Written by Elizabeth Maskasky for THE ARTISTS FORUM MAGAZINE
Edited by Amos White V for THE ARTISTS FORUM, INC
Photos: Courtesy of Paul Blackthorne
5 out of 5 stars
PAUL BLACKTHORNE: AMERICAN CROSSROADS
NEW YORK, NY (September 14, 2010) Ever since the publication of On the Road almost exactly a half century ago, the cross-country road trip has come to embody a quintessentially American experience –particularly relevant in those moments when the country feels more fractured and unrecognizable than ever before.
What better time, then, to take to the road in an effort to probe the current state of our national collective consciousness than in post-election America? (And no, I am not talking about post-Scott Brown America.) Films and narratives recording cross-country road trips were not only inevitable, but, at least in the case of American Crossroads, both relevant and revelatory in the months between President Obama’s historic election and inauguration.
Directed by British actor Paul Blackthorne (24, The Dresden Files, Burn Notice, Lipstick Jungle, The Gates, White Collar) and written and produced by Blackthorne, T. Woody Richman (Capitalism: A Love Story, Trouble the Water, Bowling for Columbine), and Mister Basqaili (Australian photographer and proprietor of Smooch Café in Brooklyn), American Crossroads documents a search for “bodhi” (enlightenment) that begins in Manhattan, and traverses the Northeast, Deep South, and Midwest, finally ending in California.
The film offers a complex picture of 2008’s hyper-self-conscious electorate, a population that was swelling with positive feelings of hope and change almost in spite of itself, proving once again that even amid an apocalyptic atmosphere created by the brewing threats of climate change, economic collapse, the disappearance of the American middle class, and the longest war in US history, Americans do not easily give in to cynicism.
We are frequently reminded at the beginning of the film of the fact that we are watching a documentary that is being recorded and produced by a small team of artists and actors, at least one of whom is not normally in the business of making documentaries.
At one point in the film, when Blackthorne and Basqaili meet on a New York sidewalk— a moment that in fact serves as the starting point of their journey— both men hesitate and look at the camera in confusion, wondering if it’s supposed to be rolling. “Is this it?” one of the men asks, as if he can’t quite believe three men, a camera, and a boom mike are all it takes to create a documentary.
The filmmakers’ first several attempts to interview ordinary Americans on the streets of New York, on the Staten Island Ferry, and in grocery stores, often back-fire as people are reluctant to share their political beliefs in the presence of a camera (ironically one of the few New Yorkers willing to take part in the project is a rather unapologetic Wall Street insider).
Fortunately, either Blackthorne and Basqaili’s interview skills or the eloquence of their interviewees improve dramatically as they leave the city and are able to have more intimate and lengthy encounters with their subjects than what is possible on a Manhattan sidewalk.
Their subjects range from a preacher to a Ronald McDonald impersonator and express a wide range of concerns about the present state of the country, including Americans’ inadequate access to health care; the lack of urgency in our government’s response to climate change; and, of course, the ever-ubiquitous Wal-Mart and it’s impact on small businesses. The film also takes a detour through American history when Blackthorne and Basqaili pass through Montgomery, Alabama and speak to participants of the civil rights protests about their experiences in the context of the recent election.
It is the intimacy and depth of these interviews that carry the film and ultimately make it a successful appeal on behalf of national unity and change on both the personal and collective levels. Although there are several moments of humor at the expense of the film’s subjects— such as the gift shop worker at the country’s largest Stations of the Cross monument who is blind to the irony of her insistence that the site preferences no single religion— the film remains a call for empathy and, above all, a call to look deeper than appearances.
We are shocked to hear, upon approaching the man wearing the NRA cap at a gun sale, the film’s most sincere and urgent petition for sweeping changes to America’s energy policy, just as we are surprised by the southern cowboy preacher’s call for religious tolerance. The idea is ultimately that if the nation is undergoing a radical change at the moment, it isn’t something that can be registered via polls and by pundits alone. Clearly, not all Americans can be fragmented and categorized into the recognizable political labels that are used so freely by our pundits and politicians.
At the end of the day, American Crossroads is a film that follows in the tradition of American travel stories like On the Road, Easy Rider, and Travels with Charley, in that America continues to defy expectations across the journey, endlessly eluding and fascinating the two filmmakers who also serve as the story’s protagonists.
Blackthorne and Basqaili manage to take a classic American plot (one could go as far as to say a formula even) that is not by any means new, and create a work that is surprisingly fresh, timely, and poignant. After all the disasters, the rapid-fire reactions to catastrophic events, and the terrifying urgency of the first eight years of the 21st century, it is also something of a relief to be allowed to dwell in the nostalgia, the romanticism, and the expansiveness of that great American drama, the road trip.
For more information about Paul Blackthorne, visit: instagram.com/paulblackthorne