From Chinese immigration stories to European comedies, world cinema shows the U.S. and its people in surprisingly consistent themes of adoration, hope, and suspicion.
A young Chinese couple arrives in New York, hopeful but terrified, in A Beijinger in New York. (AAWW)
In February 2006, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to a disappointed Egypt to meet with President Hosni Mubarak, who a few months earlier had defied both Egyptian popular will and President George W. Bush's "freedom agenda" by declaring reelection victory with an insultingly improbable 89 percent of the vote. In Washington, the trip marked the beginning of the end of Bush's democracy-promotion agenda: Rice, who had spent much of 2005 very publicly pushing Mubarak for democratic reform, instead re-built ties with the Egyptian dictator, who was an important U.S. ally on counter-terrorism and the Israel-Palestine peace process. Historians (and partisans) may debate for decades the extent to which Bush saw through his mission to champion democratic ideals around the globe. But Rice's 2006 trip, a signal that the U.S. would continue its decades-old practice of supporting useful dictators, was a low point in Bush's particularly American dream of democratic universalism.
However closely Egyptians watched Rice's visit, many of them were, at the time, crowding into movie theaters to see her in a much more compromised position: belly-dancing. In The Night Baghdad Fell, a farce with surprisingly complicated geo-political and even Freudian overtones, a handful of Egyptian men struggle with feelings of emasculation and paranoia brought on by the American invasion of Iraq, which they fear will soon be repeated in Egypt (the tagline asks, "What If You Were Next?"). The movie, controversial in Egypt, is probably not on its own an especially telling barometer of global, or even Egyptian, popular perceptions of America. But it is part of the vast and diverse history of foreign films that prominently feature the U.S. and its people, one with surprisingly consistent themes and portrayals.
In The Night Baghdad Fell, a schoolteacher, believing occupation imminent, asks his star student to design a defensive super-weapon. The student agrees, even marrying his teacher's daughter. When he can't perform on their wedding night, he fantasizes about a belly-dancing Rice. He overcomes his problems when his new wife dresses up as a U.S. Marine named Jack.
"The student hates U.S. officials, so he defeats them in bed in the form of Rice. Rice is always coming to Egypt to lecture us. It is like fantasizing about your sixth-grade teacher," the film's director explained to the Washington Post. "I felt that an event like the fall of Baghdad could not pass without some sort of comment. ... All we Arabs could do was sit and watch it on TV. So I decided to make a movie about impotence. That is what it is all about."
When the teacher wants to boost the morale of his militia, he produces a video of Egyptian achievement since the 1973 war with Israel. It is composed of a single goal in a soccer game in which Egypt tied its adversary. He approaches a general to ask about developing weapons, but the officer says military industry is engaged in producing umbrellas. An acquaintance says Egypt already possesses weapons of mass destruction -- he knows it's so because, once, the entire country suffered a blackout when all energy was diverted to enriching uranium.
The film's plot turns are less funny. The schoolteacher, reading about the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq, fears his daughter will be raped by U.S. soldiers. When the Americans finally invade Egypt near the movie's end, one Egyptian who goes to greet them is shot dead. "The problem is not only that Egyptian men are impotent, but that they are feminized: American dominance is translated on the screen into sexual dominance of Arab men (this is not hinted at; it's quite explicit)," a feminist Arab blogger wrote at the time. "In one key scene in the film, at a moment of frustration and defeat, the main character shows them that now that they have failed in inventing a weapon, they can only go on their knees in front of the invading Americans, raise their hands, and say in English: 'Please, do not f--- me.'"
American dominance is seen as so threatening, so pervasive, and so smothering that it takes on, in The Night Baghdad Fell, am explicitly sexual quality that affects the Egyptian men (not the women, you'll notice) personally. "The feeling of impotence in regards to the Americans is a common feeling," an Egyptian columnist told the Post, which noted that similar themes of fear and unease toward the U.S. have been common in post-Iraq-invasion Egyptian popular culture, but also that a number of Egyptians criticize these as "sophomoric" efforts to blame Egyptian problems on outsiders.
Foreign films often touch on U.S. politics and foreign policy, on American society and culture, or simply on their own country's fleeting but memorable intersections with the richest and most powerful nation on Earth. Though each film is unique, as are the various national attitudes and perceptions they represent, taken together they are a reminder of America's pervasive political and cultural role in the world that it is so frequently covered in foreign films, and with such remarkable complexity. They offer a window into the world's fascination with America, its antagonism for American power and admiration of American culture, its embrace of the American dream and rejection of what is often portrayed as American hegemony.
The Night Baghdad Fell hits a few common themes in how foreign movies portray the U.S., some of which you might have seen yourself in the 2003 British romantic comedy, Love Actually. Mostly about stodgy Brits learning how to embrace love, it included one very geopolitically charged scene. Hugh Grant naturally plays a lead role, though as the U.K. prime minister. After Grant discovers the U.S. president making unwelcome advances on a secretary for whom Grant has feelings, he publicly rebukes both the president and America. "The special relationship is still very special," President Billy Bob Thornton tells a London press conference. "I fear that this has become a bad relationship," Prime Minister Hugh Grant retorts, to audience gasps and rising music.
A relationship based on the President taking what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to, erm, Britain. We may be a small country but we're a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter, David Beckham's right foot. David Beckham's left foot, come to that. And a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend. And since bullies only respond to strength, from now onward, l will be prepared to be much stronger. And the President should be prepared for that.
The scene, potentially a bit jarring for American viewers, may have reflected British skepticism of U.S. leadership, which the U.K. had followed into the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and, much more unpopularly, the invasion of Iraq just eight months before Love Actually premiered. That skepticism carries over to British politicians perceived as too subservient to American power, which The Atlantic's Heather Horn termed "Britain's Blair-Regret Syndrome," for Prime Minister Tony Blair's support for the Iraq War, sometimes treated as an American disaster into which the U.K. was unfairly dragged. That syndrome still persists in British politics, in which leaders who appear too cozy with their U.S. counterparts are accused of allowing the U.K. to become America's 51st state.
For all the suspicion and even defiance shown in Love Actually or The Night Baghdad Fell, another Egyptian film, 1993's Amrica Shika Bika(sometimes translated as America Abracadabra) represents the similarly crowded opposite end of the spectrum: chasing the American dream. In the coming-of-age drama, a group of young Egyptian men pursue their own dream of immigrating to the U.S., a quest portrayed as so sacrosanct that they never even actually achieve it. They hire someone to shepherd them across the Atlantic, who instead cons them into taking menial jobs in Romania. There, they have a moment of realization, expressed by singing "America Song," that emigrating will not solve their problems and that they are foolishly chasing something beyond their reach. You might say the message is something like, "what we call the American dream lives in each of us, not in some far away country."
If you're surprised that the same country that produced The Night Baghdad Fell could also put out Amrica Shika Bika, you shouldn't be: these apparently conflicting perceptions of the same America seem somewhat common, at times even within the same narrative. The ultra-popular Chinese TV mini-series, A Beijinger in New York, serialized over 21 much-watched episodes in 1993, grappled with that very contradiction that seems so often at the heart of foreign perceptions of the U.S. It told the story (fictional, based on a best-selling 1991 novel) of a young Chinese couple who moves to New York, full of hope and anxiety about joining America. The Los Angeles Times called it "an electronic allegory for the love-hate spectrum that has colored Sino-American relations for the last half-century." A party cultural official told the paper, "Everyone has the American dream, but we still don't know what that place is really like." (China has changed a lot since 1993, of course, but this view might still hold true in parts of today's world where breakneck development and endless cross-cultural exchanges have not brought America so close.)
In the very first scene of A Beijinger in New York, as the couple arrives at the overwhelming John F. Kennedy airport, the wife worries that her aunt will not pick them up as promised. Don't worry, the husband tells her, your aunt will have Americanized by this time, and Americans always keep their promises. Over the years, the couple splits under the pressures of the same American affluence and make-it-on-your-own competition that had attracted them. Their daughter eagerly flies out to join them but becomes a drug addict (this was produced by Chinese state TV, after all). Some moments are less heavy-handed; when the father sees his daughter embracing her white boyfriend, he embarrasses himself by flying into a rage, telling off the school principal and white boy's parents. A Chinese novelist who had watched the show at the time later explained how the book explored this incident:
At one point in the book, she says to her parents that when they had left her alone in China -- which was a common practice back then -- all she wanted was their love and attention. But when she arrived in New York, they were preoccupied with making money and told her to work on assimilating into American society. Yet when she did assimilate, her parents were angry at her for doing American things like having a boyfriend and experimenting with drugs. I really enjoyed that part. I like how the parents conceded that raising a child in America was confusing.
The novelist seems to be describing, in part, a sort of push-pull experience of both wanting to become American and wanting to maintain their own cultural purity against the sometimes corrupting influence of American culture. It's a feeling that seems to pop up with some frequency in foreign movies about America. Shanghai Calling, a sappy, by-the-numbers romantic comedy, tells that story in reverse. It portrays a Chinese-American (fully Americanized; second generation at least) businessman who is sent on assignment to China. Though he believes it will be poor and backwards (perhaps channeling some Chinese anxieties about how they are perceived in America), he discovers it to be so exciting and alluring that he plans to stay. Varietycompared his character to an orphan who discovers that the parents he thought were beggars turned out to be rock stars. The American expats in China are shown as eccentric (the oddball businessman who sips tea as he says he's "fallen in love with Chinese culture"), self-interested and a bit greedy (the executive who calls China "a land of opportunity"), or virtuous and relatable (the fixer and love interest who convinces the main character to stay). All three characters, though, are shown as welcomed to China.
The joint U.S.-Chinese production, which showed at U.S. film festivals but received wide release only in China, seems to achieve the opposite effect of A Beijinger in New York, affirming the relateability of both the Americans in China (including the Chinese-American main character) and of the American dream itself, which the Shanghai Calling protagonist discovers is just as abundant in China. Still, the two films, for all their differences, colored by the dramatic changes in China and the U.S.-China relationship since 1993, seem to reach for the same ideas: the American-Chinese cultural divide, the high expectations for Chinese who emigrate to America as well as the sense of their loss, and the question of who can access the American dream.
Sometimes, though, America is portrayed in foreign films in simpler, sweeter terms. The 1977 German comedy Stroszekdepicts some misfit Germans who try to strike it rich in America but end up fumbling around lost-in-translation cultural nuances: shotguns and frozen turkeys, two distinctly American icons, make appearances toward the end. India's enormous Bollywood film industry -- the country produces more movies every year than any another, including the U.S. -- is increasingly setting films in America. Its cities, particularly New York, make for glamorous backdrops to the movies, which are often preoccupied with wealth and with syrupy-sweet plot lines about making it big and having it all. Those backdrops come at a heavy premium, particularly for Indian filmmakers that tend to emphasize volume, which means they must be worth something to audiences.
Even Love Actually, the British romantic comedy, though relatively sophisticated for the form and serving an audience presumably quite familiar with the American reality, can't help but indulging the American dream. A down-on-his-luck, awkward young British man spends his last dime to fly to America, where he believes he will find countless beautiful young women eager to meet him. His friends tell him he's crazy, and when he lands in Milwaukee in December and asks a cab driver to take him to "just an average American bar," it looks like they'll be proven right. Within minutes, however, three flirty, gorgeous, hard-drinking, tackily dressed super-models are pouring over him, buying him drinks and taking him home to their one-mattress apartment.
It's a self-consciously silly scene; so over-the-top it's clearly meant as satire, and yet the joke only makes sense if the audience understands the stereotypes about American drinking, American sex, and American women. Unfortunately, those stereotypes have at times helped bring danger or worse to American women abroad, who must fend off men who assume their advances are welcome or at least tolerated. In a very, very different way, those real American women share something in common with the fictionalized Egyptian men of The Night Baghdad Fell or the young couple of A Beijinger in New York, victimized by effect that America can sometimes seem to produce on people of other countries. Of course, there are also the American expats abroad, like those fictionalized in Shanghai Calling, who enjoy the residual glow of the American dream so highly sought around the world. But that's part of what's so complicated about foreign movies and how they show America. Their portrayals, however grounded in reality or stereotype or myth, sometimes become a sort of reality in themselves. America seems to elicit strong, complicated emotions in people, which is perhaps why they keep crowding into theaters to see the country and its people onscreen.
The June 23 vote represents a huge popular rebellion against a future in which British people feel increasingly crowded within—and even crowded out of—their own country.
I said goodnight to a gloomy party of Leave-minded Londoners a few minutes after midnight. The paper ballots were still being counted by hand. Only the British overseas territory of Gibraltar had reported final results. Yet the assumption of a Remain victory filled the room—and depressed my hosts. One important journalist had received a detailed briefing earlier that evening of the results of the government’s exit polling: 57 percent for Remain.
The polling industry will be one victim of the Brexit vote. A few days before the vote, I met with a pollster who had departed from the cheap and dirty methods of his peers to perform a much more costly survey for a major financial firm. His results showed a comfortable margin for Remain. Ten days later, anyone who heeded his expensive advice suffered the biggest percentage losses since the 2008 financial crisis.
The U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union betrays a failure of empathy and imagination among its leaders. Will America’s political establishment fare any better?
If there is a regnant consensus among the men and women who steer the Western world, it is this: The globe is flattening. Borders are crumbling. Identities are fluid. Commerce and communications form the warp and woof, weaving nations into the tight fabric of a global economy. People are free to pursue opportunity, enriching their new homes culturally and economically. There may be painful dislocations along the way, but the benefits of globalization heavily outweigh its costs. And those who cannot see this, those who would resist it, those who would undo it—they are ignorant of their own interests, bigoted, xenophobic, and backward.
So entrenched is this consensus that, for decades, in most Western democracies, few mainstream political parties have thought to challenge it. They have left it to the politicians on the margins of the left and the right to give voice to such sentiments—and voicing such sentiments relegated politicians to the margins of political life.
In the early 19th century, a series of massive quakes rocked Missouri. Some experts predict that the state could be in for another round of violent shaking, while others warn that a big quake could strike elsewhere in the center of the continent.
As I drove across the I-40 bridge into Memphis, I was reassured: chances were slim that a massive earthquake would wrest the road from its supports, and plunge me more than a hundred feet into the murky Mississippi. Thanks to a recently completed $260 million seismic retrofit, the bridge—a chokepoint for traffic in the central U.S.—is now fortified. It’s also decked out with strong-motion accelerometers and bookended by borehole seismometers to record convulsions in the earth.
The bridge passes a glass colossus, the Memphis Pyramid. Originally built as a nod to the city’s Old Kingdom namesake, the pyramid now enshrines a Bass Pro Shops megastore. The city recently spent $25 million to prevent the pyramid from being swallowed, perhaps by Geb, the ancient Egyptian god of earthquakes. Further downtown, AutoZone’s corporate headquarters also stands ready for a tectonic throttling, propped up as it is on top of giant shock absorbers, while, the nearby Memphis VA is similarly inured to temblors after the city spent $64 million dollars removing nine floors of the hospital to reduce the risk of collapse in a catastrophic earthquake.
The regulations and trade negotiations will be a nightmare to sort out, but the scariest part right now is the uncertainty.
Great Britain’s decision to extricate itself from the EU has consequences that are at once far-reaching and unknown. By Friday morning, no market was immune. Great Britain’s currency, the pound, had fallen to its lowest levels since 1985, and the FTSE (an index of the London stock exchange) and DAX (a German stock index) plummeted. In the U.S., markets opened in the red, gold (a commodity that many investors flee to at times of uncertainty) was up, and traders around the globe prepared for a volatile day amid the question of what the future will look like with the U.K. untethered from the European Union.
The health of an economy is significantly influenced by the policies and regulations that govern its financial systems. But the problem here goes far beyond a change in regulations: The bottom line is that no one really knows what will happen in either Great Britain or the EU—and that is in and of itself an economic problem. Markets don’t respond well to uncertainty. It’s understandable, then, that Great Britain’s historic move to shed its formal integration with Europe after almost six decades and the resignation of its prime minister all at one time would send markets into a bit of a frenzy.
In the book, Leonard took issue with the notion that China or India could soon eclipse America as a world power. “Those countries suffer from the same problems as the United States: they are large, nationalistic nation states in an era of globalisation,” he wrote. “The European Union is leading a revolutionary transformation of the nature of power that in just 50 years has transformed a continent from total war to perpetual peace. By building a network of power—that binds states together with a market, common institutions, and international law—rather than a hierarchical nation-state, it is increasingly writing the rules for the 21st Century.”
It happened gradually—and until the U.S. figures out how to treat the problem, it will only get worse.
It’s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than ever—at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorial—not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.
On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
Are the referendum results binding? How long will it take Britain to get out? What happens to the rest of Europe?
First, are the results really binding?
For the pro-“remain” side, this may be more wishful thinking than anything—given the scale of the “leave” victory—but, in theory at least, the referendum’s results are not binding. That’s because, in the U.K., it is Parliament that is sovereign. Referenda themselves are rare in the country—and Thursday’s was only the third in U.K. history.
The relevant legislation did not provide for the referendum result to have any formal trigger effect. The referendum is advisory rather than mandatory. The 2011 referendum on electoral reform did have an obligation on the government to legislate in the event of a “yes” vote (the vote was “no” so this did not matter). But no such provision was included in the EU referendum legislation.
What happens next in the event of a vote to leave is therefore a matter of politics not law. It will come down to what is politically expedient and practicable. The UK government could seek to ignore such a vote; to explain it away and characterise it in terms that it has no credibility or binding effect (low turnout may be such an excuse). Or they could say it is now a matter for parliament, and then endeavour to win the parliamentary vote. Or ministers could try to re-negotiate another deal and put that to another referendum. There is, after all, a tradition of EU member states repeating referendums on EU-related matters until voters eventually vote the “right” way.
For the first time, the Republican nominee’s operation shows real signs of changing course. But can changing the campaign change the candidate?
NEW YORK—On Wednesday, Donald Trump gave, by his standards, a restrained and subtle speech.
True, the Republican candidate referred to his opponent, Hillary Clinton, as “a world-class liar,” “maybe the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency,” and someone whose “decisions spread death, destruction, and terrorism everywhere.” And yes, the speech was full of lies and half-truths. Yet Wednesday’s speech, delivered at an upscale hotel the candidate owns in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, was nonetheless the most focused and cohesive address he has yet given, one that laid out a cogent populist argument without resorting to overt racism or long insult-comedy riffs.
Such is the bar for Trump that this represents progress. But if the Great Trump Pivot is finally happening—his makeover into a normal and presentable general-election candidate, much anticipated but never delivered in the seven weeks since he became the Republican nominee—well, the political establishment will believe it when they see it.
Twenty-three years after Listening to Prozac, Peter Kramer comes to the drug’s defense.
Several years ago, in the middle of reading volume five of The Princess Diaries to our elder daughter, my wife came to a passage about a dog who is so anxious when left alone that he licks himself until his hair falls out. The royal veterinarian has prescribed Prozac, but the young princess thinks the dog’s real problem is that it lives with her grandmother: “If I had to live with Grandmère, I would totally lick off all my hair.” Our daughter was curious about the medication, which she had never heard of. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” she said, “if there was something like that for people?”
There is, of course, something like that for people. It is prescribed by sober clinicians, dismissed by critics who wouldn’t give it to a dog, and puzzled over by a public unsure whether it is a life-changing medication or a fairy-tale invention. The confusion is understandable. In 1993, the writer-psychiatrist Peter D. Kramer published Listening to Prozac, his best-selling examination of a pill that promised to revolutionize the treatment of anxiety and depression. In 2010, the Harvard researcher and psychologist Irving Kirsch published The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth, a data-fueled argument that was lauded in a New York Review of Books essay called “The Illusions of Psychiatry” and featured on 60 Minutes, as well as in a Newsweek cover story. “Studies suggest,” the article reported, “that the popular drugs are no more effective than a placebo.”
The declassified images are a treasure trove for scientists who study the empires of antiquity.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up features a wayward London fashion photographer called Thomas who unwittingly documents a murder. Hidden in the blurred background of one of his most recent photographs is a detail so obscured by shadows and foliage that, at first, Thomas does not even see it. Only after he repeatedly blows up the image, zooming in over and over again on this otherwise minor feature, is the disturbing truth revealed: a terrible crime has been committed and this photograph has made Thomas an unexpected witness. The most important thing in the photo had been concealed in the background all along.
It was revealed earlier this month that declassified U.S. spy satellite photographs taken above the Antarctic have inadvertently also documented how that continent has been affected by climate change. In this case, deep in the archives of national intelligence agencies are satellite photos half a century old in which scientifically useful data has been hiding in plain sight. These now-outdated spy photographs have thus found an unexpected second life as important tools of planetary science—and, like Thomas’s photo in Blow-Up, their background details have proved at least as, if not far more, valuable than their original purpose.