|July-August 1984 American Film
A Danish Odyssey
by Eric Breibart
From Alexis de Tocqueville to E.T., America has always held a fascination for foreign visitors. In 1971, Jacob Holdt, a young Dane, left Toronto for a hitchhiking tour of Latin America. He never made it. For five years, Holdt crisscrossed the United States, taking more than fifteen hundred slides with a half-frame camera and recording interviews with a pocket tape recorder.
Back in Denmark, Holdt edited the results of his 100,000-mile odyssey into an epic, three-and-a-half-hour slide show that played to SRO audiences throughout northern Europe. A best-selling book followed, then film festivals and television broadcasts. Now, transferred to 35mm film, the first part of Holdt's slide show, American Pictures: A Personal Journey Through Black America (105 minutes), is having a theatrical run at New York's Film Forum, September 5-18.
American Pictures is a bizarre, disturbing work whose graphic intensity makes Robert Frank's once-suppressed photos of the thirties (The Americans) seem like images of an upper-class tea party. It's as if the Farm Security Administration had hired only one photographer, embodying the qualities of Rimbaud, Kerouac, and Kierkegaard, to record rural America during the Depression.
Holdt says he began taking pictures when his family refused to believe
the stories he told in his letters -- little vignettes of murder, poverty,
and slavery encountered on his travels -- and American Pictures is a kind
of epistolary novel, a series of postcards from hell.
What is most remarkable about Holdt's odyssey is his ability to move almost effortlessly from one social setting to another, across class and race lines. "Freedom," he says in the film, "is the ability to throw yourself into the arms of everyone you meet -- the possibility of saying yes to everyone." With his long hair, shaggy beard, and piercing eyes, Holdt must have appeared like an alien from another planet, a real-life counterpart of Nicolas Roeg's Man Who Fell to Earth. If the commentary in American Pictures is sometimes tendentious and humorless, and the visual contrasts simplistic, there is no denying the cumulative power of Holdt's vision. His work is more than a filmed lecture -- it's a series of freeze frames from the unbelievable movie that unspooled in front of his eyes.