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The American Dream in Film
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The American Dream in Film

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Essay by Ray Jones

Essay by Ray Jones

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  • 1. How has the “American Dream” been translated into popular film? Refer to at least four films. The American Dream is a frequently mentioned and well-known term used to describe the ideology of the United States of America. Despite the common usage of the term it is not always completely understood and so requires, at least, a brief introduction and definition. P Mueller in his writing Star Trek and the American Dream claims that “…to some the American dream is just quot;from rags to richesquot;, to others it includes the realisation of high flying ideals as old as mankind itself.” Mueller then goes onto say that the term was coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams and identifies three main roots: mythical aspects (leading back to the ancient dream of a perfect society and as paradise even before the continent was discovered), religious aspects (which Mueller describes as dealing with the puritan vision of a city upon a hill) and political aspects (arising from the declaration of independence and the constitution). It would seem that the most important of these three themes is arguably that of the political nature and various commentators have defined the American Dream in this way. Martin Luther King claimed “It [the American Dream] is found in those majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, words lifted to cosmic proportions: quot;We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.quot; This is a dream. It’s a great dream.” Jim Bickford concurred with this view within his writing The American Dream: Our Heritage of Hope (in which he goes onto to identify several examples of the American Dream in practice throughout history) when he claimed “America was built on dreams” and went onto to discuss the importance of the declaration of independence in creating the dream by stating “Our ancestors chose to take the risk by putting their lives on the line and fighting for freedom” . In respect to the medium of film it comes as no surprise that the American Dream has filtered itself, both consciously and unconsciously, directly and indirectly, onto the screen. America, and in particular Hollywood, is the dominant producer of film within the world today. Where Hollywood leads other filmmaking nations follow. The American Dream is largely presented within film in the sense of the political context: life, liberty and (in particular) the pursuit of
  • 2. Happiness but there is no uniform depiction of this. There are various distinct ways of presenting the American Dream within film and not all of these correspond to each other. For example, for every glorious and gratifying presentation of the USA and the American Dream there is arguably a cynical and misanthropic representation, criticising America and it’s society. Situations such as this lead us to question the methods of presenting the American Dream. What forms can this presentation take? What agendas do the filmmakers have? And do the films come with any particular political, social or ideological comment intended? The most common thread of the American Dream within film is arguably that which Mueller identified, the rags to riches story. Mueller describes this as the most basic definition of the American Dream and its simplicity may be one of the factors in increasing its appeal to filmmakers. Mueller also lists key elements within the American Dream such as “manifest destiny”, “the frontier” and “the melting pot” and it would seem prudent to include another key element, that of “the land of opportunity”, which whilst not specifically mentioned by Mueller is often held to be interlinked to the American Dream. Mueller transposes these notions onto the long running television series Star Trek and cites such elements as the ship “boldly going” and the role of space as “the final frontier”. However, he does not comment as to the motion pictures of this franchise and the difference of the two mediums (most notably reception and presentation) could make the comparison difficult. Whilst it is highly feasible to suggest that that these ideas could be applied to film it seems prudent, for the sake of both clarity and originality, to concentrate upon other examples. As well as appealing to filmmakers it also arguable that the simplicity and clarity of plots involving rags to riches also appeals to audiences. Rags to riches stories present a feelgood factor to the audience and the tale of a successful underdog is often alluring to the public. One example of a simple rags to riches presentation of the American Dream is the 1990 film Pretty Woman. Pretty Woman tells the story of a hooker, played by Julia Roberts, who falls in love with a successful (and extremely rich) businessman and essentially goes upwards in society becoming a “princess” to her handsome knight in shining armour. The film is fundamentally a reinterpretation of the classic “frog turned Prince” story, albeit with a reversal of the sexes, with the central premise that regardless of
  • 3. who your are and what you do you can still be successful in America, fulfil your dreams and live within a fairytale world. Pretty Woman is unarguably a simple rags to riches story in which Robert’s character starts of at the base of the social ladder, as a no-hoper (a theme that Roberts would later re-explore in Erin Brokovich). However, despite this she successfully climbs the social ladder, achieves a sense of worth and achieves what Mueller describes as her “manifest destiny”. The film does not make any specific comments upon society, although it could be criticised upon Roberts’s reliance upon a man to pursue her goals. Aside from the overriding message that anyone (even a hooker) can succeed. Yet, despite the simplicity of Pretty Woman not all rags to riches stories may be devoid of socio-political comment. One such example of this is Rocky (1976) in which a no-hoper boxer finds success and gains a title fight against the heavyweight champion of the world. There is no doubt that Rocky is a rags to riches story, Jonathon Rosenbaum describes it thusly “The Italian Stallion, a white sub-proletarian regular loser…thumbs his nose at a society that could not care less about him, and finds both love and self-respect in a corrupt world.” Whilst the Time Out Film Guide comments upon “…this low-budget film whose success, against all odds, mirrors its own theme” However, despite the simplicity of this film and its story, Rosenbaum argues it has a deeper meaning. The main thrust of this argument is that Rocky, and other films of that era, provide a counterpoint to the atrocities committed in the Vietnam War. Rosenbaum discusses the sense of guilt felt by America following Vietnam and comments upon the use of the Watergate scandal to provide a scapegoat in order to alleviate guilt. In the eyes of Rosenbaum Rocky provided America with a vehicle through which Americans could feel better about themselves and their country. Rosenbaum specifically mentions “the true all-American spirit” of Rocky and mentions the profound effect that the film had upon audiences stating “Responding to the fairy tale quality of this modern-day romance… audiences stood up and cheered.” Yet, not all films of this era were received quite so readily. Such as the film Taxi Driver (1976), a film from the same year that centred upon Travis Bickle, a Vietnam veteran, whom who could be described as another “loser hero” character. Taxi Driver provides an alternative, harsher form of the rags to riches story; Bickle is an unlikeable character in an unlikeable world, who achieves
  • 4. success and recognition within the film world. Success and recognition that Rosenbaum comments “…smacks of no less than fanciful wish fulfilment.” And “…granted the Vietnam veteran a heroic standing in his community that the real world outside the movie theatre denied him” Taxi Driver was received in a different way to Rocky, whilst it received critical praise it was not as popular as Rocky, audiences did not stand up and cheer. Both films invoke responses to Vietnam, however, they also contrasts the all-American spirit of Rocky to the violent content of Taxi Driver. Rosenbaum claimed that both films “…were at once too shocking and too suggestive of certain American atrocities in Vietnam…” This distinction provides a powerful example as to the differing presentations of the American Dream on film. Both films maintain similar themes, a no-hoper central character, grasps an opportunity that presents itself to him and achieves success and recognition, yet in very different ways. Taxi Driver is a much more cynical film that criticises Vietnam and hints at the devastating impact it has had on the main protagonist. Rocky is more inspiring and centres upon the greatness of America and the opportunities therein, Rocky’s Italian-American origin also refers back to the melting pot mentioned by Mueller, the American Dream is available to everyone even immigrants. The two films illustrate the rags to riches element of the American Dream from alternative viewpoints and highlight the impact that socio-political comment and context can have upon the presentation of the American Dream within film. Rosenbaum’s comments upon the political status of Rocky also serve to illustrate that films may become political indirectly and unconsciously due to their context rather than their content. Rocky was seen to alleviate guilt following Vietnam but the film does not deal with that issue even remotely. The main point that can be taken from the contrast of the two films is that the American dream can mean varying things within the filmic world depending on the intention of those who use it. The American Dream can be used as a tool not only to praise the country but also to criticise. One film that makes use of the American Dream as a critical tool is the 1983 Brian De Palma film Scarface. Scarface is another film that presents a rags to riches story, and the plot centres around another loser-hero in the shape of Tony Montana. The film encompasses many of the elements discussed by Mueller: Montana’s Cuban refugee symbolises the instability of the USA’s cultural mix, the country itself arguably represents the frontier and a land of
  • 5. opportunity for Montana whilst Montana himself is fulfilling his manifest destiny. However, in contrast to pro-American films, and similar to Travis Bickle, Montana is an unlikeable character and his rise to the top is to the top of the criminal underworld (a world that is ultimately his undoing) which leaves a trail of death and destruction. The film is critical of the American Dream, it presents America as a land of opportunity and success is available to everyone, even refugees such as Montana. Yet, De Palma presents America as a corrupt and mercenary land in which opportunity is available to those who are prepared to go further for success. Go further in the sense that they, like Montana, are prepared to kill and literally dispose of the competition. De Palma was critical of America and presented the view that to be successful in a corrupt world, to fulfil their goals and manifest destiny, characters would have to become corrupt as well. This theme was presented to some extent in Hawks’ 1932 version of Scarface, which had the tagline “Shame of a Nation”. Yet, De Palma went further in his criticism and the tagline to the video of Scarface tellingly claims “He loved the American Dream with a vengeance.” It is interesting to note that the 1983 version of Scarface was written by Oliver Stone, a director who had no qualms in criticising the American dream within his own films such as Platoon (1986) and Born on the 4th July (1989). Both these films dealt with Vietnam an issue that is of great interest concerning the American Dream. Platoon and Born of the Fourth of July were both anti-war presenting horrific images and criticising the participation of America within Vietnam. This is an interesting stance particularly in light of Bickford’s assertions that the 58,202 who died during Vietnam, were fighting to preserve the American Dream . At the time of Vietnam many movies shied away from actively promoting or criticising America’s involvement. Rosenbaum comments upon the presentation of Vietnam and claims that rather than openly criticising or praising the role of America films responded to “…the short-term psychic needs of an American or American-influenced audience…” and “…reinterpret painful recent history in a more positive light…” . He offers examples of The Deerhunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979) as films which “…locate the horror of the war within a containable image of externalised evil rather than to look at it as the consequence and function of internal ideological process.” Films concerning Vietnam made soon after did not directly reference the American Dream, they did not claim as Bickford has done, that the soldiers were fighting to protect the
  • 6. American Dream. Instead they responded to the complex status of society at the time and presented the American dream through individual soldiers and characters who overcome great odds in personalised stories deal with singular events rather than the war as a whole. Characters protecting their “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” represent the American Dream political comments are avoided. As Rosenbaum comments “Hollywood has traditionally done its best to avoid contemporary politics” and this serves to, once again, highlight the fact that films concerning the American Dream may be deemed to do this largely because of there context. As The Deerhunter and Apocalypse Now were made shortly after Vietnam whilst the wounds were still felt the American Dream was presented positively through the medium of the characters in order to make the country feel better about itself. In contrast Stone’s films and others like them have been made after a significant gap between the end of the war. Therefore there was no hesitation in tackling the issue of the war head-on, these films were anti-war, against America’s participation in Vietnam and certainly did not echo Bickford’s point that the soldiers were fighting to protect the American Dream. The films took issue with the Vietnam War and echoed Rosenbaum’s prediction (although earlier than he had imagined) that “Perhaps by the Nineties a sufficient time gap will have elapsed to allow filmmakers to approach the subject of Vietnam in a more detached, balanced and analytical manner.” . Had these films been made earlier it is highly likely that they would have aligned themselves along the same stance as The Deerhunter and Apocalypse Now and presented the American Dream more favourably. In conclusion, the American Dream is presented in a variety of different ways within the filmic world. It can be translated in a variety of different ways and whilst the main route highlighted has been the rags to riches depiction there are undoubtedly other methods. Yet, the rags to riches is the most commonly used, easily identified and simplest form of doing this within film. However, even such basic forms of story such as this can have, as discussed, a variety of different meanings, which illustrates the diversity of the American Dream and its presentation on screen. The American dream can be praised or criticised, not just deliberately through the intentions of the filmmakers (such as Pretty Woman or Scarface) but also accidentally through the context in which they are read (such as Rocky or the films concerning Vietnam). The American Dream, is a subjective and living instrument (as Bickford says The American Dream is alive
  • 7. and well to all those who choose to chase after it ), it means different things to different people and so is presented in varying ways within the world of film. Comments and agendas of the filmmakers may be intended and easily identifiable. Yet, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that films could be interpreted subjectively, with different people extracting different ideals. For example, not everyone may believe in the status regarding the American Dream given in the descriptions of the Vietnam films. They may view these films from a different stance and interpret them in their own personal way. The American Dream has been translated into popular film in a variety of ways but regardless of the method and presentation of that transportation the way it is received is entirely down to the viewer. Bibliography Edited by Pym. J, Time Out Film Guide, 8th Ed, Penguin Books, 2000. http://www.provi.de/~pmueller/startrek/index.html http://www.speakersevents.com/americandream/bickford.html http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/sermons/650704_The_American_Dream.ht ml Rosenbaum. J, Vietnam Dispatches (PP1621-1624) in The Movie: The Illustrated History, No. 82, Ordis Publishing Limited, 1981.