America from the Outside In

On Film / The Daily — Aug 1, 2019
Harry Dean Stanton in Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984)

Debates over the essential principles at the heart of the American project have rarely been as heated as they are right now. We could do with a little outside perspective. A new book, America: Films from Elsewhere, gathers essays from an illustrious array of contributors including Corina Copp, James Quandt, Hilton Als, Erika Balsom, Adrian Martin, Nicole Brenez, and Benjamin Mercer on work by filmmakers from around the world. The focus is on these United States during the fifty-plus years between the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2017. The book’s editor, Shanay Jhaveri, working with Light Industry cofounder Thomas Beard and Film at Lincoln Center assistant programmer Dan Sullivan, has programmed a companion series, Another Country: Outsider Visions of America, and it opens tomorrow in New York and runs through August 14.

Anyone scanning the series schedule will be struck by the thematic and formal diversity of the selections. As the programmers point out, “this series considers the many ways that foreign and immigrant auteurs of the modern era have depicted and otherwise apprehended America, from period adaptations to diary films to action blockbusters.” One likely point of entry is Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984) in that, as a sort of road movie depicting the slow-motion reunion of a loner, his wife, and their son, the film offers an array of contrasting American environments. “What turns this fairly ordinary-sounding family drama into something on the edge of epic,” wrote Nick Roddick in 2010, “is its use of landscape and setting—the desert Southwest, California’s San Fernando Valley, and the concrete canyons of Houston.” Wenders originally intended to incorporate scenes filmed from sea to shining sea, but screenwriter Sam Shepard advised him to stick to a single state. “I trusted Sam,” wrote Wenders in 1984. “I traveled around Texas for a couple of months, and I had to agree with him. Everything I wanted to have in my film was there in Texas—America in miniature.”

Heading west, the series will take viewers from the Navajo Nation as seen in artist Shigeko Kubota’s Video Girls and Video Songs for Navajo Sky (1973) through a Nevada brothel in Nick Broomfield’s documentary Chicken Ranch (1983) and Paul Verhoeven’s giddily outrageous Las Vegas in Showgirls (1995) to the vast open spaces of Babette Mangolte’s The Sky on Location (1982) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970). Reviewing America: Films from Elsewhere in the current issue of Film Comment, José Teodoro notes that Leo Goldsmith and Rachael Rakes argue that Peter Watkins’s Punishment Park (1971) is “particularly incisive in its use of the American desert as ‘the very heart of the nation’s conflictual energies’ and its vision of the country in a ‘condition of permanent division.’”

California offers the alien terrain of the Otolith Group’s Medium Earth (2013), and of course, Los Angeles, both about to blow in Agnès Varda’s Black Panthers (1968) and Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979) and as a backdrop for the urban alienation of Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (1969). New York, too, is a lonely city in Chantal Akerman’s News from Home (1976). “By punctuating News from Home’s 16 mm footage of desolate cityscapes with her own voice reading her mother’s letters, Akerman creates the perfect combination of the personal and the formal,” wrote Michael Koresky in 2010. “The film’s long takes (about fifty in total) add up not to a simple compendium of detached urban imagery but to a kind of autobiography.”


The livelier side of the city is captured in Jonas Mekas’s Williamsburg, Brooklyn (2003), Tomonari Nishikawa’s three-minute Manhattan One Two Three Four (2004), and Raúl Ruiz’s The Golden Boat (1990). Presenting Ruiz’s feature earlier this week, London’s ICA called it a “punk rock picaresque.” In 2014, the late photographer Robin Holland noted that “seemingly all” of New York’s independent scene was in on the production. Producer Christine Vachon, who would found Killer Films six years later, worked as Ruiz’s assistant and the cast includes Jim Jarmusch, Kathy Acker, Vitto Acconci, and Barbet Schroeder. Holland was assigned to snap shots for the Village Voice “by Manohla Dargis, who during the course of her reporting was recruited for a cameo: making an entrance and then sitting on a ratty sofa, drawing.” Holland also notes that Amy Taubin once described The Golden Boat as “a delirious deconstruction of the decline of downtown.”

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