Thursday, January 17, 2013


Hard to imagine a less likely cinematographer to film “God’s Country” than Louis Malle.  The film is a straightforward 1985 portrait of Glencoe, Minnesota -- actually, a bit of a Valentine.  But Malle’s reputation is attached to stronger stuff.

Malle's “The Lovers”  (Les Amants, 1958), which starred Jeanne Moreau, caused major controversy due to its sexual content, leading to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case regarding the legal definition of obscenity. In Jacobellis v. Ohio, a theater owner was fined $2,500 for obscenity. The decision was eventually reversed by the higher court, which found that the film was not obscene and hence constitutionally protected. However, the court could not agree on the definition of "obscene," which caused Justice Potter Stewart to utter his “I know it when I see it” opinion, perhaps the most famous single line associated with the court.

I used to show “Au Revoir, Mes Enfants” in Heart Butte because it is about boys in France during the German occupation.  A Jewish boy is hidden among Catholic boys but when the Nazis come, his best friend unconsciously betrays him with a glance.  For Blackfeet kids the obvious connection was the Catholic boarding schools on the rez.  I wanted them to know they weren’t the only kids to suffer from this demented idea of overdisciplined schools.  In fact, at his high class English boarding school Winston Churchill was so bruised by bullies (sexual abuse was not uncommon) that his old nurse intervened by going to his mother, who was blithely unaware.  She did not bring her boy home but did transfer him to a slightly more humane school.

But those are reservation stories and not Valier stories.  “God’s Country” (1979 and 1985) could have been filmed in Valier.  It begins with a little old lady in a sunbonnet she clearly made for herself, cultivating a garden of iris, peonies, lupine -- exactly what will grow here -- plus a patch of vegetables: carrots, beans, onions.  She’s cheerful to the point of being a little unreal, but Malle loves her.  And he goes on loving these people -- straightforwardly and without sarcasm -- the little kid who touts the giant family tractor and mounts the driver’s seat to give a demo.  The big happy bachelor who artificially inseminates dairy cows, thousands and thousands of them, but never picks out a woman for himself.  

Then things begin to get a little darker.  The son of the town lawyer has gotten himself into prison by being an activist.  A graceful young woman is aging alone because there really is no suitable man for her.  The farmer who speaks eloquently about loving the land explains the realities of money these days -- how the only way to compete is with more land, which means more bank loans, which means more vulnerability to the vagaries of weather -- and this is before global warming.

There is a wedding with bridesmaids looking like ruffled sherbets in pastels.  The bride and groom are just kids.  After a traditional ceremony, the whole town goes over to a giant dance hall where they whirl and swirl and gyrate every which way -- some with skill and some with only energy.  The bridal party visits the local pub for a little celebrating -- the dusty wind blowing all those bountiful skirts and wide lace hats just as they would in Valier.  Once loosened up, the guys put on the bridesmaid’s hats, just to goof off.  No thoughts about cross-dressing.  Then more dancing and no one goes home until dawn, the way they used to do in the homestead days when the horses needed to see the road.

Malle comes back six years later to see how people are doing.  This time the little old lady is over ninety but still gardening and has replaced her sunbonnet with a stylish wig.  She says God takes care of her garden and the Devil takes care of the lawn.  We know how radical this is because the first visit included MANY shots of the Glencoe lawn mania, which is exactly like that in Valier.  This is a German community (There’s a Polish town a few miles to the north.) with very little population turnover.  The farmer’s babies are nearly teens now and his wife has a town job, the newlyweds have infants, the lawyer’s renegade son has settled down in California and is a productive citizen.  

Everyone is a little scared.  They talk about the Posse Comitatus and the high cost of everything.  Computers haven’t come over their horizon yet and no one has much time to watch television except in winter.  The kid who demonstrated the tractor is an adult now and facing with his dad the probable necessity of closing the machinery store.   This is the trailer for a new movie that uses the old Louis Malle title of “God’s Country.”  Featuring a Glen Close lookalike (a very young one but in the “Damages” mode) who is involved with a Christian group in the Mojave Desert, it appears to be both cheesy and smarmy, which the Malle movie is not.  This new movie is the USA media looking at the USA in a way they think will make money, which is deliberately cynical.  Louis Malle was just looking at what was really there without passing judgment, with affection -- but also worry -- very much, I suppose, the same way that he looked at India in a series of documentaries, which he felt were his best work.  But I haven’t seen them.

Malle’s fourth wife was Candace Bergen -- you know, EDGAR Bergen’s daughter?  Sister to Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd?  She married Malle in 1980 and they had a daughter, Chloe, in 1985.  Malle died of lymphoma in 1995.  It’s clear that one tie between the couple was political activism and pushing the liberal envelope.  Yet here’s Malle listening to all these hopeful people at the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s presidency without mocking them or making them feel stupid.  In the end the camera simply goes down Main Street, wide and straight, empty on a summer day.  These people know how to hang on, help each other, and sing together on Sunday.  They’ve been here a hundred years and proud of it.  But it slowly begins to be clear that they may have to emigrate again.  But where to go?  How to even think about it?  Or might it be possible somehow to find a way to stay?

No comments: