Beyond the Melting Pot: Immigrant American Cinema

Beyond the Melting Pot: Immigrant American Cinema

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America is considered a “melting pot,” a “nation of immigrants,” where people come from the world over to forge a single American identity. Yet sometimes the more “American” an institution is considered, the more it owes itself to distinct, decidedly un-melted immigrant sensibilities. Hollywood, which taught the world how to dress, ride, eat, drink, kiss and kill American-style is a prime example.

Though it is as American as apple pie now, Hollywood's origins are anything but. As Neal Gabler details in “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” what eventually turned into such legendary studios as MGM, Warner Bros. and Paramount started as humble enterprises of European Jews who began to tinker with a crude, new and disreputable technology because they couldn't find a place for themselves in the mainstream America of academia, government, finance and business.

Long before they endeavored to “create content,” to use the current catchphrase, they were film exhibitors, sometimes at the funeral parlors they owned, where chairs were vacant and available for dual use during the night hours.

The now classic Hollywood of their making, which enjoyed its zenith in the late 1930s, and made a rebellious comeback in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is all but gone. Hollywood today is in a remarkable race against itself to become ever more idiotic -- in 3D -- and is far removed from its early days of grand soundstages, dazzling musicals and classic storytelling.

Yet the immigrant spirit burns bright in American cinema still, as exemplified in works that, far from celebrating the Hollywood version, take an unflinching look at just what it means to be an immigrant in today's America.

Today, many immigrant filmmakers, consciously or not, follow the tradition of Italian neorealism which flourished in the wake of the Second World War. With no money to rent soundstages or hire professional casts, the Italian neorealist filmmakers took to the streets to show life as it was in the real world. To this day, it is a revelation to watch the films of that school, including Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thief,” Luchino Visconti’s “Obsessione” and Giuseppe De Santis’s “Bitter Rice.”

Those filmmakers would have found ours an age of true miracles when an affordable digital camera and a laptop are the only hardware that filmmakers need to explore the limits of their neorealistic creativity.

A rightful heir to their legacy is Colombian-American director and actress Paola Mendoza whose “Entre Nos,” (Between Us”), which she co-directed with Gloria La Morte, tells the story of her mother, herself and her brother after the three are abandoned by her father in Queens, New York, a long way from their native Colombia. Playing her mother’s role, she and her costars offer a study in human dignity, as she and the two children are reduced to collecting aluminum cans and sleeping on the street just to survive.

Many stories like hers continue to unfold in cities across America with growing immigrant populations. Instead of falling in love with the “romance” of their lives, however, it is important to realize that anti-immigrant sentiments, which are standing in the way of the Dream Act and similar legislation, frustrate America’s long-standing ability to welcome and assimilate immigrants as its true backbone and the source of a continual, courageous quest for a better life.

“Take Out” is about a young undocumented Chinese man in New York named Ming Ding who is given a single day to pay his smugglers a hefty sum. His friend, also smuggled into the country, lets him make all the deliveries at the small Chinese restaurant where they work so he may earn the money he needs in tips. Co-directed by Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou, it includes an unforgettable portrait of the colleague who spends the entire rainy day sitting out his deliveries, munching on vegetables from the kitchen and wisecracking so his friend Ming Ding can earn his smuggling money. Among his many riffs is a hilarious one on undocumented Chinese who are caught and then ask for asylum while enumerating the horrors of “Communist” China.

Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani’s “Man Push Cart” shares a New York locale with the other two films and a plot twist out of “The Bicycle Thief”—in which things go from bad to worse in the blink of an eye. Yet the story of its central character, a once-popular Pakistani pop singer who has ended up selling coffee and pastries from a vending cart in New York City, gives an indication of how dangerous a gamble it is to be an immigrant in America. While Americans treat him with perfunctory politeness, he is shunned by his own family, separated from his son and briefly befriended by a Pakistani yuppie before being abandoned by him. In the end, it is a streetwise, crooked Pakistani who deals him the final blow.

The film's dog eat dog conclusion is reminiscent of the trajectory that immigrant film in America took. The once-hapless immigrants who ultimately gained absolute power over the studio system became corrupted by it absolutely. Stories of despotic studio heads, abusive producers and egotistical actors now abound.

The documentary film “Girl 27” investigates the whitewashed 1937 rape of an MGM chorus girl during a sales convention on its lot in Culver City. While a glaring example of the deep-rooted problems within the studio system, it also points out to the rampant sexual exploitation which persists in the industry to this day.

Indeed, one of the most positive, profound and long-lasting impacts of new technology is that it takes art out of the hands of talentless, tyrannical moguls and places it in the hands of artists, where it belongs and where it all began.