I wish I could remember the first film I ever saw, but I was either too young for that to that to cement itself in my brain, or it was just that bad of a movie. What I do know is that, from the time I was in diapers, my dad had me watching all kinds of films. It was slow at first (fundamentalist Christians tend to not like movies), but as I grew up and my parents realized that films can actually teach you things, our home filled up with amazing films of all kinds. It’s one of those parts of my childhood I remember fondly.
It’s odd to me, though, that it never occurred to me to look at America through the lens of the films shot in all fifty states. Instead, it takes transplant Gareth Higgins from Belfast, Ireland, to use American movies from each state to better relate to his new home, finding the saint and the sinner in the good ol’ Land of the Free through what is truly its own mythology at the cinema.
In other words: why didn’t I think of this? It’s brilliant, and executed brilliantly.
Cinematic States is a journey through America in the films its made about itself, state by state, an examination of what the USA means in the grand scheme of the human condition as told through what functions as the mythology of a country. We’re not spreading our stories orally anymore, and while writers are still cranking out books and readers are still buying them to read them once and then put them onto the shelf to collect dust, film continues to evolve and tell new stories in more compact and brief vignettes of humanity’s evolution. Higgins uses this to show us an “outsider’s” view (for lack of a better word) of the country that he’s hoping will adopt him.
What I really liked initially about Cinematic States was how honest Higgins was about his views. No punches were pulled, but neither was he merciless in his understanding. His criticisms of America’s past and present are tough, no doubt, sometimes even bordering on mockery (not that she doesn’t deserve it, on some level), but they’re all given with all the love and compassion an adopted son can give. Some of them are pretty amusing as well, such as in his essay on Massachusetts, he uses the film Jaws to illustrate America’s policies on marine environmentalism…from the perspective of the shark from the film (which he has named Bruce; couldn’t read it without the Australian accent). It was entertaining and honest and very well accomplished.
The films he’s chosen come with no set reason or pattern other than the fact that they spoke to Higgins about a particular state, which seems to help cut down on the gimmick factor for this (“Let’s watch our way through all 50 states and write a book about it!”), and he’s also picking things HE likes, not always what EVERYONE likes, which is a good thing. They weren’t all MY picks (I would have used SLC Punk for Utah instead of 2001: A Space Odyssey), but hey, this isn’t my perspective of America. The number of films per state varies as well (New York had five films, Pennsylvania only had one), and I can understand why, given that some films just use a particular state as a backdrop for a story. Higgins seems to pick movies that set themselves where they are because they speak about and to where they are, where the setting matters just as much as the story. For example, he uses Rocky for Pennsylvania (one of the more obvious grabs, in my opinion) because it speaks about the city of Philadelphia and holds a place in Philly’s heart deeper than any other film (there’s not a statue of Billy Ray Valentine from Trading Places next to the art museum, good a movie as it was). His selection was neither random nor confined to novelty, and it gives his analyses greater credence.
All in all, a great read for film buffs or even the average movie-goer. It’s much more a sociological/philosophical view of America than it is theological, something I didn’t expect, but that’s no reason to not read it. Go check it out.