In America

In the commentary track on the DVD to In America, writer/director Jim Sheridan claimed that he “didn’t like to make ‘period movies'”,  and so, by accident, or in some instances, by design, he deliberately included some elements in In America which didn’t fit with the time period (early to mid 1980s) in which the movie was supposed to be set.  (The example he cited on the commentary track was a broadcast on the characters’ car radio  which mentioned  “music of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s”).

While the tendency of the audience to concentrate on the minute visual details defining a particular time period in cinema can sometimes detract from the “story” or “action” involved, and send the audience down “memory lane”, thinking about the accuracy of the “look” of the time period portrayed, there are times when a few visual and scenic cues to the time period involved do serve to enhance the relevance and message of the picture.  Having been in the same age group as the girls during the early 1980s, I kept looking at the modern (post-9/11!) NYC scenes being shown, and the actors’ current clothing, and wondering what time period the story of the movie was actually in.
While having a movie ostensibly based on events having taken place in a particular period of the past “set” in the time period in which the audience currently exists can result in the events therein being immediately close to the audiences’ hearts (as in the case of Shakespeare plays being staged in modern dress), when there are obvious anachronisms, however, this strategy can backfire. The most obvious instance of this was Christy’s camcorder.  Back then, a camcorder cost more than a working-class family (let alone one living on the edge of poverty) could afford, and weighed about as much as a little girl.  It would have been highly improbable that even if such a family somehow acquired one, they would let a pre-teen girl touch it, let alone take it everywhere she went.  The tape fairy must have bought the blank tapes.
Nevertheless, it is testament to the power and inherent relevance of this tale, this variant on the theme of “immigrant family struggles towards achieving the American Dream” that such things are but minor blemishes in this movie.

Though they struggle with financial issues, and with continued grieving for the fact that the youngest child had died before the story portrayed in the movie started, they carve out a “safe space” for themselves and their children in an old apartment building known to the neighborhood as “the junkie building”. While chaos, grime, and crime surround them, (and the movie does a good job of portraying this by showing dimly-lit hallways, a broken elevator, and junkies in and around their apartment, which by contrast, the parents renovate into a brightly-colored oasis of child-friendliness) they are never robbed, nor do they feel threatened enough to leave the US or the neighborhood.
Much of the story of this movie is derived from real-life events in writer/director Jim Sheridan’s real life in NYC with his family after having recently relocated to the US from Ireland.  The two girls in this movie attend Catholic school and wear St. Anthony’s uniforms, as did his daughters.  Their first meeting with the African immigrant and visual artist Matteo, whose “refrigerator is full of medicines”, with parents warily watching from a distance, down the stairwell and by the outside door, is based on his daughters’ real-life first encounter with the late Jean-Michael Basquiat. at a time when one’s HIV status was obvious to everyone, and contracting AIDS was a guaranteed death sentence.

As for many of the minor characters in the movie, they are “amateurs”, real New Yorkers whom Sheridan hadn’t seen in the movies before, but who added to the verite, along with the exterior shots of New York City seen in every season of the year.  The fact that the girls talk about transvestism as “something people just do” in their neighborhood (located in some amorphous area on the border of Greenwich Village and Little Italy) adds to the  of New York authenticity.

It is interesting to me that the family is portrayed as actively participating in both US and Irish traditions surrounding Halloween. I do not know if this behavior and/or philosophy is true of the majority of Irish first-generation immigrants to the USA. What I do know is that my father told me that his “auld Irish grandmother” whose family immigrated to the US in the late 19th century told me that St. Patrick’s Day parades were a modern and American invention. His grandmother and her family had reacted with surprise and perhaps a soupçon of dismay when they first encountered one, for in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day was for Catholics a Holy Day of Obligation, which meant that you had to attend Mass even if it wasn’t Sunday.

In the movie, the girls show their dedication to adopting the ways of their new country by making Halloween costumes and going trick-or-treating for the first time.
After they return from going door to door asking for candy (which happens nowhere but in the USA and some of its protected overseas enclaves such as international schools and military bases), they also settle down to a traditional Irish dinner for which the mother cooks Colcannon embedded with small items supposedly symbolic of the future destiny of whomever finds one or more in his or her portion.

The story-within-a-story, the family mythos involving Frankie, their dead brother, and their parents’ dead son, (at least a year dead, he is never seen on camera or in photos) is drawn from the story of Jim Sheridan’s real-life younger brother’s demise. Like Frankie in the movie, Jim Sheridan’s younger brother had been a toddler when he tried to get over a baby gate set up at the top of the stairs, fell down the staircase, and it was because of this that his parents discovered that he had had a brain tumor, which was later found to be inoperable.

Neither the movie nor Jim Sheridan get into specifics about his condition, treatment, and eventual decline, but the sense of loss is with the family constantly.

A lot of scenes in this picture highlight the difference between Ireland and the US in economic approach.  Everyone, it seems, is asking for money in America, from the shopkeeper to the landlord to the school and the Church (The parents feel they must pay for Catholic school)..  This was a point Sheridan said he was trying to make within the movie: “I never encountered overdraft fees on my checking statement until I moved to America and got a checking account with an American bank”, Sheridan said.

This extends to the American health care system; the fact that the birth of  the new baby in the movie came with complications and that there was a huge hospital bill is another instance of a real-life incident inspiring part of the movie.  Jim and Naomi Sheridan’s first child born on American soil came into the world prematurely, and (unlike in Europe’s socialized medicine systems) with a large hospital bill.

In the real-life event, the mother wrote the nurse a thank-you note, and the nurse was so happy that someone thanked her that she cancelled the bill, which is something that might not be possible with the hospital computer systems of today, in the movie, Matteo pays the hospital bill before his death, which is intercut with the scenes of the baby’s birth because the director wanted to give the sense that he was giving his life energy to the new baby, and that Matteo lived on through the child.

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