It seems fitting that a foreigner, Frenchman Philippe Séclier, would retrace photographer Robert Frank's path. After receiving a Guggenheim fellowship in May 1955, Frank set off on a cross-country journey, his lens capturing the outsider's perspective of an immigrant who had arrived only eight years earlier from Switzerland. After more than a year of traveling, Frank winnowed down 767 rolls of film to a select 83 images, which became the book that remains, 50 years later, his most famous work: The Americans. Séclier attempts to both revisit and re-imagine Frank's America, driving across the country with only a digital video camera and his foreign eyes. An American Journey gives Frank's photographs a new context while making very subtle commentary on America today.
The film begins with an image instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever been on a road trip: the highway at night. In shots slightly out of focus and askew, we see headlights pass and hear the sound of the tires cruising over smooth pavement. Séclier's first stop is Houston, Texas, where he views the original maquette for The Americans. Anne Tucker, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, pages through the images, and Séclier's camera hovers nearby. This becomes a familiar angle throughout the film -- Séclier standing just far enough away to keep us leaning toward the screen. It's both frustrating and clever. Frank's images are well known and focusing too intently on them would be tedious. But there are moments when we wish his camera would linger.
One of those moments takes place in Butte, Montana, where Frank took a photo from his hotel room, the lace curtains framing the then-booming steel town. Half a century later, room 612 at the Finlen Hotel overlooks a senescent city. Or so it seems. We're not quite sure because Séclier's camera skips past the window, instead bouncing back and forth between the hotel's owner, Frank Taras, and a copy of The Americans. Butte is there, just out of frame, but we don't get the satisfaction of comparing Frank's view and our own.
Séclier is a diligent disciple, traveling from Houston to Hoboken, Michigan to South Carolina. Whereas Frank's lens peered into individual faces, Séclier's video camera adds the distinct sounds of each place: crickets at dusk in South Carolina, the crackle of rain on a windshield during a long cross-country drive. The choice to use digital video was intentional, a nod to Frank's simple setup: only a 35 mm Leica. But the digital video aesthetic sometimes looks amateur without nostalgia's gloss.
When Séclier arrives in the South, the movie shifts towards critique. In November of 1955, Frank was pulled over and arrested in McGehee, Arkansas. He wasn't speeding or driving drunk, but simply out of place. Séclier questions McGehee's current Chief of Police, Jim White, about this incident; White says he hopes that something like that wouldn't happen today. But, he continues in a lighthearted way, after 9/11, "We tend to be of a suspicious nature." Interspersed with the footage of their conversation, we see a shot of the Statue of Liberty holding a giant cross in place of her torch. We don't know where this statue is, but the implication is that it's nearby, a symbol of the town's psychological landscape.
Photography historian Stuart Alexander discusses the initial critical reception of The Americans. In post-war America, while the country was booming and patriotism filled our collective spirit, some foreigner had dared to focus on our racial and class inequality. People were put off by the implication that these photos were "all" Americans, feeling that the title should have indicated Frank's subjectivity. "Some Americans" was suggested.
As Alexander's interview concludes, we see the camera passing over political yard signs, stacked five and six deep. Then we are at a religious rally, the camera swooping back and forth around a man wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words "Trust Jesus," who asks us if we have accepted the lord as our savior. We may be strong, Séclier seems to be saying, but we are also divided. Just as Frank's camera revealed institutional prejudice, Séclier shines a brief and not-too-bright light on what he sees as the contemporary equivalent.
After a final stop in Detroit, Séclier ends An American Journey at an exhibit of The Americans in Pinyao, China. He follows a young Chinese woman wearing a fire engine-red cowboy hat. In a voiceover, Séclier says that, despite America's weaknesses, Frank must have loved the country -- after all, he made it his home. He could have asked Frank, as the 84-year-old photographer still lives in New York. But the film isn't really about Frank. It's about Séclier's understanding of America and the photographer who saw it over half a century ago. The Chinese woman moves from image to image, and Séclier contemplates Frank's decision to stay in America. It's as if, he tells us, America invited Frank in after seeing his photographs. "You've seen the real pain, the real loneliness. Okay, you can be one of us."