Gone to look for America

The United States is so bad that all free-thinking men and women over the past half-a-century have been clamouring to get into that bastion of freedom, Iraq.

And Islam, at its kindest, buries adulterous women up to their necks when they are about to be stoned, just so they won’t be tempted to instinctively protect their lives.

Both the above views are, of course, extreme. America is everything but wonderful, as you know if you’ve been reading this newspaper over the last couple of weeks, and one only knows what is happening in Iraq, because no one locally seems all that keen on going to see and report on how brilliant life is beyond the United Nations weapons-inspection cavalcade. But let us accept, however hypothetically, that America makes better films than Iraq, and that New York is the unofficial capital of at least the Western world.

One of the historical traditions that informs the United States and therefore New York is the English one. In fact, if a new film is to be believed, Britain no longer has anything new to offer (although Naked by Mike Leigh did just that), except to be a satellite of the United States.

It starts with the title, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, a reference to Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984) by spaghetti-western maestro Sergio Leone.

It’s all heavily ironic, of course, because this Scottish lassie Shirley (Shirley Henderson) and her daughter live with one Dek (Rhys Ifans), who proposes to her on a very American-style TV programme. Dek, however, has an equal passion for his souped-up Ford Sierra. Get it? But the criminal father of Shirley’s child, that good-for-nothing Glaswegian Jimmy (Robert Carlyle), sees this and sets off for her Midlands town, accompanied by some fine (mid)western music and plenty of Coca-Cola advertisements in the background.

He is coming to reclaim what is his. It’s time for a punch-up at the OK Bazaars or suchlike, but this mostly incomprehensible tale doesn’t come anywhere near the satirical heights of that Japanese masterpiece, Tampopo, in which the mythical striving for freedom in the cowboy west is equated with the quest for the perfect, urban noodle.

Nor does it have the guts, foolish or otherwise, to say that it is unashamedly pro-American, as did that rather dull Australian comedy The Dish. And it finally buries itself by implying that a real man must not sometimes tell necessary white lies to a child, but that he must be a snitch.

But if the above countries are showing their allegiance to the United States in one way or another, then that country seems to have lost its own plot along the line. Except for a small, independent film called Tadpole.

Shot on grainy, low-budget Super 16mm and only 78 minutes long, this Sundance festival hit concerns one Oscar (Aaron Stanford) who is not your average 15-year-old. For one thing, he likes to read a writer whose country (France) has a somewhat more ambiguous, though not necessarily less vigorous, relationship to America than England does. Oscar reads and precociously quotes from the 18th century writer Voltaire’s Candide who, as we all know, was a German lad who went out into the philosopher Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds” and, frankly, saw his arse. Oddly, France and Germany are the two European countries still advising the United States (as of January 27 2003) to refrain from war with Iraq.

The movie is set in what that calm, rational artist William Kentridge, in a recent M&G interview, called that “calm, rational city”, New York [See Art and industry]. Oscar is understandably smitten by his stepmother, Eve (Sigourney Weaver). His father (John Ritter) is a politically correct Jewish historian; his stepmother’s best friend (Bebe Neuwirth, as in Lilith Crane of Cheers and Frasier fame) is a predatory chiropractor.

Set around Thanksgiving, this deceptively simple tale becomes a love song to a city — with great, budget-consuming songs from Billy Joel, Simon and Garfunkel and David Bowie — to older women, younger men … the whole damn thing.

Stanford is perfectly cast as the nebbish boy who starts off being annoying and ends up with the froggish, world-weary good looks of a young Jean-Paul Sartre. It’s a tale that could have been told anywhere, including Africa, and it has an unusual, probably unintended, poignancy about it.

More than a love song, this wise, witty, sophisticated and utterly civilised little comedy has about it the air of a moving requiem for an America and New York that might never be again.

Moreover, given the current global crisis, it makes one wonder whether Monsieur Voltaire knew something we don’t when he advised Candide and his “beloved” Cunegonde, to hold their tongues and cultivate their garden near what is known today as Istanbul.

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