According to the 1984 film The Business of America, the “American Dream” died in 1982. When a U.S. Steel plant began layoffs in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the city lost its lifeline. From the post-war period until the eighties, America’s major corporations had established such firm and self-sustaining patterns of investment that even the entry levels of our nation’s working class were living comfortably—or, at least, securely—and the companies employing them had earned their confidence. Pittsburgh’s job loss signified more than unemployment: it jumpstarted a loss of faith in the nation’s guiding principles. The land of opportunity ceased to be. The Business of America is ambiguously titled in part because the filmmakers (California Newsreel documentarians Larry Adelman, Lawrence Daressa, and Bruce Schmeichen) want to foreground the new model of corporate business Steel is perpetrating—their interest has ceased to be national economic stability and they’re no longer betting on the home team. So, the Pittsburgh natives turned job loss into a battle for more than employment, and the fighters (out-of-work mothers, fathers, families) refuse to accept that their circumstances disprove their beliefs; these relentless underdogs embody “the business of America” more than U.S. Steel ever could.
Good capitalists are expected to believe in an economic system that rewards loyalty with financial success. The system is so arithmetic we have metrics to prove it. Fame, for example, is the result of talent, luck and diligence. (Note: this equation suggests if you’re not famous you’re dumb, unlucky or talent-less. Such is math.) So it’s good that Canadians made Working Class Rock Star, a film that questions the system instead of the striver. This doc loves its metal musicians and takes the music industry with an iceberg of salt (on which they’re at the tip). Bands like Tub Ring and 3 Mile Scream have thousands of fans, but it’s not enough to warrant the attention of a label (major or otherwise) and it’s a level of success that keeps them in the “fledgling” category despite whole life commitments to The Dream. Veteran musician Dave Brockie of GWAR really pops the bubble when he describes the way record label “tour support,” is “the worst high interest loan you could ever take.” Instead of hitting it big, getting signed looks like indentured servitude.
Where did this determination to be entrenched come from? Seeking protection for our interests and earning potentials might be part of America’s limbic brain—which casts Corporations as the knight sent by the king to save us from the dragons. So in that metaphor, who’s the king and what are the dragons? Perhaps, instead of dragons, we fear the wild. The beautiful and varied wilderness displayed in American Values, American Wilderness does not immediately conjure notions of violence, ferocity or a fight for life, but that’s perhaps because it was a doc made in support of national parks and preservation. Narrator Christopher Reeve (my generation’s Superman) embodies both the American ideal evoked by the film’s agenda, as well as fortitude and will. American Values, American Wilderness was produced in 2005, after the horse riding accident that left Reeve wheelchair bound and machine dependent. So while the film vacillates between interviews with people who make a hobby of camping, hiking and mountain climbing (sometimes in extreme weather), Reeve appears like the guardian angel of surviving adventurers; like he’s been to the top of the mountain and lived to tell. By polling a cross section of diverse scenery lovers American Values implies everyone in the melting pot finds something sustaining in nature—it’s divorced from industry, culture and society in ways that promise to, as one hiker says, “feed the soul.” The cold may be biting, the waterfalls immense, the mountains like teeth—but there’s comfort in nature’s perennial fight for life, even if the comfort rests on our ability to go home after.
The government designated Yellowstone a preserve in the interest of protecting the land from developers (and creating a space for the civilized to “adventure” safely). While Yellowstone was containing the “wild” of our west, marketers were forcing the idea of “The Melting Pot” on Victorian America. We have plenty of evidence this was a caustic proposition—in fact the recently released film No God, No Master looks at the first acts of terrorism on American soil, tracing a line to the nation’s crisis of open borders and closed (business) doors. Today we prefer the concept of the “salad bowl,” perhaps because the model of a melting pot implies all distinct elements will eventually reduce to goo, (thankfully, a chain of fondue restaurants has come to disabuse us of that grody insinuation). Alice Guy-Blaché, the first female film mogul, had an intercontinental perspective that seeps through all her films. Like Lady Liberty, she hailed from France, but seems more like a citizen of the world. Her 1912 two-reeler, Making an American Citizen, plays to the arrogant superiority of the “American Way” like an assignment, but it handles the touchy subject of cultural disintegration with nuance. The film’s Russian immigrants carried their frustration-fueled domestic abuse here all the way from the homeland and now that they’re settled farmers, they have to—or rather, they can—learn to be a new way. The Making of an American Citizen (1912) is not a facetious title anymore than it’s a title about a process. Guy-Blaché promotes the rituals and preciousness of the old country, preserving them like Yellowstone, and declaring they needn’t be boiled down (as the “tradition” of spousal abuse had to be). Happiness is the thing Ameri-can believe in—and you came here to be happy so pray like an Orthodox believer, but love this country because whiners aren’t welcome. Conformity comes in many guises.
We kill wildness in so many ways. This is Nowhere follows (mostly) retired Winnebago campers who pop in and out of what may be America’s great leveling place: the Walmart. Caught somewhere between wanderlust and homelessness, these campers drive from state to state, exploring and meandering, befriending other campers or staying inside with cats. Their way of life demonstrates a strange and slow deterioration of modern nature (their America is mostly highways and parking lots) but it’s theirs and that uniqueness is one we’re ideologically bound to respect. Some manage their travels in immensely social ways—chatting with strangers, grouping with other campers—but others are like hermits in mobile caves, all of them grouping at America’s comfortingly consistent corporate megastore, where they can legally park for up to forty-eight hours. This may sound like exile or fringe dwelling, but for This is Nowhere camping is liberation from the norm, not disenfranchisement. These travelers are native tourists and who knows why they travel? It’s the element of choice that distinguishes the individuals from the rest. (Isn’t it funny that being different wasn’t really an issue when we were talking about U.S. Steel?)
There’s a scrawled line separating trailblazer from freak, ferocious independent from weirdo. It’s a line American Carny blurs by quoting P.T. Barnum, the man who invented the sideshow and was one time mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut. (Akumalmonkeysanctuary) Somehow, from the nest of domestic comfort sprang Barnum’s fascination with everything that nest rejects. Like Barnum, sword swallower/circus historian Todd Robbins came from suburban idylls as well. Robbins used magic, theater and eventually glass eating to escape what he described as boredom. A lot of the sideshow artists start with history—Robbins’ lesson on the etymology of the word “ballyhoo” is awesome!—and then the lure of the sideshow draws them nearer to the fringes. Some let their freak flag fly as an act of obstinacy to shame and resentment for conformity but others, like Robbins, treats his glass eating and nail bed laying like the art of physics it is, and he’s responsible about it. What’s fascinating about American Carny is that the inhumane sideshow of “The Elephant Man” and Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks can’t exist if the members of the sideshow are a party to their own exploitation—indeed the system that marginalized them, in the process making them more exotic and horrifying, is no longer in the hands of the mainstream (if it ever was to begin with). When the “bearded lady” reveals her feminist proclivities she renders what we once called a deformity into garrulous self-expression: she could wax but her fur comes naturally and the alternative to showing it is hiding. (In other hands the documentary could look like an object lesson in “deconstructing the master’s house with his own tools,” to borrow from feminist author Audre Lorde.)
Alternatives loom like punishments in these American landscapes and the “alternative” that threatens This American Gothic (2008) is financial ruin. In 1930, painter Grant Wood posed his sister and a local dentist in front of a farmhouse in Eldon, Iowa to paint a classic of Modernist art. Whether the painting is typical of American spite or American spirit is still a matter of debate. Facing financial hardship, Eldon opted to exploit their assets and so put dollars and sweat equity into transforming the gothic windowed farmhouse from Wood’s painting (a real family home) into a tourist attraction. Buoyed by town unity, locals endeavored to build a microbrewery out of the defunct Eldon bank, and fundraising efforts to save other historic architecture followed. Easily the most exploited and lampooned piece of American art, American Gothic cornered a unique ethos and a domestic truth that’s as mysterious as it is common. Goodness, really, you gotta wonder how we ever persevere. What is it about this land that provokes our determination? And where is the line between determination and patriotism? Am I wrong? That line exists, doesn’t it?
Cecil B. DeMille’s 1917 war drama The Little American is too complex to call “propaganda” but it nevertheless erases the line between identity and nationality. American Values are humanitarian values, according to Mary Pickford, patron saint of common sense and self-sacrifice. When The Little American (Pickford) is fortuitously delivered to WWI’s battle lines, she’s stuck between two suitors (despite having travelled across the world, men stick like tapeworms). Though her character’s name is Angela More, she’s generous before all else, and demonstrates her place in the larger order saying things like: “Don’t worry about me! You have no choice when it’s one woman – or the battle line of France!” In the equation “no guts, no glory,” money is often our real-world metric for glory, but here the reward is POW status, and despite that The Little American diligently does right by her conscience.
In 1925, the heedless Jazz Age in stride, American Pluck promoted an American spirit that was pugilistic above all else (see American about comic Bill Hicks for more evidence of said “pluck” after the twenties). Images captured after WWII by photographers like European Robert Frank (see An American Journey), fill a gap by suggesting foreign eyes changed our self-perception. Nick Ray’s entire body of work revolves around the immensely vulnerable middle class (a class traditionally characterized like the unshakeable roots of a Sequoia). It takes a comedy, like The Proper Care And Feeding of an American Messiah, to finally mock our underlying self-importance. Perhaps the American dream is subject to cycles of death and resurrection, dreams are made of the same fabric as faith, aren’t they? Border patrol volunteer Max Kennedy voices a version of the American Dream that puts a lid on the melting pot, closes the borders and takes back the nation (in Max Kennedy and the American Dream). Fighter, camper, patriot, Max reinvents the American Dream one day at a time, because in the face of a radically changing landscape, values are vulnerable to change as well.