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In a Desert Somewhere between Disney and Las Vegas: The Fantasy of Interracial Harmony and American Multiculturalism in Percy Adlon's Bagdad Cafe
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Camera Obscura 15.2 (2000) 151-174



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In a Desert Somewhere between Disney and Las Vegas:
The Fantasy of Interracial Harmony and American Multiculturalism in Percy Adlon's Bagdad Cafe

Barbara Mennel and Amy Ongiri

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Bagdad Cafe's original German title, Out of Rosenheim (dir. Percy Adlon, West Germany, 1988) makes the main character's hometown of Rosenheim in Bavaria a point of departure. The film's point of arrival is a vision of interracial harmony and American multiculturalism that creates an imaginary American space phantasmically wide open and situated between Walt Disney World and Las Vegas. That the film was distributed in West Germany with an English title further marks a shift in the image of the US in late 1980s West German culture from an embodiment of imperialism to a role model for multicultural possibility. This article argues that the cultural terrain the film's narrative traverses, the fantasy of multiracial harmony and multiculturalism, is enabled by the particularity of its setting in an imaginary terrain. Exposing [End Page 151] Bagdad Cafe's reliance on ethnic stereotypes as they cite formulaic racist visual images from an American film tradition, we argue that the film was able to create an uncritical fantasy of multi- cultural harmony for a West German film audience precisely because it was situated not in West Germany but in the US, where the Germanness of the character Jasmin (Marianne Sägebrecht) enables a positive fantasy of multiculturalism devoid of signifiers of racist history to be offered to an American audience. Bagdad Cafe's multicultural fantasy is structured by an emphasis on the film's main black and white characters, reinscribing the figures of self and other that structure cultural formations of European identity. This article analyzes the crucial function of the biracial trope for a multicultural fantasy. The film's pairing of black and white characters bonded by adversity and a common "mission," a prevalent formula in American buddy movies of the period, plays to a desire for interracial harmony without the attendant interrogation of racism that makes the fantasy necessary in the first place. Bagdad Cafe evokes this biracial buddy movie tradition, but also significantly refigures it through the use of female characters in a manner that suggests the possibilities and limitations for feminist visions of racial harmony.

Our discussion focuses on the 1980s because we argue that this period serves as an important link between 1970s New German Cinema and the liberal politics of the left and the 1990s--between European cinema and identity politics. 1 Bagdad Cafe is not perceived as a representation of German national identity as is New German Cinema. Bagdad Cafe had an enormous success with audiences in West Germany as well as in the US, especially with feminists, lesbians, and women in general. However, Bagdad Cafe offers a multicultural fantasy in a woman's film that reflects wider phantasmic constructions of race, gender, and ethnicity. In powerfully reenacting popular fantasies of racial harmony, the film is assured a legacy for years to come. We work through the film's ambivalent stance toward racial and identity politics by acknowledging the transformative aspects of its fantasy, while also pointing to what this specific multicultural fantasy abjects, rejects, cuts off, or reinscribes as stereotype. [End Page 152]

In Bagdad Cafe, Jasmin Münchgstetter (Marianne Sägebrecht), a Bavarian tourist, leaves her husband in the middle of the Mojave Desert and arrives at a dilapidated truck stop, the Bagdad Cafe. There she encounters the owner, Brenda (C. C. H. Pounder); her husband Sal (G. Smokey Campbell), who is soon to be kicked out of the house by Brenda; the Hollywood scene painter Rudy Cox (Jack Palance); Brenda's children, Phyllis (Monica Calhoun) and Sal Jr. (Darron Flagg), and Sal Jr.'s baby; Cahuenga (George Aquilar), who works in the café; Arnie (Apesanahkwat), the Native American sheriff; as well as an Australian tourist (Alan S. Craig) and an American tattoo artist named Debby (Christine Kaufmann...