RV!: The American (2010) Dir: Anton Corbijn Date Released: September 2010 Date Seen: November 27, 2010 Rating: 4/5
Both of Anton Corbijn's films are about slippage and its opposite. If you can fault them with anything, it's with being too over-determined. I wouldn't however because that's why I love both The American and Control so much. They're both works about artists--and George Clooney's character in The American is an artist after a point --that can't necessarily be in control of their circumstances that are also both directed by an artist haunted by that same fruitless search for perfection. To follow that imperative slavishly is not an option, it's a necessity as The American's Jack Clarke (Clooney) says in hitman-ese: "I do what I'm good at." Because everybody thinks they know who Clarke is as soon as they see him and they don't. Because even he doesn't know. Clarke is not defined by what he does irregardless of how how much the film's narrative supports that idea.
Take for instance the film's presentation of Clarke's nationality: it's an amorphous identity, one that varies based on the context of his relationships. Once Clarke's fled to Italy, he encounters a culture that is alternately confused and adamant that they know exactly who he is. A local corrects Clarke when he clumsily describes himself as "Il Americano." "No, no," the man say. "L'Americano! L'Americano!" Being American is not a possessive title ("Il") but rather a singular identity ("Le"). Clarke does not embody every American but rather is the only American there. The Italians in The American don't know what an American is--it's simply beyond their collective knowledge. So they can only anticipate his actions based on what they know from pop history.
Pop culture and signifiers stand in for American-ness throughout The American. They're intentionally impossible to miss: Clarke orders an Americano coffee when he meets a contact at a local outdoor cafe, is greeted later by a radio blaring "Tu Vuo Fa L'Americano" and even looks on as a local store owner watches Once Upon a Time in America ("Sergio Leone," the shop-keeper proudly announces to Clarke. "Italiano."). These reflections of Clarke are being projected onto him and only make it easier for people to confuse him for what he does. That's the way Clarke likes it and so that's the deceptively indulgent way that Corbijn depicts him: as a composite character.
There is no fixed reference point that confirms that Clarke is who they think he is, no clear sense that any character actually knows empirically what they tell us they know or are who they they identify themselves as. Everything is in flux until Clarke latches onto something that suits his self-fashioned. For instance, pay attention to who speaks first and in what language during Clarke's talk with Fabio (Filippo Timi), a local Italian mechanic. Fabio can speak English but responds to Clarke in Italian. Clarke reciprocates by only speaking English until he makes the first move by speaking Italian outside of the garage. Even after their introductory remarks, neither man is relaxed. Only after a few more exchanges in their respective native tongues do they start to fluidly swap languages, going back and forth in English and Italian. It's as if being inside the garage, surrounded by Fabio's tools--tools that Clarke examines, mind you--allows Clarke to tentatively accept the idea of making a professional bond.
Clarke does not follow through on that decision because something about Fabio doesn't sit well with him, something he doesn't understand until his walk in the park with Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli). In this scene, it's implied that Fabio is an illegitimate son, one that cannot escape from the indifferent but watchful eye of Benedetto. Benedetto in that way brings out Clarke's need to live in the moment in order to flee his past: "You think you can escape history. You live for the present," Benedetto says playfully. "I try to, Father," Clarke replies grimly.
The implication that Benedetto is not exempt from the urge to be unburdened by his past establishes a number of things. Firstly, it proves that that behavior is not a uniquely American trait, as he posited earlier. Benedetto does after all confess to Clark that he's not sure if he's the one that sired Fabio: "I don't remember, signor. It was many years ago." The drive towards ahistoricity, flux and an untethered identity is part of the human condition according to Clarke and it's a behavior that Benedetto only serves to confirm. When Clarke grunts that, "All men are sinners, Benedetto adds that, "Those that seek peace have much sinning in their history."
Clarke's crisis always was, in that sense, a spiritual one. Physical sensations like his initially purely sexual relationship with Clara, Violante Placido's prostitute, are tempting but deceptive, a concept that sort of confirms Clarke's philosophy of life but only to a point. Clarke's state of mind is entirely of the minute so by investing in the immediacy of Clarke's self-determined present, Corbijn also confirms Benedetto's claim that his life is "hell'ish. Take the nightmarish repetition of shots and images in the film. It starts off benignly enough, like when we see the cobble stone steps of the town during the day, then later by night or how his exercise routine varies day by day. But then we're reminded of why that repetition of visual cues is a sign of Clarke's instability. He fears that history is repeating itself, like when Clara finds a bullet and says "Maybe the hunters are here." Clarke fears that the hunters in question are the same ones that left footprints in the snow in the film's opening sequence. When a butterfly flits by at the end of The American, it is and it isn't a facile confirmation of Clara's pet name for Clarke ("Mr. Farfalle"). The symbol is dead and its Clarke's belief in it that killed it.