' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: ...And the Pursuit of Happiness (1986)

Friday, January 19, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: ...And the Pursuit of Happiness (1986)

For his 1985 documentary “God’s Country”, French filmmaker Louis Malle settled in a single American town (Glencoe, Minnesota). For his follow-up, 1986’s “…And the Pursuit of Happiness”, on the other hand, he went out to look for all of America – all of immigrant America, that is. The broader points of what he finds are not necessarily new, though the finer details shine much brighter, which only illuminates how immigration is an eternal subject in a nation essentially founded on it. And while the subject of illegal immigration is absolutely raised and in considerable, considered detail, Malle remains, as he is everywhere else, content to lean on talking heads, whether they are Mexicans fleeing their country’s economic crisis in the hopes of earning money for their families or an American border patrol guard shaking his head at his country’s inability to pass any meaningful immigration reform. That last one might sound familiar, and is why Malle knows the issue cannot be diagnosed nor solved, only presented as is, emblemized in a sequence where a Mexican man caught illegally crossing the border smiles and tells his captor, who smiles right back, that he will see him again tomorrow, rendering the entire issue in paradoxical terms. That paradox is what Malle hones in on, though he hones in less through the politics of immigration and more through the plights of the immigrants themselves.

Malle opens the film by chronicling the arrival of several Cambodian refugees at JFK airport — the new Ellis Island — and then attending English language classes where they are taught the phrase “Let’s go to Wendy’s and have a hamburger.” There is something alternately loving and satirical about this sequence, just as there is later when a few Pakistani refugees are glimpsed watching “Love Connection” and “Transformers” as if this – junk food and trash TV – is the best America has to offer. That’s not completely true, of course, and we see the many opportunities foreigners do have, from a Costa Rican who became the first immigrant NASA astronaut to a West African building his own cab company from the ground up, but these nevertheless Americanized details stand out amidst various immigrants talking about the need to preserve their own culture when America’s is obviously so pervasive.

Indeed, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Derek Walcott, who immigrated from St. Lucia, talks about how the United States emphasizes the individual, and the individual’s rebirth, over the state, which is, innately and uniquely American, though also something like a contradiction, which he suggests by deeming the U.S. as “an aggressive democracy”, forcing equality to accentuate differences. It’s a hell of an insight, suggesting that in America’s rush to promote all our differences, a kind of conformity settles anyway, and preservation of immigrants’ varying cultures becomes more and more difficult. A former brigadier general from Laos, who escaped his country and its unrest in 1975, talks about how his kids were gradually indoctrinated to the culture, and how his grandchildren, who live in Connecticut only speak English. “They are already American,” the general says of his granchildren in a voice that sounds a lot less happy than sad.

If that is a case of merely absorbing your surroundings, however, Malle shows the flip side to that coin through the prism of Arab-Americans, whose unease in America in the mid-80s is not all that different from today. Where a lingering shot of a woman in a hijab standing outside an American school reminds us how easy it is for them to stand out, a Lebanese graphic designer, on the other hand, discusses how problems in the middle east establishes the false narrative that all Arabs are Muslim, forcing them to blend in, to “deny their roots.” It’s a balancing act, in other words, to adapt to new lives in America without rejecting their old ones, a blending of cultures which, for all the difficulties of the immigrant experience that Malle captures, I found quite moving.

Malle ends the movie amidst a New York enclave of Russian Jews, and a party where an American singer performs in the guise of a Russian Jew, a native adopting a foreign persona, which flashed me back to an earlier moment where Malle finds a formerly Catholic Hispanic pastor having gone full-throated Evangelical, ministering to his Houston congegration like it’s garish megachurch, looking like a Spanish Jimmy Swaggart. In those dueling images you would be hard-pressed to delineate exactly where America begins and where it ends.

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