America viewed through the lens of foreign filmmakers
Sometimes it takes a fresh pair of eyes to see things differently. Sometimes it takes an outsider – a foreigner – to see the land anew, to elicit a certain beauty that was right there under the locals’ noses. Filmmakers from every corner of the planet have done this. They step off the plane, plant their feet on US soil, raise their viewfinder to their eye, and see the land of opportunity as exactly that. Viewed through their lens, America is a larger-than-life blank canvas of possibility, where having a vision that stands out from the crowd comes easy. From French New Wave filmmakers to British Social Realists, there’s a long history of moviemakers making waves in the States. Here are some of the most inspiring and singular visions of America by non-Americans.
Director: Wim Wenders (German)
You can see Wim Wenders’s keen eye for Americana even in his early German movies. Juke boxes, wide-open roads, soundtracks featuring American blues music – it’s all there. When he finally landed in America to shoot Paris, Texas, his extraordinarily moving 1984 road movie about a drifter who reunites with his estranged family, he aimed his camera at gas stations, highway cross-sections, and multi-storey car parks. Add to that Harry Dean Stanton’s red baseball cap and Ry Cooder’s searing slide guitar, and you have all the ingredients for an American classic by a non-American.
Director: Ang Lee (Chinese)
Chinese director Ang Lee also had a penchant for big, barren landscapes and sweeping vistas. In his Wyoming-set romantic weepie, Lee’s camera drinks in the Great American Outdoors, with dreamy shots of snow-capped mountains, freight trains chugging across the landscape, and of course, cowboys with impeccable taste in wide-brimmed hats. When you think about it, it’s not a huge leap from what the director did in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, another sumptuously shot movie set in mountainous terrain. Just with less cowboys and more sword-wielding samurais.
Director: Andrea Arnold (British)
British filmmaker Andrea Arnold was allured, like Wenders before her, by the American road movie. Once on US soil, she hopped in a van with a bunch of non-professional actors (plus Shia LaBeouf sporting a rat-tail hairdo) for a 12,000-mile road trip across the States. The Brit captures the freedom of the open road, that feeling of cruising in an open-top car while Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” plays on the stereo. That sense that you can go anywhere and be anyone.
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni (Italian)
In 1970, when this movie was made, Antonioni was the darling of European art-house cinema and counter-culture cool. Beard-stroking movie buffs recognized his work by its unique style – long takes, starkly minimal compositions, landscapes littered with modernist buildings. His first US movie – about a radical college kid who becomes a fugitive after a violent protest – is only different because of the country in which it’s set. His camera lingers on giant ads, futuristic mansions, and the world-famous grid system. One example of something no American director had previously envisioned, in four words: orgy in Death Valley.
Director: Werner Herzog (German)
It’s not immediately obvious that this movie is helmed by Werner Herzog, the great German filmmaker who once dragged a steamship over a mountain. For starters, it’s a crime drama about an unhinged cop played by Nicolas Cage. So far, so conventional. Then out of nowhere some iguanas appear, Herzog filming them in close-up as though he’s back in the Amazon. “What are these f**king iguanas doing on my coffee table?” Even with an American cop movie, set in New Orleans, the German’s eccentricity seeps through. This has Herzog’s fingerprints all over it.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Director: Michel Gondry (French)
One of the most imaginative and singular voices in movies, French filmmaker Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine is a blast of fresh air. With a bonkers script from Charlie Kaufman – about a recently broken-up couple who undergo a procedure to wipe their memories of their relationship – Gondry applies the same oddball visual style from his music video work. Surreal images include a giant kitchen sink big enough for two people, and a rainstorm inside a living room. The Frenchman’s trademark quirk also revealed sides of Kate Winslet and Jim Carey that you’ve never seen before.
All That Heaven Allows
Director: Douglas Sirk (German)
This has “cheesy old-school Hollywood” written all over it. Yet it’s not the stuffy 50s melodrama you’d expect. It’s about a widow who falls for her very young (and very ripped) gardener. Together they must face the sniffy gossip and judgmental eyes of suburbia. It’s subversive, undermining those 50s suburban values, and it was made by German director Douglas Sirk, the master of gloriously naff melodrama with a sardonic bite. There are traces of German kitsch in every corner of this American classic. Not least in the picture-postcard- image of the couple in their living room, a deer framed in the misty window behind them.
Director: Steve McQueen (British)
Already touted as “one to watch” with his debut Hunger, a brutally realistic film about Irish republican Bobby Sands, British filmmaker Steve McQueen landed in NYC to make a movie about the intimacy issues of a metropolitan sex addict. In Shame, the director brought his same unflinching cinematic gaze, complete with fluid in-the-streets camerawork and long takes. His NYC – with its cold, alienating cityscape littered with glass towers – couldn’t be further from Woody Allen’s or Martin Scorsese’s.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn (Danish)
Drive never felt like your typical high-octane Hollywood car chase movie. It’s more stylish, more concerned with how the ubiquitous neon lights glow on Ryan Gosling’s face as he chews on a toothpick. Perhaps it has something to do with having a Dane behind the camera. It was Nicolas Winding Refn’s first stab at a Hollywood movie and was, well, very him. Meaning there’s a clear aesthetic through-line with his other movies. Did I mention the neon lights?
Director: Louis Malle (French)
French New Wave director Louis Malle – the guy who made WW2 weepie Au Revoir les Enfants – headed to New Jersey to shoot this romantic crime caper. In it, Susan Sarandon plays a young waitress in a casino who has dreams of becoming a blackjack dealer. Naturally things go awry when her estranged husband shows up to sell stolen coke. Its New Jersey blue-collar realism evokes an early Bruce Springsteen record, rough-around-the-edges and charmingly unglamorous. Malle shot on location in and around Atlantic City, on the famous New Jersey boardwalk, in South Jersey, Philadelphia, and New York, often in impoverished parts of town, his eye drawn to seedy clubs and old hotels in the midst of demolition. It was original and the Academy took notice, nominating it for all “Big Five” Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay.