The Amer­i­can way with a movie ti­tle

WHY DOES SO MUCH POP CUL­TURE IN­CLUDE THE A-WORD IN THE TI­TLE?

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COM­ING to a theater near you: the films Amer­i­can Made, Amer­i­can As­sas­sin and Steve Mcqueen: Amer­i­can Icon. On TV, you can look for­ward to the shows Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story: Cult, Amer­i­can House­wife and Amer­i­can Van­dal. And that’s just Septem­ber. In 2016, we got, among others, Amer­i­can Gods, Amer­i­can Play­boy, Amer­i­can Crime (not to be confused with The Peo­ple v. O.J. Simp­son: Amer­i­can Crime Story), Amer­i­can Anar­chist, Amer­i­can Honey, Amer­i­can Grit, Amer­i­can Epic and Amer­i­can Satan. “There do seem to be a lot of these things,” says ac­tor Michael Keaton, the co-star of Amer­i­can As­sas­sin (open­ing on Septem­ber 15). “You think, Hey, maybe we should be care­ful with how we throw that word around. Come to think of it,” he adds, “I was just sent another script that I’m not go­ing to do that has the word Amer­i­can in the ti­tle.”

Theodore Dreiser has the dis­tinc­tion, per­haps du­bi­ous, of in­au­gu­rat­ing the trend in pop cul­ture with his 1925 novel An Amer­i­can Tragedy— a book that also pop­u­lar­ized the links be­tween sex and vi­o­lence and made in the USA. Amer­i­can Pas­toral, Amer­i­can Psy­cho, Amer­i­can Gigolo, Amer­i­can Beauty and Amer­i­can Pie (to name a few) fol­lowed, all enor­mously suc­cess­ful as books and films. Did those com­mer­cial wins have any­thing to do with the set­ting? And might not the word be a li­a­bil­ity to­day, when the mean­ing of Amer­ica is so hotly dis­puted?

Quite the op­po­site, says A.S. Ham­rah, a semi­oti­cian and a film critic for n+1. “Hol­ly­wood loves things that ap­peal to both the left and the right equally. By adding the adjective Amer­i­can, you can ap­peal to the right by mak­ing it seem na­tivist and jin­go­is­tic and uniquely im­por­tant. And to the left, you can make it seem omi­nous, heavy, dark and po­ten­tially evil. Its abil­ity to be de­ployed as an empty sig­ni­fier is what makes it ap­peal­ing.”

For screen­writer and direc­tor Max Lan­dis—who has writ­ten three en­ter­tain­ment prop­er­ties with Amer­i­can in their ti­tles (in­clud­ing the up­com­ing re­make of his fa­ther John’s An Amer­i­can

Were­wolf in Lon­don)— a tit­u­lar as­so­ci­a­tion with the home of the brave serves to soothe and fa­mil­iar­ize po­ten­tially dis­qui­et­ing sub­jects. “Amer­i­can is al­most like a spice or a salt that you put on a scary word,” he says. “A sniper? He feels dan­ger­ous and for­eign. But Amer­i­can Sniper? He brings it home. Or Amer­i­can Alien: It’s an in­her­ent con­tra­dic­tion. It makes you say, ‘What’s that?’”

Based on the lists of im­pend­ing Amer­i­can ti­tles un­spool­ing into eter­nity on IMDB, we have yet to reach sat­u­ra­tion. “I think the tipping point will be when peo­ple start mak­ing fun of it,” says Tony Ya­cenda, who is tak­ing a stab at that as co-creator of the eight-episode true-crime spoof Amer­i­can Van­dal (de­but­ing on Net­flix Septem­ber 15). “Evo­lu­tion comes with satire and par­ody.” —CHRIS LEE

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