Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Favorites - God's Country (#69)

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Favorites - God's Country (#69)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. God's Country (1986/France/dir. Louis Malle) appeared at #69 on my original list.

What it is • In 1979, Louis Malle was on the road, crossing the American Midwest with a PBS production crew. Apparently the original object of his documentary was going to be a Minneapolis shopping mall but the irritating Muzak of the location drove him out into the countryside, where he stumbled across a town fair in a small farming community, Glencoe, Minnesota. Taken with the down-home charm, friendly nature, and cultural idiosyncrasies of the town, Malle decided to stay, recording interviews with bankers, cops, lawyers, clerks, retirees, lots of farmers, and at least one cow inseminator. The job descriptions only go so far, because what Malle really captures is humanity in all its manifestations. Some of his conversations subtly hint at deep emotion beneath the cordial, colloquial surface while others go so deep that we almost forget what we're watching, the backdrop of the specific time and place falling away completely (the most obvious example is the young woman who speaks about love, loneliness, sexuality, hypocrisy - and whose expressive face conveys even more emotion than her frank words). Malle was never able to cut this footage together as originally planned and then in the mid-1980s he returned to Glencoe to follow up with these folks. The last half-hour of the documentary has a more depressed feel than the rest of the film (which also contains melancholy stretches), emphasizing that the Reagan administration, for all its talk of "Morning in America," is actually hastening the downfall of the heartland. But even here, Malle and his subjects find hope and comfort. I only wish we could return now, thirty years later, to see how everyone (who remains) is doing. In ninety minutes, God's Country makes you feel like you know these people and the town they live in, and at the same time it keeps them slightly mysterious (much as you can know your neighbors for years, only to discover you were barely scratching the surface). The film offers us a perspective that is both a peek and a revelation.

Why I like it •
It's amazing how something so particular can also feel so universal. I've never lived or spent much time in the Midwest, and I wasn't even born until 1983, but I recognize so much of this film not only in its content but its format. Calling it a "documentary" - and it is certainly one of the greatest documentaries I've ever seen - almost feels a little misleading, because at heart this is a home movie. Malle is never quite a fly-on-the-wall; the townspeople always acknowledge his presence even when they aren't recording an interview and his voice, both within the scene and as subsequent narration voiceover, frequently asserts his personal fascination with the town culture (although interestingly, we never see Malle himself onscreen until the final section of the movie, as he drives back into Glencoe). And the interviews feel less like formal talking-heads sessions than a natural extension of the camera crew's laid-back observational approach to farmwork, weddings, or nursing home gatherings. Sometimes we even see one bleed into the other, as the camera approaches a subject and a conversation begins. For me, personally, the cinema has always been a grand fusion of larger-than-life spectacle and down-to-earth domesticity, the blockbuster and home movies as two sides of the same coin. Another draw for me has been mentioned in a lot of these entries, especially lately: transformation. God's Country allows us to witness a community at two different stages, six years apart (which became the subject of one of my recent video essays), with everything from fashion to personal drama shifting before our eyes. Unlike Platform, and more like Syndromes and a Century, the change is presented as dramatic back-to-back juxtaposition rather than gradual evolution. Beyond all the fascinating formal conceits, I love God's Country because I care about the people onscreen, drawn as much to the moments of intimacy - just camera and subject - as the big tapestry of a small town.

How you can see it • God's Country streams on Hulu and is available on DVD from Netflix. I have addressed it several times on this blog, though never before in a formal review. The first mention was proposing it as part of a hypothetical double feature with Some Came Running. Most notably, I contributed a side-by-side video essay to Fandor, in which I juxtapose clips from the 1985 section against clips of the same people from 1979. I also incorporated clips into my first Cinepoem video, illustrating the warm sense of small-scale community featured in part of Tennyson's poem "Idylls of the King." And I included a clip at 6:30 in "The Weird Eighties", chapter 25 of my 32 Days of Movies video clip series.

What do you think? • Is this Louis Malle's best documentary (if not, what is)? What other documentaries - or non-documentaries - does it remind you of? What links can you see with Malle's other documentaries, or with his fiction films? Do you feel the film is ever condescending toward its subjects; on the other hand does it challenge them enough? Do you wish Malle had dug more into hidden corners of the town, or do you feel the suggestions we get are sufficient for this form? How does the eighties section of the film work for you (vs. the bulk of the doc, set in the seventies)? What does the film tell us about America in 1979 - and in 1985 (and today)? Had the documentary been made in the nineties, or the zeroes or teens, how do you think it might have been different in both form and content? Are there particular subjects you identify with more, or feel more drawn towards? If you can follow up with any aspect of the community, or any individual today, which ones would you be most curious about? Do you know any of the people onscreen - do you know what happened to them after the documentary ended?

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Previous week: The Seventh Seal (#70)
Next week: Satantango (#68)

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