American Pictures - reviews

February 27, 1987 in Grey City Journal
published by University of Chicago 


.....Fighting apathy in America..... 
.....Democracy's underclass...... 

by Laura Torgerson 


American Pictures, a multi-media presentation by Danish photographer Jacob Holdt, is Brechtian epic theater par excellence. Holdt's insightful and sensitive slide-show presentation which combines photography, music, poetry, statistics, slogans and a compassionate narrative fulfills Brecht's requirement for a socially significant, alienating theater. It is a form of theater which turns spectators into observers and forces them to confront the social relationships which underlie the every day actions and occurrences that they normally take for granted. 

Brecht envisions the street scene, for example, a sidewalk reenactment of an accident, as the basic model for epic theater. The sidewalk demonstrator is interested in portraying "social processes as seen in their causal relationships" (1),  s/he is not interested in providing his spectators with an enjoyable theater, nor is s/he interested in creating pure emotion. The demonstration is performed to present the spectators with information that they may form their own opinions about the incident. 

American Pictures, Holdt's documentation of his five plus years of vagabonding in the United States, is a sensuous and complex version of Brecht's street scene. It is an exploration of the causes and effects of poverty and racism in the America. Utilizing, presumably naively, several techniques described by Brecht in "Brecht on Theater" Holdt effectively produces an alienation effect or A-effect. An A-effect means a condition in which the audience is not part of, but removed from the action on the stage or screen. According to Brecht, this crucial act of distancing forces the audience to adopt a critical attitude towards that which they are observing. 

Brecht claims that theater has the capacity to arouse an audience into action only when it claims to be nothing other than theater. Stripped of all magical and hypnotic effects, theater undergoes a positive change of function when the actor instead of completely transforming into his/her role remains part actor and thus helps to alienate the audience. Prevented from becoming completely absorbed in the action, those in the audience retain their critical abilities and dramatic theater becomes epic. This means that the emphasis is on the narrative and human being rather than on a plot in which the human element is taken for granted. Epic theater is a theater that argues rather than suggests; it is concerned with each scene and its curve-like progression to the next scene instead of fixing on the end result brought about by linear development. Finally, it is a theater based on reason rather than on feeling, like dramatic theater. 

Brecht claims that an essential requirement for producing an A-effect is that there be "a definite gest of showing" (2). Dressed casually with long hair and a braided beard almost to his belt, Jacob Holdt dispels any doubt that it is he who is putting on the show. He personally sets up and runs the projector, and introduces the show. This direct relationship he has with the audience also functions to produce an A-effect. It reiterates that this is not life, it is demonstrative theater: do not embrace it with your heart -- observe it, think about it, react to it! 

Another technique recommended by Brecht to instill theater with dynamic force is the "memorizing (of) one's first impressions." This is important in order to "safe guard against an unduly impulsive, frictionless and uncritical creation of characters and incidents". (3) Holdt's recorded narration, based on letters he wrote home to his parents and friends in Denmark, retains all the original shock, intensity and questioning that overwhelmed him when he came face to face with the results of the cold and brutal power of the American socio-economic system. In response to his letters, his father sent him a camera to document the outrageous conditions he was seeing and experiencing. 

Describing other techniques that produce the A-effect Brecht stresses "that the demonstrator should derive his characters entirely from their actions" (4). Like Brecht, Holdt understands the extent to which society determines the actions of individuals and thus their characters. The difference between the following phrases "social being determines thought" and "thought determines being"(5) is the difference between epic theater and dramatic theater. The understanding of this difference and the emphasis on the causal effects of external factors leads theater to serve a positive function: it aids in the understanding of individuals and of social conditions. 

Holdt demonstrates time and again how consequential society's imprint is on man. It is particularly evident in the differing socially predetermined reactions illicited by the police from Holdt and his friend Nell, an escaped convict. They made the mistake one evening of walking together late at night in a black neighborhood where police automatically mistook their friendship as the interaction of two drug dealers. (What else could they be?) Confident that there would be no problem and knowing that it was possible the police just wanted to shake them up for a joint or two, Jacob remained calm. But Nell, paranoid and distrustful, became irrational and was hauled into the station when he was unable to produce any identification when asked. The result was that Nell ended up back in prison. 

A product of his/her society, a person cannot be judged without also judging the socio-economic system that forms him or her. Jacob demonstrates that Nell "had already been punished enough before committing any crime by the poverty and humiliation society had subjected him to in his childhood." (6) This is a primary objective of epic theater: to expose the hidden causes and effects of a maelstrom of repetitious and at first, not particularly striking social incidents. 

Epic theater strives to make these daily incidents striking. It strives to alienate the audience from these incidents in order to make it easier for them to see, or to remember, that there are human beings at the center of these oppressive repetitive processes. But, epic theater does not seek empathy, it seeks action. 

In addition to direct interaction with the audience, which Holdt does both live and in his recorded narration, Brecht suggests that a "daring and beautiful handling of verbal media will alienate the text" (7). The naive beauty of Holdt's English is extraordinary, and the discrepancy between his charming, childlike delivery and the bare brutality of the subject of his words is provocative and remarkably disturbing. The audience is constantly aware and inspired that Holdt, a foreigner, is genuinely interested in the underlying currents of the American social system and concerned for those who have to struggle so hard against them. 

Brecht also contends that "special elegance, power and grace of gesture bring about the A-effect" (8). Holdt's presentation combining smooth, well-paced split screen projection, an intelligent, direct and compassionate narrative and a powerful music track which does not simply accompany the text but most often initiates it, puts the audience in a radical state of uncertainty:  a condition in which an individual is most vulnerable to the adoption of a critical attitude or one of denial. The images of broken, poverty-stricken human beings take hold of the emotions of the audience, but the educational element quietly releases the tight grip insisting that emotions alone will do nothing to change the outrageous and unexcusable problems of racism which perpetuates the equally outrageous and unexcusable conditions in which a great many Americans live. At this point, most of the audience is sufficiently alienated to step back and make important political decisions. 

In speaking of a production of his own, "The Threepenny Opera", Brecht states that, "the educative elements were so to speak 'built in': they were not an organic consequence of the whole, but stood in contradiction to it; they broke up the flow of the play and its incidents, they prevented empathy, they acted as a cold douche for those whose sympathies were becoming involved" (9). 

In American Pictures, entertainment and instruction do stand in open conflict with each other. Writing for whites in the audience, he says in a written introduction to the show, "This show is oppression, not entertainment!" Holdt continues, "You will go through an incessant and seemingly endless bombardment of statements of the type Blacks have always expressed to us ("White society is solely responsible for the ghettos."), but your defenses will have no outlet. Thus you are being oppressed." It is this oppression, in accordance with Brecht's theory, which ultimately alienates the audience and makes them adopt a critical attitude of inquiry toward the information presented to them. Holdt also writes, "This process (of oppression) combined with the length (of the show) will create emotions in you not unlike the ones Blacks have, working and living every day in white institutions... experiencing how paralyzed and useless you feel after such a mini-form of reverse oppression can make it easier for you to understand why it is so difficult to succeed for those whom we are confining through our racism to such emotions from earliest childhood." 

Writing for Blacks in the audience he says that "the show is not automatically constructive either. To demonstrate how devastating racism is, it concentrates on that segment of the population most visibly defeated by it. Many Blacks are effectively trying to put a shield around themselves to avoid being infected by that racism, and the show will therefore create a lot of pain, which at times might be overwhelming, just as it can lead to counter-productive feelings of victimization. But for many Blacks the show has been a positive experience in terms of better understanding the impact of internalized racism and various forms of self-denial." 

At the end of the show, Holdt holds a question and answer period to discuss how we are all victims in a reciprocal system of racism and "how it is threatening many of the best values in our society." An understanding of this, he says, "could in the long run lead to some kind of action, which is not based on guilt, but genuine solidarity and self-interest." 

American Pictures is a product both of Jacob Holdt's years of vagabonding and of a process of increased social and political awareness and activism. Appreciation of his multi-media presentation depends on one's political leanings; the images he presents are not ones most Americans care to know about. His slide show may be seen, like Brecht's play "The Life of Galileo" as a lament to "man's failure to understand the laws governing his life in society" (10), as a call to come out of apathy and into active intervention in life, and/or as a hopeful celebration of the gentle forces of reason. 

Jacob Holdt will be appearing on campus Friday, March 6th in Kent Hall room 107. Tickets are available at the door. $2 for students, $3 for non-students. 

1 Bertold Brecht, Brecht on Theater, p 121. 
2 Brecht, Brecht on Theater, p. 136. 
3 Brecht, Brecht on Theater, p. 137. 
4 Brecht, Brecht on Theater, p. 37. 
5 Brecht, Brecht on Theater, p. 37. 
6 Jacob Holdt. American Pictures, p. 14. 
7 Brecht, Brecht on Theater, p.139. 
8 Brecht, Brecht on Theater, p. 139. 
9 Brecht, Brecht on Theater, p. 132. 
10 Brecht, Brecht on Theater, p. 133. 



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