After a nearly ten-year sojourn from the States, U.S.-born filmmaker Robert Kramer came back in 1987 with actor Paul McIsaac to create what one might call a semi-fictional documentary. With McIsaac embodying "Doc," a created friend of Kramer who, in this film's story, had been working in the Third World while Kramer himself was based in Paris, Kramer set out on a trek to rediscover America, as it were. Rather than take off from where their ship came in—New York City—they head north, the better to traveling down the film's eponymous highway from the top of Maine to the Florida Keys. At first the duo's mission seems to be merely to make a film—"We're going back, not going home," Kramer announces early on—but as Doc's character comes to the fore, and perhaps Kramer's own aims change, Doc begins to actively seek a place and a job in the country he once called, yes, home.
The over-four-hour film takes its sweet time going from town to town, and never manages to define itself, which is part of what makes it so fascinating. Enthusiasm for the land is first evinced in ecstatic shots of logging in Maine and Doc's exuberant readings from Whitman's Leaves of Grass. But the tone turns sour quickly enough. A forester shows the filmmaker some pretty nasty examples of tree rot. Doc visits an old-timey bingo game and observes of the elderly players and their sense of community, "It makes me feel warm, sort of, but it also makes me feel angry, 'cause it's all that people have."
Doc can't stop his musings even in the ostensibly relaxing and cleansing environment of the grooming ritual. As Kramer's camera lingers on church services wherein a pastor prays "We cry out to you, father, we cry out to you for those women..." and on sad abortion protestors standing mutely outside of a homey-looking clinic, an atmosphere of oppressive gloom builds and builds.
The filmmakers visit a rally for the presidential campaign of, yes, Pat Robertson, his late 1980s self sleeker and slicker than the deranged-folksy manifestation that unfortunately haunts our cable television today. And we hear the persistent moan of the convinced culture warrior; a Robertson booster provides a history "lesson" which is not only still being propagated today but which has become even more elaborate: "Around 1970 we started wanting too much...soon we were caring so much about ourselves that the country started to dissolve from the inside...from its heart."
Perhaps you've heard of a new film called Generation Zero, which posits the actual reason for the United States' current economic free fall as...those damn kids who went to Woodstock and gratified themselves, rather than, you know, corporate greed and mismanagement. And yes, the Robertsonians in this picture also seem to have this weird obsession with, and misunderstanding of the various philosophies of, the "Founding Fathers" that we see currently animating certain political classes today.
Observing all this, Doc paces and smokes and speaks to the camera: "Everything's different and nothing's changed. The Civil War's still going on. I'm pacing around like I'm still in jail."
By this point in the film, Kramer and McIsaac have yet to cross the Mason-Dixon line!
This visionary and often beautiful film gets a mixed treatment in this three-disc Region 2 PAL set from the French label Editions Montparnasse. The transfer looks pretty solid, but it isn't anamorphically enhanced; rather, it's a letterboxed 4 x 3 image. On the other hand, the third disc is a nice extra: a CD of music from the film's soundtrack, featuring the great jazz improvisors Barre Phillips (bass; he also produced the sessions) and John Surman (sax); they are joined by the late pianist Michel Petrucciani (who acquits himself nicely in this context, which I had never heard him in before), drummer Pierre Favre, and, according to the notes, another pianist, Floris Nico Bunink.
The film is in English with removable French subtitles, but all the notes, of which there aren't many, are in French.