Armed with the phone numbers of a few dozen well-known people and two video cameras, fledgling filmmakers Shainee Gabel and Kristin Hahn hit the road to check the pulse of the American dream. While their findings are hardly revelatory, their journey is enjoyable and even sporadically
inspiring, largely because of their tenacity and the beauty of the territory they traverse.
Los Angeles residents Gabel and Hahn criss-cross the continental US, talking with a strange mix of familiar and not-so-familiar names in politics and the arts. They also chat with a few regular folks they met along the way, quelling the film's dominant irony: most of the subjects they've chosen
to speak to about the American dream have fully attained it. A false start, in which a meeting with Clinton advisor George Stephanopoulos in Washington is curtailed by a summons from the President, sets the light-hearted tone with which the filmmakers approach their subject. They seem up to the
challenge, equal even to the rigors of living for several months out of motel rooms and on fast food.
Some interviewees fear for our future. Wes Jackson of The Land Institute in Kansas expresses environmental concerns, and writer Studs Terkel laments the "national Alzheimer's disease" that distorts our historical experiences as a nation. John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Freedom
Foundation and a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, speaks out for free expression in cyberspace. Rap artist Chuck D bristles at a culture where African-American athletes and musicians are revered, while those who make a difference in other arenas remain unknown. A young gas station attendant berates
his peers for giving up on the American dream and turning to drugs, while he works two jobs and seeks an education.
Other interview subjects challenge the conventional notion of what actually constitutes the "American Dream": Michael Stipe of the rock group R.E.M. suggests that it was once to be found in canned peas and corn, while filmmaker John Waters, from his home in Baltimore, claims to have attained his
version by acquiring his own photocopier and a black Buick.
If these disparate comments don't add up to much, it may be the fault of Gabel and Hahn's seat-of-the-pants strategy. With few appointments confirmed at the onset, their interviews suffer from a trying sameness, leading to a series of missed opportunities. A trip to Seattle yields only a
nonsensical remark by former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic; a too-prolonged encounter with the evasive writer Hunter S. Thompson adds little. Some rather obvious remarks by Geraldine Ferraro, regarding the unlikelihood of electing a woman president as long as there are so few women in Congress,
underscore the scarcity of female voices here, other than the filmmakers themselves. And when Gabel and Hahn return to the capital to meet George McGovern, one of the very few political figures (besides the Founding Fathers) cited as a hero by other interviewees, they barely scratch the surface of
his views on recent American history.
Gabel and Hahn's persistence is often a joy to watch even if, in the end, all they suceed in is covering thousands of miles and rubbing shoulders with celebrities. Their hand-held cameras, often jittery and indecisive during interviews, capture striking images of the interior American landscape.
Unfortunately, though, Gabel and Hahn seem reluctant to leave the road, perhaps believing that their filmmaking process would far outshine the product. Thus, the film's conclusion is a dragged-out recap of their journey. Though an advance from Avon for a book about their experiences bumped their
budget from a borrowed $50,000 covering production costs to $300,000, spent mostly on post-production, ANTHEM could surely have benefitted from more ruthless editing.
While ANTHEM may not offer any genuine insight into the future of America, Gabel and Hahn at least prove that the can-do spirit has not been completely lost to cynicism and the cult of celebrity--it can at least be found in young documentary filmmakers on a mission. (Profanity.)
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- Released: 1997
- Rating: NR
- Review: Armed with the phone numbers of a few dozen well-known people and two video cameras, fledgling filmmakers Shainee Gabel and Kristin Hahn hit the road to check the pulse of the American dream. While their findings are hardly revelatory, their journey is enj… (more)