' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: God's Country (1985)

Friday, September 22, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: God's Country (1985)

In the late 1970s, French director Louis Malle came to the American Midwest to make a documentary about the phenomenon of shopping malls. To the surprise of no one who has done time in those often airless structural odes to retail, he came up empty and set out to recount who knows what instead. One day, driving through rural Minnesota, he found himself passing through the town of Glencoe, west of Minneapolis, where he spied an elderly woman tending her garden and pulled over to chat, camera in tow, as this conversation and a county fair taking place the same afternoon, introducing him to other colorful characters, just sort of intrinsically impressed upon him what would become “God’s Country.”

The serendipity of this astonishing documentary’s genesis is inadvertently its strength. Malle enters Glencoe with no preconceived notions, with no determination to tell a specific story and to slant his view to tell that specific story. No, he simply finds people, puts them on camera, asks questions as any curious observer would, and then allows those interviewed to tell their stories, which, in turn, become the story. Indeed, while the community into which Malle wanders is warm and ingratiating, seeming to open their homes to this Frenchman and his small crew without a second thought, there are fears and resentments bubbling below, which Malle does not so much fiercely extract as just sort of nudge, indicative of the famous Midwestern reticence that is nevertheless so often ready to blow.

If Malle might initially be making it up on the fly, a deliberate rhythm and structural progression nevertheless emerges, as Malle first puts Glencoe into perspective through its rituals, segueing directly from the town’s ecclesiastical adherence, with its nine churches, to its regimented devotion to lawn-mowing, making room for as many shots of town folk cutting the grass as singing hymns, an incredible echo, worshipping going hand-in-hand with landscaping. From there, he observes the town’s livelihood, briefly visiting the Dairy Queen where so many congregate and then doing a deep dive on farming, Glencoe’s framework.

Yet while many interviewed express their faith and satisfaction in farming, shadows appear, laments about how fewer young people yearn to farm and how smaller farms are gradually being phased out, no longer feasible in an agricultural environment where equipment is only being built to serve. These anxieties are tied back to an interview with one local minister who talks about the divorce rate increasing, not a bad sign, per se, but a sign of changing times, which crops up on the edges of the entire picture, juxtaposed against the comfort of so many rituals, where contentment with what is and disgruntlement with what things are becoming moves into view, a familiar story, sure, but one that Malle sees not with cynicism but compassion. He sets up these rituals in the beginning not to tear them down but to gently demonstrate what stands to be lost in the eyes of the town’s beholders.

It’s a conservative viewpoint that Malle does not judge, not even when a plainspoken monologue on race raises red flags or when a farmer drops a shockingly casual anti-Jewish sentiment near the end, preferring instead to simply present this as part of the full picture, even if it suggests that those of God’s own country might not completely share their Creator’s compassion. Then again, Jean, a 26 year old social worker, demonstrates impressive perspective in an interview, even as she can’t help but giggle in telling Malle she has never really thought about what she’s expressing. That might be true, though it is not an absence of self-reflection and more like evidence of learning through experience, correlating to an earlier moment in the movie when a young farmer talks about learning from the school of hard knocks, which I think he only means half-facetiously, education on the ground. Both their attitudes are what they are because of where they are, and if Jean’s are this way, it suggests stronger tolerant winds might well blow through this town.

The conclusion of “God’s Country” is more like a postscript with Malle returning to Glencoe 6 years after filming, in 1985, finding the town at once the same and different, with doubt more prevalent, tied directly to the height of Reaganism, brought home in the closing monologue delivered by a Glencoe attorney who worrying about greed even as he hopes it will not become paramount. It must have been scary then, and it’s sadly still scary now, yet its cynical tone is at odds with the two scenes preceding it, where Malle foreshadows Glencoe’s coming downturn with a visit to the town’s nursing home, before doubling back to take in a wedding ceremony, suggesting new beginnings. Perhaps in returning Malle couldn’t help but see Glencoe as akin to Thornton Wilder’s Grover’s Corner, where death does not precipitate marriage but marriage precipitates death, where beginnings by definition must, eventually, yield endings. And if Wilder rightly worried that people couldn’t see their own lives as they lived them, Malle puts the lives of Glencoe on screen so that its people can see them, and so that we can see them too. And maybe by seeing theirs, we can see ours more clearly.

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