– BERLINALE 2022: In his video essay composed of historical amateur images, director Arnaud des Pallières once again delves into the myth of America
Ten years after first using film archives of everyday American life in Dusts of America (2011), director and essayist Arnaud des Pallieres returns with another historic journey across the country titled American review. This essay film is designed as a diary, ranging from innocent early childhood memories to the trauma of warmongering and disillusionment, encased in rare visual impressions of bygone decades. The film premiered in the Encounters section of the Berlinale February 14th.
There is an idea of the American dream, which first shines through the multitude of fictionalized filmed scenarios. Farmers moving a barn, people in fancy clothes and fancy hats bustling through the streets, shiny cars conquering the vastness of highways and scenic countryside. “I remember dreaming that I was finding gems for my parents,” the headline inserts begin. It’s all a dream, a romantic idea of a place. But just as the narrator loses the pebbles through a hole in his pocket or later dreams of catching fish only to wake up on a train, that dream can never be realized or captured. It is an illusion for the idealist.
The subject of these little stories, which are revealed insert by insert, was first conceived by famous artists, philosophers and writers. In addition to American talents like Russel Banks or Stephen Crane, the texts come from Walter Benjamin, Arthur Schopenhauer and Jose Luis Borges. Not American wordsmiths, but then again, when was the American idea ever a monocultural project? Another famous inspiration is Mark Twain. This is the easily recognizable story of a lost (fake) twin brother.
If the words keep their eternal relevance, there is something ancient, but fascinating in the old grainy material that des Pallières have selected and its anchoring in a bygone era. Watching people in their daily lives between what is likely the late 1930s and early 1970s conjures up ideas of the country’s past glory – one that will be challenged during the 112-minute runtime. He dreamed, the narrator explains several times, and perhaps also this idealistic American dream.
While the first few minutes are a loose selection of footage and themes, such as houses, human crowds, traffic, and the ocean, as the film progresses there is a more coordinated match of journaling and visuals. Sound and music are added artificially. With title cards, the film evokes the feel of a silent film or the long-gone 8mm era, while arranged and edited to the needs of a modern sensibility. Cinema is subjective, shows us de Pallières, everything is only diegetic illusion. Even more, later in the narrative, the film and the text begin to diverge. At some point he calls his own manipulative interference with the material. “This film is mine and not mine,” he explains. The look may not be his, but the arrangement and the omissions are.
While the first diary entries speak in euphoric terms of dreams of fish, stones, and fairies, the second half is characterized by an increased level of fighting and indoctrinated ideology. The images shift to the more common American iconography of cheap burger joints, with the newspaper discussing the extinction of highly developed extraterrestrial civilizations. One can only assume that these associations give way to the idea of declining human and societal achievement.
Chic New York skyscrapers, bustling train stations and desert rocks are replaced by an almost fetishistic orchestration of navy ships, smiling soldiers, nuclear bombs and huge piles of corpses. The author of the diary recalls why he joined the army. “Because my grandfather fought those bastards, my father fought those bastards.” What bastards, asks his counterpart. “Well, them”.
“Shut up and do as you’re told,” the journaling protagonist is told at one point. It doesn’t need to be. He is already celebrating the victory over “those sub-humans”. Is it a specifically American problem that des Pallières tackles, as opposed to the pretty mountain roads and the happy children of a fair? “Happy little fish taste better,” the paper reads in an elaborate metaphor of men becoming sharks. And one would assume that the fish is found in all the seas and oceans of the world.