'Anthem' lets you ride shotgun on a sweet but amateurish road trip in search of the American Dream.

Published September 22, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

THE AMERICAN FRONTIER may have moved into virtual space, and pixels may have replaced picket fences in our national mythology, but the American Dream is still about being able to quit your job, take to the open road and define your own dream. For the MTV generation, however, the most important thing is to capture the experience on film -- the prevailing wisdom being that if you can't put a good soundtrack to it, it's probably not worth doing.

Two years ago, 26-year-olds Shainee Gabel and Kristin Hahn left behind their fledgling Hollywood careers and set out on a six-month cross-country trip with a couple of cameras they didn't know how to use and a list of 200 people they wanted to talk to. Their goal -- at once ambitious and naive, clichid and timeless -- was to find out whether the American Dream still exists. The result, "Anthem," is a frequently charming but amateurish and painfully earnest documentary that reveals as much about the all-too-American naiveti of its creators as it does about their country at century's end.

The biggest problem with "Anthem" is that, like most well-intentioned but hastily planned passion projects, it's both literally and figuratively unfocused. Gabel and Hahn exhibit a determination and moxie that makes you really, really want to like this film, but you wish someone had urged them to take a cinematography class before they started it. At its worst, the film resembles something you might see on late-night public access cable TV. But at its best, the film has the invitingly earnest feel of a Charles Kuralt feature, bringing you into the living rooms, kitchens and cars of some very unlikely heroes. The novice filmmakers' self-deprecating style endears them to their subjects, allowing them to capture some candid and unexpectedly intimate moments with both ordinary people and luminaries like Studs Terkel, John Waters and poet laureate Rita Dove.

Thanks to their instincts and serendipity, Gabel and Hahn repeatedly find themselves in the right place at precisely the right time. They're with former Sen. George McGovern the day Sen. Bob Packwood resigns, with a post-op Michael Stipe the day after he cancels a show because of an emergency hernia operation and with Hunter Thompson the day Jerry Garcia dies. One of the film's most compelling, strangely moving moments is watching Thompson struggle at the typewriter, attempting to write a eulogy for Garcia for Rolling Stone.

"Anthem" captures a fairly diverse cross section of Americans without resorting to tokenism. Like Terkel, Gabel and Hahn display a laudable respect for average Americans, leaving in the lengthy -- and interesting -- philosophical musings of a 20-year-old Pennsylvania gas station attendant while cutting short ex-Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic's idiotic ravings about Jesus being a "lefty."

But earnestness only carries the film so far, and about three-quarters of the way through the two-hour film, you start wondering exactly what it's about. You walk out of "Anthem" feeling like you've just had an encounter with a well-meaning, all-purpose activist: You agree with most of what they're saying -- heck, you might even be willing to sign their petition -- but after listening to their entire spiel, you still can't tell if they're trying to eradicate world hunger or lobbying for wider bicycle lanes. All of the 28 subjects who make it into the final cut are asked the same kind of trite and impossibly vague questions you might expect MTV News' Tabitha Soren to ask. Questions like, "Do you believe in the American Dream?" and "What is an American hero?" (rapper Chuck D's answer: "A big submarine sandwich") invariably produce the same responses, with virtually everyone quoting Thomas Jefferson at length. This has the unfortunate effect of making even Tom Robbins look like he shares something in common with Christian Coalition Oregon Chapter President Jim Adkisson.

"Anthem" aspires to be as much about the documentary process as it is about its putative subject. And it's often Gabel and Hahn's off-the-cuff observations about their own American experience that are the most culturally astute ("Everything we've eaten has been handed to us through a window by a woman in a beanie"). But there aren't enough of these to make the film much more than someone's better-than-average vacation photos. I can't imagine that they would be any more interesting in text form, either. (The travel journals are being published by Avon.)

The film bottoms out at the end; McGovern's pathetic lamentations ("It's really too bad we couldn't have won in 1972") come across like Andy Rooney's irrelevant ramblings at the end of "60 Minutes." The fact that the two young filmmakers gave McGovern pride of place is instructive. Like the "American Alzheimers" that Studs Terkel talks about in what turns out to be "Anthem's" best interview, the filmmakers' sense of history ends with the last thing they can remember.

By Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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