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The Conversation: Drew Morton and Landon Palmer Discuss Louis Malle’s American Documentaries

The Conversation: Drew Morton and Landon Palmer Discuss Louis Malle’s American Documentaries

The Conversation is a feature at PopOptiq bringing together Drew Morton and Landon Palmer in a passionate debate about cinema new and old. For their fifteenth piece, they discuss two documentaries Louis Malle made about the American experience during the 1980s that potentially offer some insight into the issues plaguing this crazy campaign season.


Between the late-1970s and mid-1980s, the ever-versatile French filmmaker Louis Malle made two journeys across the United States to produce documentaries on the American experience intended to air on public television: God’s Country (1985), an observation of a rural Minnesota farming community before and after its Reagan-era economic downturn, and And the Pursuit of Happiness (1986), which examines the varied and shared experiences of recent immigrants across the nation.

Just as these films are far from the most celebrated or widely-known titles on Malle’s notably diverse oeuvre, so too do they cease to fit in a neatly defined cross-section of documentary history. Though the mobile camera suggests an adaptable technique akin to 1960s Direct Cinema, Malle is too upfront with his subjects to have his work comparable to the observational techniques of Pennebaker or the Maysles brothers. His interest in the specificities of American life and character recall Errol Morris’s late 70s/early 80s films, but Malle is far less interested than Morris in searching the dark eccentricities of regionally specific Americana. Perhaps Malle’s work here is closest to the ethnographic pursuits of French and French Canadian cinema vérité – best exemplified by Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961) – as Malle wields the camera akin to one of his contemporary cinematic ethnographers, probing his subjects with deceivingly unpretentious yet disarmingly earnest queries whose equally modest responses reveal much more than they initially seem, as occurs with one young farmer pondering in between long pauses in his attempt to answer Malle’s question of why there are “no Blacks” in the homogenous German-American community of Glencoe, MN in God’s Country.

As such, and despite the fact that Malle reportedly made these two documentaries for PBS, And the Pursuit of Happiness and (especially) God’s Country find Malle taking full advantage of his “outsider” status. Despite that Malle had resided in the United States for some time when he initiated these projects, the director is audible off-screen playing the deliberate role of the outsider European respectfully inquiring into the lives of the communities through which he traverses. Thus, despite the domestic audience implicit in these projects’ structure, Malle approaches the American experience as if he were reporting back home, detailing the customs he witnesses to an audience that might not see familiar sights onscreen. In the case of God’s Country, this technique allows the residents of Glencoe to divulge frankly into their lives, perspectives, and customs. Malle understands that the presence of himself, his equipment, and his crew changes the setting, so he instead amplifies his presence in service of inquiry rather than hides it in pursuit of some misguided notion of removed objectivity, such as when Malle’s camera spots a couple passionately dancing at a polka club who abruptly stop once they realize they’re on camera, only to be interviewed a moment later.

In And the Pursuit of Happiness, Malle plays the role of the outsider in order to inspire subjects to candidly explain their particular experiences of an America they have come to recently call home, opening with Malle asking a Texan transplant from Romania about Americans’ treatment of recent immigrants and the poor. Malle treats all of his subjects’ responses at face value, never challenging them or calling them into question; it seems he is interested as much in how his subjects speak of their experience as the content of their responses, drawing conclusions in his voice-over narration through an aggregate understanding of life shared among people. Thus, Malle’s voice-over operates in a dance with his diegetic persona, playing the part of the inquisitive outsider and reporting back from a position of knowledge gleaned from the benefit of the final product of his investigation. These two at-times shaggily constructed films are thus simultaneously process and product, both a completed report a glimpse into selected accounts of Malle’s travelogue.

Of the two films, God’s Country is ultimately the more thesis-driven, as its tragic flash-forward to the mid-1980s comes across on first viewing as a hastily assembled third act rather than a continuation of a protracted project. However, the insightful details that Malle accumulates in God’s Country build to an incredible precipice of empathy. Viewed this way, the film’s flash-forward to an economically deprived community sidelined by the country’s maneuver into a hypercompetitive, under-regulated, and rapidly changing economy brings with it an incredible blunt force even as the third act does not benefit from the patience and duration Malle exercises throughout the majority of the film. However, such structuring should not suggest God’s Country to be strictly a before/after story.

During the film’s examination of late-1970s rural Minnesota (which takes up the great majority of its running time), God’s Country eventually reveals itself to be a examination of the subtle cultural changes that rippled through a rural, conservative, religious community in the long wake of the more rapid cultural changes the country experienced a decade prior. A bank employee gives Malle a tour of her home that culminates in explaining her steadfast yet troubled efforts at non-monogomous coupling without the possibility of marriage following her rejection of the Catholic Church after being shamed by a priest. Another farmer discusses the rising age of women who decide to marry in Glencoe – from their late teens to their early twenties. A father and a mother reflect on their gradual shift in political identity following their son’s opposition to the Vietnam War and the fallout of the Nixon administration. This, in effect, is what the sexual, political, and youth revolution looked like outside America’s geographic centers of protest and popular culture.

As such, Malle matches the ostensibly “modest” life of his subjects with technique: far from the revolutionary documentary practices of his contemporaries (though God’s Country is, in its own quiet way, no less political than French Left Bank filmmaking of the previous decade), Malle echoes and combines established nonfiction methods in the service of an earnest, unassuming approach to his subjects – never exploiting and rarely in judgment. This approach is what makes the brunt force of the film’s flash-forward so affecting, hallowing out the admirable if claustrophobic community heretofore established. Malle discusses the economic catastrophe of Reagan’s policies on this community (packaged, in tragic irony, with Reagan’s promised return to a traditional, pre-revolutionary America) as if he were visiting old friends, meeting existential despair, insecurity, and even uninhibited expressions of anti-Semitism instead. Draft dodgers become bankers, and an increasingly anachronistic economy is left behind. Malle’s empathy with his subjects pointedly concludes God’s Country amidst a dinner with the parents of the aforementioned young protestor (recalling the food-based camaraderie of his recent indie hit My Dinner with Andre), concluding his film with an implicit urge for maintaining the type of connection and community that charmed Malle to this setting in the first place.

Where God’s Country is interested in the depth of connection and empathy, And the Pursuit of Happiness surveys the breadth. As a result, the film is more structurally redundant and seemingly prevents Malle from creating a bond akin to the subjects of his prior documentary. Nevertheless, Malle admirably overturns the proverbial melting pot in favor of a more nuanced understanding of a multicultural experience. Where much of the first chunk of the film focuses on assimilation – and the relative economic adaptability displayed by Malle’s subjects here provides a fascinating counterpart to God’s Country – Malle’s areas of focus eventually give way to more complex considerations of cultural hybridity, solidarity, and exclusion, especially in the film’s examination of how the leasing practices of a Houston housing project variably affects Vietnamese immigrants and African-American residents who eventually join together in a united front for protecting their rights. Watching And the Pursuit of Happiness today, it feels like a prototype of Frederick Wiseman’s magnificent In Jackson Heights from last year, a film fit for the contemporary parlance of intersectionality. Wiseman’s film, by virtue of its populated urban setting, combines the local and intercultural interests on display in Malle’s two 1980s American documentaries.

Human capacity for seemingly limitless empathy and earnest interest in others’ human experiences (via, in Malle’s case, a performative demonstration of the revelatory power of outsiderdom) have never felt so urgent in an political present in which the very real struggles of the white working class are being mobilized (yet again) towards the toxic forces of racist, xenophobic resentment. Malle’s two American documentaries of the 1980s have many lessons to bestow in this moment, patiently showing us what we miss out on when we don’t take the time to listen to people for whom American society rarely extends a microphone.


Landon attempts to place Malle’s documentaries within the context of documentary history, and the bulk of my take is going to be a polite prodding of his contextualization. What took me off guard when I watched both films was how old fashioned they seemed. I tend to equate 1980s documentary with Errol Morris’s post-modern searches for truth that go down the reflexive rabbit hole. Of course, Morris did not really break the rules until The Thin Blue Line in 1988, so my generalization is a bit ahistorical. So I want to begin with a disclaimer: this is a quick and dirty hybrid of history and theory, which means I make certain generalizations that may drive folks more versed in documentary up the wall.

In his book Representing Reality, scholar Bill Nichols breaks documentary down into four modes which essentially evolved historically, in reaction to the previous mode. First came the expository documentary, a type of documentary that tended to center around an argument made about the historical world by the filmmaker. These are the “voice of God” documentaries in which voice-over is used extensively. This is the cinema of Robert Flaherty, whose Nanook of the North (1922) exemplifies some of the problems with the expository mode. In Nanook, Flaherty imposes his worldview onto the Inuks, asking his subjects to “fake” certain actions. Flaherty makes the Inuks seem even further behind in the times than they actually were. For example: they hunted walruses with rifles, not harpoons. Other times, the filmmaker turns them into the subject of the audience’s laughter. For instance, one scene involving a record player makes the Inuks come across as being naive in order to magnify Flaherty’s desire to make them seem exotic. Needless to say, this mode has long been criticized for its questionable ethics when it comes to presenting truth as something objective.

The observational mode – exemplified by the work of the Direct Cinema filmmakers of the 1960s in America like D.A. Pennebaker, Frederick Wiseman, Richard Leacock, and the Maysles – capitalized upon advanced on technology like lightweight camera and sync sound to give viewers a peephole into reality in the raw. In the words of Nichols, the observational mode stresses the non-intervention of the filmmaker insofar as editing stresses the preservation of spatiotemporal continuity. Basically, the Direct Cinema filmmakers took the journalistic mode to documentary: do not make yourself part of the story and you will find the truth. The problem with this mode is that it neglects to account for the variable that subjects act differently when a camera is around, and that despite the filmmakers’ best intentions, these “fly on the wall” documentaries are often edited into rudimentary “crisis” narratives (Salesman being a key example).

The interactive mode is the inverse of the observational mode, which makes the filmmaker a participant whose interviews with the social actors recruited produces the argument. Think Michael Moore documentaries and you’ve got this base covered. Finally, reflexive documentaries – many of the films of Errol Morris, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), F for Fake (1973) – take a self-aware approach and try to challenge the impression of reality produced by documentary films by making the viewer aware of the conventions of representing reality.

…And the Pursuit of Happiness, the weaker of the two documentaries, largely takes the expository approach. Malle interviews a range of American immigrants, but often robs them of their own voices. More often than not, there is an unheard question, the subject begins to answer, and Malle summarizes their thoughts for them. I found this deeply problematic for a film attempting to humanize the immigrant experience. It felt as if Malle was often dismissing his subjects and intervening – needlessly – to keep the energy of the film up. As such, it opened many of the ethical worm cans that expository documentaries often open.

What is odd, however, is that Malle made this film at roughly the same time as God’s Country (more on that in a moment), which favors the interactive mode. And yet …And the Pursuit of Happiness would seem to be the more fitting choice for that mode, as Malle himself is an immigrant born in France and transplanted to Los Angeles after marrying actress Candice Bergen. This semi-common ground between filmmaker and subject (I would hazard to guess that a French immigrant gets treated much differently than a Egyptian or Mexican immigrant) would seem to be incredibly ripe with potential. And yet Malle seems completely unaware or disinterested in it!

God’s Country capitalizes on Malle’s outsider status – like a light version of Werner Herzog – to give insight into a rural farming community in Minnesota. Hailing from the semi-rural upper Midwest myself, much of the film hit incredibly close to home. For instance, Malle notes that Midwesterners seem incredibly pre-occupied by their lawns and Port Washington, WI was no different. The combination of a lack of things to do and decently sized plots of land makes lawn mowing a constant hobby, like the masculine version of knitting. Lawns and alcoholism (the former is replaced by snow shoveling in winter) – that’s the Midwest from spring to winter.

Yet, Malle’s insight sees beyond the relatively superficial. We see households in which religious people get married and have children at such a young age that they either drink their problems away or fall into an increasing divorce rate. When Malle returns after 6 years away (he shot the first 75 minutes of the film in 1979 and returned to shoot last 15 minutes in 1985), the town’s fragile agriculture based economy has been destroyed by overproduction. A once wealthy feed magnate blames a Jewish conspiracy, but hidden in his anti-Semitic a.m. radio rhetoric is a shred of truth about the actual source of his economic circumstances: America re-elected an actor, not a politician, and ballooned a deficit for a hearty smile. Meanwhile, the town’s lawyer – who has become a close friend of Malle (who actually appears on-camera in the second half, which makes for a rather jarring formal transition that fits with the upheaval that the town has gone through) – hopes that the next generations of America will refuse the philosophy of greed that has flourished under Ronald Reagan. Thirty years later, in the midst of a Trump GOP candidacy? Gordon Gecko seems to be on the White House’s doorstep.