Postcards from America

(Steve McLean, UK/USA, 1994)


David Lynch popularised a Gothic image of American suburbia: behind the white picket fences, the sunny lawns and the smiling faces lies a dark, menacing, perverse world.

In the '90s, gay cinema took this morbid, feverish imagining to the max – perhaps because the struggle to assert gayness in such a rigidly straight world stirs even more terrifying spectres of repression, self-loathing and violence.

However grounded in real experience such a nightmare may be, it is another thing altogether to form these images and sensations into a satisfying film. Steve McLean's Postcards from America is a depressingly poor attempt at making a vivid, iconoclastic, stream-of-consciousness movie about some rather grim, relentless and preening ideas.

It is not a good advertisement for the writings of David Wojnarowicz (Memories that Smell Like Gasoline) on which it is based. Artfulness goes out the window during the very first scene, when grabs of purple prose ("speeding unravels the heart"), showy credit graphics and dreamy, over-edited, free-associative images compete for our distracted attention.

A biopic of sorts soon develops, tracking the tortured life of David at three stages, as a boy (Olmo Tighe), a teenager (Michael Tighe) and an adult (Jim Lyons).

Whether as an abused child, a street kid or an experienced hustler flagging down cars out in the desert, David encounters very little that offers him any faith, hope or charity.

His itinerary is forbidding: sex that is both loveless and joyless; life-threatening encounters with macho jocks suffering an identity crisis; and a particularly sickening dose of treacly Americana blaring its conservative ideology from every billboard and television screen.

There is a normal drama lurking inside this mess, begging to be carefully rendered and realised. But McLean, like many independent filmmakers around the world, has an almost adolescent predilection for anti-realism.

This means that he indulges every stylistic trick and mannerism – back-projection, into-camera soliloquy, grainy colour flashes – in order to break the illusion, Brecht-style.

Problem is, there is no convincing illusion set up in the first place that is worth the breaking.

© Adrian Martin September 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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