“Away We Go” is hitting the UK, and the London Times‘ Kate Muir points out the weirdness of director Sam Mendes — a native of Reading — setting himself up to be the premiere chronicler of the “American Dream.”
Muir cites the scolding given the film by New York Times critic A.O. Scott, who castigates Mendes as “a literary tourist from Britain who has missed the point every time he has crossed the ocean”: “The vague, secondhand ideas about the blight of the suburbs that sloshed around ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Revolutionary Road’ are now complemented by an equally incoherent set of notions about the open road, the pioneer spirit, the idealism of youth.”
Not everyone would agree; no less an American sage than Bill Clinton loved “American Beauty” (“an amazing film”). But it’s true that notions of America as an endless open road stretching out to a Woody Guthrie soundtrack (or alternately, as a disheartening series of strip malls and chain stores, apparently the only antidote) are perpetual and annoying. The road trip, the endless possibilities — none of them make much sense to the way anyone I know lives. The truth, as always, is neither that romantic not that dystopian.
One thing that “Away We Go” relishes that can’t be done in England is, as Muir writes, “selecting a city to match your character: becoming an ironic New Yorker, a New Age San Franciscan, a lesbian in Provincetown, a lush in New Orleans.” It’s not an idea that’s very Hollywood, either — big-budget studio films tend to show a shocking lack of regional specificity, with Toronto standing as a generic metropolis, New Zealand turning out to be a perfectly acceptable place to shoot the suburbs, and New York/LA representing most of America, apparently.
The places we’re really dedicated to shooting in are the burn-outs and leftovers. The city that’s gotten the most play in recent years, oddly enough, is post-Katrina New Orleans, thanks to a series of tax breaks put in place. Movies like “Deja Vu” and “12 Rounds” have grounded themselves in an admittedly iconic city. “Gran Torino” eulogized Detroit; “The Wire” anatomized Baltimore’s decay. Hollywood’s lack of regional care is due to financial considerations rather than deliberate indifference, but it’s still weird: why do we only film our blights and our generic stand-ins? As someone who left Austin five years ago and pretty much miss it every day, even a lousy movie like “Spy Kids” gives me a little thrill when I recognize familiar streets. Every American region deserves that thrill, really.
[Photo: “Away We Go,” Focus Features, 2009]