87 minutes, 2002, DVCAM

“Road to Nowhere: Passing No Judgements on the Wal-Mart Campers”
Missoula Independent, April 4, 2002
by Andy Smetanka

Last week we talked a little bit about ethnographic filmmaking and, briefly, about emic and etic perspectives; broadly speaking, the internal and external windows on a given culture. This week, to give some semiotic perspective on a new documentary about Wal-Mart camping culture produced by Missoula-area filmmaker Doug Hawes-Davis, let’s trundle out another model called symbolic strategies.

The symbolic strategies model, as explained by anthropologist Jay Ruby, “assumes that a film is a culturally coded communicative event designed to function in a particular context. Producers employ various codes they deem culturally appropriate for the context in which they wish the film seen. The producer takes it for granted that viewers share their competencies and assumptions and therefore the film will have its intended impact.” “Viewers,” Ruby continues, “have an active, perhaps seminal role in this process in that they can both imply from and attribute to films; that is, they can attempt to comprehend (a) film as a symbolic act designed by the producer to be understood in a particular way or they attribute meaning to the film’s plot, characters, narrative, etc. based upon their cultural assumptions. Research evidence suggests that when the producer’s intended message conflicts with the viewer’s worldview, it is the viewers’ attributions that will most likely dominate. Viewers therefore construct a meaning that may be contrary to the producer’s intentions.”

This is Nowhere introduces the viewer to roughly 15 American RV travelers, at least half of whom refer to themselves as “full-timers,” meaning they’ve essentially made RVs into their domestic vehicles as well. They tour the country in campers and motor homes, planning their nightly stops whenever possible around communities with Wal-Marts where they can “camp” for a night or two. According to the filmmakers, these 15 or so wanderers, mostly couples and predominantly senior citizens, are among some 3 million American “full-timers” currently rolling around out there.

They spend most of their money at Wal-Mart, buying food, clothing, toiletries, RV maintenance supplies and, whenever the local Wal-Mart is a “Supercenter,” most of their groceries too. They buy Rand-McNally road atlases that list the address of every Wal-Mart in every city in every state. They speak glowingly about how wonderful Wal-Mart is and how satisfied they are to spend the money outfitting their aluminum schooners at a place that lets them overnight for free in their parking lot.

Here’s where the symbolic systems come in. On the face of it, This is Nowhere is an indictment of the culture it examines, and most of the people who will actually go see this documentary probably count themselves among the choir that hardly needs preaching to. I count myself among the viewers who will interpret This is Nowhere in the context in which the filmmakers presumably want it to be seen, yet nowhere in the film, and only once in the accompanying press materials, do they cave in to explicit value judgements.

But then, one classic example of the subversive possibilities of symbolic systems is the Leni Riefenstahl documentary Triumph of the Will, about the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremburg, Germany. The context in which this film was originally intended for viewing differs drastically from the context in which it is generally submitted to opinion today. This is not to compare Wal-mart shoppers to Nazis, of course, but it illustrates the strikingly different interpretations that different viewers can make based on a set of shared values and cultural assumptions.

A drastic example, yes, and somewhat oversimplified. But the point is that the actual people interviewed in This is Nowhere would most likely be just as pleased to see themselves in this film as many viewers will be disgusted by them, and feel their opinions presented fairly in the film even as many will be mortified to hear the things that come out of their mouths. Because the documentary is extremely indulgent with its subjects, hearing them out instead of gleaning just enough testimony to let them hang themselves with their own rope, as it were, or merely presenting their statements taken out of context, Hawes-Davis and his associates let their human subjects create their own context within the context of the film, and with no intrusive voice-over to betray the filmmakers’ objectivity with even a few value-laden words or phrases, the subversive symbolism that emerges in the montage and sound editing is the real code.

This is Nowhere, in fact, wouldn’t be half the documentary it is if its producers had added a voice-over. Adding a voice-over would also have distracted from the ingenious editing, not to mention diminished the impact of a lot of what is being said. On that note, here is a small sampling of the dialogue that colors the film:

(RV Traveler, on the outlay of cash to drag several vehicles behind his new home): “A hundred grand. That’s how much it costs to have fun I guess.”

(RV Traveler, on seeing the sights): “It’s a terrific way of life. It’s a wonderful way of life. And we really do see a lot of America. We like it, obviously, otherwise we wouldn’t be standing here in the parking lot.”

(RV Traveler, on marital contentment): “I have books on tape so I don’t have to talk to him, because he needs it very quiet. I take tranquilizers every night. He drinks beer. We’re fine.”

(RV Traveler, on why it’s unsafe to park at highway rest areas): “It don’t matter how nice a person you’re talking to, he could be your killer.”

There are many humorous touches here, my personal favorite of which being the vaguely peristaltic imagery of a guy attempting to dump his sewer tank, and the inclusion in the end credits of a tufted titmouse that had been maligned earlier in the film. Witty, profound and inventive, this is documentary filmmaking at its best.