Considering the history of early September releases, this was an unusually eventful weekend for movies. The champion of the box-office was a slow-paced, meditative art film disguised as a spy thriller, and its major competition was a grindhouse tribute based on a movie trailer and starring a longtime character actor. On the surface, it seems that Anton Corbijn’s The American and Robert Rodriguez’s Machete couldn’t be any different, but upon closer inspection it becomes clear that these are two stylistically disparate explorations of virtually the same theme; that is, both The American and Machete are about crises in national and cultural identity that occur when one enters another country and becomes an “other” within their culture.
The American is essentially a film about a man without a home. Amongst the few people in the small Italian village that Clooney’s character meets, he is known to them as “the American,” yet the supposedly specific personal, cultural, and national identity that this designation comes with hardly gives us any further information or insight into Clooney’s character. The vagueness of the term as it is applied here is appropriate for the protagonist’s identity as portrayed in this film. Clooney’s character is bestowed several names in the film, at times being referred to as “Jack” or “Edward,” yet because of the nature of his occupation and the restraint with which he allows himself to be present when interacting with others, there is never a sense of finality regarding what even his real name actually is: his entire personality is elusive. Furthermore, Clooney might be “the American,” but he is never specifically American; that is, he isn’t identified with, nor does he identify himself with, any particular region of the nation: he possesses no accent, no indications of where he’s from.
This aspect of his personality is not exclusive to his views of his own culture, for when asked by the head priest of the Italian villa if he had researched the town before coming there to “take photographs,” he says that he hasn’t. When the priest stresses the importance of knowing one’s history, it’s immediately apparent that “Jack” wishes to have no history, and it is in this respect that the protagonist’s character and his location provide an interesting juxtaposition. His temporary residence in the beautiful Castel del Monte – a small Italian town that retains its architecture, its history, and thus its national culture, in part made possible by the fact that it isn’t a major tourist location like Rome – makes apparent by its comparison just how without a culture or a national identity Jack is. That Jack is first seen in the film’s opening scene in a rural outpost in Sweden shows that he lives without static cultural or regional identification because of his need to be mobile at a given moment’s notice. That Jack’s cover is that of a photographer is fittingly ironic because he chooses (or has no choice, depending on interpretation), through his profession, to briefly reside in a culture without really looking at it (read: immersing himself in it) because of the constant need to be on the move.
Yet at the same time, this is Jack’s fatal flaw. The beginning scene sets up his reluctant but somehow unavoidable need to interact with the people of the nation he resides in (i.e., the women), and sets up precisely why he is reluctant to immerse himself in any culture. He is, by all necessity, without a home. While his relationship with Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) does provide access to Jack’s psychology and his lack of concern with the state of his soul, it is his romantic relationship with prostitute Clara (Violante Placido) that reawakens any desire against his better judgment to pursue a notion of home at the end of a soul-killing career.
But in setting up this character, it is rather appropriate that Clooney’s Jack is only vaguely American rather than specifically so, for while the America’s diversity can prompt it to be considered a thoroughly hybridized intersection of many world cultures (the clichéd “melting pot,” if you will), there is also a dominant counter-narrative which states that America’s national culture is veritably culture-less, as in, there exists no unique culture specific to the United States either because it is seen as “merely” a hybridization of other cultures (Americans, especially those of European ancestry, often state the origins of their ancestry across the seas in order to further understand their cultural identity (Anglo-American, Italian-American, Russian-American…)), or because the country’s indigenous cultures were wiped out during its exploration and founding. Thus, Jack being identified by those around him as “the American” is in a sense not a means of identification at all – nothing is learned about him by this designation besides the fact that he is someone “other” than the people he is surrounded by. It tells us nothing about who he is or where he’s from, and it characterizes a man without a stable identity or home (in terms of nation, culture, and his individual personality). In fact, we have no idea how long it’s been since he’s even stepped foot in his supposed country of origin.
The American and Machete contain a surprising amount of surface similarities: both feature protagonists whose careers have allowed them to learn how to kill and use specific types of weaponry (the central plot of the former film and title of the latter each concern a particular weapon), they both feature protagonists who claim not to be well-learned in mechanics and technology (for Jack, this proves to be a thinly-veiled cover), they are both womanizers (for Machete, surprisingly so), and they both, oddly enough, feature major bad guys who suddenly show up where the protagonist is located at the end.
But Machete goes about his crisis is national identification quite differently. Where Jack seeks to live invisibly (benefiting from his inherent lack of national/cultural identification) amongst culturally homogeneous and specific European locales, Machete seeks the opposite. Besides his personal battle with those who committed evil against him, his overarching goal is for his culture to be openly accepted in the United States. Thus, he is unified amongst other Mexicans working in America, both legal and illegal alike, in his campaign for cultural acceptance – his campaign, in a sense, to be visible in a nation that sees he and his people as invisible, in a nation where those in power benefit as much from illegal immigration itself as they do from running racist campaigns against it.
Grindhouse antics aside, as an observation of the issue of illegal immigration, Machete is either brilliant satirical or a very messy missed opportunity (I can’t yet decide which). But there are a few brief moments in which Rodriguez’s message (or, at least, his attempt at one) shows hints of subtle insight, like when Machete, posing as a landscaper, gets into an antagonist’s home and a guard mocks him in Hungarian, thus showing how much of the vitriol at the center of a lot of anti-immigration discourse comes from the narrow equation of being “American” to being white and of pseudo-European ancestry, an equation that ignores the nation’s history of maturing as an amalgamation of world cultures, and a xenophobic rewriting of the actual history that most of our ancestry were, in fact, immigrants at one point or another. Also, the scene in which Booth (Jeff Fahey) eats tacos while making anti-immigrant declarations illustrates the hypocrisy in rejecting a culture that is already firmly rooted in the US.
But perhaps Machete’s cleverest instance of portraying panic regarding the tensions between America’s desire to “secure” an idea of national and cultural identification amongst the realities of immigration is in the existence of its major villain, Torrez, played by Steven Seagal. A Michigan born white actor of Irish ancestry who is expertly trained in Japanese martial arts, Seagal is rather ingeniously chosen here to play a Mexican drug lord who retains Seagal’s real-life affinity for Eastern culture. As Torrez’s villainous motive is to keep borders walled off, Seagal’s bronze skin, Eastern clothes, and the consistent presence of an Asian beauty at his side creates a schizophrenic American-Mexican-Japanese intersection of cultures which in itself argues that national borders have been very open for quite some time.
Both Machete and The American explore interesting and appropriately unspecific ideas of what being “American” means, and neither see this identification as particular to the (in some sense) arbitrary borders that delineate the country. Instead, these films see a definition of “American” that is predicated on what is outside rather than inside these supposed borders, and each film assesses how this definition can be problematic, wavering, ideologically convenient in its falsehoods, and sometimes meaningless altogether. Although Jessica Alba at one point announces, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us!” both these films argue instead that the location of these borders are ultimately up to whatever each individual makes of it anyway.