Part 2 of America, the Facade: On American Honey
Given the agitpop emblazoned onto the film’s birthmark of contemporary American youth, it is very difficult to not carry that term further into this film’s depiction of Mark Fisher’s concept of capitalist realism. While this concept has taken on multiple (and notably German) perspectives through various eras of commodity-based art, Arnold’s film continues to stand out for being best suited to Fisher’s theory.
To put it briefly, capitalist realism describes the widespread sense that capitalism isn’t just the only viable political and economic system, but the truth that it is now impossible to imagine a coherent alternative to it. No other concept seems more coherently aligned to this framework than the ideologies also present in the film’s eclectic soundtrack, accentuating Fisher’s concept as a result of the reality of travelling door-to-door sales crews.
Most of all, this film encapsulates capitalist realism in action through the communal swarm that is the band of the bear market, its honey the amber by which these pests are trapped and preserved, its titular hive led by a rat-tailed drone and a queen bee clad in stars and bars.
Even before the 2008 economic crisis, the framework of magazine sales crews were the bear market sublets to the bull stables of Wall Street pitches. With hardly any wariness towards being the middlemen of exploitation, the film’s minors converge bull market optimism amidst working for the bear market — that is, the residue of corporate America’s attempt at self-rescuscitating a major economic slowdown. Despite having hopes of buying into a higher market, this set of youths only have only one thing in mind, and that is to contribute to a seller’s market.
As the film is set post-crash, it serves as a backdrop for the collateral damages that mag crews have faced, to most of law enforcement’s neglect. It is also important to know how the industry behind these crews are formed, as a sense of community is formed around — if not encompassed by — a bed of lies. As this is something that crews practically run on, it is the truth that this film does not hesitate to reveal.
For instance, Star’s second meeting with Jake in the K-Mart parking lot immediately introduces use to the hunger that many individuals have invested in, a symptom of the bear market mentality:
“This is a business opportunity. We go door to door. We sell magazines. We explore, like, America. We party. Come with us.”
The definition of a seller’s market in this case is bent on ideas of individuals, rather than the physical actuality of printed ideas that they are attempting to sell. For every investment that each of these teens (including Jake) try to make in a possible future of personal rehabilitation, they forfeit to an intoxicating method of profit. What each of these individuals end up selling are images of themselves.
Perhaps the one thing that viewers should keep in mind is the irony of Star being surrounded by these people while she retains complete control of herself. The occupation that magazine crews have are not only dangerous and damaging (and living proof of the capitalist aggrandization and exploitation of the impoverished) to their safety, but the only thing left for most of these people who believe that they have nothing to lose, when they continue to throw the remains of their identities until they become entities who are forced to sell versions of themselves; versions of themselves that run on the most dialectic of facades in order to make the least of ends meet.
“I usually tell them my father got killed in Afghanistan,” one Snapback-wearing kid explains to Star. It’s almost crazy how one simple pitch is tinged with so much nationalistic irony to make one cringe.
Not only are most of these selling points linked to America’s own struggle to come to terms with its own atrocities, but they speak volumes on the nation’s economically fruitless. They reflect their choiceless resort to manipulating their knowledge of these atrocities to sell identities that are ironically linked to the neverending cycle of neglect and self-victimization that America has perpetuated on and through its lowest class. They are essentially alleviating what is left of the country’s tendency to misrepresent itself.
These identities are practically lost to a culture, a mentality that Fisher attaches to the resignation to the foregone conclusion of neoliberalism. American Honey’s musical collage of pop, country, and trap hold prevalence in Trump’s America, and remains crucial to understanding it as a brilliant document of capitalist realism. Given that Fisher was also alive at the time of the film’s release, his own research pays off more than once through Arnold’s sprawling epic of celluloid, in which all of its closeted skeletons have been released.
If Fisher saw this resignation in the music of Flo-Rida, Pitbull, and will.i.am, we see it in the music of Juicy J, E-40, and Kevin Gates. Hell, these songs are the anthems of capitalist realism, and are even more telling of its own time than it might’ve intended. The realness of these anthems are the crew’s mantras, taking on the two meanings Simon Reynolds elaborates on in his 1996 essay for The Wire magazine:
“ ‘Real’ has two meanings. First, it means authentic, uncompromised music that refuses to sell out to the music industry and soften its message for crossover. ‘Real’ also signifies that the music reflects a ‘reality’ constituted by late capitalist economic instability, institutionalized racism, and increased surveillance and harassment of youth by the police. ‘Real’ means the death of the social: it means corporations who respond to increased profits not by raising pay or improving benefits but by …. downsizing (the laying-off the permanent workforce in order to create a floating employment pool of part-time and freelance workers without benefits or job security).”
It is the paradoxically performative authenticity of trap’s uncompromising aura soundtracking the film’s uncompromising absorption into the reality of late capitalist economic instability. While the former has grown into a marketable genre of mainstream music, these songs neither merely reflect temporary highs in pre-existing social conditions, nor are they causal to them. Rather, the crossroad between trap and the late capitalist social field feed into each other.
The end product? Capitalist realism transforms itself into an anti-mythical myth. This term may seems so impossible to wrap one’s head around, but the vast culture surrounding hip-hop’s referential realm — which directly bleeds into trap — is inherently pronounced.
The affinity between trap and gangster and horror films, such as Scarface, The King of New York, The Godfather trilogy, and Friday the 13th arise from their common claim to have stripped the world of sentimental illusions and seen for “what it really is”.
In the case of hip-hop and trap music, to get real is to confront the dog-eat-dog world that is the nexus of Arnold’s filmic business model; where you’re either a winner or loser, and where most will be losers.
Likewise, it’s hard not to hear or respond to these songs’ demands that we enjoy ourselves, packaged through infectious choruses, triplet punchlines, and enough boisterous production to fit the one-track minded slogan of the 071 crew. They are merely thin attempts and brief escapades to distract from the depression that these kids can only mask (and so cleverly at times), but never dissipate. It’s proof that a secret sadness will forever linger beneath this fragment of the 21st century’s constantly forced smile.
There is a reason why taking American Honey’s release into consideration feels like the last hurrah of a bygone America; an extended afterparty and the long goodbye foreseeing the rise of Trump and the Capitol’s return to the far side of right wing politics. In its chair was a presidential identity and a cabinet branded on a fantasy of nationalist revival.
At the very least, the film’s subjects — at some point, the spitting image of Trump’s America — at least suggested that his forthcoming provided an alternative to capitalist realism, but much less perpetuated Fisher’s concept for the sake of their economic circumstances.
While understanding Arnold’s ability to deftly expand on this concept, we must also take into account cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s visual contributions. There are several candid moments featuring animals that Star encounters on this trip, which seem to offer no commentary on first glance.
However, it is believed that these animals reflect the helpless of this film’s protagonist to her circumstances, along with the circumstances of those around her.
Just as Star does with her own life, these animals also have little control over the situations they are put in as creatures having to roam about while being no stranger to homelessness in the natural world, be it through forest fires, fracking, or deforestation. Star treats every animal she meets with respect, even doing as much as she can to save them with what she has.
In one scene where Star comes across a brown bear, she is left staring at it, cementing the innocence of her humanity and hoping that the bear tames itself. That it does, as it gently leaves her sight.
The bear may as well stand as a living metaphor pivoting both the film’s direction and Star’s arc as a character. The naive and unadulterated hope that the bear has so often symbolized in this economy undergoes a physical but quiet and release of hopelessness and stagnance towards its human target.
For a moment, it does not represent the insulated desperation of corporate greed, and the modern world’s tendency to weigh this urge on itself, only to be found wanting. Instead, the bear is stripped of its societal associations, as Star finds comfort in its presence and their equal respect for nature. For all the poverty she has introduced us to and endured, this moment for her signifies the spiritual wealth worth living for.
At the same time, the bear does not need to hunt or be hunted. Instead, its essence has already consumed its prey, and as its eyes meet our lone Star, it comes to a gentle yet painful understanding that the remains of its significance (to the withering wilderness, to the economy, to the state flag of the material Republic of California) have been left to the wind, and brandished by the youthful fire of vagabonds whose pitches have no place in the American dream.
Yet they remain bound to chasing the paper, instilling pride in their hustle as a way to cope, and to have those in the lower echelon fight for such by physical ritual as facilitated by the hive’s queen bee. For all the pop culture that exudes American Honey’s constant catharsis of juvenile flesh, they have bought into the idea of their American hive.
While Jake remains the middleman between the corporate worker and the working class, he essentially succumbs under Krystal’s command because she, quite literally, pays him to live. Star at some point takes on the mythical role of the independent worker, but ultimately fails in the hands of being a perishable entity, failing to change the system, and assaulting individuality altogether.
At the same time, Krystal (Riley Keough) is not by any means wealthy, and none of the 70% of the crew’s profit ends up being attached to her upper hand. Instead, it is her arm and leg in exchange for gas and motels, and at the end of the day, the fullness of her ego stems from the prejudice she clearly holds against Star; something that is externalized in comparison to the subtlety of the kids she has hired. Krystal is also more than unflinchingly aware that she is the taskmaster of callous exploitation, perpetuating a cycle of harmful labor by encouraging them to prioritize their submission to her dominance before engaging in bondage with this chain of dominance itself.
These kids have unknowingly relinquished their dreams to capitalism, infatuated with gaining capital more than they are committed to maintaining it. All this as we see them trampling up well-manicured lawns and buying into the idea of America, manifesting the concept of becoming the person that a consumer wants.
As questions of their future aspirations recur, it is more than clear that the lack of them being asked this outlines the fact that they’ve never had enough hope to ask themselves. They are just as poor in spirit and wealth as those around them who seem to be positioned above them; a band of outsiders disguised as mere visitors in the American fairytale; a hive of human survivors in a barely legal underclass, all of whom share the same plight.
And into the wild they go, roaming, venturing, searching for meaning while remaining detached from societal necessity — material possessions (at least engraved in tunes), money, and responsibility. The wilderness they inhabit (within themselves, this system, and the world around them) is home. To them, it is natural, beautiful, untamed as they are, and priceless beyond compare.
Alas, or at least temporarily, the bear has tamed itself.