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Features

Cinematic states

Gareth Higgins

From sultry Louisiana to the New Jersey waterfront, Gareth Higgins recounts a film-lover's journey through his newly-adopted USA homeland in search of soul and a sense of belonging.

I went to Louisiana once, to New Orleans, eight months after the flood.

There were still wrecked cars on the freeway, broken electrical poles on the main street, marsh grass on the road. Eight months after the flood. It was sticky hot. But there was music and there were muffaletas, the biggest sandwiches I've ever seen, and people who seemed to thrive on the fact that where they lived was different.

Of course, everywhere in the USA is different. I learned that much when I set out on a journey to explore my adopted country through the lens of its most evocative art form. When I moved to the United States six years ago, I decided I'd watch at least one movie from each of the fifty states (and the District of Columbia) and look for what the movies said about the place where I was now living. I'd allow for the possibility that cinematic truth could be as true as any other kind.

I'd make it my grand tour of these cinematic states, see for myself the soul of America. So I thought about gunfighters, astronauts, writers, lovers, and cops. I watched people dance, shoot, lust, and pray their way to finding themselves. I travelled to the Grand Canyon, to the Golden Gate Bridge, to Little Italy, and a diner in the Midwest - and everywhere I went, people thought they were more different than everyone else. But please, take it from me, Louisiana is different different.

 

THE APOSTLE

Robert Duvall made one of the most realistic films about American religion there, The Apostle, in which he plays a preacher running away from a mistake, and doing the only thing he really knows how: to gather a community and try to lead them somewhere better. Religion may actually be the central fact of US life: The dream that we can always rise higher than we have before is the constant in political speeches, and mystical sentiment is present not only in the rocks beneath the Gulf Coast prairies, but also in those that chill a glass of Southern Comfort.

The spirituality of The Apostle is alluring, because it makes space for many kinds of motivations and confusions. The temptation to charlatanry and the compassion to do miracles can co-exist in the same body at the same time. The film respects the audience enough to acknowledge that shadow and light appear together. Of course they do.

The cracks are how the light gets through, right?

The Apostle knows that humans are a stew of emotions, gifts, talents, fears, mistakes, and blessings. It imagines that Louisiana might understand that life sometimes needs its bearers to be given a break.

I've heard that Louisiana politics aren't necessarily the most transparent, and the humidity might get me down, but it's also the state that gave birth to the some of the wisest, most fully alive, loving and human people I know, who remain indivisible from their Louisiana heritage (and would never want to be divided from it anyway). There's a million reasons to love it, not just drive-thru Daiquiri stands or Dr John & huge sandwiches or that it won't bow down after the flood. It would be so easy to go back, because there it was so easy to feel love, for other people, for landscape and cities where people gather, for life itself. And in their most honest searching, movies about love say it clearly: It is in the broken places that love arises. When we are not certain, when we are confused or vulnerable, when we cannot control our circumstances, we are free to be something more than robots. We might find our way to peace. We might sense the gentle breeze of a Louisiana port town, scooping up the smell of broiling fish and voodoo incense (the good kind), and feel within ourselves that we have arrived.

 

TO NEW JERSEY

Forty-eight states later I was in New Jersey. Along the way I had encountered a multitude of worlds including [Ocean's Eleven's] stylish Vegas casino thieves (telling us who the movies consider worthy of the American Dream), the psychotic puppies and unconventional hair gel in Rhode Island courtesy of There's Something About Mary (a case of the extraordinary that is always available in the ordinary), Alabama lawyers opposing racism (To Kill a Mockingbird), Ohio electricians meeting aliens (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and Arkansas waitresses Thelma and Louise blazing a patriarchy-shaming trail all the way to the Grand Canyon.

But New Jersey was special because it was where I first visited the US two decades ago, volunteering in an inner city education program. It was started by good people possessed of the quintessential US pioneer spirit to address the failures of what that same pioneer spirit had omitted when it established a political culture that too often confuses the fine line between the gift of opportunity and dog-eat-dog.

Clive James once wrote that the 'secret of American cultural imperialism - the only version of American imperialism that really is irresistible, because it works by consent - is its concentration of all the world's artistic and intellectual qualities in their most accessible form. The danger of American cultural imperialism is that it gives Americans a plausible reason for thinking that they can do without the world.'1

He's right, of course; but even within the vehicles via which such cultural imperialism travels, there is the key to its balance, for as James says, 'the world helped to make them what they are now - even Hollywood, the nation's single most pervasive cultural influence, would be unimaginable without its immigrant personnel.'

That's a comfort to these immigrant eyes.

New Jersey is where I first came to the USA, and started to learn that the nation contained multitudes.

 

ON THE WATERFRONT

The archetypal New Jersey film is On the Waterfront. Five of its principals have died in the past few years, a fact which only makes it seem more important: Rod Steiger, Marlon Brando, director Elia Kazan, Karl Malden, screenwriter Budd Schulberg. It may not be a subtle film, it may have come from all kinds of ambivalent or complicated motivation (a film that justifies ratting on your colleagues directed by a man who named names in the McCarthy era), its dialogue may sound more theatrical than realistic... It may be all these things, but, and this is what matters - it tells the truth about human behaviour.

On the Waterfront is a simple story in which Brando's character Terry, a dockworker with family ties to local gangsters feels that he embodies failure, although his priest (Malden), who understands the difference between success and honour, says that 'Every time the mob puts the squeeze on someone that's a crucifixion; and those who keep silent about it are as guilty as the centurion.'

When Terry agrees to testify against the people who might kill him, On the Waterfront is dealing with the sacrifice that is often required for us to be of any use in this world. When he risks honesty, to do the right thing, his peers initially only stand by and watch. At this point, On the Waterfront is about how easy it is to get into bed with evil. Like many clich├ęs, it's true: All it takes for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing; or, as one character puts it, 'I don't know nothing, I've not seen nothing, and I ain't saying nothing.'

That kind of silence kills. Human beings everywhere are capable of terrorizing others. But it takes a huge psychological leap to be able to kill another human being, or even to just deliberately hurt them. You have to pretend that the other person is less of a self than you are. You have to wipe the slate clean before you can break it.

 

CLEAN SLATES

Human beings become broken slates because we have made it too easy to erase any sense of unique dignity from others, which begins by distorting our own sense of self. The stories we tell teach us to devalue and dehumanize self and others because of who they are, or who we think we are. But human beings are also capable of crossing boundaries, loving people who are different, and forgiving those who have hurt them. I imagine that Budd Schulberg knew this, and that it isn't a far stretch to also guess that he knew that dehumanizing someone is not the path to take if you really want to be a person, to contend as a human being, to welcome and accept everyone without cramming others into ideological boxes. Schulberg knew what the greatest cinematic artists, and the wisest American wisdom tells, that if we devalue the humanity of others, we cannot be fully human ourselves.

Visiting cinematic New Jersey evokes another of the state's sons, Walt Whitman. He knew that the humanity displayed by the folks who struggle to get by in that state, and by those who live there and love dangerously is the best sign of why the US really can be a free land, for a brave people. He wrote a poem about an alien that makes me think of the person I was at 18, landing in Philadelphia, crossing the Delaware river, arriving on Rudderow Avenue, meeting friends I would know for the rest of my life. His poem is about a stranger, maybe an immigrant, maybe the new guy in town, and I quote it here because it evokes the feeling I have when I think about New Jersey, and how my dreams of the USA, which had only been cinematic until I first visited there, were to be made flesh:

To a Stranger

Passing stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon you,

You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me, as of a dream,)

I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,

All I recall'd as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured,

You grew up with me, were a boy with me, or a girl with me,

I ate with you, and slept with you - your body has become not yours only, nor left my body mine only,

You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass - you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,

I am not to speak to you - I am to think of you when I sit alone, or wake at night alone,

I am to wait - I do not doubt that I am to meet you again,

I am to see to it that I do not lose you.

 

In this poem I hear the same voices that called me when I was four years old, and watching The Black Hole, when I was 14 and watching Field of Dreams, when I was 24 and watching Magnolia, and now, still watching. They're trying to persuade me to understand something new about home. They're trying to persuade me to dream.

Whitman may not have known what he was seeking, but he found it; he knew that love emerged in the unlikeliest of places, like the docks in Hoboken, or Camden urban decay; he knew that the human heart, and the heart of the US, was fragile. He knew that only he had the responsibility to decide what kind of man he would be. What kind of nation he would shape.

Whitman ends 'To a Stranger' like a love letter, and he speaks for me. He seems to want me to know that this place is such a gift; but it won't reveal itself as such unless I learn to look for it. America is neither saint nor Satan, it lives between the steeple and the gargoyle. Its magic comes fleeting; and magic doesn't owe you anything. Forget to pay attention, and you'll miss it.

 

1 Clive James, Cultural Amnesia, Norton, 2007, p.7