"A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They're loud and ostentatious."
-- The Ugly American, 1958
Ugly Americans are all over film screens this fall.
They're boozing and sexing through Brazil and then paying the piper with their body parts in Turistas. They're partying hardy in the National Lampoon frat-party-goes-to-Europe Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj.
The American tourists shown in movies lately are so busy fulfilling their own needs -- for sex, great beaches and adventure -- they are blind to the poverty, exploitation and political strife around them.
In the movies, at least, Americans are paying dearly for the crimes of their government, whether due to indifference or meddling in foreign affairs. This is evidenced in the female sex tourists vacationing in 1979 Haiti who somehow overlook the dead bodies accumulating on the beach in Heading South, and the American group in Babel that views Morocco from inside a bus but recoils from connecting to the country's people.
Even this fall's smash comedy Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan takes tourism and American life as a central theme, demonstrating that the American character is often something best defined in opposition to the rest of the world.
You might say that the Ugly American cycle started with last year's gore-fest Hostel. And ever since that film about Eastern Europeans taking American-style capitalism to a nightmarish extreme, movies seem to be deriving fear and milking anxiety from the sight of Americans in over their heads in foreign settings. Not so long ago, the geographical focal point for screen horror was the South, that way-scary place featured in Deliverance (1972) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), full of hostile hillbillies.
But these days, it looks like the scariest place filmmakers can imagine is the world outside the continental United States.
The horror derived from naive Americans being tortured by global Others continues in Turistas. The film's smarter brand of teen exploitation concerns a group of hottie Americans and Euros whose bus breaks down in the middle of Brazil, leaving them vulnerable to the local predators.
A Texas Chain Saw Massacre for the Abercrombie & Fitch crowd, Turistas is less gore than food for thought about the reasons why Americans and American-style capitalism might not be a boon for the rest of the world. In director John Stockwell's (Into the Blue) subversive horror film, Americans are doomed because they are ignorant, mistaking the beaches and free-flowing booze of Brazil for a similarly carefree country, ignorant to the fact that their personal Club Med is also a poverty-stricken killing field.
Tourism cinema shows Americans how they appear through foreign eyes: as ignorant interlopers. And as Robin Wood notes in his exhaustive study of film horror, Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan: "the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses." If the world outside our borders is the source of our entertainment as well as cheap labor and goods, then these films suggest maybe it's time to acknowledge that all those fun, good things come with a price.
Such an implicit critique of the ravages of global capitalism and the increasing division between rich and poor hasn't yet reached the desk of the big brains at the Van Wilder franchise. If Turistas is the socially conscious take on what Americans abroad represent, then Van Wilder is the igmo version of the rest of the world as entertainment theme park.
Taj Mahal (Kal Penn), the eager beaver American lad who's taken a teaching job at a prestigious British college, is the exception to every recent film rule about punishing Ugly Americans abroad.
In Van Wilder's backward-ass view of the world, it is Taj who proves that Americans, in fact, have a thing or two to teach the world about beer funnels, partying and endless slang for female genitalia. Taj affirms that "cool" -- and not economic exploitation -- is the primary American export product.
Closer to the frat-boy yuks of Van Wilder than some might expect, Borat turns out to be similarly affirmative about the American Way. Despite the appearance of some Ugly Americans, America in Borat beats the hell out of life in Kazakhstan. Though there are some bad eggs in the mix, Americans in Borat for the most part look exceedingly patient, diplomatic and conscious of protecting the bumbling Borat's feelings even when presented with situations as indelicate as being offered a bag of their Kazakhstan guest's own feces.
Tourists in the movies exist on a continuum somewhere between the cocky, welcomed colonizers of Van Wilder and the repelled interlopers of Turistas.
But no matter what horrors they have seen, these Ugly Americans are united in their response. Those who still have the limbs to walk on scurry home frightened and reminded that there's no place like home.