“I don’t understand American films,” one of my German teachers, Claudia, remarked last week. “They’re all action and pretty pictures, but I can’t einfühlen [empathize] with the characters.”
“They’re formulaic,” I agreed. This was an opinion I had long held and had never apologized for, but this time as I nodded, it felt like a small act of treason.
After spending a few weeks in Europe, I’ve begun to realize that my semester off is less about needing a break from Yale and more about needing a break from America in general. Yet despite this fact, or maybe because of it, each time that I discover a custom or worldview that I prefer to its American counterpart, it feels like a betrayal to the society that has undeniably shaped my identity.
“We have indie films though!” I told Claudia. I was desperate to identify a facet of American culture that managed more depth than Hollywood. “They deal more with character. The big studios don’t want to risk money on something that might not do well at the box office, but there are still smaller, more innovative productions.”
Claudia looked interested. “Perhaps they don’t make it all the way to Germany,” she said, eager, I think, for a reason not to dismiss my society entirely. “What are some of the titles? I’d like to watch them.”
And that was when I realized that all the movies I was thinking about, all these character-driven films that plumbed the depths of humanity with few camera angles and average-looking actors, all of my favorites, were foreign films that had played in the indie theater near my childhood home.
“Um, I don’t remember any right now,” I lied.
Though this conversation happened six days ago, my brain is still stuck in that moment. I can’t stop thinking that in the United States, the life imitating art imitating life cycle has spiraled out of control.
At age eleven, I was one of the countless Limited Too-bedecked preteens who wanted to go to Paris simply because Mary Kate and Ashley did. And now, when tabloids encourage my lust toward more serious actors like Ryan Gosling, it is impossible to know if that desire is directed at Notebook Noah and sex in the rain, or smooth-guy-turned-sweetheart Jacob from Crazy Stupid Love, or (less likely) the actor himself.
New Yorkers ride the subway to the diegetic tune of their own iPod soundtracks, people ask themselves “What would Miranda Bailey do?” and I even had a friend in high school who made major life decisions based on how dramatic they would be on the silver screen. (Then he would retroactively write the script — chaos and broken relationships included — with thinly veiled pseudonyms and A-list actors preselected for each role. Somehow this justified stealing two of his best friends’ girlfriends in as many years.)
It’s hard to say whether the flat movies or the flat Americans came first, but right now there are plenty of chickens and eggs to go around.
“We’re not on top anymore,” I said in a bar a few weeks ago to an Australian, a Schweizerin, an Italian and a former Philadelphian now living in Basel. “We think we are, but we’re behind in science, in culture, in politics…”
In my mind I saw a wooden ship about to sail off a Christopher Columbian edge of the earth, full of overweight Midwesterners obliviously watching “The Jersey Shore” and drinking Bud Light out of sad blue cans.
To me, this was terrifying.
But to my peers at the bar, it was old news. “Yep,” said the Australian, before taking another swig of his Augustiner lager.
In May, I will return to the United States. And maybe, having been gone for a while, I will be able to carve out a place in America that I am proud of. Maybe this dissatisfaction is just a sign of lingering youthful idealism, and if I were to remain in Germany for a few years, I would find plenty of customs and worldviews worth equally serious complaints. Maybe.
Right now though, this is what I know:
That last Friday I was cooking Reibekuchen with some of the newer students and Ludwig, one of the teachers, when Micha, a young woman from Prague, asked Ludwig about my German.
“She sounds normal to me,” said Ludwig. “Occasionally I hear some American, but usually no.”
He was talking, of course, only about my accent. But I’m ashamed to say that I’d never felt prouder.