Imagine watching a 13 year old savoring his Big Mac and fries, chock full of fat, salt, and sugar. McDonald's has figured out how to attach taste to nutritionally inert material and deliver it in minutes. It's like food porn - instant gratification with no long term substance. And collectively Americans have been seduced into obesity and diabetes, while our fast food habits contribute to environmental degradation, and replace local foods around the world with trademarked exports.
Most sit-coms have about the same intellectual nutrition as fast food. I was uncomfortable throughout the movie as I watched this self-centered American (Philip Rosenthal, the writer, director, and star) making what appeared to be his first trip to Russia and complaining about everything he encountered. It was the same problem I had with Lost in Translation. A past-his-prime American star goes to Tokyo to make a Japanese commercial and finds everything in Japan defectively 'not like home.' Japan was a prop to the characters' self-indulgence. There was no attempt in either film to give a sense of what the Japanese and Russian characters around them were thinking. It's all about 'me'. It's like an intellectual std you don't realize that you've contracted from the background conceit that country X (in Translation's case Japan) is full of stupid people who do not indulge my American self-centeredness.
What really bothered me was that several of the people I talked to after the movie, people who I would have expected to get it, didn't. They thought it was great. He was only poking fun at himself in an alien situation. And the official description of the film promotes that:
Lost in Moscow, lost in his mission, lost in translation, Phil tries to connect with his Russian colleagues but runs into unique characters and situations that conspire to drive him insane. The movie is a true international adventure, a genuine, “fish out of water” comedy that could only exist in real life.Why don't I see it that way? "Tries to connect?" I saw the American expert exasperated because they didn't acknowledge his expertise. "Conspire to drive him insane?" Well, yes, if you are as self centered as Rosenthal was in the movie, you might think there was a conspiracy to get you. You might not realize that your problems are self inflicted. His trip preparations - as portrayed in this documentary - amounted to getting advice from friends to buy K&R (Kidnap and Ransom) insurance. The world is supposed to engage us on our terms, we don't have to do anything but show up and be admired.
I've spent enough time living in other cultures to realize that this movie shows us only the first stage of experiencing a new culture - the stage where one compares everything unfavorably to home. It is only after learning some of the language and spending enough time to start seeing yourself from the Russian (in Exporting Raymond's case) perspective, that you start to appreciate what the new culture has to offer and see your own culture more objectively.
I'm calling this movie intellectual junk food because like a Big Mac it's full of cheap and easy sit-com type laughs which ultimately make us feel good because the movie reinforces our belief that the US is the greatest country in the world and, like in the movie, if they only would do it our way, the world will be a much better place.
What's wrong with that? Like junk food, the benefits are short term. When we eat junk food, we satisfy the immediate hunger without realizing our waistline is gradually expanding (our critical thinking abilities are shrinking) and our aortas are clogging and rain forests are destroyed to raise beef. This comedy gives us easy laughs while keeping Americans from facing the fact that, while our country still offers some remarkable advantages in the world, other countries are doing better than we are in many areas. It also doesn't reveal the damage American dominance in the world causes other cultures and other economies. Ultimately, this movie satisfies with mass produced calories and makes us feel good about ourselves, when what we're consuming is intellectual junk food.
I understand that a lot, maybe most, of the people reading this will shake their heads and say, "Steve, lighten up. This is just a comedy." And it was funny.
Let me attempt another way to evaluate the movie. Let me compare it to another documentary at the Anchorage International Film Festival that featured Russia for 88 minutes (two more than Exporting Raymond.)
My Perestroika looked at the lives of five Russians (in their late 30s I'd guess) who had gone to school together. One couple are both teachers, a single mom works for a company that rents out billiard tables, there's a man who owns a high end French shirt shop, and a subway musician who dropped out of a famous Russian punk band. This movie paints a picture of Russia through the stories of these five people who came of age during Perestroika, including old photos and home movies. We get an image that is in sharp contrast to the stereotypes Americans have of the Soviet Union. One woman, for example, tells us that as a child she'd see coverage of riots and murders in the US on TV and think, "I'm so lucky to be a Russian." Ouch. That's what we thought about being Americans. All of them talk about their childhoods with nostalgia and obvious pleasure.
We're seeing the stories of five Moscow residents who all went to the same school. We don't see anything about life outside of Moscow, we don't see any families who had members purged. But we have to consider whether our TV view of Russia wasn't just as biased as theirs of us. We can't generalize from these five people to all of Russia, but these five people give us insight into a story about the Soviet Union (it was the Soviet Union for much of these people's lives) that Americans rarely get.
So why are these films so different? Exporting Raymond, though it takes place mostly in Russia, isn't about Russia. It's about an American who travels out of his comfort zone. It's about him. The Russians are just props in his sitcom. My problem only comes up when another culture is used as the butt of most of the jokes and ultimately made to look bad in comparison to the US, offering no insights other than "traveling abroad is frustrating, but if you're persistent, you can help them save themselves with American superiority." Sort of like how we are winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
My Perestroika was made by an American woman. Robbin Hessman, who spent years living in Leningrad and Moscow. She even helped adapt a very different American television show for Russian audiences - Sesame Street. Even though she understands Russian and has lived there for years, she recognizes that there's a lot she doesn't understand.
The film wasn't about her, but was pursued in an attempt to better grasp the Russians of her generation. In an interview with IndieWire she says,
. . . I decided to make a film about my generation of Russians – the generation that I joined, in a sense, when I went to live there for the first time at age 18. They had normal Soviet childhoods behind the Iron Curtain, never dreaming that anything would ever be different in their society. Just coming of age when Gorbachev appeared, they were figuring out their own identities as the very foundations of their society were being questioned for the first time. And then they graduated just as the USSR collapsed and they had to figure out a completely new life as young adults, with no models to follow. Although I didn’t grow up there and have no Russian family history, I shared their journey through the 1990s, adjusting to the evolving Post-Soviet Russia along with everyone else. It put me in a wonderful position to tell their story – as I am both insider and outsider. After working on other films for PBS as a co-producer, I began to develop this film full time in the fall of 2004. . .
Exporting Raymond is intellectual junk food. Raymond is easy; no work. It's a hunger fix, which makes us feel good by massaging our brains with the satisfying conceit of American superiority.
My Perestroika is a serious, fresh, healthy, home made meal. It takes more work, but ultimately that work helps connect us to more realistic views of the world and our place in that world.
Junk food now and then probably doesn't do much harm. But we're constantly feeding on the same junk message about US exceptionalism, a message that contributes to why we're fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan today.
[Examples of Americans writing about another culture critically, but with understanding of why things feel so frustrating, include Bill Holm's Coming Home Crazy, which he wrote after teaching a year in China and Peter Hessler's River Town about his Peace Corps experience in China.]