America the . . . Something

Since the paradigm-shifting September 11th attacks, America has been dogged by a great crisis of identity. Who are we, as a nation? What is our mission, our place in the current of human events? These existential questions – expressions of inner turmoil – have defined the post-9/11 era, but in 2007 they were especially loud, especially pressing.

That terrible and cloudless morning six year ago undermined a wealth of "conventional wisdom." As the towers crumbled and the Pentagon burnt, illusions of pax Americana were laid to rest. The inevitable success of liberal democracy, a notion challenged only by the political margins during the 1990's, no longer seemed set in stone.

What a difference decade or so makes! The rapid transitions America has endured (from peace to war, from economic sizzle to economic fizzle, from sole superpower to embattled republic, etc.) have shocked and disoriented. More fundamentally, they have sparked a genuine identity crisis.

There is no longer a dominant narrative by which we can understand ourselves. Some imagine the United States as a champion of freedom; others condemn it as ruthless, imperial. Between and beside these, there are a host of other takes, some positive and some negative.

Uncertainty about "who we are" has been the driving force behind some of the year's biggest events. The immigration uproar, the baseball brouhaha, the grassroots' struggle with establishment politics, the tension between secularism and evangelical Christianity: these all stem from anxiety over a potential loss of integrity, and settled identity.

Yet the rash of self-doubt has played out most interestingly, and most strikingly, on the silver screen. (How wonderfully American, to repackage an intense social issue as pop culture swag. . .)

There was The Invasion and I Am Legend, which featured identity loss on a very literal level (the seizure of one's mind and body by alien power and unnatural impulse). Top grossing Spider-Man 3 dealt with dual personality, while The Number 23 explored schizophrenia.
Southland Tales, Enchanted, and Bridge to Terabithia showed external reality as fundamentally unstable, thus disallowing any chance of objective identity formation.

Perhaps the finest film of the year, There Will Be Blood, was a brilliant interpretation of the old tug-of-war between country and city, collectivism and individualism. It resonates today, as America is torn between rural (religious) populism and urban (secular) modernity. Similarly high-grade pictures like American Gangster and No Country for Old Men tackled identity difficulties through the lens of race and class.

Even the raunchiest comedies got in on the action, though in more oblique terms. Knocked Up, Juno, and Superbad featured characters trapped in hilarious limbo between youth and maturity—an identity crisis if ever there was one.

Cinema is a most sensitive medium: it can detect and capitalize on cultural phenomena long before they are articulated in other forums. The films of 2007 reveal an America that is unsure of its worth, skeptical of its destiny, and deeply insecure about its moral and intellectual underpinnings.

For now, we can enjoy this anxiety in its artistic representation. Eventually, however, we must deal with it in more pragmatic terms. America cannot lose its sense of providence and wallow in malaise. If it does, then a great project is diminishing, and the world will be the worse for it.

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