Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The cinematic experience of coming to America

Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” crashes into theaters this week, to the great delight / offense (pick one) of Americans, Kazakhstanis and pretty much every other nationality on the planet!

For anyone from abroad, the experience of coming to the United States for the first time can be frightening, exciting, dizzying and/or culture-shocking. But it’s rarely dull. Movies have been depicting the experience since the beginning, as our list of the top ten movies about experiencing America for the first time shows.

10) Coming to America (1988)
John Landis directed the tale of African Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy), who travels with his servant Sammi (Arsenio Hall) to America in search of a bride who will love him for himself and not because he’s the heir to the throne of Zamunda. Akeem’s nobility shines through his assumed identity as a fast food worker and wins the heart of the daughter of the restaurant owner, while Sammi takes full gluttonous advantage of the excess of American culture. The film is a tour de force for Murphy and Hall, who each play multiple roles, all of which are hilarious (Sexual Chocolate!), even when they’re buried under so much prosthetic makeup that they can barely move.

9) The Terminal (2004)
Tom Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a man from a fictional eastern European country who, upon landing in New York, finds that an escalating war has rendered his passport and visa obsolete, stranding him at JFK airport. Unfamiliar with the language and customs of the United States, Viktor must likewise struggle with the bullheaded bureaucrat running the giant facility. Making a temporary home for himself at the airport, Viktor (with the help of some friendly employees) learns bits of English, how to earn money for food and the ways of western women! This Steven Spielberg fantasy shows how certain environments can serve as a microcosm of (and a crash course in) the hustle and bustle of an American city.

8) Scarface (1983)
Of course, one of the biggest pulls for immigrants coming to America is the lure of the land of plenty. There’s a lot of money to be had, and some people will do anything to get it. Cuban refugee Tony Montana (an iconic Al Pacino) quickly sees the Florida drug trade as his route to money, power and Michelle Pfeiffer. In the end, everything works out and they buy a cozy little cottage outside of Miami and live happily ever after! Or not.

7) In America (2002)
Jim Sheridan wrote and directed this touching portrait of the struggles of an Irish family who moves to New York City following the death of their young son. With very little money, they settle into a dilapidated Hell’s Kitchen apartment. As Johnny (Paddy Considine) struggles to find work as an actor, Sarah (Samantha Morton) endeavors to make their slum a home. Their young daughters are alternately enthralled and frightened by the strange (and hot) new world, particularly a reclusive neighbor who ends up being a most unlikely savior.

6) Moscow on the Hudson (1984)
In 1984, Robin Williams had yet to become a parody of himself, and so his alternately manic and hyper-sensitive overacting as Vladimir Ivanoff, a Soviet musician who defects to America wasn’t as annoying as, oh, anything he’s done in the past decade. The movie (directed by Paul Mazursky) is an often heavy handed lecture about Americans taking their freedom for granted, but you know what? It’s a lesson that sometimes requires the sledgehammer un-subtlety of someone like… oh, Robin Williams.

5) The Godfather Part II (1974)
Francis Ford Coppola’s epic follow-up to “The Godfather” is both a sequel AND a prequel, half of the film dealing with how the young Vito Corleone came to America and rose to become the head of his own mafia family. Early scenes depict an orphaned Vito Andolini entering the US via Ellis Island, losing his identity in the process (Corleone is mistakenly believed to be his surname rather than the name of his home town) and forced to truly start a new life. The movie vividly shows how big cities’ ethnic neighborhoods (while often insular) like New York’s Little Italy can serve as comforting transition into a strange new land.

4) Maria Full of Grace (2004)
Catalina Sandino Moreno is mesmerizing in the title role as a teenage Colombian girl who finds herself pregnant, unemployed and broke. In desperation, she accepts a job as a drug mule and winds up in New York with a bellyful of heroin packets. Maria is horrified by the brutality of the drug cartel, but comes to feel that America holds far more possibilities for her (and by extension, her family) than the life she left in Colombia. Anyone who thinks the issue of illegal immigration is black and white may have their eyes opened by this harrowing film.

3) An American Tail (1986)
Director Don Bluth’s tale of Fievel, a Russian mouse who loses his family while journeying to America at the dawn of the 20th century, is a decidedly un-Disneyish cartoon. Believing there are no cats in America, the family of Jewish mice emigrate to New York and quickly discover the new world is full of more danger than they were led to believe. The film deals with anti-semitism and the struggles of immigrants in a starkly realistic manner for a cartoon, and it broadened the minds of millions of kids.

2) The Immigrant (1917)
The immigrant experience was so commonplace in the early 20th century that everyone knew someone who was fresh off the boat. In this 1917 Charlie Chaplin short, the little tramp endures the rockiest boat trip to America this side of the Titanic, and arrives in America to find the land of plenty somewhat lacking. While mostly typical (read: brilliant) slapstick, the film contains an indelible image of Chaplin and his fellow immigrants staring at the Statue of Liberty as their boat pulls into the New York harbor.

1) Mystery Train (1989)
The first segment of Jim Jarmusch’s Memphis triptych, “A Long Way from Yokohama” tells the story of two Japanese teenagers making a pilgrimage to the house that Elvis built. The young rockabilly lovers languorously wander through a land they know only through legend, and preconceptions are both smashed and enhanced. As the pompadoured Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) smokes a cigarette and stares out the window of the cheap Memphis hotel, his girlfriend Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh) asks what he’s thinking. “This is America… to be 18… and so far from Yokohama… It feels cool to be in Memphis.” The fantasy image and coarse reality of the United States merge into an epiphany for Jun that the audience can FEEL. It may be the closest a movie has ever come to making an American viewer feel like a new visitor.

Of course, the irony is that, our culture being our greatest export, many of these movies have no doubt served as a prep course for foreigners making their first trek to the United States. Amidst all the drama, humor and pathos, there are definite lessons to be learned. Perhaps none so great as the one that the repatriated Buddy (Will Ferrell) ignores in 2003’s “Elf:” If you see gum on the street, leave it there; It’s not free candy.

Welcome to America.

No comments: