Do Europeans hate the US or love it? Lately the answer might seem a no-brainer. But The Anti-Americans, a one-hour documentary that had its premiere on PBS last night, suggests that the correct response is "both."
We have, the show declares, "a hate-love relationship."
We see both sides in the program. First the hate: At a fashionable dinner party in London, a proper Englishwoman sniffs with supreme condescension, "Americans are the first nation to come from barbarians, skip the civilized bit and go into decline."
In a French country kitchen, a woman recalls, with horrified outrage, a trip to Chicago, where she encountered "the fattest people I ever saw in my life." She gasps that she could have ridden on their "big fat behinds."
At a raucous public forum in a Dublin pub, the one brave soul who speaks up in the US' defense is shouted down with angry obscenities.
Then the love: In Poland, a large crowd in cowboy hats and boots waves US flags and cheers a bluegrass performance. If it weren't for the accents and the odd spellings like "piknik" and "hod dog," you might think it's Branson, Missouri.
Shooting in 2005 and last year, Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker and Peter Odabashian of the Center for New American Media, a New York documentary production company, discovered one thing these countries have in common -- the omnipresent culture of the US is like a giant funhouse mirror in which Europeans see their own distorted reflections.
"America is a very, very useful construct for us to ventilate our own inadequacies and frustrations with ourselves," one Irishman confesses.
The British novelist and journalist Will Self accuses his countrymen of being "blatantly hypocritical" and "extremely shallow" about the US. They speak about US culture with great disdain, he says in the documentary, even as they consume it with a bottomless appetite.
As a case in point The Anti-Americans, part of the America at a Crossroads series, includes segments from a London stage production of Jerry Springer: The Opera.
"Jerry Springer is very American, but only the British would make an opera about him," Alvarez said.
Kolker compared this program to The Japanese Version, which he and Alvarez produced in 1991. That show explored how the Japanese fascination with American pop culture may say more about the Japanese as cultural magpies than it does about the global influence of the US.
Similarly, when French people complain on camera about everything from US cuisine to US foreign policy to American terms infiltrating their language, they really seem to be lamenting France's own loss of power and influence in the world.
Because France declined on the world stage as the US rose, the cultural anthropologist and marketing guru Clotaire Rapaille says in the film, "Americans are the ideal enemy."
The French writer Pascal Bruckner agrees.
"The fact that you're hated means that you matter," he says.
Kolker put it more bluntly: "They have empire envy."
He said the producers chose Britain and France because "they were low-hanging fruit really. They're the greatest America haters in the world, yet they also love America."
They chose Poland, he said, as representative of the New Europe, where they expected to find "a fundamentally different attitude toward America."
He added with a smile: "What we found out was that they're mostly just glad we're not Russian."