Friday, April 13, 2012
The impetus for ‘America Unchained’ came when English comedian Dave Gorman toured the United States with a one-man show. Fascinated in his youth with the concept of the free-wheeling, transient lifestyle which for him was emblematic of American culture, he was disconcerted to find himself in drinking at the same airport coffee franchises, staying in the same homogenous hotels and barely being able to differentiate between one city and another despite travelling hundreds of miles between them.
Gorman decided he’d had enough of corporate America; enough of chain motels, chain eateries, chain gas stations. He decided to cross America, coast to coast, without giving any money to The Man. To cross America and only give his custom to Mom ‘n’ Pop outlets. To discover, essentially, the real America.
‘America Unchained’ is the story of how he almost didn’t achieve it.
Landing in the States with his director-cum-camera-operator Steph Wagstaffe, Gorman immediately hares off the planned route in order to find a suitable car for the journey. He picks up a second hand Ford Torino station wagon. That’s second hand as in 1974 model, by the way. It has “666” as part of its license plate. Many people would have backed away from it; Gorman practically falls in love with it. The Torino proves itself a poisoned chalice on four wheels (“Ford,” a mechanic remarks airily later in the documentary after it’s broken down for the umpteenth time: “Fix Or Repair Daily.”)
With a muffler begging replacement before the road trip’s underway, Gorman accentuates the positive and gives his business to an independent garage. Then he discovers that there’s a town called Independence and makes another deviation from the planned route in order to pay a visit. It’s a disappointment. Combing the map, he locates a bunch other towns called Independence dotted all over the USA. The coast-to-coast in a more or less straight line idea goes quite spectacularly tits up at this point.
It’s fair to say that Gorman’s haphazard and whimsical approach to the project tempts fate. Fate turns out to be a real bastard and it’s a Wagstaffe who bears the brunt. Suffering with back pains severe enough to leave her unable to operate the camera (Gorman assumes DoP duties for a while; let’s be charitable and just say that it’s not really his forte), she eventually has to depart the project and fly back to England. Marooned in Moab, Utah for a week while producer Andy Devonshire tries to pressgang someone – anyone – into replacing Wagstaffe, Gorman undergoes a small personal meltdown.
Actually, no. Gorman full-on fucking wigs out a la Captain Willard in the opening scenes of ‘Apocalypse Now’. We’re talking personal heart of darkness territory, only with a Utah hotel room instead of one in Saigon.
How bad does it get? You’ll have to watch ‘America Unchained’ to find out.
Evidently unable to find anyone else, Devonshire flies out to America to help Gorman finish the documentary. He’s wanting to get home before Christmas to spend the festive period with his baby daughter and puts the kibosh on Gorman’s excessive peregrinations straightaway. Which is all well and good, but Devonshire doesn’t have any influence over the vagaries of the Torino.
‘America Unchained’ is an entertaining 75-minute film which, approached as a stand-alone work, pretty much ticks the required boxes. I purposefully left a couple of years between reading the accompanying book and watching the DVD. And yet I still can’t quite reconcile the substantial 378-page paperback, with its wealth of observation, detail and often screamingly funny set-pieces, with its wistful and slightly flimsy celluloid counterpart. Still, the film never outstays its welcome and Gorman makes for a genial guide along the highways and byways of America, full of self-deprecating humour and “everyman” likeability. He certainly comes across as a nicer guy than I’d have proved in the circumstances. Me, I’d have shot that fucking car after the first fifty miles.