Saturday, 6 June 2009
The sad news of David Carradine’s death led me to thinking about the film Americana, which he directed, starred in and sung the theme song for. It’s release date of 1983 belies its origins as a post 60s come down film reflecting the disillusionment of the Nixon era and the implosion of the counter culture. It was clearly a labour of love for Carradine, who started shooting it in 1973 and toiled for years in the cutting room, raising funds from his own work in tv and other films. It’s minimal budget is sometimes reflected in the editing and camerawork, which are a little rough around the edges. But the film has its own languorous rhythm which evokes the feeling of an endless summer, and a mythic sense of place which gives the film the universal state of the nation resonance suggested by the title. Carradine’s performance is monosyllabic and inexpressive in the manner of Clint Eastwood or Peter Fonda. It is the kind of performance which was prevalent at the time, in which saying and doing the absolute minimum was supposed to indicate profundity and contemplative depth. Actually, it often merely seemed to betoken an inability to communicate in an articulate manner. But Carradine’s performance does suggest a character ill at ease in the world, who forms relationships reluctantly and is happiest when alone.
The plot is a modern variant on the classic Western formula which was given mutant form in the 60s by Sergio Leone and his compatriots. A mysterious stranger drifts into a sleepy small town which is seemingly disconnected from the main currents of the world and happy to be so. The townsfolk show the traditional wariness of verging on outright hostility towards outsiders, particularly when they are as taciturn and unconcerned with everyday pleasantries as Carradine’s unnamed character. Carradine comes across the wreck of an old wooden carousel lying neglected in the middle of an unkempt meadow at the centre of town and becomes obsessed with restoring it to working order. The film follows his slow progress across a long hot summer, during which he sleeps out in the meadow and works on the carousel in the evening, paying his way and buying the necessary materials through working at the local garage with the initially friendly Mike. Carradine seems to follow pacifist ideals as he refuses to rise to the provocations of the local jocks and is appalled by the spectacle of the secret cock fight which Mike takes him to. His moral disgust at this world of macho violence turns Mike and most of the town against him and his project. He is beaten and his work on the carousel vandalised.
This is all witnessed by a strange girl who watches him from a distance, running away when he approaches and calls to her. This is Barbara Hershey, who generally appears and skipping and suddenly freezing mid-step like a startled faun against a daze of sunlight on lens. She is the personification of the hippy naïf, the girlish child of nature beloved of the era, and indeed of Carradine himself. He and Hershey, who changed her name to Seagull for a brief period, had a child together which they named Free, later Tom. Innocent and naive times. She is an outsider like him and lives on a farm at the edge of town, although little agricultural work seems to be done there. She is certainly not a part of the town’s social network and seems bereft of the power of speech for much of the film. The noissome jocks who torment Carradine have sex with her down by the river in a manner which Carradine, who is about to intervene, thinks is rape but proves to be otherwise. Her passivity is indicative of the secondary role women were largely granted in the 60s counterculture (and in the Beat culture which preceded it) ; far from the progressive alternative to ‘straight’ society which they purported to represent. They were perhaps less distant from their parents’ generation than they liked to imagine. Nevertheless, it is with her that Carradine’s character evidently feels an affinity and she provides a naively innocent perspective which counters the insular suspicion and distrust of the townspeople. It perhaps also symbolises a lost innocence, with the scene by the river being an Edenic echo of a time before the knowledge of shame. Hershey’s character is also an isolated aspect of the feminine as opposed to the aggressively male front which the town presents. She is the one who seems to intuitively understand the purpose behind his obsession which Carradine’s character is perhaps unable to articulate, for himself or for others. It is an initially spontaneous and then determinedly sustained act of creativity which maybe prompts her to reflect on the aimless drift of her life.
The ending of the film sees Carradine, now a pariah in the town, forced to take part in a dog fight by Mike in order to win the final part he needs for the completion of the carousel. Seemingly defeated, he retreats from the town, but this is only to return briefly to his former life and pick up some back pay he is owed. It is now we learn that he was a much awarded officer in Viet Nam who went AWOL and is a cause of concern to his former confederates. This is a puzzling turn of events. Does his time in the town have some metaphorical link with Viet Nam? Or is his embrace of pacifism a rejection of his former life and the vision of America which it embodied? The depiction of the military environment to which he briefly returns doesn’t seem to be portrayed from a critical perspective or with any irony. The film seems slightly confused on this point and this may indeed be a scene which was filmed later, possibly after the war was over and the benefit of a degree of hindsight had cooled the immediacy of the rage which burned in the 60s and early 70s. On his return, Carradine does reluctantly take up the challenge and fights an attack dog, which he kills with a fairly sickening crunch on the soundtrack. Is this an allusion to the figurative dogs of war, perhaps. He then carries the dog’s body to the carousel, which, with the final cog attached, is finally set spinning gently around. The dog becomes the first passenger. It acts as a sacrifice which serves to show the townspeople the darkness in their own souls. Carradine, of course, walks off down the road he’d first arrived by as the people start to climb onto the wooden horses which spin around to the sound of the calliope.
So what does it all mean? The carousel is obviously symbolic. It represents the sense of community and belonging which had been lost in the mistrust, paranoia and polarization of the Nixon years. Carradine’s character has left the war behind and his slow and patient repair of the archaic mechanism represents a return to older ideals. He is piecing together his own psyche and also the fractured nation itself. In the face of aggression and reflexive suspicion, he rebuilds the platform on which everyone can ride.