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Brain Dead in America

There are moviemakers, and there are people who have access to moviemaking equipment. The neophyte documentarians Shainee Gabel and Kristin Hahn fall into the latter group. In a benighted attempt to find "the American Dream," these innocents packed their cameras and their post-adolescent neuroses into a borrowed Saab and hit the road, hoping to shoot interviews with everyone from George Stephanopoulos to Ralph Reed to any half-crazed special pleader who would talk to them. Pretty romantic, huh?

The result is something called Anthem, a mishmash of talking heads and maddeningly disordered sound bites that says a lot less about the mindset of the country than it does about the mindlessness of the film's perpetrators. It's a good bet that interesting people have never said less fascinating things to more inept interviewers. Apparently, they asked the same two questions of everyone: Who were your influences? and What is the American Dream?

Count among the victims Chicago author Studs Terkel, singer Willie Nelson, Iowa waitress Dorothy Betts, a cyberspace cowboy from Wyoming named John Perry Barlow and a dozen others. Every interviewee seems vaguely bewildered (if not suspicious) by mid-interview, and in the film's final cut, no one gets a complete thought expressed before Gabel and Hahn yank their camera away and train it on themselves and their idiotic technical problems. "No-o-o," little Shainee whines to her partner. "Don't shoot my zits!" In the name of homemade charm, she then telephones her faraway boyfriend for the third time. On-camera.

At Sundance, Robert Redford does his best to accommodate the rank amateurs ("I think dreaming is vital...to the breath of life"). In Baltimore, John Waters wisely wises off ("The American Dream? A Xerox machine and a black Buick!"), and up in Woody Creek, the master illusionist Hunter Thompson lays on the kids his usual Hunter Thompson imitation--without them knowing it--for fourteen days. The fact that our brave travelers got out of there before winding up dismembered in a ditch is a pure miracle, and we give silent thanks.

But by the time Shainee brings her--yes--mother along for an interview with courtly George McGovern, you start wishing old Hunter had done his duty and put these poor creatures out of their misery.

So. How goes the search for America? "There's so much beauty in people and life," an eighteen-year-old gas-station attendant informs us. "If you sleep one day, who knows what you're gonna miss? 'Cause life is a big question."

Plenty of those going around, actually. Like: Why don't certain moviemakers try putting something inside their heads before putting film in the camera?

Alas. De Tocqueville, Kerouac, Steinbeck and his old dog Charlie must all be spinning in their graves.

--Gallo

Anthem.
Documentary directed by Shainee Gabel and Kristin Hahn.

 
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