The American Dream

Up close


…Is it all dreamed out, the American dream?

Is somebody really still dreaming it,

or is it just the movies that keep it going?

Wim Wenders, from the book “Emotional Images”.

{“The American Dream” article, written originally in the form of poetry in German, in 1984.}

On a cold and rainy afternoon, I’m on my way to the American consulate in Sydney to pick up my passport. Having an Iranian passport, I am naturally uncertain as to having been issued a visa. Because of this fact, I had tried to provide some reference letters to ensure them that I do not intend to stay in that country…

We are on the ground floor of a forty -storey skyscraper along with other applicants. Right next to the entrance, a few chairs and a table have been placed and every time somebody enters or exits, with the automatic doors opening and closing, a draft and some rain are let in. There are several security guards and metal detectors are present in the area. The Persian Gulf War has just come to an end and because of this no one is allowed into the consulate office on the 9th floor Exactly at the announced hour, an official accompanied by an armed officer, come out of the elevator on the ground floor carrying 2 large boxes filled with passports. Finally, it’s my turn. I get the passport and quickly leaf through it. The words “Only One Time Entry” are written in a large misshapen handwriting in the center of the visa stamp.

We arrive in Honolulu at 3:00 a.m. Hawaii time. I’m one of the few people who spend 45 minutes instead of the normal 5 minutes answering the immigration officer’s endless questions. My journalism ID card and my cameras help me out. In the final moments before placing the entry stamp, he asks, “Do you have any Iraqi friends in America?” I can’t help laughing. I say, “Just until a few months ago we were their enemies and you, their friend.” He stamps my passport. Later I take a look at the imprint. In the center, in handwriting slightly better than the last, is written: “Three months, No Extensions”.

I buy a map of Los Angeles from the Honolulu airport and I glance through it on the way. Beverly Hills, Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, Universal Studios, Disneyland…

…The “American Dream”

A dream is made of images,

much more than of words.

You see dreams

what kind of dream would that be,

the dream of a country and of a people

who have forgotten how to see,

>because they’ve gotten used to

everything being shown to them…

Apparently I enter central Los Angeles, but no matter how hard I look I can’t find the center. In my opinion, the center is a place where many people are walking the streets. But I later realized that in this city, people only walk with their cars. I eventually learn that there are more cars in California than in any other state. On the radio I hear the announcer saying, “We Americans worship private cars. We spend millions of dollars on road construction annually. We love our cars more than our wives and children; approximately 2,300-2,400 people, in California alone, are killed annually by them, and blood is shed at their wheels”. As I discovered more and more, I realized that, as usual, everything has a reason. Apparently in the 1930s, General Motors buys the rights to the Los Angeles public transportation system but instead of operating it, trains were more or less done away with and buses were greatly reduced in L.A. Therefore no one is capable of living without a car in this vast city, with a population of ten million.


Of Beverly Hills, you see nothing but tall palm trees and wide, extra clean streets. The palace-like houses of the rich and famous are placed in the midst of grass fields near high hills in a way that seem ornamental. There are no people in sight. If you don’t happen to walk on the sidewalk noting such factors as watchdogs, security cameras and alarms, you wouldn’t believe that people actually live in these houses. The only connection you may have with them is through recalling movies filmed in this area. However, my memory fails me. At least I have a better sense of Sunset Boulevard, because of Billy Wilder’s film and also the final scene of Wenders’ State of Things. But even if a person doesn’t like American films (or rather Hollywood movies), they still cannot deny the fact that Hollywood continues to be an interesting place to check out.


The hottest tourist attraction in Hollywood (which is actually the name of the district) is the old cinema called Chinese Mann Theater. Famous, not so famous, and unknown (at least to me), celebrity handprints, footprints, and signatures as well as dates and other details, design the pavement outside this theater. Yet a great effort is required to see all this through the crowds. Here and there you see people standing, sitting or lying down next to their favorite idol’s imprints, busy taking photographs or videotaping themselves. And they say Hollywood isn’t very crowded this summer as a result of economical problems and tourists fearing possible plane blasts by the Iraqis. Many don’t have the courage to travel. In every corner someone is trying to make money in any way possible. Small layouts, belonging to vendors who are familiar with 4 or 5 languages of the world, include souvenirs like posters, key chains… In another corner, there is a complete pictorial history of the Oscars on display. In approaching these pictures, you notice, for some reason, only the names and pictures of actors and actresses. There’s no sign of directors let alone other Oscar winners.


As mentioned before, Hollywood (aside from its studios) is a street of about a mile long. There was at one time about ten movie theaters, half of which have by now, been closed down. There are also many stores, which allow you to have your picture taken, with four or five dollars, alongside any celebrity at a party, park or even in bed, using computer tricks. Another attraction is a large museum displaying wax figures of the greatest names in history and cinema. Looking at the pictures in the glass case outside the museum, I found no criteria with which to distinguish the great from the lesser and so I chose not to enter and to keep myself from further confusion. With no dissolve, fade out or fade in, Frankenstein, Ronald Reagan, Madonna, Jesus, Rambo and The Virgin Mary are placed next to each other. Everywhere you look the dead surround you: John Wayne, Clark Gable and more than anyone else Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Elvis Presley. (A few weeks later, a TV program claims that Elvis is alive and because of his collaboration with the American government has feigned his death but will come to us in the near future. But this time not as a singer and entertainer but as a spiritual leader.)

One of the theaters is showing Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood. To attract people’s attention, a huge statue of Robin Hood with a bow and arrow aiming towards the horizon and with real flames coming out of the arrowhead, has been placed above the theater’s entrance. Another theater is showing Thelma & Louise. The only non- Hollywood films I see in L.A. are being shown in small art house theaters, with Henry Jaglom’s Eating in one theater and Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever in another. Although Jaglom lives and works in L.A., many have never even heard his name (his films are usually made with European backing).


In the smoky horizon of the city, the direction in which Robin Hood is aiming, the famous Hollywood hills are seen with the huge Hollywood sign, which couldn’t even go missed by the blind…

At nights I sit in front of the TV and click through 60 or 70 channels. I feel that, in the words of Wim Wenders, America can better be known through its television.

…That evening I turned on the television

and met America…

…It was that incredibly noisy, tasteless, calculated,

contemptuous behavior of this system of images

which I watched at first with frightened fascination,

and then I gradually became its prey…

…On that screen there was no longer the slightest connection

between reality and its representation in images.

Neither in the news-or what passed for news-

nor in the shows or in the series

was there any harmony left between “reality,

such that the human mind could seize and pass it on-

With the hopes of discovering the Wild West, we (Amir Naderi was researching and location scouting for couple of his ideas set in American Indian Reservations. I was employed by his producer Bahman Maghsoudlou to accompany him. At the time Mr. Naderi had asked me to not write anything about him and his intentions) begin our 4000 km trip through California, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Nevada. I cannot believe the quantity and the quality of the roads. Aside from fast food chains which always manage to track you down, I always find three other things in my surroundings. Public phones in the middle of nowhere, a mailbox in the middle of nowhere, and Coca Cola dispensers everywhere… I look the map over several times, in search of the locations of my own favorite films. The script of Paris, Texas helps me, since it gives the exact filming locations: In Cabasdan, where Hunter contacts Ann to give her news of his trip with Travis (and the dinosaur statues are in the background); in Death Valley, where Stroheim has shot the final scene of Greed; at Zabriskie Point, where Antonioni has shot the most important scene in his film having the same title. Later, I found out that despite its threatening title, no one has ever died in Death Valley. Many have gone to the brink of death, but they have been saved at the last minute, “Hollywood style”. Of course, since in the years of the Gold Rush a Coca Cola dispenser wasn’t so readily available, naturally they had to quench their thirst with plain water. The next thing that catches my attention is the barbed wire. Once I pass the L.A. city limits, I notice the barbed wire on either side of the road, which after a day of driving has not come to an end. At that time, I was still new to America. I didn’t know that the barbed wire extends throughout my 4000-km trip and there was no area, even in the middle of nowhere, that you could photograph or videotape without permission. I was invited into a police car four or five times for stopping without purpose or videotaping without a permit. That is why most of the taping was done Wenders style, from the window of a moving car. Let’s not even talk about indoor areas. Everyone wants money. Money was also the main reason for stopping us on the road. After all the lands and deserts along the roads belong to someone, whether private owners, governmental organizations or Native Americans. (Later I discovered that Monument Valley, the famous background for John Ford Westerns, is usually booked for filming six months in advance)...

Another disappointing experience was that, at times, we’d go about 20 km off the main road, in search of a historical site which had been indicated with tens of different colored signs, only to find a couple of broken down walls designated as ancient ruins. Maybe it was my fault for having come from Iran, but these people take their historical sites (which are, naturally, remnants of the Native American) very seriously and protect them with security guards, rangers and …


During the several visits to the different Indian villages and reservations in Arizona and New Mexico, I note that in terms of tribes and their history, only 20% of the Indians were hunters. The rest lived in one specific area, with mud houses and they profited from a rather advanced agriculture. (We, who grew up with John Wayne movies, were quite surprised). And naturally, the mentioned ruins were associated with such civilized tribes as the Aztecs - even with the definition the West has for civilization-.

At this point, based on statistics, about 2.5 million Native Americans live in America, however, culturally, I doubt that any true Indians exist. Contrary to what I believed, their financial state was not too bad (African Americans are in a much more grievous state than Native Americans). The government having given them complete control in the fields of tribal, cultural and traditional matters (of course only within their own territorial limits), has to some extent granted them relative social independence, though this holds more true for those over 40 years of age. The younger generation either didn’t believe in their heritage or are living in transition between their two shockingly diverse cultures. So it’s no surprise that alcoholism is a widespread problem among them. (In a hotel, on our way, they were showing a commercial for a John Wayne movie, which was to be broadcast in 3D for the first time in television history. And 3D glasses could be purchased in stores for one dollar). After the success of Dances with Wolves, which most Native Americans complimented, most Indians have a more favorable opinion about their portrayal in the movies. On the one hand, the Indian reservations make large profits through the making of such films, and moreover they appreciate being represented as a sympathetic people, as opposed to the wild and bloodthirsty race that they have been represented as in American cinema for the past 70 or 80 years. In this field, managing committees for Indian reservations are established and organized enough to provide a client with a complete list of all audio-visual services and prices: $1,500-2,000 for a one-day permit to film the villages; local villagers with speaking parts $120-150 a day and with non-speaking parts $70-90 a day; children $50, and if anyone need a scene of their dances or rituals, for which any price could be asked. So they have reached the conclusion that after so much cinematic and non- cinematic injustice throughout history, this time they are getting their fair share. We can’t easily disregard the fact that it costs $1,500-2,000, for a one day filming permit, in order to film a village of about 20 homes and a school (the cemetery and the church cannot be filmed) while $2,000 is the going rate for an old Western movie set, the size of an actual city. For example, a movie set, located in an area near Tucson (South of Phoenix, the capital of Arizona) called “Old Tucson”, consisting of a bank, bar, jail, church, blacksmith, stable, mine, train station, sheriff’s office…which can be seen in most Western movies made after 1939 (Rio Lobo, El Dorado, Battle of OK Corral, High Noon, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Who Killed Liberty Valence, and among the more recent Three Amigos), is open to public when not being used as a film set, and from hardly visible speakers Western movies’ soundtracks can be heard ( most of them Ennio Morricone’s compositions). Different shows or duel scenes and bank robberies are shown to audiences (mostly tourists). There’s also an arms museum with one of the most complete weapons, train and stage coach collections.

…I don’t know where to start

if I want to talk

about the exploitation OF images

and the exploitations BY images.

Once there was

the “American Cinema”

and its language

was the legitimate narrative form of America

and, in its finest moments,

a fitting expression of the American Dream.

that cinema no longer exists.

That’s why I’ll have to describe “American Television” once more,

as the apotheosis,

the destruction of that language,

the hollowing out of any morality inherent in images

and of story telling through images…

For a few moments, before the arrival of a large bus full of tourists to Zabriskie point, I can immerse myself in the memory of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. A scene filled with love for life. I said Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point because the American Zabriskie Point can never convey the same feeling to a person. In contrast to the beauty of the primeval mountains and their modern and abstract form, the artificial tourist-like atmosphere (with the presence of a huge picture of Mr. Zabriskie, the geological history of the region and the sound of tens of old tourists’ mumbled questions and opinions) is exasperating. While waiting for the area to be clear of tourists, whose visit usually takes no more than 15 to 20 minutes, I begin to read the life story of Mr.Zabriskie, which is written on a big sign located in the area. My guess had been that he was an explorer or a scientist who has made the initial scientific or geological discoveries in this area. But having read the relevant information, I notice that he hadn’t even once set foot in this area, but apparently, about a century ago, he had a very productive gold mine approximately 100 km away from here, from which remarkable amounts of gold had been excavated. For this reason, when he dies at the age of 65, they name this several million-year-old region after him as a tribute.

…Film and television now had the same form:

The Commercial…

…They have nothing to narrate anymore.

Their form no longer requires it, or rather,

it no longer permits it.

This new breed of movies

with their origin in television and commercials

only pretends to tell stories.

What they really want is

to ambush, to daze, to blind.

Narrating is difficult…

The names of most cities or towns in America that you set foot in, sound familiar in one way or another. Even if you don’t remember in which movie you saw it, you know you’ve heard something about it.  “The World’s Greatest Entertainment Center” is the title they themselves have given to Las Vegas. Yet I don’t know why the grandeur and colors and the glitter of the signs, the nightclub neon lights and casinos only have your attention for about few hours. What attracts more attention is that the greater the cities, especially buildings and signs and symbols become, the smaller, more insignificant, and sadder the people beneath them get.

Cut to the most eastern part of America, New York, where these characteristics exist to a greater extent. While most of L.A. is horizontal (due to its high earthquake risk factor), New York is vertical. As I see the Empire State Building for the first time, I suddenly remember King Kong. The first cab I got into, I quickly glanced into the rearview mirror to see if Robert De Niro is driving or not. The first time I got on the Metro, I was waiting to see if I would establish any “French Connections” or not? When I found out next to which bridge the photo for the poster of Woody Allen’s Manhattan was taken, I went there, found the exact same angle, but realized that the bench seen in the poster doesn’t really exist. When I went to the bar in which Woody Allen plays the Clarinet every Monday, I discovered that he doesn’t play the Clarinet there every Monday. But Harlem was just as I had seen it in the movies and films, a little bit more dismal than that, and the existing wave of violence and indifference on the streets of New York gave me the same sense as Scorsese’s Mean Streets, and I could get all I wanted of Jarmusch-like alleys and passages… You feel like you have seen every corner of the city hundreds of times, in pictures and films. In fact, you feel like you grew up with it all. As you walk through libraries, museums, and art galleries, you notice that this city has experienced every kind of idea a long time ago. I am embarrassed to take any photographs. What would I be photographing that hasn’t been photographed already? Even speaking or showing surprise towards the situation of homelessness won’t attract the attention or sympathy of anyone. They’ve seen and heard it all before. Even as a newcomer, you get used to the sight of the homeless after a week, and this was the most unbearable fact that I found in this city. Getting used to and accepting a society in which such vast class distinctions exist. New Yorkers don’t consider any city in America as open-minded as themselves, and they sneer at the people of Los Angeles and Hollywood. Hollywood takes it out on them by not giving them Oscars. Despite the fact that Scorsese has been nominated for an Oscar a number of times, he has yet to receive one. The works of Woody Allen rarely get a nomination and even if he is nominated, he seems to be more widely accepted as a writer than a director. Apparently Woody Allen is not that approving of them either, since he has never participated in the Oscars ceremony. Even in 1978, when he won an Oscar for Annie Hall, he didn’t show up to receive it in person, having to play the clarinet in his favorite bar on Monday nights…

…The entertainment industry is probably already

the next biggest sector of the American economy

after armaments, so it’s only logical

to suppose that one day

it will become the biggest economic factor bar none.

The more impossible and unthinkable wars become,

world-wide ones in particular,

the more evident world-wide entertainment will appear

as” the continuation of politics by other means”…

…An aside:

how hard it is to understand

that a word like “Dream-Factory”

always has an undertone of praise

when it really

belongs in that series of words like

“brain-washing” or “genocide”…

…Then you start to understand

a graffito in a toilet in Hollywood:

“people here

have become the people

they’re pretending to be”.