The pursuit of happiness. That’s what Louis Schwartzberg, a stock cinematographer who took a break from shooting landscape and cityscape footage for Hollywood movies to roam the country collecting the two dozen portraits that make up America’s Heart and Soul, has captured.
The point here is not to try to compile anything like a representative portrait or cross-section of American life, if such a thing were even possible. Schwartzberg isn’t interested in trends, demographics, pop culture, the job market, health insurance, the media, or politics.
There are, of course, those who insist on reducing everything to politics, on finding political agendas everywhere. In this election year, with America’s Heart and Soul opening one week after That Other America-Themed Quasi-Documentary (and being distributed by Disney, which refused to distribute Fahrenheit 9/11 through subsidiary Miramax), critics and pundits on both sides of the political aisle will be ready with glib connections and contrasts. Proponents will praise Schwartzberg’s film as the anti-Fahrenheit 9/11, while detractors will hurl terms like "jingoistic" and treat it as the equivalent of a reelection commercial for George W. Bush.
How sad. Sad that such acts as wrangling horses, delivering messages via bicycle, performing gymnastics on a cliff wall, or for that matter photographing people doing such things should be claimed as a political act. The fact is, apart from a brief lament by an American steel worker, America’s Heart and Soul is one of the least political documentary-type films (barring nature documentaries) I’ve ever seen. There’s virtually nothing in this uplifting film to warrant such terms as liberal or conservative, isolationist or interventionist, jingoistic or America-bashing.
The term "patriotic" might apply, in the sense that the film celebrates American freedom and the unexpected myriad of ways Americans find to enjoy it — but not in any sense that need be felt to detract from other countries. The best adjective, though, would be simply "human." America’s Heart and Soul is a tribute to the endless diversity of ways in which human nature will engage in the pursuit of happiness, as long as there is life and the liberty to do so.
In America, liberty includes the freedom to be kooky if you want to. In the remote mountain town of Creede, Colorado, a self-described "explosive artist" fends off monotony and cabin fever by entertaining his neighbors with such stunts as stacking old TV sets a dozen feet high and then rolling a flaming bowling ball into them, or loading a cannon with canned hams and then shooting them through a gauntlet of knives into waiting bread and condiments, with edible results. In California, aging hippies deck out their cars with mountains of the most hideous bric-a-brac imaginable, until the cars become psychedelic floats in a parade of bad taste.
Liberty also includes the freedom for remarkable heroism. In Texas, septugenarian Ace Barns continues his five-decade career as an oil-rig firefighter — a calling he’s pursued ever since, working as an oil rigger himself, he was burned in an explosion that killed his partner. In Chicago, ex-con Michael Bennett turned his life around after a seven-year prison stint, becoming captain of the U.S. Olympic boxing team and mentoring youth at a local gym. "Stay in school, keep God first," he writes when signing autographs.
Is America a melting pot of blending and merging cultures, or a tapestry in which each culture retains its own identity? Both principles seem to be at work in America’s Heart and Soul.
Two of Schwartzberg’s subjects are leading figures in a revival of a different musical folk tradition. Marc Savoy, a sixth-generation rural Louisiana resident who builds accordions by hand, is a prominent crusader in a revival of traditional Cajun music, and New York-based Jewish clarinetist David Krakauer has spearheaded a renaissance of a Jewish folk music tradition called klezmer, a joyful, mercurial style with roots in eastern European folk that was nearly snuffed out in the Holocaust.
Savoy and his wife Ann are Cajun purists, but Krakauer plays a brand of klezmer inflected with R&B, jazz, and other styles, and he cites artists ranging from Jimi Hendrix to James Brown to Louis Armstrong as influences. "Tradition always has to be living, always has to be ongoing," Krakauer says. "So the way I play klezmer music really blends a lot with the traditions that I’ve grown up with."
Similarly, on the opposite coast from Krakauer, the Vazquez family salsa dancers, four siblings from a Catholic family of twelve who are making a mark on the salsa world with their flashy, provocative style, claim Hollywood hoofers Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire among their inspirations.
For a film that isn’t specifically about music, America’s Heart and Soul finds a surprising number of its subjects involved in it. Whatever the reason, it’s gratifying to see Americans making their own music, not just downloading iTunes or listening to Top 40.
The most entertaining of Schwartzberg’s musical subjects are also the least professional. Brothers Dave and Frank Pino of small-town Waltham, Massachusetts play in a local rock band named after the town, and self-deprecatingly mock their own would-be rock-star status while holding down blue-collar jobs. Though they play hard rock, they say, their dream is to do heavy metal, only "we’re just not that tough." In hilarious interviews, Dave gives a whirlwind tour of the car wash he works at but knows very little about, and Frank practices expressions in the rear-view mirror of the truck he drives.
Other subjects are engaged in athletic pursuits, from a blind mountain climber who has climbed the world’s highest mountains, to a troupe of athletes who rappel up cliff faces to perform choreographed gymnastic routines that look strangely like dancing in low gravity, to two brothers in Boston who compete in the Boston marathon, one pushing his quadriplegic brother in a wheelchair. Still others are in a class by themselves, from Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s to an American Indian elder who nurses injured eagles back to health and releases them.
So many stories, so little time. With only a few minutes to devote to each subject, Schwartzberg creates a series of moving snapshots, not exploring any one individual or way of life in any real depth. There are no hard questions here, no probing for deeper answers or larger issues. Though documentary in form, America’s Heart and Soul isn’t really a documentary per se, but a celebration of the diversity of our aspirations.
Curiously, while four or five segments deal with fraternal bonds, only one features a married couple (the Savoys) or a filial relationship (dairy farmer Woodard and his son). Also, only two subjects are expressly involved in religious organizations: an elderly black woman who sings in a gospel choir, and a black pastor of a social-gospel type church who proclaims, "We should stop trying to get folks to go to heaven or hell, and get folks to live with each other here in the earth right now." A couple of mentions of reincarnation are the film’s only other signs of spirituality. It’s a pretty flaky picture of faith in America (not that the reality isn’t flaky too, but still).
That said, America’s Heart and Soul isn’t about how people generally live, or how they should live, but about the freedom to live as one chooses. Consistently engaging, at turns fascinating, touching, and inspiring, it’s a rare feel-good crowd-pleaser that isn’t a contrived fantasy. Like last year’s Spellbound, it shows us people of all types and backgrounds, some of who may at times be a bit wack, but who for the most part win our interest and sympathy.
Given Schwartzberg’s stock in trade, it’s not surprising that the film is visually stunning. The purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain are on display in their full magnificence, along with the steel and concrete canyons of New York and other locations. America’s Heart and Soul is well worth seeking out on the big screen, even for people who don’t often go to the movies. It’s a film you can take your parents to, and that older kids should appreciate as well.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.