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  • Writer's pictureMiles Stephenson

The United States of America (1975), Bette Gordon & James Benning [3.5/5]

Updated: Sep 20, 2022

Gordon and Benning’s The United States of America is an intriguing time capsule of 70s America and a proper introduction to structuralist film. It follows two travelers in a car as they listen to the radio, pass billboards, and marvel at the cattle in "flyover country" from New York City to LA. There's no dialogue nor interaction; we soon get the sense that we're not really watching "characters" or even documentary subjects as much as we are being invited into a sort of cinematic equivalent of John Cage's slice of life moments. The cinéma vérité images pair so well with the opening of French sociologist Jean Baudrillard’s America (1986) that I suspect he must have been watching this while writing his book of philosopher poetry:

“Nostalgia born of the immensity of the Texan hills and the sierras of New Mexico: gliding down the freeway, smash hits on the Chrysler stereo, heat wave. Snapshots aren’t enough. We’d need the whole film of the trip in real time, including the unbearable heat and the music. We’d have to replay it all from end to end at home in a darkened room, rediscover the magic of the freeways and the distance and the ice-cold alcohol in the desert and the speed and live it all again on video at home in real time, not simply for the pleasure of remembering but because the fascination of senseless repetition is already present in the abstraction of the journey. The unfolding of the desert is infinitely close to the timelessness of the film…” (1). Not only do these passages match the film visually and thematically, but they also tease out the same structuralist analysis of American culture in an age dominated by media communications and "hyperreality."

And later: “I went in search of astral America, not social and cultural America, but the America of the empty, the absolute freedom of the freeways, not the deep America of mores and mentalities, but the America of desert speed, of motels and mineral surfaces” (5). “And, in this sense, the latest fast-food outlet, the most banal suburb, the blandest of giant Americans cars or the most insignificant cartoon-strip majorette is more at the center of the world than any of the cultural manifestations of old Europe. This is the only country which gives you the opportunity to be so brutally naive: things, faces, skies, and deserts are expected to be simply what they are. This is the land of the ‘just as it is’” (28).

I love Baudrillard's work; I think his approach of critical theory analysis into concepts like simulation are more compelling and interesting than Gordon and Benning's vérité style. If exploring those same ideas visually does interest you, perhaps they are a good start before moving onto filmmakers like Stan Brakhage.

3.5/5 stars, it's certainly not for everyone, but can be an interesting framework for thinking about cultural life in the American 20th Century

Miles Stephenson

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