Amsterdam Stories USA

Amsterdam Stories USA


Reviewed by: Michael Pattison

As Russell Banks, author of The Sweet Hereafter, says at one point in this sprawling travelogue, the images sent abroad from (and of) the USA, as well as those consumed by Americans within it, are quite different to what most people are actually living. Choosing as their starting point the rather arbitrary premise of visiting the cities, towns, streets, parishes, cemeteries and people of the USA that are named Amsterdam, Rob Rombout and Rogier Van Eck have gone in search of those lived experiences and smalltown stories that might reveal the untold America.

Separated into four chapters (East, South, Midwest, West) across six hours, Amsterdam Stories USA is an even-paced, unhurried and extensive journey from New York (once New Amsterdam) to a small ranch in Amsterdam, California – by way of the many Amsterdams in between, in Upstate New York, Ohio, Georgia, Mississippi, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Montana and Idaho. Its intention is to gather anecdotes rather than momentum: though it’ll fly by for some, for others one hour will be quite sufficient, since the film’s rhythm and aesthetic go unchanged for all 360 of its minutes.

Copy picture

You can count me among the fans of travelling dashboard shots, though, and there’s something quietly enthralling about this ambitious road movie, which gives voice to a whole host of people: Manhattan-based poet Edgar Oliver; Elinor Tatum, editor of black newspaper Amsterdam News (“we choose to plead our own cause, because for so long others have done it for us”); historian Michael Botwinick; a performer whose pseudonym is Sven Amsterdam; Adrian Cronauer, the radio DJ on whom Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) was based; Myron Mixon, a champion competitive barbecuer; Medgar Evers’ brother Charles; Ray Bassett, the only person ever to be elected permanent caucus of Iowa; Steven Thomas, a Missouri-based deer hunter whose weapon of choice is a bow; and so on…

Slowly but surely, themes emerge: the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the assassinations of JFK and his brother Robert, and of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, all feature recurrently (one mini-chapter heading reads “the end of innocence”). The post-war lives of ordinary American people have been conditioned partly by a deep distrust of official politics and an ever-changing idea of their collective identity, which one interviewee reckons is down to the USA’s origins as a nation of immigrants.

Though Dutch-born filmmakers Rombout and Van Eck stylise their talking heads like Lasse Hallström’s ABBA videos, the consistency with which they allow their subjects to speak gives the project a contemplative sincerity. Their non-interventionist approach, however, also means that when one interviewee proposes that something as woolly as the “human condition” is to blame for the downfall of the American Dream, it goes unquestioned, while the economic foundations of socio-political currents are rarely hinted at. Unfortunately, you get the sense that the film could be double its length and still say nothing about the material conditions of American life (i.e., capitalism).

Whether this is enthralling or enervating, it’s certainly eccentric.

Reviewed on: 01 May 2013
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Amsterdam Stories USA packshot
A journey through US towns called Amsterdam in search of the real America.

Director: Rob Rombout, Rogier Van Eck

Year: 2012

Runtime: 360 minutes

Country: Belgium


IndieLisboa 2013

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