" that oppresses the average European does not really exist. If you take the typical citizen of France or Denmark and sit him down at a New York City lunch counter he will be genuinely surprised when he finishes his meal without alarms and gunfire at the bank across the street. The world watches our television shows and movies and, to a large extent (God help us) they believe them.

As the new millennium starts, America is the best-known country in the history of the planet, and a total mystery. Everybody knows all about it but most of what they "know" is wrong. What the world sees is the big-pile-o-crap stacked up by Hollywood and New York. Hidden behind it, and sometimes buried under it, is the other, the real America. Von Trier would be horrified to hear it but Denmark is, in a sense, a red state -- and that bad "American" odor in the air is good old, all-American blue state bullshit.

Of course, vaguely understood anti-Americanism is not limited to the intellegencia, nor to Europe. Consider this from another Reuters story about a lake in rural Russia swallowed by a sinkhole.

Officials in Nizhegorodskaya region, on the Volga river east of Moscow, said water in the lake might have been sucked down into an underground water-course or cave system, but some villagers had more sinister explanations.

"I am thinking, well, America has finally got to us," said one old woman, as she sat on the ground outside her house.

* Yes, doubter, she is really my daughter: she has my grandmother's eyes. The genes for good taste and sensibility merely skipped my generation. I'm, not sure where the genes for good spelling came from though, come to think of it.. I don't seem to remember a good speller in the family before...

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