American Honey Andrea
Arnold (UK 2016) Sasha Lane, Riley
viewed Empire Cinema Newcastle, 25 Oct 2016; ticket: £3.75
Easy Rider was the first contemporary road movie I saw and I thought it was brilliant. It presented an America that was in a process of transformation; an America that was dark; an America that was being forged out of new socio economic relations; an America that could never return to the static 1950’s; an America investing in new restless consumption patterns. Driven by music that espoused a lyrical anarchism, Easy Rider took the viewer on a trip into an unfolding land where death and life were espoused in an eternal illusionary present of now.
Fuelled by sex and drugs Dennis Hopper’s 1969 movie foregrounded a country mired in the homicidal obscenity of Vietnam, where Nixon was the newly elected President. Politics of course didn’t play out in the movie, but Easy Rider felt like a response to the established order, a burst of automatic fire from a generation that was going to change America. Change not in any way necessarily for the better; but evenso, of necessity, change.
Easy Rider cruised through the projector gate in an easy 90 or so minutes. Easy Rider was of course a movie dominated by men. It was a man’s perspective, a man’s story, told from the back of the hog. The women were for leisure when the guys stepped off their bikes.
2016 sees Andrea Arnold’s American Honey. Fifty years later and a road movie shot from a woman director’s perspective with a female protagonist (Star). It’s another world: one that takes 163 minutes to view.
No where to nowhere. Star leaves a space which looks a little like the kind of nowhere depicted by Kimberley Pierce’s Boys Don’t Cry. A land of the forgotten, the subculture of bluecollar leisure. Trumpland almost certainly, a collection of clapboard homes close by the highway stop with a bar and motel. Star leaves this behind, in the best American tradition, to get on the bus. Whereas Kesey’s bus was going somewhere if only on a mashed up journey to travel to the limits of hallucinogenic experience, this bus goes nowhere, its destination is money making for Crystal, gang mistress who runs the show.
Arnold’s bus seems a little retro. Even with the hard edge soundtrack the bus seems caught in a 90’s bubble, with none of the kids on board (everyone is college age) being caught up in iPhone babble stream. The which today seems unlikely. Recruited onto the bus to be part of an fake student itinerant magazine selling racket, the kids party hard on and off the road. But partying is little more than high school jinx and capers. And American Honey is a lot tamer than many other American films featuring teenagers let loose on the world: the kids like alcohol (lots) tattoos drugs (lots) hard music hard cocks and plenty of sex. The point about the sex is that it is about status rather than sensuality or emotion, though in the American Honey script, Star is a little confused about this.
American Honey lacks oppositions. Or the oppositions in Arnold’s script are left hanging without development. Nothing really happens, except that Star gets a little wiser about life as she understands that Jake fucks just to notch up conquests. In this respect there are two mildly graphic sex scenes which though quite noisy are planted just to make this point. Star takes risks in going off alone with men, but nothing of consequence happens; she sells magazines using her innocent kid sex appeal rather than the brutality of deceptive blackmail employed by Jake. The bus is a peculiar world where nothing happens that means anything. Perhaps a little like the world of America.
And yet there were elements, oppositional elements that Arnold worked into the bus trip scripting that were surprising and powerful but never allowed developmental weight. Most strongly there is Arnold’s fascination with the power of fire and fireworks – explosive devices – that flicker to life in the movie, that are graphically suggestive of another agitated reality pushing up under the surface of life on the bus. There are three sequences where the bus kids coalesce as a group into playing out primitive deranged fire rituals. These moments impress as a sort a revisioning of Lord of the Flies, an archaic priapic energy takes over the group: against the fire the young kid powerfully swings his cock opening up the doors of a suppressed and denied vitality in life. But the potential and power of these sections never links into the thematic body of the film. They remain bracketed off from the body of the movie, lost off as curiosities.
I felt this raw primitivism should have been the force shaping Arnold’s film. Instead of a communal energy forging content, it is Star’s individual perception around which the material is moulded; and her character struggles to carry the film which after two hours is already overlong. Her default close up mode, of which there are many is a sort of pretty half smile, a mode which quickly becomes tiresome. She skirts the embrace of the group, gets taken by Jake and does a lot of observing. In particular retreating into her own world of insect vision, where Arnold’s camera lingers over various insect shots, the presumed point of view of Star. But these shots although announcing themselves as having some kind of importance are curiously removed from Star’s being. As is the last shot, in which Star wades thigh deep into the waters of a lake. So Arnold ends her film with a primeval ur-gesture from her protagonist. Star’s watery embrace of the natural world, a gesture of immersion into another reality, but by the end of the film, too late to be connected to what has gone before.
American Honey communicates as a anodyne experience. Without oppositions it drifts inconsequentially from one event to another, one situation to another, evincing a feeling that Arnold either has no control over what she is doing or that she is uncomfortable with developing the logic of the forces she sets in play; rather she sets out to compromise them. Arnold’s hand held camera, communicates a consuming agitation a mood of restlessness. But without content to match the shaky image, the camera work simply looks like a device for making the film easy to cut. It is possible that some contemporary women filmmakers feel constrained to work under an implicit ideological subtext of feminism. Feminism in this sense is a sort of fuzzy ideological nexus of ideas that embraces propositions such as the equality of genders, the endorsement of women’s power and a demand for respect for women. The problem is that film making that is ideologically driven is usually uninteresting and dull, in that nothing develops fully unless through ideologically appropriate means and ends. The danger of implicit ideologies in relation to creative work is that they engender (sic) an almost unconscious self censorship, so that certain thoughts, certain ideas are either not persued or if developed are appropriately constrained to conform in alignment with an ideological coherence. Film becomes a dynamic of justifiable logic rather than of truth content as the logic of ideologies frees the film maker from the messiness of life. For women directors today as for directors in the Soviet Union the issue is that their work is vulnerable to being affected by their own internally driven censorship mechanisms, so that certain types of ideas or propositions that may be an inherent part of their material, are denied or glossed over. I don’t know if Andrea Arnold’s work is built on a feminist substrate, but the hesitant and unconvincing nature of American Honey, felt as if she was working with an existential Other informing her perception. Adrin Neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org