Soul Doubt

Louis Schwartzberg aims for America's Heart, but mostly sticks to the surface

Jun 30, 2004 at 4:00 am
America's Heart & Soul, the debut feature from commercial director Louis Schwartzberg, is being depicted in some quarters as the antidote to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, mostly due to the fact that it's a documentary, being released around the same time, about the U.S.A. For more simplistic minds who equate anti-Bush sentiment with hatred of America in toto, this analogy may be apt. Schwartzberg's film, made up of a series of vignettes spotlighting hard-working and idiosyncratic people across the land, aspires to being a glorification of the American dream.

But to call it a conservative or Republican film would be inaccurate: For one thing, it celebrates (gasp!) multiculturalism and diversity. For another, the closest it ever comes to expressing a political viewpoint is when a metal sculptor advocates more art education in schools, or when a minister at an all-inclusive church in San Francisco says he's more concerned with the here and now than Heaven or Hell. Jerry Falwell might raise an eyebrow.

Additionally, to imply that the film has any kind of worldview beyond a vague "America is nice" sentiment is to give Schwartzberg too much credit. Prior to making the film, the director was best-known for having amassed the largest library of stock footage in the country; little surprise, then, that America's Heart & Soul could just as easily be called Stock Footage: The Movie. Helicopter shots, time-lapse images of clouds moving and grass growing, aerial views of cityscapes...all these things not only kick off the movie, they segue between damn near every scene. Transitions are also accomplished via title cards bearing statements like, "Freedom lives in the soul and keeps the passion alive."

With a small crew, Schwartzberg traveled the nation to interview people for the film. Some 24 of them have been spotlighted, with many others appearing in brief shots. For an 86-minute movie, that's not a lot of time to focus on each one, especially when you subtract all the helicopter shots from the running time. As a result each person is more or less boiled down to one characteristic. There's the cowboy who doesn't drink, the bike messenger who goes insanely fast in and out of traffic, the ex-convict who became a boxer, the Cajun musician who cooks, the dairy farmer who likes raising his son, the ice-climber who's blind, the Tlingit Indian who protects eagles, and many more. Intrigued by any of those descriptions? Well, too bad, because you don't learn anything else about them. There's no time.

After each two-minute bit with each participant, you half expect them to endorse some kind of product that helps them do what they do. The bike messenger's scenes could easily be an ad for Mountain Dew; the Appalachian weaver's, a Woolite commercial (Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's actually does appear to plug his own his own product). Schwartzberg's such a natural at getting slick-looking images that he practically sabotages any attempt to give the movie a realistic feel. Yes, these are real people, and their stories ring true, but the director has made them look like extras in a political campaign commercial (one that could be used by either major party, natch). You might as well pay to sit through 40 beer ads in a row.

In a statement accompanying the film's press notes, the director says, of aerobatic flyer Patty Wagstaff, "I've thought for a long time that I'd like to make a movie with Patty, and when this film came up, it seemed right." That's not a bad impulse; he should have made a movie about Patty, or Ben Cohen, or any of the other individuals in America's Heart & Soul, rather than consigning them to minor sound bites in a patchwork concoction. For an example of how to do this sort of thing right, look to Chris Smith's documentary Home Movie, which focused on four different individuals and their unusual houses. By lingering with his characters, and showing more than just the superficialities of their residences, Smith created a far more authentic document of Americana, in just 65 minutes.

Naming your film America's Heart & Soul is a bold statement and demands a level of substance that's fairly definitive. But what Schwartzberg seems not to get (and Michael Moore, in contrast, does) is that loving something, or someone, means loving the real thing, flaws and all, rather than some abstract idealization. America -- or rather, the United States of America (co-opting the name of a continent for one country is another debate for another day) -- is a place where people can attain their dream, but it's a big, sloppy, messy, occasionally self-destructive place that can be lovable as much for its foibles as its fortes. Where, in this movie, are the fat people? The couch potatoes? The drunks, gamblers and whores? The mallrats? The libido? Aside for a brief bit on salsa dancing and a pink triangle decal spotted on a car windshield in the background, you'd get the impression that the U.S. is utterly sexless.

We do see physically handicapped people, who are arguably less-than-perfect, but they're the greatest handicapped people in the world, both of them athletes who've achieved more than many "regular" folks. And just in case you don't appreciate how gosh-darn dramatic all these peoples' lives are, there's a horribly sickening score by Joel McNeely (The Jungle Book 2, Peter Pan: Return to Never Land). It makes you glad when one of the interview subjects turns out to be a musician, because then you know the score's gonna take a powder while someone less cynical shows what they can do. Still, the worst music faux pas is the use on the soundtrack of the Song That Won't Die, Smash Mouth's "All Star." Even Shrek 2 had the sense not to reprise that annoying ditty.

There are people out there who, more than anything, want to see a movie with no offensive content; one lacking in sex, profanity or even expressions of anger. If those are your only prerequisites, then never mind all the film's flaws -- America's Heart & Soul is one of those rare movies that's safe for you to see. John Mellencamp was apparently so impressed that he composed a theme song on the spot and gave it to the filmmakers for free (the tune, "The World Don't Bother Me None," is exactly the kind of eagerly inspirational number that wins Oscars). But if you prefer some story to your cinema, or even any kind of coherent focus, seek the dream elsewhere.