American Pictures - reviews

24. November 1981 
Grey City Journal,  University of Chicago's Student Journal 


American Pictures 
A masterpiece of political art 

 By Richard Martin 

One could perhaps label American Pictures a "masterpiece". But "masterpiece" is a word which implies four' stars in the movie section of daily newspapers. It is a word most applicable to "great" Hollywood films -- those big, stupendous, melodramatic, movie spectacles that so readily satisfy our desires for illusion, passivity, and voyeurism; those film experiences that we know will always be there whenever we need another dose of entertainment. Such masterpieces are soon forgotten when we walk back into our own realities; when we've reluctantly left the flickering light of the theater for the dull glare of urban and suburban streets. 

American Pictures expresses a global reality and a responsibility we all share. American Pictures is a multi-media presentation that will haunt you for days after seeing it. It will possess you emotionally and intellectually as if it were the plague. Therefore, though this presentation of Danish vagabond Jacob Holdt's 5 year sojourn through every layer of American society -- from black sharecroppers' shacks in the deep south to Rockefeller's mansion; from KKK meetings to parties at the Museum of Modern Art -- though this extraordinary array of American cultures may invite the label "masterpiece", such a label would obscure the power and overwhelming grip this production exercises on its viewers. American Pictures attains what "masterpieces" rarely even attempt. American Pictures challenges the viewer to act, not merely to react cathartically; to do something about the horrors of the American system. 

For five years Jacob Holdt totally immersed himself in America, throwing himself into every imaginable situation. He picked cotton for four dollars a day in Florida, joined the American Indian rebellion at Wounded Knee, got drunk with Ted Kennedy, and followed criminals during muggings. Jacob Holdt tapped America's major arteries and sold his blood twice a week to buy film to record his experience. American Pictures consists of interviews, narration, music, and about 3,000 of Holdt's own photographs. Its spirit stands somewhere between Stud Terkel's hopeful elegies and Herbert Marcuse's one dimensional society. Although American Pictures is a "leftist" presentation, always representing society from the perspective of the underdog, it possesses an objectivity which only a non-native American could express, and a sensitivity that testifies to Jacob Holdt's ability and willingness to expose himself to every experience and every form of personal exploitation. 

As a result of Holdt's anthropological vagabonding, American Pictures presents an intuitive critique of American capitalism. Holdt first demonstrates the horrors of the master/slave relationship in the contemporary economic and psychological conditions of American blacks. He shows, for example, how the black ghetto family, rarely able to achieve the society's myth of individual success and illusion of the ideal nuclear family, internalizes its frustrations and suffers from self hatred. Holdt then shows how the white majority is as much a victim as victimizer. He shows, for example, how the white majority, despite outward appearances of affluence and happiness, turns to alcoholism and escapism. Finally, Holdt connects these diverse groups under the rubric of closed systems: each of us, white or black, leftist or rightist, poor or rich, are limited by specific class ideologies, and subject to narrow-mindedness. Holdt says that the master/slave relationship which capitalism creates and perpetuates can bear no fruit, in any fundamental way, for masters or slaves. 

American Pictures is a presentation that might inspire such responses as "an astounding intuitive application of Marxism," or "a brilliant anthropological venture," or "an empirical embracement of Existentialism." But such interpretations, though inevitable and legitimate, will only be valuable if they serve as catalysts for debate, and lead to deeper questioning of our personal roles and potential actions. It is this seemingly immense leap from inspirational art to empirical action which American Pictures has consciously set as its goal. Holdt claims that he can measure the success of his presentation only by the actions that viewers take to change the system. But what leads Holdt to admit, however, that these empirical results are impossible to measure is his awareness of the American system's enormous ability to absorb all an ability to create masks which constantly hide its horrors and injustices. 

Throughout American Pictures Jacob Holdt continually questions the validity of his creation, expressing the fear that he is perhaps just another white man exploiting minorities and continuously stating that the mere representation of his experience can never equal the reality of the America he never equal the reality of the America he has tried to understand. The same applies here: no mere description or praise can convey the experience of American Pictures. American Pictures is a presentation that all Americans must experience for themselves. 


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