Hetain Patel begins American Boy by explaining a little about what it means to act in front of the camera. He doesn’t do this in his own words though or his own voice. He is doing an impression of Michael Caine, specifically he is imitating a section of the 1987 BBC television programme Michael Caine: On Acting in Film, Arts and Entertainment. In this, Caine is talking about being asked to do various apparently dangerous things by the “special effects man.” He describes how he’d ask the special effects man to do it himself first. The special effects man says there isn’t time.
What follows is a series of imitations from popular cult films mostly from the 80s and 90s: Pulp Fiction, White Men Can’t Jump, The Usual Suspects, Wayne’s World, and Beverley Hills Cop. They’re the kind of films that a teenage boy that grew up during those decades would have seen over and over again, memorised and imitated with his mates Significantly, they’re all American and, taken as a whole, seem to represent a cool, stylised American dream, where everyone is good looking and funny and their lines are always witty and everything they do is generally awesome.
A few touch on themes of belonging (including but not exclusively race) such as Coming to America and White Men Can’t Jump. In others, there’s a sense of outsider culture and masculinity: Napoleon Dynamite. Patel’s imitations are respectable. Some are better than others, certainly. None are perfect. It’s in the spaces between the originals, which we sometimes get hear as voiceovers, and his own version that the essence of American Boy seems to lie: Patel’s search for his own identity. Each character that he inhabits is a costume he is trying on, a second skin. He is, for example, a much more convincing Napoleon Dynamite than a Jules Winnfield (the character played by Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction).
When Patel starts imitating Floridan YouTuber “Vinny Banana”, the idea of the second skin becomes manifest. Vinny is a big Spiderman fan, to the extent to which he is creating an elaborate customised Spiderman costume and posting video updates on the internet. This is a very involved process indeed, which consists of tailoring, 3D paint, replacing the eyes with real sunglasses and so on. The contrast between the brash confidence of most of the film characters and Vinnie’s evident enthusiastic vulnerability is affecting. He talks about his Superman costume and how people used to call him the Mexican Superman, when he wore it. The line is funny but also draws attention to the whiteness of almost every superhero. Vinny prefers the Spiderman suit because it covers his whole body and his head. It provides him with something he can hide himself in entirely. A totally new identity. This is freeing but it is also a trap as he wants to show his emotions to his online audience: “You can’t see my face but if you could you’d see that under this mask I’m smiling”. It’s an incredible fragment of found text.
Watching these imitations at Sadler’s Wells, it might be tempting to laugh at Patel imitating Vinny and there’s something a little uncomfortable at the thought that it might be Vinnie we’re laughing at. He didn’t, after all, make the video for a dance audience in Islington but for a global community of Spiderman enthusiasts, many of whom customise their own suits, compare notes and lightly compete online. There’s also a directness, an absolute emotional honesty that comes across in Vinny’s updates that is difficult to find in the rest of the piece as everything is always filtered through the imitations. Through the process of creating his second skin, Vinny lets us know who he really is. Unlike some of Patel’s other work, where he contextualised his love of pop culture and imitation in terms of his own identity such as this brilliant TED talk, American Boy kept me at a distance, wearing its mask but not telling me when it was smiling underneath.