Americana Honey
February 2017

At the end of a dispiriting year, Italian photographer Francesco Jodice opened Cabaret Voltaire at the Gazelli Art House in London[1]. Jodice creates regional stories and looks at the paradigm of physical versus political geography; the results are perplexing landscapes that call into question contemporary issues in real and imagined scenarios. The exhibition surveyed four bodies of work within the two-storey Art House. At the top of the stairwell hung a photograph from the series Sunset Boulevard, a body of work that focuses on the mythology of the American West. The photograph is a fragmented alpine landscape, the left flank a radiant mountain range belonging to the vehicle wrap design of a trailer van, the right a mound of sand in graceful decay against which the trailer van is parked. It’s an eerie image of the contingency between noble and actual ruin.

I had just watched Andrea Arnold’s American Honey days earlier and its image of the American landscape pulsates with the same tone. A coming-of-age tale deeply rooted in the Americana tradition of “freewheeling abandon and raw independence,” American Honey follows a teenage magazine crew as they hop town-to-town across the American Midwest hustling for subscription sales[2]. Eighteen-year old Star (Sasha Lane) becomes the new girl of this group of reckless youths after buying the sales pitch of the group’s frontman Jake (Shia LaBeouf): “[This is] a business opportunity, we go door-to-door, we sell magazines, we, like, explore America.” Bowing to cinema vérité and documentary-style filmmaking, American Honey brings into question the contemporary geopolitics of the heartland of America[3].

American Honey profiles the underclass of America whose values are dictated by the dreams and methods of capitalism. With nothing to lose, Star easily sees Jake, a boy with a rattail in a dusty suit sporting a bejeweled phone, as an alluring form of escape. In reality, the crew makes money off of things nobody really cares about, and on their way to make money they rap about making more money (“I like to make money, get turnt”)[4]. Yet the scams Star is taught to memorize go against her naïve outsider morals, which causes tension between her and the group’s mob-boss manager Krystal (Riley Keough).

In willful defiance Star starts making money on her own terms. She hitches a ride with a posse of cowboy types and, instead of being roped into a precarious situation, succeeds in selling to them four-hundred dollars’ worth of magazine subscriptions. Later relishing in her achievement, Star stands up in a moving convertible and triumphantly yells, “I feel like I’m fucking America!” Self-sufficient and four-hundred dollars of honest-earned cash closer to something, she is America. In a next attempt, she practices the same formula but with a group of oil workers. When one of them bluntly offers to her a cool grand for a night, she takes it and prostitutes herself off to the sleazy middle-aged man in a pickup truck. This time the operative word is a verb and not an adjective. The oilman is the greedy and hollow underbelly of America and she’s fucking it. Dream-making colludes with capitalism.

NonethelessAmerican Honey is far from a cautionary tale on reckless choices and the death of dreams. It’s about strikingly real people in a country going through deep-seated change.

During the announcement for his presidential campaign, Donald Trump said that the American Dream is dead. As enticing as it is to preach the obsolescence of a nationally-upheld value in times of crisis, the reason why it’s “dead” is because it was simply mythologized incorrectly: emphasizing hard work and personal achievement as the means to a successful life, when it should be about larger collectivist goals and shared purposes within a community. Whatever were her original grounds for entry—to make money, to gain Jake’s affections—Star ends up with a sense of belonging. That’s the underlying message of Jake’s original pitch: this is what we do, we want you to come join us.

The mythology of the American Dream paints the whole world as its road map leading to… somewhere. Critics have likened the journey of Star and the mag crew as such, a road-trip with no destination. Rather, like in Jodice’s Sunset Boulevard, their purpose is right upon their van. Even if they don’t know physically where they’re heading, they have already succeeded in attaining a feeling of place. It was always doubtful that a pluralistic American Dream could endure within a nation built upon the individual. In “an age still in search for community,” the mythologized American Dream is detrimental to the American Dream for community because the former runs on an obsolete model of class mobility and hinders individuals from sharing significant collective experiences[5]. At the end of the film, one of the crew members who sang exclusively rap-trap begins humming to the tune of Lady Antebellum’s “American Honey.” Slowly the whole crew joins and sings along and they reach full chorus. Quiet glances and telling smiles transform the cheesy country-pop song into a strangely appropriate and extremely poignant anthem. The wild, wild world that rolls by may be a desolate wasteland, but romantic yearning exists within. For there are two ways to look at Jodice’s Sunset Boulevard: ruination and decay, or a beginning just waiting to happen?


[2] Peter Yeung, Dazed Magazine, “60s Americana through the lens of Dennis Hopper,” July 15, 2014


[4] spotify:album:5EaxA24BbEOl54suZc8Kv4

[5] Suzanne Keller, “The American Dream of Community: An Unfinished Agenda”