Pretty much all Germans glean their first impressions of America from the media. In the many thousands of American films broadcast in Germany, two types of American landscape tend to predominate with remarkable monotony: the endless, broad sweep of the mid-West and the asphalt canyons of major metropolises. Westerns symbolise the wild, untamed force of nature, in which men are above all still real men – which is to say, men who kill. Big cities are the exciting antithesis of this, the personification of an irrepressible modernism in which things can nonetheless take just as rustic a turn – which is probably why people are fond of the cliché, ‘asphalt jungle’. Medial representations turn such landscapes into a second home, even for people who have never set foot on them. The films in the following programme all feature a real or imagined journey across America; they are all rooted, one way or another, in that American tradition, the road movie.
Kurt Kren, one of the most important avant-garde filmmakers to emerge since 1945, moved in 1978 to the States, where his financial situation rapidly went from bad to worse. Homeless for many years, scraping a living from occasional jobs, he came to know the seamy side of the great American dream. 39/81: Which Way to CA? is a genuine road-movie built around Kren’s cars and images of highways. His casual hand camera and dismal shades of grey counteract the usually opulent visual palette devoted to this genre; yet these images too are strangely familiar, more reminiscent of photography however, such as that of Robert Frank, perhaps (1).
Isabell Spengler grew up as a child of the Love Generation. In Psychic Tequila Tarot she plays hippy child, Leila: however hard Leila tried as a teenager, she never, ever managed to shock her parents. In Psychic Tequila Tarot she drives across California in a huge, weirdly decorated road cruiser, inviting in for drinks along the way strangers for whom she lays the Tarot, before playing out their favourite fantasies. The confusion of shifting references – from the lonesome rider through to the clairvoyant or hooker – make both her guests and the viewer nervous: “While for the customers, Leila’s excessive spiritual as well as corporal devotion opens up the possibility of having their repressed wishes and impulses reflected, Leila only gains an increasingly compressed identity by fulfilling and personifying these wishes.” (I. S.)
New York Portrait: Chapter Two consists of views of the iconic metropolis, the stylistic profile of which is totally transformed by cinematic form. Its buzz and hectic pace are missing in the silent movie as are (most conspicuously) police sirens; static cameras rob the city of its dynamism; precise openers and fades isolate each shot, thereby denying the viewer a psychological narrative: an illustration of hyper-modernism in a reductive style reminiscent of Japanese calligraphy (2).
Destiny Manifesto traces the influence of the myth of the Wild West on America’s aggressive foreign policy. The USA is the oldest democracy in the world and nevertheless imposes excessive violence at home and abroad: this contradictory nature, often completely incomprehensible to foreigners, may perhaps indeed derive from Americans’ deeply rooted experience of frontier life, in which nature and neighbours consistently appeared as an enemy force, and self-defence as a sine qua non of survival. It is in any case predominantly the descendants of those settlers who remain steadfastly loyal to their government, even throughout the fiasco of the war with Iraq.
The freedom of the West ends at the heavily guarded Mexican border. The Mexican and American governments produce TV ads and internet clips designed to deter Mexicans from even attempting to cross the border and to raise awareness of the dangers that are involved if they do. Gabriela Monroy, a Mexican resident in the USA, in turn produces anti-clips: Borderline Disorder: Episode 6: Pic-nic captures in a single shot the entire tragedy implicit in this situation for so many people. The massive, inhumane fence, clearly reminiscent of Germany’s former internal border, is a potent reminder also of Reagan’s plea in 1987: “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Passing Suburbia is a German-style parody of the road-movie. As the camera pans the typical desolation of a new private housing development, strange figures suddenly appear: drag-king cowboys. On the one hand they personify the dream of the wide, wild world that seems to have been wiped out by this kind of settlement, yet, in standing before the houses almost as if they were guarding them, the cowboys also evoke associations with ‘gated communities’, those new urban fortresses of the American middle class, which – like everything else the USA cooks up – will probably sooner or later appear in Germany too.
Passengers don’t have to abandon their sofa to take most trips through America; they just watch them on screen. It’s therefore understandable that even German found-footage artists work primarily with quotes from Hollywood. Christoph Girardet’s work is a good example of this approach. He compiled a private cosmos of foreign material, from silent movies to monumental epics, melodramas and horror films. Storyboard marks the end of this long journey: instead of condensing second-hand emotions in associative fashion, as found-footage films generally do, a style of dissociative visual montage here seeks to dissolve meaning and context, until all that remains is an empty gesture – like a memory of long-forgotten emotions.
(1) Robert Frank: Die Amerikaner. 1958.
(2) The style of montage in which each take is separated by black film is also described in experimental film as ‘haiku’.