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And the Pursuit of Happiness

Louis Malle's documentary And the Pursuit of Happiness... (1986) came at an important transition point in the director's career. With this film and his previous documentary God's Country (1986), Malle attempted to explore American life in a different way after the failure of Alamo Bay (1985), which received uniformly negative reviews for its botched portrayal of ethnic tensions between Vietnamese immigrants and white locals in a Texas coastal town. In contrast to God's Country, which provides a close-up, sympathetic portrayal of a conservative Midwest community, And the Pursuit of Happiness... deals with a much larger number of people and thus emphasizes the vast range of immigrant experiences in America.

Malle later recalled: "I already intended to go back home. I'd started taking notes for Au revoir les enfants [1987], which I wrote the following summer here in France. But I wanted to stay in America because my daughter Chloë had just been born, in November 1985, so I wanted to stick around with Candice [Bergen] and the baby. [...] They were about to celebrate the centenary of the Statue of Liberty, and HBO, the pay-cable television company, asked me if I would be interested in doing something around the theme of the Statue of Liberty. There were a lot of celebrations about the immigrants and Ellis Island. So I met with them, and told them, "If I was to do something about immigrants, [...] I want to do something about immigration today, recent immigrants." HBO agreed on the subject and asked him to deliver the film in time for the Fourth of July in 1986.

In a loosely constructed, fragmentary style And the Pursuit of Happiness... captures glimpses of individual immigrants and communities, including: Cambodian refugees arriving at the JFK airport, the Cuban-American community in Miami, a Vietnamese physician living and working in Nebraska, the family of the exiled General Samosa from Nicaragua, and the Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott, who six years later would win the Nobel Prize in literature. Malle found a number of interviewees through his own experiences: "For instance, I had to so some casting for Alamo Bay in Dallas, and when I arrived at the airport with my assistant the taxi-driver was Ethiopian. So we started talking, and I thought it was very interesting that a Dallas cab-driver should be Ethiopian. He said, 'There's a lot of us here.' So I did a bit of investigating and found out that there was an important Ethiopian community; there were even Ethiopian restaurants in downtown Dallas. So I decided that that was what I wanted to film - recent immigrants from Latin America, Africa, Asia."

In terms of his documentaries, Malle considered himself part of the Direct Cinema school, which included figures such as Robert Drew, the Maysles brothers, Richard Leacock and D. A. Pennebaker. These filmmakers typically used lightweight 16mm cameras and portable audio recorders which allowed them to work in very small crews, an approach which encourages the documentary subjects to behave more naturally and enables the filmmaker to witness events as they unfold with a minimum of intervention. In that spirit, And the Pursuit of Happiness... shows us not just interviews but people at work or at home and in small community celebrations.

Perhaps due to its nature as an HBO-sponsored documentary, And the Pursuit of Happiness... received little critical attention in the US when it was first broadcast. The situation was better in France, where it received a small theatrical release. Marc Chevrie, a critic for Cahiers du cinéma, wrote: "What Malle demonstrates here is more than simply a perspective - it's the ability to listen [...] each subject tells his or her own story and the film becomes an immense narrative comprised of many voices [...]."

Producer, Director, Narrator and Photographer: Louis Malle
Associate Producer: James Bruce
Film Editor: Nancy Baker
Sound: Danny Michael and Neelon Crawford
Sound Editor: Jonathan Levy

by James Steffen

French, Philip, ed. Malle on Malle. London: Faber and Faber, 1993.
Frey, Hugo. Louis Malle. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2004. Southern, Nathan C with Jacques Weissgerber. The Films of Louis Malle: a Critical Analysis. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2006.



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