Strange States

Max Nelson on America: Films from Elsewhere (2019)

Babette Mangolte, The Sky On Location, 1982, 16 mm, color and black-and-white, 78 minutes.

AMERICA: FILMS FROM ELSEWHERE, EDITED BY SHANAY JHAVERI. The Shoestring Publisher, 2019. 616 pages.

THE IMAGES DRIFT BY: water coursing under ice, steam rising from rapids, a herd of antelope running in the cold, rivers so blue they seem electric, an “orange splash on the sagebrush.” In voice-over, Babette Mangolte—the French-born filmmaker responsible for this radiant footage of the American Southwest—takes turns reading a dense, digressive text with her collaborators Bruce Boston and Honora Ferguson. With some interruptions, she had spent the better part of a decade in the United States by the time she started shooting this movie, The Sky On Location (1982). But she got a kind of energy by emphasizing having come from elsewhere. “For once my foreignness was an asset,” she wrote about the film in 2004. “I had no prejudice or misconception like the ones I heard from a friend born in Douglas, Arizona, who, when I told him I was going to trace the four seasons in the landscape of the West, replied: ‘But there are no seasons in The West.’ He was wrong.”

She had read Nature and Culture, Barbara Novak’s classic 1980 book about American landscape painting, and studied the region’s violent history well enough to know how idealized and warped so many of its popular imaginations had been. At the same time, she had little fixed idea of what the landscapes ought to look like and no prefabricated form with which to film them. Whatever strategies she hit upon would need to be flexible, capacious, and open-ended enough to accommodate however she happened to see those landscapes change with the seasons and the light.

“Certainty and permanence are consistently undone,” as Erika Balsom puts it in her essay about The Sky On Location for America: Films from Elsewhere, an inspired new anthology edited by Shanay Jhaveri about films that depict or imagine the US from an outsider’s point of view. (“Another Country,” an essential series at Film at Lincoln Center running from August 2 to 14 and programmed by Jhaveri, Thomas Beard, and Dan Sullivan, offers a chance to see many of the movies, and some uncovered by the book, on-screen.) Because Mangolte was speaking for herself—her reading, her taste, her travels—she could organize the movie around her own shifting subjectivity. But uncertainty had its limits, too. She gave decisive enough verdicts about, for instance, the logging companies that stripped the site of the Mount St. Helens eruption for timber while the dust was still in the air.

America: Films from Elsewhere (The Shoestring Publisher, 2019).

The filmmakers represented in America: Films from Elsewhere and “Another Country” range widely across the second half of the twentieth century and across contexts of production. Under what other pretense would Mangolte’s essay film appear alongside Jane Campion’s nervous, sweaty New York erotic thriller In the Cut (2003); Sophie Calle and Greg Shepherd’s intimate video diary Double-Blind (aka No Sex Last Night) (1996); Agnès Varda’s masterpiece of close energetic observation Black Panthers (1968); and Raúl Ruiz’s lurching Manhattan production The Golden Boat (1990)? What most of them share, however, is a sense that it wouldn’t suit them to project smug or complacent expertise. They needed to give themselves room to hurl their own idiosyncratic impressions at the settings they filmed and permission not to understate how much cruelty, injustice, and repression they found there.

A dense cluster of these “outsider visions” emerged in the early 1970s. In Los Angeles, the French filmmaker Yolande du Luart started the new decade shooting a riveting documentary about Angela Davis with her classmates at the University of California, Los Angeles, including a young Charles Burnett. (After the FBI arrested Davis that fall, Nicole Brenez notes in America: Films from Elsewhere, du Luart finished the editing in France, “where she could protect the rushes.”) In New York, Mangolte and Chantal Akerman made Hotel Monterey (1972), a pulsing movie about the dim hallways and tattered bedrooms of what Mangolte much later called “a hotel for transients.” The video artist Shigeko Kubota was a local in New York—she had moved there from Japan in 1962—but a stranger in Chinle, in the Navajo Nation, where she shot Video Girls and Video Songs for Navajo Sky (1973) over the course of a month. Back on the East Coast, she layered the footage with processed images: molten blobs of color, quivering blue lines, a stencil of her own face.

Shigeko Kubota, Video Girls and Video Songs for Navajo Sky, 1973, color and black-and-white, sound, 32 minutes.

Then there was the Mojave Desert, which seemed to propel filmmakers toward feverish, hermetic tones. Michelangelo Antonioni had gone there in 1968 to shoot the orgy at the center of his much-contested counterculture fable Zabriskie Point (1970). When the British filmmaker Peter Watkins arrived at the same desert in the fall of 1970, as Leo Goldsmith and Rachael Rakes write in America: Films from Elsewhere, he enlisted nonprofessional “students, activists and draft-evaders” and “security guards from a nearby US Air Force base” to act out the harrowing scenes of state violence—dissidents let loose in the desert, dehydrated, and shot to death—that would fill Punishment Park (1971). Two years later, the German director Werner Schroeter ended up there as well. He got stranded with his three stars in a hotel “run by an American fascist,” he remembered in his memoirs. (“So there was an unpleasant and alarming atmosphere.”) To make Willow Springs (1973), the movie he promptly wrote about “three melancholy women” who live together in a secluded house and murder their male visitors, the group rented “a tumbledown kind of saloon full of dirt and cobwebs” in a desolate town and staged all the extravagant, colorful compositions it could bear.   

“Fractured subjectivity and an extreme response to violence preoccupy Schroeter’s American project,” Jhaveri writes in the introduction to America: Films from Elsewhere. So, he points out, do “grief, disappointment, and disenchantment.” More than one of the movies in America: Films from Elsewhere and “Another Country” strike a similar note of rueful longing for someplace free from so much cruelty and dispossession. Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), the drifter at the center of Paris, Texas (1984), remembers trying to block out the abuse he was inflicting on his wife by dreaming about “a deep, vast country” far from his own, “somewhere without language or streets.” Jean-Marie Straub, in an interview quoted here by Federico Windhausen, says that the émigré in his and Danièle Huillet’s Class Relations (1984) goes to Oklahoma at the end of the movie to find “a place where he will finally no longer be threatened, where the machine of lies will cease to function.” Akerman, in her 2013 memoir, My Mother Laughs, gave this attitude a clear, burning gloss: “I have no life,” she wrote. (The book’s excellent new translation is by Corina Copp, who quotes it in her essay for America: Films from Elsewhere.) “I didn’t know of one. So here or elsewhere. But elsewhere is always better. So I’m just leaving and leaving again and coming back forever.”