Sighting America

Wim Wenders, ​Paris, Texas, 1984
Wim Wenders, ​Paris, Texas, 1984

A train moves across the screen, slowly disappearing into the distant pre-dawn horizon while the sky above gradually shifts from the dark blue-black of night to the ruddy orange glow of the coming day. A scene equally poignant and contrived in its means, it defines a moment of beginning and end, a pause between past and future that lasts forever and not long enough. So ends Terence Davies’s 1995 film The Neon Bible and so began the germ of an idea that finds its current expression in this film series, a look at foreign directors making films in and about America.

Inevitably, viewing The Neon Bible involves observing Davies contend with a massive inventory of preoccupations, icons and themes of Hollywood’s America. His vanishing train, as a site of generic and authorial contestation, embodies a stock image potent enough to represent the “everytrain” of American film and at the same time the idiosyncratic train of Davies’s America. The gap between the two begets much of the lure and impact of the films in this series, where the attraction promises a fresh perspective, offering the shock of the familiar and new intertwined. For us, thinking about this attraction raises the following questions: what knowledge does a foreign perspective on America and American culture produce, and, conversely, how do these provisional categories, once uttered, begin to break down under closer scrutiny? What critical and aesthetic distance manifests and in the same breath collapses when someone like Davies turns to an unfamiliar, yet all too available (albeit highly mediated) subject, in this case the American South of the late 30s and early 40s? That is, what stereotypes and pre-conceived notions and images haunt these films? are they adequately re-cast or sufficiently critiqued? should they be?

The Southerner (Renoir, 1945)

The Young One (Bunuel, 1960)

Fury (Lang, 1936)

Last Exit to Brooklyn (Edel, 1989)

Paris, Texas (Wenders, 1984)

The Neon Bible (Davies, 1995)

Sankofa (Gerima, 1993)

…and the earth did not swallow him (Perez, 1995)

Stroszek (Herzog, 1977)

Arizona Dream (Kusturica, 1993)

Due to the clichés that comprise and denote something like “America, the represented”, each director confronts a crisis in meaning that largely stems from the “given-ness” of his subject. As a result, the films become less evident of a recognizable and well-worn surface (including night trains, billboards, the expansive terrain of the West, and urban labyrinths of New York) than of a testament to the unknown if not unfathomable. In short, films like Paris, Texas and Last Exit to Brooklyn perform (and to various degrees, exploit) the shortcomings and insights of their own presumed innocence. Moreover, in the same way that images of trains and vast western spaces are readily transformed into tropes of “America, the knowable”, this innocence is vulnerable to a similar transformation when faced with equally entrenched views on America. Whether these views emerge as a thesis arguing how relations between economic, political and social conditions shaped the New World’s “noble experiment” (de Tocqueville), a fable depicting America as the blessed nation of freedom and opportunity (the Puritanical “city on a hill”), or a muckraking tract decrying the greed and violence inherent in a society based on competitive materialism, they reinforce powerful cultural beliefs, and we are hard-pressed not to feel their influence.

Yet, given that these ideas are at least valid for contestation, it is surprising how strenuously the films avoid co-opting them to any large degree. For example, both The Young One and Last Exit to Brooklyn play with the idea of social criticism (in the areas of race and labor relations respectively), but neither film aspires to be an authoritative indictment or even an exposé. Sankofa offers us a very different social criticism by speaking outside of a fraudulent history of the black experience of America and a conspiring Hollywood that has helped to perpetuate this history. The Southerner and Stroszek delineate an America that is a land of freedom and opportunity, but they are even more interested in the shortcomings and impossibilities inherent in such a dream. And, though their titles suggest some sort of grounding, Arizona Dream and Paris, Texas turn the idea of the well-constructed nation on its head emphasizing the bizarre and distorted features of both the landscape and its inhabitants. In fact, if these ten films ultimately have a common thread, it is the actualization of the absurd, or the prospect of a reality (filmed, or otherwise) overflowing its bounds. The unknown amplified, the known disguised.

- Joe Carey and Jon Wotman

(originally published by the Documentary Film Group, University of Chicago)