New York

“American Pictures” (part one), written, directed, and photographed by Jacob Holdt

Film Forum

In this era of rhetorical inversion it is no coincidence that an administration engaging the rallying points of religion, bootstrap individualism, and bodily fitness in fact works to elevate intolerance, undermine civil rights, and accelerate the pollution of the food chain. An unrelenting shower of sloganeering to exalt “optimism” and a fuzzy, unspecified notion of “the future” has enveloped the American spectator in a calculated frenzy; the intent is to erase “gloom and doom” from the public eye—to preserve the nation’s fertile fantasy life.

One project countering this effort is American Pictures, a filmic slide show exposing the very images that the powers that be have worked to render invisible. Jacob Helot, a Dane, spent five years hitchhiking or “vagabonding” across America, living with some 350 families and amassing a collection of fifteen thousand photographs which powerfully attest to the presence and sufferings of the other America—those who neither learned the ropes at Bechtel nor barbecue at the Ewing ranch. The film is divided into two sections, rural and urban: this first part focuses on the horrifying discrepancy between white and black, rich and poor, in the rural South. What Holdt sees affirms his belief that slavery is not only a tragic historical event, but an institution that still thrives today, supplying the labor force for America’s sugarcane and tobacco plantations and guaranteeing the nation’s fluency in the language of violence. We see photographs of black people subsisting in ramshackle shanties without electricity, heat, or running water, eking out lives on diets of turnip greens and sweet clay; simple household amenities are as foreign to them as the pleasures of learning. For, as Holdt puts it, “thousands of people in America still live by the light of the kerosene lamp,” which burns only when they can afford to buy fuel.

American Pictures is a powerful presentation of the sufferings of rural black America, but there are a number of flies in this ointment, two of the biggest being the problematic nature of the documentary-photography genre, and Holdt himself. His unrelentingly naïve voiceover coats the images with the optimistic platitudes of the hippiedom so available to white, middle-class Americans and Europeans during the ’60s, and suggests that the subject of the film is not the mean extremities of black and white America, but the messianic convictions of our poor, righteous, beleaguered hero. He tells us that he “throws himself into the arms of those who need him,” and reminds us that “Americans are very aggressive sexually”; we discover that practically all the people he meets, men and women, rich and poor, black and white, just can’t seem to keep their hands off him. And he gives in to all of them because first, it’s part of his “yes philosophy”; second, “all you really need is love”; and third, he’s just the darnedest, most benevolent stickman you’ll ever hope to meet. He speaks of the needs of these love-starved people, but of course the need at issue are also his own: to make a “far out” escape from the unimpoverished white doldrums of Denmark into what he views as the black netherworld of America, the belly of the beast of the “white mother culture” (so much for the law of the father) where he can “learn more in one night with a black prostitute than in four years of university.”

The film is rife with this kind of sloppy sexism, and its pronouncements on the black family echo Daniel Moynihan’s conservative “melting pot” report of 1963. Holdt thinks he is outside society, but in fact his presence amid the poor is very much felt and occasionally results in tragedy. His living with a young black woman, for example, precipitates the burning of her home and the death of her brother. She pays a painful price for Holdt’s picaresque adventuring while he gets some “great” photographs out of the incident. Holdt is ambushed by the Klan, protests at Wounded Knee, has numerous brushes with the FBI and the Secret Service, and supports himself by selling blood twice a week (perhaps to help literalize the game plan of a vampire culture?). Indeed, things sometimes get just too heavy for our randy crusader, who admits that “vagabonding is an overwhelming experience and after a while it was necessary for me to stay with the rich for a while so I could have some peace of mind . . . But always when I was the most down the most fantastic thing would happen.” Like getting picked up by the millionaires and staying in extravagant antebellum mansions, rounding out the recipe with a pinch of master and a pinch of slave. This economic and sexual tourism, this uncritical transition from picturing into the picturesque, in the motor of American Pictures.

Nevertheless, the film (which was originally a book and slide lecture) is a graphic outline of how blaming the victim perpetuates the misery of the poor and how “massive bourgeois propaganda makes people act against their own best instincts.” It is the kind of work that one hopes will encourage less reductivist projects intent on showing and saying what is hidden in a corporate economy. It reminds us that no amount of media special effects can efface the racism that divides America, and also that the most well-meaning intention can enlist the most exploitational devices to make its point and procure its pleasures.

Barbara Kruger