Film Scratches: Violence Tamed – Wheeler Winston Dixon’s An American Dream (2016)
Film Scratches focuses on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.
A Review by David Finkelstein.
An American Dream, a new 34-minute found footage film by Wheeler Winston Dixon, consists of public domain footage clips, almost all of them in slow motion. Many of these clips show things being smashed, blown up, burned, or shot: TV sets, clocks, flowers. The stately motion of slowed down footage makes this violence look beautiful and peaceful, and much more orderly, as you can watch the forces of physics controlling the motion of each individual fragment. The musical score, a heavenly choir of voices over one long sustained electronic chord, adds to this sense of violence numbed and spiritualized. There are also some sped up time lapse shots, mostly of traffic or crowds. Like the slow motion shots, time lapse photography looks more orderly than real time, as the sped up motion reveals the macro structures of crowd movements which are harder to see in real time.
In found footage works, without imagery created by the filmmaker, the artist’s voice speaks entirely through the choice of images and the editing. The film’s title and its content indicate that Dixon intends to make a statement about American culture and values. Repeated shots of the stars and stripes are a generic signifier of an American context, and the shots of violent actions and piles of money seem to make a statement that American life is dominated by violence and money: obviously true, if commonplace observations. Dixon may be aiming to make a found footage film which makes a comprehensive statement on American life, along the lines of Bruce Conner’s masterful America is Waiting, but if that is the case, I didn’t see it. (I’m deliberately leaving aside Dixon’s own statement on his intentions for the film, that it “traces the rise of late-stage capitalism in the United States,” because I didn’t see this within the film itself either.)
The lulling sameness of the film, where almost all of the shots have a similar length (10 to 15 seconds), the same internal rhythm, and where one sound texture lasts throughout the film’s 34 minutes, creates a sleepy, suspended mood which is indeed dreamlike, and the images themselves are unmistakably from an American context, and this numbing sameness may be precisely Dixon’s point, as we watch the symbols of American culture destroyed one by one, barely feeling a thing. The film’s consistent use of symbols as discourse ensures that the content affects us only intellectually, never viscerally or emotionally. Watching An American Dream, hypnotized by the beautiful motion of slowly flying fragments of glass accompanied by heavenly voices, is like washing down several Valium pills with a martini, and musing on the state of American life as you drift off into a long, imperturbable sleep.