Monday, June 10, 2013

The Americans

I recently said a goodbye to my friends outside a little bar on Thanon Rangnam in North Central Bangkok. I'd seen them off before, on 2nd Avenue in Seattle, before they moved to Southeast Asia, on a rain-wet late winter afternoon some two years previous.

They were going back to America, a country that is undoubtedly my own, but when I see it on television, looks foreign-- not unfamiliar, simply foreign, the same way an American might perceive England or Australia, with strong linguistic and cultural ties, but unquestionably different.

But occasionally I see glimpses of America in Thailand, and it's not as if I'm seeing a foreign country, but seeing my own country immediately revealed. A bleak strip of Charan Sanit Wong near the Sirindhorn intersection-- all gritty diagonal boulevards, forlorn shop fronts, smokestacks and steeples perceived through a tangle of electrical wire-- could almost be Chicago. The dusty side streets and vacant lots and concrete plants of Bang Khen are something similar enough to Des Moines. A beloved coffee shop on a rainy afternoon near Siam Square is a miniature Seattle. And a martini bar on Thong Lo with throbbing music and women with 30,000 baht tits is Los Angeles.

My daily life obeys the rhythms of Bangkok, and my language coalesces into a non-specific English, generically North American in accent, imparted with the slang of Newcastle and Cape Town.

Which, perhaps, is why I've become so enamored of Robert Frank's photo series The Americans. It's not that they represent an America I know or remember. On the contrary, I love them because they convey an idea of America. Were I to look at the sorts of places I actually remember-- forlorn gas stations late at night, dark Seattle bars, frozen rivers-- I might feel something. But when I look at Frank's photos, they're pointing more towards a meta-image of America that pierces through my memories of the real America and lets in the dreams and strange forms that lay underneath.

Since they were taken 30 years before I was born, I automatically view them as relics, as documentary evidence of an era before mine. And it was an era that we think of, nowadays, as something of an age of innocence, a picket-fence suburban postwar fantasy that existed far more in the public imagination than in material reality. No Malcolm X or Jim Morrison, minimal levels of postmodernism. The primary terror came from a far-off and peculiarly imagined USSR.

But Frank's subjects aren't this dull fantasy that has since been shoved down Americans' throats-- by what we retroactively and moronically refer to as "golden age" television, by the American Enterprise Institute and other vipers' dens of paranoid reactionaries-- but what lurks around the margins. We have nudists and drugstore cowboys, a hormonally charged teenage couple getting a Reno marriage.

Or a young girl with a candy cigarette adopting the studied pose of her mother.

Or a hallucinatory shot of the reflection of a cinema marquee in a car window.

Of course, lots of other Europeans have tried to present an outsider's view of the United States. There was Tocqueville in the early years of the 19th Century, there was Dickens writing his American Notes, and so on. And since then, there have been any number of writers who claimed that America could only be viewed by a foreigner-- among them, giggling sociological onanist Jean Baudrillard and impeccably dressed imperial apologist Bernard-Henri Lévy, both of whom wrote almost cartoonishly hyper-Français prose about their superficial tours of the Lower 48 as Francophone star academics, ensconced in various ivory towers and accompanied by legations of fawning Yanks.

But whereas so many travelers-- photographers, travel writers, and just plain visitors-- adopt the tourist's gaze, what I admire about Frank is that he doesn't. He grants everyone he photographs their own subjectivity, rather than trying to impose some master narrative onto their actions. Like all artists, he has motifs that he returns to again and again-- racial tension, odd placements of the American flag-- but ultimately it is vérité. Frank's camera, off-kilter, shooting at odd angles, slices America open.

And I think that's the America I remember, staring out taxi windows on long, equatorial afternoons, the America I still re-visit in my dreams. There is no cohesive structure. I'm assailed with a jumble of memories, images of memories, meta-memories that shift about in kaleidoscopic patterns.

Thoughts overlay themselves onto daily life like superimposed frames in a silent film. I look at the photo, and look up, at the gritty street outside: rush hour on Din Daeng Road, a boarded-up brothel, fried chicken stands, dessicated palm trees backlit against a fiery sunset. It's all here, memory on top of memory: Thailand in front of my face, the America I remember, the mythic America in the photograph, the general myth of America, anything, everything. I see it all, a sudden unity of the signs for a moment, before returning to whatever ordinary thing I was doing before.