S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 8 November 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
Children of the Corn

 

[]

It was a Midwesterner who

famously pronounced that there

are no second acts in American

life, and poor schlump that he

was, he got that spectacularly

wrong. In fact, the Midwest is

now playing host to the

faux-naïf second-coming of David

Lynch, longtime impresario of

hideously disfigured Victorian

gents, giant sandworms, random

dancing midgets, and the

inexhaustibly mined, small-town

American "Dark Side."

 

There are charms, to be sure, in

Lynch's G-rated, Disney-branded

The Straight Story

notably, the restrained

performance of Richard

Farnsworth, who brings

genuine emotion to the

caricature-friendly role of

stubborn, down-home old cuss on

a mission with a riding mower.

But the rapt critical reception

of a movie so determinedly and

blankly ponderous says much

about the pliant and forgiving

polarity of hipster auteurship.

Lynch, after all, has striven

heroically during a decade's

worth of unwatchable output to

make the amoral, lumpen hustler

stand for the inner sociopathy

roiling just beneath the placid

surface of the heartland. To see

him haul off and render the

rolling hills of eastern Iowa as

the new capital of pluck,

sentiment, and wonder is a bit

like seeing Joe Pesci abruptly

leave off whaling on a delivery

boy, chuck him affectionately

under the chin, and treat him to

an ice cream cone.

 

But that's the problem with the

whole echoing symbolic warehouse

known to moviegoers as the

Midwest — it inspires either

witless contempt or witless

sentimentalization. It's as if

the gods of Hollywood decreed

that for every Field of Dreams

there shall be an In Cold

Blood; for every Music Man,

a Silence of the Lambs.

 

These two-dimensional visions of

flyover country tend, in fact,

to be joined at the hip, like

other lumbering forces locked in

sham conflict (nostalgia and

progress; Democrats and

Republicans; Suck and Salon).

And in the current cinematic

season, we find them on either

flank, with Lynch's ambling

paean to mower-ridin' gumption

more than counterbalanced by

Kimberly Peirce's true-life tale

of gender-anxiety gone amok in

neighboring Nebraska, Boys Don't

Cry.

 

[]

The latter movie, a docudrama

about the 1993 murder of

female-to-male cross-dresser

Brandon Teena, is a more capable

and absorbing study in cinematic

storytelling than The Straight

Story. But in other respects,

they are revealingly similar:

Both hew to a

TV-movie-of-the-week model of

stunted characterization ("OK,

you — bedraggled unwed

ex-con father with a drinking

problem — stand here. And

you — hard-bitten but tender

runaway pregnant teen — over

there, by the campfire....").

They each linger over laughably

misdirected ambitions: Alvin

Straight's daughter builds

birdhouses under the charming

delusion that they are works of

art; Chloë Sevigny hopes to

flee the deranged sexual

hysteria of Boys Don't Cry's

Great Plains by becoming a

professional karaoke singer.

They each bury strong central

performances under obtrusive

cultural cues to let moviegoers

know that, however harmlessly

wise or menacingly ignorant they

might be, these people are

seriously out of it. Alvin and

his daughter loll about on a

summer's evening, gazing

wordlessly out at a

thunderstorm; the Cornhusker

revelers in Boys Don't Cry are

relentlessly pursued by pop

music a full decade out of

fashion and reduced to

roller-skating and truck-surfing

for diversion. All the small

visual touches bespeak the

blindingly glib screenwriter's

vision of Middle American

blight: One of Brandon Teena's

killers is a dead ringer for

John Cougar Mellencamp; the

Straights have an obese, nosy

neighbor clad in pink who scarfs

down Hostess Snowballs on her

lawn chair while courting skin

cancer with an aluminum sun

reflector perched beneath her

jowls. Nearly every character in

both movies wears flannel shirts

and jeans.

 

Of course, the Midwest has

plenty of backward, cussed, and

spiritual characters and even,

to be sure, some surly,

impulsive, and psychopathic

ones. But depicting this bipolar

disorder of the soul as a

spontaneous outgrowth of our

flat and sprawling nether

regions suggests an important

realignment of the nation's

cultural compass. Now that old

models of core-and-periphery

colonial exploitation are

steadily succumbing to the

giddy, never-ending tremors of

globalization, the Midwest has

emerged as the new Third World.

Midwesterners, like Third

Worlders, are alternately deemed

hopelessly simple-minded and

breathtakingly spiritual. Like

marginalized colonial

populations, they are trapped in

an extractive sector of

enterprise that is unfashionably

determined by geography. (In

Arlington Road, another

effusively praised tale of

heartland-spawned mayhem,

milk-drinking agri-terrorist Tim

Robbins delivers an ideological

indictment of his

knowledge-worker antagonist Jeff

Bridges based on Bridges'

inability to do anything with

his hands, before laying the

pusillanimous egghead low with

his own mitts. You see, there's

really no help for these people:

Not only are they violent

fetishists, but they subscribe

to the labor theory of value!)

Finally, like the remote

outposts of colonialism, the

cornbelt is left to make do in

low-bricoleur, cargo-cult

fashion, with the soiled

leavings of the indifferent

culture of the main chance —

the birdhouses, the ancient

mowers, the discarded pop songs.

 

This one-note deprivational

reductionism stands in still

sharper relief with the

indispensable aid of that

highest of high-end Zeitgeist

accessories, The New Yorker.

In separate forays, the esteemed

weekly has unwittingly furnished

advance snapshots of what we had coming

in Boys Don't Cry and The Straight

Story. In 1997, the magazine

published a lengthy and

scorn-addled account of the

Brandon Teena murder, penned by

novelist John Gregory Dunne. You

can faintly hear Dunne snorting

in revulsion as he offers a long

series of wildly and carelessly

stereotyped depictions of

Nebraska life and its environs.

An earlier, unrelated murder

case is steeped in "gothic

barbarism." A mother of one

murder victim "would not have

been out of place driving a

covered wagon across the empty

prairie." Brandon and her sister

shift aimlessly "like

Tumbleweed ... about the underside

of Lincoln" — in spite of

the fact that the evocative weed

occurs nowhere within 400 miles

or so of Lincoln and its

underside. But Dunne is cavalier

with his Midwest geography in

general, hailing the plains of

Nebraska as "the America

mythologized in 1943, by Oscar

Hammerstein in the lyrics of

Oklahoma!: 'We know we belong to

the land, and the land we belong

to is grand.'" If homing in on

this errant exercise in

ambience-spotting seems like so

much purist caviling —

Oklahoma being, oh, some 300

miles to the south — just

consider whether the fabled

fact-checking team at The New

Yorker would have let slip a

broad description of Manhattan

with a snippet of lyrics from

"Take Me Home, Country Roads."

 

[]

It gets worse. Setting up the

advent of the crime, Dunne

tartly sums up the motives of

the low-IQ killers with the

aphorism, "Violence is the way

stupid people try to level the

playing field." After the crime

is carried out, he idly wonders

if the killers, bunking with

their wives, "had sex, one last

spasmodic release before

investigators came the next day

to arrest them." Gee, I dunno,

John — maybe instead they

all traded incest anecdotes or

watched reruns of Roseanne. But

then again, maybe reporters can

stick to the factual record

instead of glibly invading the

privacy of sources they hold in

such palpable contempt.

 

Bystanders fare no better in

Dunne's grotesque inventory. The

crowd at the murder trial

inspires this lifestyle

syllogism: "The perils of bad

weather, too much television,

and a sugar-saturated junk-food

diet were all too apparent in

the abundance of fifty-six inch

waists in the corridors." One

shudders to think what Dunne

might have made of the native

habits of Nebraskans had he

stumbled across a thalidomide

casualty or a hydrocephalic

specimen.

 

Meanwhile, last September, New

Yorker correspondent Tad Friend

chronicled the troubled fate of

David Lynch's daring new TV

project, Mulholland Drive.

Decisively earmarking The

Straight Story as a fleeting

departure, the series threatens

a full-scale reversion to

Lynch's Dark Side form, with

unexplained murders, prolonged

bouts of memory loss, scary bums

in blackface — and, yes,

dreamlike sequences showcasing

dwarves. But, wouldn't you know

it, the timorous suits at ABC

balked at picking up the series

option and at running the pilot

at Lynch's original epic length

of two-and-a-half hours. Yet as

the tragedy unfolds, we also get

a full dose of Lynch's own

wholesome affectations of

Midwestern-style guilelessness.

Throughout Friend's account,

Lynch offers a bewildering

stream of cloying Ned

Flanders-isms: "Good deal,

buster!" "That was a humdinger!"

"Holy jumping George!" "Wow-wee,

Bob!" "I'll be ding-danged!" And

the poignant "I'm one depressed

cowboy."

 

[]

But then, by way of summing up the

cruel fate of Mulholland Drive,

Friend quotes the demoralized

Justin Theroux, cast as "Adam,"

an "edgy director who," Friend

explains, "appears to be a

stand-in for Lynch" in the

series. Theroux forgoes the

traditional artist's sour grapes

of demonizing the network

executives who pulled the plug

on the series; it turns out that

these poor souls are "just

terribly frightened people who

want to keep their jobs by

giving audiences what they

want." And who might those

audiences be? "The audience

testing that the networks do is

in Middle America," Theroux

sagely counsels our

correspondent, "and I picture

these men and women who spend

their time in McDonald's and

bent over slot machines being

brought into a room in a mall to

watch David Lynch and turn up

their knobs if they like it.

Those knobs are going to be

arrowheaded to the ground. On

that basis, ABC assumes that

America wants Wasteland and not

Mulholland Drive, which means

they assume America is stupid.

The sad thing is they're

probably right."

 

No, actually, the sad thing is

that, if this is what you learn

from playing David Lynch on TV,

then what are the rest of us

learning by taking David Lynch

seriously? And when our

cognoscenti direct this locally

grown form of Orientalism at an

area that makes up the bulk of

the continental United States,

should they be surprised when

the natives get restless?

 
courtesy of Holly Martins