According to Judge Bill Gibron, we're on the Internet. (On a more informative note, this is a great documentary and a great review.)
Sometimes, the best story is right down the road.
When famed documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman—individually and in combination responsible for such serious, salient movies as The Times of Harvey Milk and Oscar winner Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt—were looking for subject matter to tackle for their next production, they hit upon a brilliant idea: why not take a road trip through rural America and simply document the people and places? No real rhyme or reason to the core concept, just travel the land and capture the random musings of the nation's unknown populace.
So Epstein and Friedman packed up a camera and headed down the highway. Moving through the South and then heading out west, the duo encountered innocent bigotry, out and out prejudice, the natural high of the simple life, and the devastation and loneliness of a global disease. They met the friendly, the frightened, and the fiercely independent. The saw the USA as it once was, and how it's destined to be. And all the time, as they traveled from town to town, place to place, they pondered a single, simple question. It was not just a meditation on location; it was also an internal investigation of purpose, time, and disposition. Never really lost, but also not quite "present" with their big city sentiments, our cinematic explorers ventured into the great mystery of both personal and positional boundaries, asking their straightforward inquiry: Where Are We?
Scribes are often told that, when it comes to subject matter for their creative output, they should always "write what they know." Filmmakers sometimes follow that maxim as well, making personal tales told with a real flavor of authenticity. Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of documentary filmmaking. Indeed, the unflinching fact about good fact-based films is that when they work, they prove the age-old adage that the truth is stranger, and more engaging, than fiction. This is why the closer one can get to the object of the discussion, the more amazing the movie will be.
No other film better exemplifies this theory than the masterful Where Are We?. Using a fairly obvious subject—America—as its backdrop, and the equally archetypal people who populate it as its premise, this film dares to investigate the idea that every person, just like every picture, has and will tell a story. No matter how mundane, unimportant, or small in scope, the individual sagas we citizens play out on a daily basis prove to be far more mesmerizing and emotional than highly-strung kitchen sink melodramas. Where else but in the deep South would you find a male drive-in car hop who admits that his impression of people from San Francisco is that they are "f*ggy," or a hard-working African American fry cook who floors us with the information that she makes a mere $3.45 an hour for her efforts…in 1991! From a hospice full of dying gay men to a guided tour of a miniature version of Elvis' Graceland, the truth pouring out of the movie screen will overwhelm you and transfix your artistic aesthetics for the entire 75-minute running time of the film.
As gay filmmakers, Epstein and Friedman never fully give up their pro-homosexual agenda. There is a fascinating focus on same-sex issues throughout the film, the best being a visit to a well-known drag bar near a Marine military base. As the "don't ask, don't clien-tele" discuss the trials and tribulations of being in the closet and in combat, we hear from a longtime performer, who is very protective of his/her "guys." The remarkable aspect is that, upon a return visit to the previous evening's participants, we witness an amazingly brave revelation, one of the truly profound moments—out of many—in the film.
Other times, a real window into the hopes and dreams of typical Americans is opened, with all manner of sensational sentiments careening forth. Bored teenagers discuss why they are leaving home, while a very young couple across the country (the bride and mommy-to-be is only 15) lay out their entire life plan in front of the mobile home salesman (who used to be a professional baseball player) trying to pitch them a portable palace. An admitted abuser runs off to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune before accepting his paternal responsibilities to a newborn baby back home, and a grizzled ex-hippie discusses how a move to Tennessee was "completely necessary" for him and his wife to finally consider a divorce. There are dreamers and dilettantes in abundance in Where Are We?, people poised on the edge of success and/or self-denial. It's thanks to the expert handling by Epstein and Friedman that this movie never meanders over into the maudlin or the morose. Instead, even in their darkest hour, there is a light pouring out of these individuals that is truly quite remarkable.
In fact, the primary lesson we learn from this masterpiece of factual filmmaking is that most people are possessed with a near-manic feeling of optimism. Life may have buried them in lemons, but not only are they going to make a delicious beverage out of the fruit, but they also plan on selling the leftovers and making a mint in the process. Even the most downtrodden and troubled of the folks we meet along the way are peppered with a surety of self that brightens their entire outlook. From old ladies arguing over the ethics of gambling (a riverboat is about to open in their small, riverside town) to a dying AIDS patient who sits by "his" window and watches the world go along on its schedule ("it's dinnertime, so the kids will be riding by on their bikes soon"), there is a love of life and a spirit of survival that may seem clichéd, but is far from forced in this fascinating film.
Interestingly, another consistent stereotype about this great land of ours is also confirmed in Where Are We?: that is, the United States of America is a breathtaking, beautiful place. We live in a luxurious land of unending vistas, sweeping plains, and gorgeous, masterwork horizons. Just witnessing the directors driving down a dirt road toward an infinite sunset seems to speak volumes for the endless opportunities and limitless courage contained in this tiny nation. Granted, we don't have the heritage and history of Europe, or the archeological ambiance of Africa or the Middle East. But this Western world is a coast-to-coast theme park of promises and prayers, possibilities and pardons. Anyone who thinks the USA is a troubled, tortured territory need look no further than the people populating Where Are We? They represent the true essence of our country, the unspoiled resource of hope and humanity.
Shot with minimal equipment over 18 days, Where Are We? looks stunning on the 1.33:1 full frame image presented by New Yorker Films. Though some grain is apparent in a few night scenes, the rest of the direct-from-camcorder transfer is colorful, sharp, and just terrific. In an inspired turn, the filmmakers use the sonic cue "Aquarium" from Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saens to suggest moving into the magical realm of real people, and the Dolby Digital Stereo serves this beautiful, mysterious music wonderfully.
As for extra features, we are given access to about four minutes of missing footage, scenes removed because—as the directors say on their sole commentary for the film (able to be accessed during the deleted material)—they were too "obvious" or didn't make their point clearly enough. Vergie's obsessive Elvis collection is an easily understood edit; she's almost incoherent in her descriptions. But the Rev. H. D. Dennis seems like a real character; someone who, once he got going, would surely cough up a compelling story or two. Along with some stills in a photo gallery and a set of trailers for New Yorker's movies, this is a minimal DVD presentation. Luckily, the movie it contains is a flawless example of your own stomping grounds being the best source for inspiration.
Where Are We? asks an intriguing question. And the answer, at least from this critic, is equally evocative: anywhere, apparently, that we want to be.
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