The Village VoiceNew York, September 11, 1984
Annals of the PoorBy J. Hoberman
At once a travelogue, an expose, and an illustrated sermon reeking of brimstone, Jacob Holdt's blandly titled American Pictures is as much a phenomenon as it is a movie. Like Jacob Riis a century before him, Holdt left Denmark in his early twenties to discover and document an America largely defined by its underclass. But it will be many years before someone names a park or a housing project after him; Holdt's "How the Other Half Lives" is too dangerously identified with that other half to give reformers comfort.
The son of a minister (from a family whose firstborn sons have been ministers for the last 300 years), Holdt came to America during the waning days of the counterculture and stayed through the Bicentennial, hitchhiking back and forth across the country, a Christ-like vagabond who supported himself by selling his blood twice a week. Because his family could scarcely believe the letters he sent them detailing the poverty he saw, Holdt bought a $30 camera in a pawnshop and began amassing evidence (ultimately a dossier of some 15,000 slides). "For the first three years I didn't know what I was doing," he told Mitch Tuchman in a fascinating interview Film Comment published last year. "I was just taking pictures of the people I stayed with. The vagabonding was more important than the photography."
In a sense, it still is. The Reverend Holdt has to testify to what he's seen -- the images only serve to illuminate the vision he's been given: narrated in the first-person in heavily accented English, American Pictures is an unsettling mixture of "The Lower Depths," "On the Road" and the "Book of Revelations." The film begins, like "The Birth of a Nation", with the arrival of the slaves from Africa. (Like Griffith, Holdt sees America as blighted by the primeval curse of slavery; unlike Griffith, he doesn't blame its victims.) American Pictures begins straining credulity shortly afterwards by interviewing an 134-year-old ex-slave named Charles Smith and scarcely lets up for the reminder of its length. You may not believe everything you hear in this film but you have to believe your eyes.
Holdt talks of American society's inheritance from slavery, the "language of violence" it engendered. Although it's been 120 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, he believes that in many respects slavery still exists: "The abolition of slavery was not, after all, tantamount to freedom." Holdt's travels among the most exploited sectors of American society led him to discover the tobacco pickers he bluntly calls "slaves," the Louisiana and Florida sugar plantations he labels "slave camps." Here, semantics really are a nicety; Holdt backs up his words with searing snapshots of wretched workers, child laborers, and miserable shanties. He calls Immokalee, Florida, the worst place he's been. From the slides it looks like a backwoods Auschwitz, filled with bloody corpses and zombie derelicts.
American Pictures is worse than any horror film. Few movies have ever been so suffused with lumpen misery. Amid a montage of tumble-down shacks each more pathetic than the last, Holdt explains that these hovels are actually "far, far worse than they appear in photographs." How does one document the lack of heat, water, or electricity, the snakes and vermin that share the house? And how can the outsider photograph this state of mind? In Denmark, he says with a touch of grim patriotism, there has been nothing comparable since the Middle Ages. Occasionally, Holdt confesses his need to escape back into the bourgeois world. Sometimes, he says, he was driven sufficiently crazy to think even jail would be better. (The Film Forum is only showing the first part of American Pictures, concerned with rural poverty; a second feature-length section is set in the cities.)
Holdt's opus was originally a slide show, and not the least of its accomplishments is to remind us that this bargain-basement mode (pioneered with considerable aplomb by Jack Smith in the early '70s) is a legitimate form of cinema. In Copenhagen, the original has played continuously since 1977. (Indeed, Danish screenings proved so successful that the American Pictures Collective, the 10-person commune which distributes Holdt's material and uses the profits to support a school and cooperative farm in Zimbabwe, bought a theater specifically to show it in.) A book, also published in 1977, has sold 71,000 copies and gone through 11 printings -- one of the two biggest sellers in recent Danish history -- and has since been published in Sweden, Norway, Holland, and West Germany (where it has also been a best-seller).
Meanwhile, the slide show has toured Europe in English, Danish, German, Swedish, Dutch, and French versions. According to a recent article in "Afterimage", the continued showings of American Pictures on European TV and elsewhere drew complaints from American diplomats, especially (as one might well imagine) the American ambassador to Denmark. Consequently, the United States Information Agency was asked to present a salutary view of black America. Rather than commission one, the USIA coopted "Country Roads/City Pavements," an exhibition by the black photographer Roland L. Freeman. According to Freeman, the agency asked him to make a second copy of his show to counter Holdt's "leftist stunt," and "Country Roads/City Pavements" was subsequently shown in Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Portugal, and France.
It's not difficult to fathom the source of American Picture's European appeal. On one hand, the piece amply justifies whatever free-floating anti-American sentiment a particular European audience might feel; it demonstrates that on some profound level, America has failed. On the other hand, it's titillating. Having spent five years in the belly of the beast, living mainly with exotic black sharecroppers and migrant workers, Holdt is like some latter-day Livingston, a romantic image he is hardly reluctant to exploit. "Four times I was attacked by robbers armed with pistols," he says in American Pictures's promotional material. "Two times I managed to avoid cuts from attackers armed with knives; two times frightened police drew their guns on me; one time I was surrounded by ten-fifteen blacks in a dark alley and almost killed; one time I was ambushed by the Ku Klux Klan on a deserted back road; several times I had bullets flying around me at nightly shoot-outs, not to speak of my experience at Wounded Knee; two times I was arrested by the FBI; four times I was arrested by the Secret Service; I lived with three murderers and many other criminals; twelve of my best friends were murdered while I was in America, some of them right in front of my eyes.... "
The paradox of American Pictures is how forcibly one's attention is drawn from the conditions photographed to the condition of the photographer. And while it would be unjust to accuse Holdt of exploiting his subjects, he certainly offers no insight into how he appeared in the context of their lives. In the film's most shocking episode, a house Holdt lives in gets fire-bombed and the brother of the woman with whom he's living gets killed. Throughout, Holdt has stressed the dangers to his own life, but when his presence is responsible for the death of someone else, he passes over the event in virtual silence.
Did Holdt imagine himself Terence Stamp in Teorama? One of American Pictures's more intriguing subtexts is its erotic fascination. Near the film's end, Holdt shows us that he has been a witness to various sex scenes, cross-cutting a white couple in a motel with a black couple in a shack. "As a vagabond, you constantly meet lonesome people," the photographer told Tuchman, explaining that "in America, people, both men and women, are very aggressive sexually" and that this determined many of the relationships he formed. "When you travel on the road like that, you're constantly abused sexually by many of those lonesome people. But I always just had the philosophy of saying yes to everything that came around.... The key behind many of the pictures that I had in the film is the 'yes' philosophy. It's the greatest freedom I know, to throw yourself into the arms of everyone you meet on the road."
That Holdt keeps invoking (and evidently takes literally) the notion of "love and trust in society" is part of American Pictures's hippieness -- if one can distance oneself enough from the material to make an aesthetic judgment, the film is a hippie masterpiece -- as well as its obsolescence. Still, with the gap between America's rich and poor continuing to grow, American Pictures is far more pertinent than it is dated.
As obscene as the misery Holdt documents is the splendor of the wealthy
whose homes he also visited. The juxtaposition of the two shocked and fascinated
him, fueling his moral fury, and it's what makes American Pictures so powerful
a hot and cold shower. America's preferred watching may well be the self-congratulatory
TV shlockumentary "Life Styles of the Rich and Famous", but the mirror
is cracked and incomplete without Holdt's appalling life styles of the
destitute and denied."