In Other Words

America the Brutiful

Yanks are starring on foreign screens -- and it ain't a pretty sight.

Night. Iraq. An American Humvee patrol, trailed by the ominous strains of horror-movie cello, nears an idyllic country wedding, all colored lights and thumping folk music. "Who's in charge of this, this gathering?" spits out the American commander, wrinkling his bulbous nose. We all know what's coming, and minutes later, there it is: the groom, spattered with blood; the bride, mid-howl, raising her eyes heavenward in slow motion. "We did a hell of a good job there, Lieutenant," drawls one Yank to another, puffing on a cigarette that must surely be a Marlboro.

If you want to see the face of the Ugly American over the decade since the 9/11 attacks launched the United States into an aggressive "global war on terror," look no further than the rest of the world's movie screens. After decades as bumbling but well-intentioned tourists, G-men, cold warriors, and capitalist fat cats, Americans in global cinema of the early 21st century are door-kicking soldiers and torturing medics, from the brutes of Turkey's Valley of the Wolves: Iraq to the devilish Army doctor in the South Korean horror film The Host. Given U.S. preoccupations over the last 10 years, this is hardly surprising or undeserved. But it's a stark shift nonetheless -- to turn from abstract hegemon to ground-level menace.

Not all the grunts in foreign films are bad guys, of course: The soldier character manages to embody the entire gamut of American archetypes, roughly depending on the source country's stance on the Iraq war. The one unabashedly adoring, sunshine-and-Coca-Cola American character I have seen in non-Anglophone cinema of the 2000s was in the delightful California Dreamin' from Romania (which sent a force of 730 to Iraq). In this 2007 comedy, a minor paperwork error detains a U.S. troop at a rural Romanian train station, which gives the station agent's daughter time to fall in love with one of the soldiers.

Aggrieved Turkey, on the other hand, gave the world Valley of the Wolves: Iraq, the one with the wedding-crasher Yank commandos. The 2006 action film was Turkey's most expensive and highest-grossing ever, costing $10 million to shoot and making $28 million. Its plot piles a wild revenge scenario atop a real snafu: the accidental 2003 NATO arrest of several Turkish officers, with the detainees seen on TV in Abu Ghraib-style hoods. Barely a news blip in the United States, the "hood event," as it's known in Turkey, became such a sore point that, three years later, the country packed cinemas to cheer as a group of fictional Turkish supermen infiltrated Iraq and murdered the commander responsible for the errant raid. The real-life American officer found himself portrayed by B-grade villain specialist Billy Zane, who first shows up in a fedora and an ascot; his opening line is "Make no mistake. We will kill you." A comprehensive compendium of Muslim anxieties about American power, the film also throws in a fake Lynndie England, that Iraqi wedding bombing, and, for good measure, an Army doctor -- played by Gary Busey as a conniving Jewish stereotype -- who steals prisoners' livers for wealthy clients in New York and Tel Aviv. I haven't seen the latest installment by the film's team, Valley of the Wolves: Palestine, which apparently gives the same evenhanded treatment to the 2010 Gaza flotilla storming.

What's fascinating about Valley of the Wolves: Iraq, and the new crop of such films in general, is the increasing participation of Americans in America-bashing. Twenty years ago, the evil Yanks of Valley would have been played, in bad English, by bottle-blond Turks and perhaps a German or two. Now, there's Zane and Busey. In fact, a whole group of low- to mid-level Hollywood players has proven more than willing to accept such gigs: Armand Assante (who also happens to play a crusty but lovable captain in California Dreamin'), Michael Madsen, Rutger Hauer, and others. I'd love to posit some theory about Hollywood self-hatred here, but it's much more likely that we're seeing a curious byproduct of the globalized film economy. With Turkish studios now more able to compete with Zane's salary for, say, the straight-to-DVD Stephen Baldwin vehicle Silent Warnings, everyone can get their foreign villains directly from the source.

And there are plenty of bad roles for them to play. When the American soldier isn't a love-struck pinup or a sadistic killer, he is an oblivious jerk loosing hell upon the world with his negligence: a compromise view, of sorts. Take the opening scene of the South Korean horror film The Host, also from 2006, in which the United States accidentally creates a many-tentacled amphibian monster by dumping formaldehyde into a Korean river. "Pour [the bottles] right down the drain, Mr. Kim," sneers the American character, another Army doctor, in English. "That's right.… The Han River is very broad, Mr. Kim. Let's try to be broad-minded about this. Anyway, that's an order. So start pouring."

But the decade's most viciously and pointedly anti-American film came out of Russia. Financed by the pro-Putin political party A Just Russia, Yuri Grymov's Strangers (2008) makes Valley of the Wolves: Iraq look like California Dreamin'. It is, for all intents and purposes, an allegorical essay about the superiority of Russian morals. The plot follows a group of American doctors -- again -- who come to the Middle East on an ostensibly charitable mission to vaccinate children. Needless to say, they're up to some Big Pharma evil instead. But more important than the plot is the cast of characters making up the five-person team: a married couple who are incapable of having children (it's barely a spoiler to say that halfway through the film, Arab sperm does the job), a gay couple whose kiss sends local children running in disgust, and a neurotic single woman who clearly just needs a good roll in the sand. An analysis by the U.S. intelligence community's Open Source Center dubbed Strangers "a laundry list of Russian anti-Americanism" and quoted a Russian marketing source calling the movie "the most anti-American film ever to come out of Russia," no mean feat considering the legacy of Soviet propaganda.

But there's a significant difference between Brezhnev-era anti-Americanism and the Grymov brand. In their depictions of American evildoing, Soviet films implicitly laid the blame on the heartless capitalist system, not the individual: Inside every U.S. Army colonel was a potential good communist who just hadn't had his awakening yet. The cult 1986 thriller Interception, for example, shows an American spy and the Soviet border guard on his tail as mutually respectful equals. For Grymov, on the other hand -- and in this, he echoes a newly widespread Russian attitude -- American villainy stems from the American national character. His own promotional materials provided a convenient list of "American qualities" the film meant to illustrate: infertility, adultery, homosexuality, repressed sexuality, imposition of own values, ignorance of other cultures, scapegoating, consumerism, fitness obsession, pragmatism, and teamwork. (Yes, teamwork.) Later, the director added another to the list: the "Batman complex." In this case he didn't mean the American characters in his film but its actors, who, he told the newspaper Izvestia, "behaved like Batmen on the set," unable to convincingly sink to the required depths of humiliation. But it was too much, even for Russia. The film tanked. Even a last-minute "viral" claim that it had been personally banned in the United States by Condoleezza Rice couldn't get it off the ground.

It remains to be seen whether the next, hopefully more peaceful, decade's crop of movie Yanks will still be duplicitous bastards cloaking their evil in PC-speak or the more traditional archetypes: comic fatsos and saintly naifs. As it stands, we're still dealing with a bit of a brand problem. When Hollywood's mega-budgeted adaptation of the Captain America comic opened this July, in Russia, Ukraine, and South Korea it was called simply The First Avenger. Right now, in the eyes of global pop culture, "Captain America" is a name fit for a villain.

Images from 'Valley of the Wolves: Iraq'

In Other Words

900 Channels of the Great Satan

In Iran's latest TV obsession, the Ugly American is -- themselves.

For years, most Iranians have understood the United States through expat tales, condemnatory sermons about the Great Satan -- and the Spider-Man films. This year, however, they have a new show called Satellite that offers an unfamiliar and bizarrely twisted portrayal of an America so tawdry that charlatans hawk their own mothers for $20 and sex-chat-room perverts aspire to political leadership of Iran. Set in an imagined Los Angeles among the city's large Iranian diaspora, Satellite, an hourlong show that's available on YouTube as well as on DVD in corner stores everywhere in Iran, offers a burlesque parody that is not merely shocking but also depressingly revealing about the state of establishment Iran's once-proud attitude toward its expat community. Iran has long had its highly publicized version of the Ugly American; now, it seems, the country is embracing something else entirely: the Ugly Iranian-American.

The show, made by Mehran Modiri, the king of mainstream Iranian television, opens in the living room of an urban, middle-class Iranian family gathered in front of its newly installed illegal satellite dish. "From five channels to 900!" marvels the father, as the unnamed family crowds eagerly onto the couch for a first glimpse at the outside world. Soon, however, the parents are eyeing one another in dismay: The 900 channels are beaming a polluted America into their living room. The rest of the show consists of screen-within-a-screen skits as the family flips from channel to channel, increasingly appalled at the corruption they witness, acting as a sort of living-room Greek chorus as the camera pans between the frivolous U.S. shows on television and the staid, hypocritical family (the pious-looking father asks the dish installer for access to sex channels) watching and reacting in occasional titillation but, mostly, horror.

Most of the clips focus on ordinary Iranian-Americans, portraying them as drug-addicted, promiscuous, amoral loons. The show is busy with flamboyant gay men who cause the family much alarm as they wiggle their hips and flap their hands on-screen, speaking in screeching tones. "Is that a man or a woman?" the father asks his wife, frantically trying to change the channel. Another clip shows a New Age pop psychologist counseling a new mother to hurl her infant into the air to ensure its well-being and a man to squeeze his terminally ill father to death: "Keep squeezing, squeeze, and chant for the illness to leave your father's body." When the caller says his father has died, the quack goes back to selling his "happiness DVDs," a swipe at the faddishness of therapy within the Iranian-American diaspora (Persian-language therapy cruises not being uncommon in places like Los Angeles).

These cartoonish Iranian-Americans aren't simply crass, foolish, and wicked -- they're also shown to be deracinated hypocrites, despite their oft-professed nostalgia. In one skit, a female singer recounts her homesickness to an interviewer in Los Angeles. "My Iranian identity is very important to me. I missed home so much that I boarded a plane and counted the seconds till my return," she says. "So you flew to Tehran?" the interviewer asks. "No, I flew here!"

And then there are the skits that accuse Iranian-Americans of fomenting revolution. Modiri himself appears as a fake talk-show host in a parody of the armchair revolutionaries and Persian nationalists who exhort Iranians inside the country to rise up, from their comfortable perches in Beverly Hills and Westwood. Seated in a wood-paneled library beside Iran's pre-1979 flag, Modiri bellows at Iranians for their weak-kneed response to dictatorship. "Idiots! Traitors! I'm not after power or wealth; I don't want to be president or head of parliament," he assures. "At the very most I would run state broadcasting."

Another skit features Mr. Tondar, an aged, mustachioed contender who raspingly refers to himself as "potential prime minister of Iran." An outraged caller from Iran rebukes him: "You've sat across the world for 30 years going to bars and cabarets, gambling, smoking your opium, eating your kebab. Now you want to make political plans for us?" In response, Tondar says: "Get your facts straight. I haven't touched red meat in 40 years." The family exchanges sidelong glances, appalled.

Toward the show's latter half, as a Brüno-esque beautician advises a caller to beat his new wife, the family in the living room is seen vomiting into trash bins; eventually their sofa sits empty. The verdict is clear: Five channels are better than 900, and America is no place for good, upstanding Iranians.

If you're sensing a political viewpoint behind this entertainment, you wouldn't be wrong. Modiri, the producer of Satellite, is a complex figure in Iran's cultural landscape. As state broadcasting's highest-grossing producer, he has unique leeway to poke fun at the government's failings, reflecting the cynicism that pervades Iranian daily life while usually returning to a comfortably status quo stance at the end. He has been behind nearly all the biggest hit shows of the past decade. The most popular, a comic soap called Barareh Nights, was set in a village embodying many flaws of modern-day Iran, complete with rigged elections, a scheme to enrich nuclear peas, a corrupt city council, and a harassed town newspaper. Satellite, too, takes as its starting premise a realistic commentary about the state of law-abiding in Iran; by most estimates, at least half the country defies the government's ban on satellite TV, just like the bumbling family on the show, oblivious to complaints like this recent Friday prayer sermon rant from Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami: "These satellite channels, which act against the Iranian government, have only one objective: to attack Islam, our Islamic government, and the great people of Iran."

"This show is one of the savviest things the regime has ever done," an advisor to a senior ayatollah once told me about Barareh Nights, likening Modiri's brand of comedy to a pressure valve that deflates Iranian frustration with the state of the country. In other words, it's propaganda -- just far more sophisticated than the brand churned out by the ayatollahs themselves.

In Satellite, Modiri steps away from his usual formula: a gentle critique of the regime that ends by validating Iranians' cynical apathy. The new show is crude, with no reflection of Iranians' aspirational pride in the American diaspora -- a group that, as even grocers in Tehran can tell you, includes the founder of eBay and an astronaut who traveled to the International Space Station. The grotesque caricatures in Satellite may reflect a shift in either the establishment's perception of Iranian sentiment or the regime's agenda for darkening America's reputation in its citizens' eyes, or both.

It's certainly true that America's image has dulled since the collapse of the Green Revolution and the successes of the Arab Spring. But though mainstream Iranians feel betrayed by what they see as Washington's tepid reaction to their aborted rebellion, they are tuning into satellite television from the United States more avidly than ever -- and so is the regime. In fact, even in mocking the diaspora, the regime finds itself in a bind: to appeal to young Iranians it must adopt the style of the very expatriate shows it seeks to challenge. The Voice of America's Parazit, a Iranian version of The Daily Show produced in Washington, is so popular in Iran that state television has begun producing a number of shows meant to mock and undermine it, including Just for Your Information!, 20:30, and Heart Attack. As a caller from Iran tells Modiri on the fake political talk show in Satellite: "We have no hope, no happiness, no fun but for your channel."

ASTRID RIECKEN for The Washington Post via Getty Images