American Pictures - reviews

September 6, 1984 New York Post 

Hitchhiker with a camera  
snaps 'Postcards from Hell' 




SEVERAL MILLION people in Europe have seen a movie about America that nobody in New York has yet seen -- until now. 
It is called American Pictures. It opened yesterday for a two- week run at the Film Forum. It consists for the most part of still photographs -- "postcards from hell," one viewer has called them -- along with a soundtrack commentary by the tall, blue-eyed, long-haired Dane who took the photographs. His name is Jacob Holdt. 

These are photos of what Michael Harrington once called "the other America" -- the America of the impoverished underclass, black and white. Jacob Holdt took them during 10 years, off and on, of hitchhiking the USA -- 116,000 miles, "four times around the world," living with more than 400 Americans or American families, sudden new friends, sometimes lovers, sometimes pimps, hustlers, petty criminals, black and white. Sometimes, even rich. 

"I still do it," he said here two mornings ago. "I love it." Happened this way: He started out, he says, as a young conservative -- -- "very conservative" -- the oldest son and seventh Jacob Holdt, born 1947, of a family in which the oldest sons are always ministers, Lutheran of course. 

"And I was interested in that too, but I was always sort of rebellious. Was kicked out of high school and kicked out of the Danish Army" -- he'd been guarding the King's palace -- "because I refused to shoot at a target shaped like a person. A soldier who can't shoot," said Holdt with a small smile, "is not a good soldier." 

Wound up working as a farmhand in Toronto for a year. Then thought he'd hitchhike to Latin America -- "just for adventure" -- this Danish kid whose image of the U.S. was of "a rosy-white middle-class country." 

His third day in San Francisco he was held up "by three black guys with sunglasses and guns pointed at me. They expressed such a hatred, such anger -- I wondered, where did it come from." 

In the next 10 years he would be held up four times more. "In three cases I ended up staying with the people who held me up -- once with junkies three blocks from the White House." His survival technique? "This," said Holdt. He tucked his long black braided beard into his shirt, then whipped it out. "Surprise," he said. "The minute you get them to laugh... " 

But there are not a bundle of laughs in American Pictures, a work -- for all its preachiness -- to put on the shelf somewhere next to the Let Us Now Praise Famous Men of Agee and Evans, the fierce exposes of American slums by Jacob Riis -- "who, I discovered a few years ago, was born 15 miles from my town and came to America almost 100 years to the date before me." 

Nineteen of the people Jacob Holdt has known in America are now dead, murdered. "Once in New Orleans I was playing pool with this guy; I turned around, and suddenly he'd killed another one." These were white. A black woman Holdt lived with for some weeks had her place burned down because of it; her brother died in the fire. Holdt's wife Annie Rush, a black woman from Philadelphia, Miss., grew up across the road from one of the 1964 KKK murderers of James Chancy, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. 

All through Holdt's travels "my grandmother would write me: "Now come home and start theology." When at last he did come home and the family went to see American Pictures, "it knocked her out. She died two days later. But she did come up to me and say: 'I think you're a minister in a different way.' " 

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