‘Do you have any dreams?’ asks Star, American Honey‘s dirt-poor teenage protagonist with nothing to lose. ‘What, like future dreams?’ replies Jake, a grizzled Shia LaBeouf, crawling with hastily scribbled tattoos and enigmatic charisma. It’s a fitting smidgeon of dialogue for a film that seeks to expose the American dream in all of its opulence and ugliness, often in a single frame. It’s also an ironic exchange given that LaBeouf is the veteran actor here, whilst Star (played by Sasha Lane) is a twenty-something rookie who caught the eye of director Andrea Arnold during a spring break vacation.
The film follows the fortunes of an errant crew of magazine vendors roaming door-to-door living in peeling motel rooms as they blaze across the Midwest in search of fulfillment. The latter comes in the form of hard drinking, harder fighting and libertine sex, sold to willing customers when the money runs out.
The group are eternally garrulous, with striking faces and the kind of working-hard-to-escape-poverty slang favoured by Alger and Steinbeck. For the most part they produce engrossing exchanges, even if their White-Trash Americaness feels a little stereotyped. This might be inevitable, given that that Arnold is a Brit looking at America from the outside.
As magazine salespeople they spend a great deal of time convincing others to buy their phoney goods, but whether they realize it or not, it’s the American dream that they’re really selling. Make any film about gritty American suburbia and it’s the dream that will shine through, if only through the briefest of cracks.
Time and time again filmmakers are drawn back into the utopian terrain restlessly excavated by Steinbeck, Fitzgerald and co. It’s etched into the Rocky steps; the Hollywood walk of fame, with its star-studded cohort of immortals, and that white sign looming lecherously over those Hollywood hills. We see it engrained into movies like Rocky, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, The Wolf of Wall Street and Baz Luhrmann’s recent adaptation of The Great Gatsby, with that green light shimmering incessantly at the end of Gatsby’s dock. With the Netflix boom, TV has provided yet more space to explore America’s favourite and most pathological obsession. Breaking Bad is as good an examination of the dream and its intoxicating spell as any of the great novellas.
Not everyone comes to celebrate the dream like Rocky and co. Many, like The Godfather and Scarface come to shun it. Francis Ford Coppola revelled in exposing its wickedness. Both Apocalypse Now and the Godfather trilogy are lurid, unashamed examinations of what the dream can do to communities of men and those who lead them.
In particular, one thinks of the Godfather’s baptism sequence, where tenderly innocent shots of Michael Corleone’s son are juxtaposed with images of murder and bloodshed, acts that were orchestrated by his father. It’s a brilliant portrayal of what the dream can do, even to a protagonist who, when we first meet him at the beginning of the film, is framed as a morally scrupulous war hero.
Apocalypse Now is less graphically violent, but just as brutal in its portrayal of the male psyche and its psychological unraveling in times of war. Coppola’s film begins by embracing the lure of combat and the opportunity to assert American dominance in an exotic land. But as the American imperialist chatter begins to hush, things get progressively more hallucinogenic and hypnotic and the humid, psychotropic heart of the film begins to beat louder. The pace of the film slows, but it burns with a greater intensity; finally we have the fateful meeting with Marlon Brando’s Kurtz and his sage-like rambling: ‘The Horror. The Horror. The Horror.’
Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, brilliantly crafted by Paul Schrader, inverts the utopian model of the dream. The film’s protagonist, Travis Bickle, is a disillusioned Nam Vet, an alienated loner who skulks around New York’s decadent underbelly, aping literature’s recalcitrant sulker-in-chief, Holden Caulfield. Like J.D. Salinger’s protagonist, it’s the people around Bickle who yearn for the dream’s saccharine glow—he doesn’t believe in or want any part of it. He slowly succumbs to insanity, murdering a prostitute in a brothel.
The dream continues to be an abstract idea, one that everyone experiences in different ways and guises. For many, particularly working class Americans populating the once-great industrial powerhouses along the rust belt, it’s best represented in the crude, incendiary dialogue of Barack Obama’s political successor. There’s an insightful line of dialogue in American Honey as Jake, LaBeouf’s cocky protagonist, compares his dress sense to that of ‘his hero’: Donald Trump. It’s an illuminating line, but one that, ultimately, we don’t really need. Director Arnold already captures the disillusioned psyche of Middle America in her striking shots of run down shopping malls and burnt-out factories. They stand as relics; haunting reminders of the human cost of unfettered capitalism and globalisation.
For many, Trump’s ascendency is as good a reason as any to retreat back into the kind of hypnotic dreamworld Arnold creates. That’s the thing with the dream: you can experience it vicariously, even when you no longer indulge it yourself. The entrancing soundtrack aside, the film is a visual feast, helped in no small part by the Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan, whose colours, to steal a line from the great American novelist Jack Kerouac: ‘burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars’.
If there ever was a man who knew about the dream it was Kerouac, a man whose landmark semi-autobiographical book On The Road ‘sold a trillion Levis and a million espresso machines’ and sent countless adolescents into the great unknown in search of the kind of fulfilment that only the road can bring—or at least promise. Kerouac found a way to convey that existential hunger through a seamless prose that refuses to draw breath and take stock. This manic, all-consuming search is manifested in hedonistic Benzedrine-fuelled jazz romps that finish as the sun rises.
As with Kerouac’s prestigious novel, the brunt of Arnold’s hypnotic vision is apolitical. The mesmerising energy her characters exude stems from their self-inflicted societal detachment. This means they spend a great deal of time indulging in their own self-imposed bubbles, and right now who can blame them?
At a time where most of America, if not the world, is disillusioned with politics, it’s the dream, not the senate, that still burns brightly, its effervescent glow fading but still flickering in the darkness.
Some works of culture herald the dream; others strive to rip the faltering notion of American exceptionalism apart, as in the closing passage of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, where the tantalizing dash of green will never stop coaxing us to chase it the dream:
“The green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”.
American Honey recognises the dream for what it is, an epiphanic abstraction that, for better or worse, imbues otherwise vacuous lives with meaning and purpose.