Main Street USA
In the US Presidential election of 2008, much was said by the candidates – in the wake of a financial crisis that quickly reverberated disastrously world-wide – about the difference between “Wall Street” and “Main Street”. In this pithy formulation, Wall Street signifies corporate capitalists, while Main Street is the mass of ordinary Americans.
Yet, equally, we kept hearing throughout the campaign – even from Barack Obama’s mouth – about the “American middle-class”, as that group which needed renewed validation and economic protection. This shorthand must surely have sounded strange to many observers outside the US – and presumably also to some within it.
The longer the campaign raged, the more I became convinced that the words “working class” – not to mention anything more severe and scary, like “under-class” or “homeless” or “poor” – had been unofficially banned from the public discourse of America.
John Gianvito, Travis Wilkerson, Jem Cohen, Thom Andersen … these are the filmmakers we must turn to if we want some true sense of Main Street USA. Their work represents a radical rearguard action, bringing us back to ideas, forms and struggles that were rudely banished from American independent cinema in the mid 1980s.
Flashback to the mid-to-late 1970s. A certain kind of experimental narrative was developing strongly in the US – a very different cultural movement from the previous avant-garde of Stan Brakhage or Hollis Frampton. It was the era of Yvonne Rainer, Jon Jost, Robert Kramer, Jackie Raynal, James Benning, Mark Rappaport … These filmmakers represented a very low-budget but feature-length cinema, playing canny, baroque games with storytelling, performance, personal and social identity.
This cinema had an engaged, New Left political agenda: feminism, gay liberation and encroaching urban gentrification were some of the burning items on this agenda, albeit filtered through a complex intellectual mindset. These were the heroic years of Film Theory in the Euro-American university and art worlds: a heady combination of semiotics, psychoanalysis and Marxism. Progressive filmmakers swam easily in these ideas.
Everyday, real life was the site of political struggle for these ‘70s filmmakers, but so too was the parallel world of stories, images, and what the postmodern guru Fredric Jameson called “the prison-house of language” – in other words, the sinister world of ideology imprinted in our minds, hearts and bodies. To make a film that could change the world, even just a fraction, meant exposing and undoing this ideology – and addressing a new spectator in a new way.
In 1982, a large program at the National Film Theatre of Australia, titled “New York Stories”, was a shock and a revelation to a young cinephile like myself. Chantal Akerman’s Hotel Monterey (1972), Babette Mangolte’s The Cold Eye (1980), Rappaport’s The Scenic Route (1978) … plus an intriguing development of the early ‘80s, the punk or No Wave school represented, over the next few years, by Scott & Beth B’s Vortex (1982), Michael Oblowitz’s powerful King Blank (1983), and especially Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983), the last great film of this era.
In 1984, everything shifted and changed. Jim Jarmusch, closely associated with the No Wavers (Permanent Vacation, 1980), completed Stranger than Paradise, which became an unlikely crossover hit, a mainstream success. A new era had suddenly and rudely begun – a switch to which Jarmusch himself was politically and artistically foreign, and remains so. The Age of Miramax – which made its fame on distributing films by Jarmusch and others – quickly took over.
Years later, at an international conference in Australia gathering filmmakers, critics, and a spokesman from Miramax, the host began her inaugural address by announcing: “In 1984, with Stranger than Paradise, American independent cinema was born.” And at that precise instant so much history was swept under the carpet, veritably disappeared.
A new set of names filled the magazines, whether American Film or Artforum: Tarantino, Soderbergh, Whit Stillman … And while the narratives of these so-called indie movies became less experimental in form, the content became drastically less political in nature: what Jarmusch unwittingly introduced in Stranger than Paradise was, on the one hand, an indulgent identification with bohemian or "slacker” lifestyles and, on the other hand, a wallowing in pop culture as a weightless, self-sufficient, enclosed universe.
Today, Gianvito, Andersen, Cohen and Wilkerson exist at the cultural antipodes to Paul Thomas Anderson, David Lynch, Michael Mann and the Coen brothers. Their films receive little play within the US itself, beyond some film festivals, conferences and special events. The campus culture that once provided a viable support network for so-called difficult films (like Andersen’s debut feature from 1975, Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer) appears to have largely evaporated. The art world offers some solace to Jem Cohen. And, intriguingly, the form of Andersen and Noël Burch’s video-essay Red Hollywood (1995) – the pedagogic companion-piece to a book they wrote together – already anticipates its likely destiny as a series of pirate files on YouTube, with its content menu of sections …
If there is anything that unites the filmmakers I have cited – and links them to others such as Jay Rosenblatt, Jim Finn and Sadie Benning – it would be, in the first instance, a broad set of progressive political values, the kind we see so little of in commercial-independent cinema since the late ‘80s. And, in the second instance, the link would be an exacting set of international influences: Chris Marker, Straub & Huillet, Philippe Garrel, Michael Snow, Santiago Álvarez … Thom Andersen’s work has links with the rigorous European essay-films of Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky (both have taught alongside Andersen at the California Institute of the Arts, an important site for radical film work). Issues of language, ideology and form still matter to this new wave, but there is also a near-Bazinian investment in presence, especially for Gianvito, whether that be the presence of the human body or the “whispering wind” in the trees. Above all, there is what critic-theorist Nicole Brenez would call a duty of exigency: every image and sound must exist in a film for a reason, must be necessary, must constitute an ethical gesture.
For a new American cinema that is so politically activist, these films present a curious paradox to viewers. The America evoked in the images of Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007), Wilkerson’s An Injury to One (2002) or Cohen’s three-screen installation Chain (2002) is a spookily depopulated nation. We have moved into a seemingly spectral phase of late capitalism, in which abandoned parking lots or damaged memorial plaques remain as the mute witness of massive industrial and historical transformations. Indeed, Profit Motive irresistibly calls to mind Jean-Marie Straub’s comment that radical cinema is like “the writing on a tombstone”.
But, in 2008, can any progressive representation of Main Street USA truly be anything other than indirect, hyper-formalist and cryptic – especially when, during the election run-up, the Republican “pitbull” Sarah Palin co-opts the language of documentary realism and evokes a conservative fantasy-land filled with what she calls “everyday Americans”?
© Adrian Martin October 2008