Friday, May 2, 2014

'American Interior' (2014) directed by Gruff Rhys & Dylan Goch

Nothing beats a documentary about a crazy dreamer.  American Interior has two; musician Gruff Rhys and 18th Century Welsh explorer John Evans. Gruff Rhys is the lead singer of Super Furry Animals, though latterly he's released a string of excellent solo albums, the playfully sugar-coated Candylion to the sunkissed retro Hotel Shampoo (not to mention his work as Neon Neon).  A man of many talents, he branched out into cinema in 2010 with the excellent documentary Separado!, about his quest to meet up with his long lost Patagonian uncle.  That film explored a far-flung outpost of the Welsh language - a topic Gruff now returns to.

The subject of the film is John Evans; an obscure Welsh explorer who became obsessed with the legend of Prince Madog, a mythical Welsh figure who, legend has it, crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1170 and ventured through the country befriending the Native Americans, eventually settling in Missouri and giving rise to a tribe of 'Welsh Indians'.  Evans, his heart abuzz with Welsh revolutionary zeal, decided to track down this tribe, hopeful of discovering a utopia in the New World where his fellow Welshman could live in harmony far from the oppression of the hated English.  

Gruff Rhys
With a few pennies in his backpack and a fire burning in his belly Evans landed in Baltimore in 1792, setting out into the mythical, uncharted American interior.  His adventure placed him smack-dab in the middle of a war between Spain and England, and after bouts of malaria, imprisonment, misery and hunger he found himself commissioned as a cartographer, charged with a mission to chart the Missouri River, discover if there are Welsh speaking Indians and, uh, try to bring back a unicorn if at all possible.  

It's a pretty crazy shaggy dog tale, the details further blurred by Evans being a tricky man to historically pin down.  But just as Evans walked in the footsteps of Prince Madog, so Rhys walks in his, taking in a concert tour following the rough path of Evans expedition and plaintively enquiring whether there are, indeed, Welsh speaking Native Americans after all. Joining him is John Evans himself, albeit in Muppet form.  Whoever was tasked with creating this felt Evans did an outstanding job, capturing the same insouciant, intelligent glint that you see on Gruff's face throughout the film. Underlying this historical detective story is a thoughtful dialogue on culture and language, Rhys drawing parallels between the eradication of the Native American languages and shrinkage of their culture and English cultural domination of Wales.

John Evans (in Muppet form)
As a fan of Gruff Rhys I was pre-disposed to enjoy this, and it more than captures Gruff's ramshackle, acid-tinged aesthetic.  He's just an extremely likeable guy, combining a fiercely creative intelligence, a touch of the wide-eyed mystic and a smidge of child-like innocence. His best dramatic weapon is a slightly bewildered stare, as if he's an alien landed from Mars trying to work out the foibles of these crazy human beings.  Most of the people he meets along the way aren't quite sure what to make of this bearded Welsh poet -though he obviously clicks with the members of Native American Mandan tribe - the Welshman and the Native Americans clicking in a way that neatly compliments the themes of the film.

The most interesting interactions are with extroverted Americans, their eagerness to tell an exciting, bombastic story clashing nicely with Gruff's subtler Welsh demeanour.  Towards the end of the film there's a tour of a New Orleans graveyard, with a hugely energetic, very loud woman frantically explaining every little jot of history that's gone into the place. The contrast between the two people couldn't be greater; Gruff slightly spaced out and subdued, her acting like she's just taken an injection of speed to the eyeballs.  It's pretty funny stuff to watch, but also illustrates a crucial cultural difference that gets right the heart of what American Interior is about.

Gruff's focus on language isn't based in anything as crude as simple nationalism, rather of using it as a unique format of artistic expression - all languages contain concepts that can't be straightforwardly translated.  So while both Gruff and this tour guide tell the same story, the way they tell it couldn't be more different - the presentation of the information practically as important as the information itself.  So it's appropriate that the evocative cinematography and music tell the story just as well as the exposition.  The American landscape, be it the arid desert, lazy rivers or dense forest is shot in harsh grayscale, often with day-glo psychedelic animation over the top of it.

The film is being released in tandem with an album of the same name, so the film is soundtracked by Gruff's dreamy indie-pop.  It's great music, acoustic melodies laid down over dreamy synths and Gruff's relaxed, melancholic singing voice over the top.  Many parts of the film feel like short music videos, both music and narrative driving each other onwards with almost synaesthetic synergy.

American Interior is suffused with so much heroic adventure that it, at it's best, it approaches Werner Herzog levels.  John Evans, with his doomed madman's quest for knowledge at the end of an unmapped river is a very Herzoggian hero.  The film swims in questions of identity and myth; on a personal level Gruff trying to understand his ancestors and heritage and, zoomed out, asking wider questions about the wider Welsh psyche.  Wales is occupied land: it's predominant language, culture and governance an alien imposition. American Interior seeks to clean out the wound, Gruff showing us that while there might not be a literal Welsh utopia, there's abundant psychic territory out there for the Welsh language and culture - and it's important that it remain infused with the exact branch of vibrancy that pulses through the veins of this great documentary.


American Interior is released 9th May 2013

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