Column: Make America Great Again by Watching Foreign Films
Read daily headlines about troop deployments, mass shootings or the effects of climate change, and you'd be excused for thinking dark forces are putting America, if not all of humanity, at risk.
This anxiety has inspired blockbuster films and series for decades, sending Americans out to save the planet from [insert threat here: zombies, aliens, robots, Nazis, radical terrorists, natural disasters, etc…].
Which came first: our catastrophe-driven, apocalyptic cultural dreamscape or our fear-driven, us-versus-them political environment?
Or maybe the two feed off each other, as film historian Peter Biskind suggests in his new book, "The Sky is Falling: How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism."
Fear sells, especially since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and subsequent "forever wars" cracked America's post-WWII confidence about its role in the world.
"It's no secret that as the number, magnitude, and gravity of the threats to life as we know it have multiplied, apocalypse porn has become the coin of today's pulp culture," Biskind writes.
Extremism is the new black. We root for Hollywood heroes, no matter how excessive their actions, because they will save humanity from predictable doom. Their ends always justify their means.
In “apocalypse culture,” the non-extreme – the average and everyday, grey areas, agreed-upon facts, mutual trust – lacks a mass audience.
While there are plenty of international films and shows echoing this outlook, others offer glimpses of alternative worldviews.
The difference isn't just in the prescription for rediscovering our greatness. It's in the alarming diagnosis itself.
The world's gonna be okay. Let these international films and series, now streaming, show you how.
A German cinematographer and his director-musician girlfriend made this documentary about their wanderlust-fueled adventure from Berlin to the US, where they bought and outfitted a school bus to travel aimlessly around the continent.
If you love the great outdoors or have ever had a hankering to just give it all up and travel, this sweet and uplifting film is for you.
The couple's openness, positivity and consistent can-do attitude could teach Americans a thing or two about the pioneering spirit. The appalling treatment they report at the US border and some shady experiences in Mexico are also memorable.
In a nod to the editing, considering how long the pair were on the road, "Happiness" maintains a quick pace and momentum. But you can also watch it in segments thanks to short, staged clips and social media-inspired travel updates which, combined with the couple's own soulful soundtrack and flawless drone shots, infuse
the film with a deliberate music video aesthetic.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
Chiwetel Ejiofor wrote, directed and stars in this family-friendly British production based on the inspiring true story of a 13-year-old who built a windmill to power electricity and bring water to his drought-ridden, famine-threatened African village.
The windmill makes the village great again, but only in the last 20 minutes of screen time. Meanwhile, Ejiofor constructs a tale brimming with it-takes-a-village messages about the value of individual sacrifice for the collective good, the importance of family, the privilege of schooling and the ways tradition and modernity can work together.
The film's classical narrative and filming style are a bit predictable, but the Malawi locations offer some gorgeous landscapes that make this movie worth watching on as big a screen as you can.
In the first episode of this Viking comedy series, a chieftan punches a newly captured slave in the nose, then frets about the ethics of it. "It's not really me, that fear-based leadership stuff. Doesn't feel right."
It's one of countless irony-laden jabs at modern-day society in an 8th century setting where slave sacrifice, gender-reversed raping and pillaging, and ancient traditions and superstitions are all lampooned.
"Norsemen" doesn't shy away from vulgar sexual scenarios, potty pranks and crude genital references. It won't be for everyone, but its fearless humor has garnered a large enough following that the series was renewed for a third season on Netflix this fall, suggesting "Norsemen" satisfies an existing, unfulfilled desire for self-parody.
Flavors of Youth
The trio of short films rolled into "Flavors of Youth" were made for fans of anime and/or Chinese culture. Spoiler alert: you may be put off by watching a China-set film dubbed into colloquial English, no matter how impressive the animation. Also, the narration here is anything but subtle.
But the three tales of nostalgia – a boyhood evoked through rice noodles, sisters facing an uncertain future, and a man remembering his first love – all offer a positive reminder to take time to enjoy life as it's happening.
Not because the world is ending, but just because it's a nicer way to live.
This article originally ran in The Daily Record.