The Fish
for 23 November 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
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[yes, it's
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[Brian
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Brian Forsyth
Production Editor
& Pool Monitor



Children of the Corn

Were it even remotely true
that the Midwest is enjoying
a renaissance as a cultural
craphouse, I'd say, "It's
about goddamn time." Lord
knows the folks in
Mississippi need a break. But
two docudramas and a
snickering New Yorker article
do not a trend make. I'll
wager that the South still
registers as the deepest
cultural latrine in the
collective American
conscious. Funny how the
violence, racism, homophobia,
and all-around
anti-intellectualism that we
Southerners have grown
accustomed to spur gasps of
incredulity when viewed
against the placid ennui of
the perceived Midwest, much
like the shock of all that
blood the Coens spilled on
Fargo snow. (And any reference
to the film is conspicuously
absent from this piece.)

Assuming the Midwest truly is
becoming the "new Third
World" (yeah, right), what
the hell is wrong with
kicking around the heartland
for a little while? Beltway
scandal is completely passé
Texans drag their neighbors
behind trucks and barely get
noticed; Laramie is just west
enough to blame its woes on
good old frontier spirit.
What's a maker of culture to
do? If things have gotten so
bad that Lynch has forsaken
archetypal thugs, muscle
cars, and experimental (lack
of) narrative for
simple-minded folk and mowers,
perhaps it really is time to
start digging up corpses in
the cornfields. I'll bring a
shovel.

Brent Buford
<brent@eblox.com>

With all due respect,
Colonel, the South gets all
sorts of wistful cultural
props, thanks to its
high-chivalric heritage, the
Faulknerian legacy of
tortured slavery-guilt, its
wisteria-and-swampland
ambience, its
liquor-brawlin'-and-roadhouse
popular culture, its
Tennessee Williams/Flannery
O'Connor trade in the
literary Gothic and
grotesque. And the
memoirists! Willie Morris,
Rick Bragg, Howell Raines,
Will Campbell ... all a
middle-aged Southern white
guy has to do to get
published is summon an agent
and an editor for a round of
catfish and mint juleps and
start reminiscing about his
mama and his black maid.
(You'll note, by the way,
that two of the
aforementioned
self-mythologizers are also
on The New York Times chuck
wagon — that paper has a
long history of lionizing
professional Southerners of
all stripes.)

As for Fargo, by all means,
throw it in. Monotone Swedish
accents all around; married
couples downing junk food in
bed while they watch
documentaries about the
mating habits of insects; a
cringing, suburban Babbit
gone to seed plotting the
dimwitted kidnapping of his
own wife; a pair of killers
(as in Boys Don't Cry) who
carelessly rain down mayhem
across the flat landscape
without making the slightest
effort to cover their own
tracks; a flabby
house-husband who fills his
time by painting miniature
duck studies for reproduction
as postage stamps. That such
caricatures could get praise
for being knowing and
affectionate send-ups of the
way these people live —
that being the consensus
among film critics at the
time of the movie's release
— speaks volumes about
how uncritically culture
makers have embraced far
worse portrayals of the
creatures of the heartland.
Oh, and the blood wasn't
spilled on Fargo snow; that
was only where the killers
were hired. The action all
occurs around Brainerd. In,
you know, Minnesota.

Holly
 
Fish With Letter Icon
 


Perhaps my taste in cinema is
unsophisticated, but what is
your justification for
labeling Silence of the
Lambs
a "two-dimensional"
film whose primary theme is
"witless contempt" for the
Midwest? Regardless of the
critical attention it drew
(Best Picture, Best Actor,
etc.), it was more complex
and intelligent than most
Hollywood films. And besides
that, much of it took place
in Washington, DC.

Ben Mathis-Lilley
<BMathis@fas.harvard.edu>

Ah, Ben, you don't know how
glad I am you asked. While
all the federale intrigue
surrounding Silence of the
Lambs
occurs in and around
Quantico, the twisted,
woman-skinning killer makes
his home in Belvedere, Ohio.
And as the plucky Agent
Starling (an über Yuppie
who makes a tremendous show
of overcoming her backwoods,
white-trash roots) zeroes in
on Buffalo Bill's lair, we
are treated to a full
complement of David
Lynch–oid cultural cues:
a fat old woman leaning
forlornly out a window by the
train tracks, a random
close-up of a wooden Indian
lawn ornament, a victim's dad
who is clearly a lumpen
roué in bad need of a
shave and a score of drinks.
As Starling enters the
victim's room, we see all the
requisite trappings of
forlorn middle-American pop
culture: posters of mediocre
rock stars, Harlequin romance
novels, etc. And as she
stumbles on the hidden cache
of photos that finally helps
her to break the case, Agent
Starling inadvertently breaks
a kitsch ballet dancer
perched atop a music box.
(Then, in a crowning flourish
of contempt, she casually
leaves the compromising
photos out in the open, for
the hapless, drunken pa to
stumble across — not
exactly standard FBI evidence-
gathering protocol, but
tremendously useful to cue
the audience as to the general
worth of the environment that
spawns these maniacal,
sexually deranged sociopaths,
as well as the worth of the
lives of its so-called normal
inhabitants.)

Call me crazy, but I think
all this might be the tiniest
bit symbolic. Still not
convinced? Then check out the
scene in Buffalo Bill's
basement where Starling is
incongruously framed by a map
of the middle section of the
United States. Or the shrilly
didactic American flag
displayed at the violent
envoi to the hideous
small-town compound where
Buffalo Bill indulges his
fantasy life. The Silence of
the Lambs
is indeed a
skillfully made film, but it
revels in every ideological
Hollywood carciature of
"Middle America" — a very
different treatment than
you'll find in the book, by
the way. There, Starling
intensely identifies with
Buffalo Bill's Belvedere
victim, and would never dream
of compromising her memory
for her family the way she
does in the movie.

Holly
 
Fish With Letter Icon
 


Children of the Corn

Masterful essay. "Locally
grown form of Orientalism"
— perfect! As a
Mississippian, and thus from
a breed roughly analogous to
one of those Zagros mountain
tribes the Sean Connery and
Michael Caine characters were
lording it over in The Man
Who Would Be King,
I know
what it is to be romanticized
and loathed. (Well, not me
personally. Only culturally.
I don't have the charisma for
romantic loathing, myself.)

Yr. obt. svt.,

Amy O'Neal '01
<aoneal@brynmawr.edu>

Thank you, though, to give
credit where it's due, the
Orientalism coinage comes
from my masterful editor, the
Jersey-bred BarTel. Go
figure. And don't sell
yourself short — isn't
Bryn Mawr something of a
finishing school in romantic
loathing?

Holly
 
Fish With Letter Icon
 


Greetings,

I enjoyed and very much
agreed with your article
"Children of the Corn." The
attitudes toward the Midwest
are similar to the attitudes
toward the South, or let's
say toward rural America.
Consider the movie
Deliverance; all the country
people were either congenital
idiots of depraved killers,
or some combination of the
two. Unlike the book, which
didn't, in my memory, make
much of this, the movie was
all about urban paranoia,
conscious or unconscious.
People from the cosmopolitan
centers are just very
uncomfortable with
noncosmopolitan America, and
they often express that
feeling with scorn born of
ignorance. Although I guess
I'd have to say the sentiment
is returned, also usually
based in ignorance.

Frank Drew
<f.drew@starpower.net>

Apropos of Deliverance, did
you happen to see the quite
unintentionally hilarious
Meryl Streep vehicle The
River Wild?
It's a
Yuppie-triumphs-over-nature
allegory, in which hapless,
negligent dad/architect David
Strathairn gets to redeem his
frontier patrimony on a
rafting trip by contriving
— with the aid of the
family dog! — to rig a
Rube Goldberg device out of
abandoned riverside machinery
to rescue Meryl and their
plucky son from the backwoods
psychopath Kevin Bacon.
Basically, a Rambo-style
revisionist take on
Deliverance in which the
urban professionals win.

Holly
 
Fish With Letter Icon
 


Dear Holly,

You crack me up! "Pliant and
forgiving polarity of hipster
auteurship," "pusillanimous
egghead?" Have you ever
played the game Balderdash?
You'd be really good.
As a once and future
Midwesterner, I applaud what
I perceive to be your plea to
the entertainment industry to
make a decent movie or TV
show about the "echoing
symbolic warehouse known to
moviegoers as the Midwest."

Although set even farther
south than Oklahoma, I think
David Byrne's (more "hipster
auteurship") film True
Stories
showed the plight of
small but good people in a
big and crazy world with
emotion and empathy that
makes the viewer want to join
them, not detest them like in
American Beauty. Perhaps this
is what Lynch is trying to do
with his current film.

Mike Orlet State College,
Pennslyvania

PS Aren't "pliant" and
"forgiving" synonyms, at
least when used in the above
phrase?

No, actually, I think you can
be rigidly or dogmatically
forgiving, as is the case
with some of the world's
major religions. And thanks
for your kind words —
though we differ, to put it
mildly, on arch-exoticizer
David Byrne. I was actually
thinking about how all these
stereotypes contrast with the
small furor kicked up by the
portrayal of the "rabbit
lady" in Michael Moore's
Roger and Me. That was
assailed for being mean and
scornful, but it was obvious
to me (and, I would argue, to
anyone who had spent time
around any such people) that
the bunny-clubbing interview
subject was quite self-aware,
and even stringing Moore
along. And so I think the
really upsetting thing about
such footage is that it hands
the mike over to such
subjects, revealing them as
complicated humans, able to
laugh at themselves, wield a
good deal of their own irony,
etc. And that robs everyone
else of the pleasure of
making them into
two-dimensional glyphs of
heartland cluelessness-
cum-guilelessness. But, as
usual, I digress.

Holly
 
Fish With Letter Icon
 

 The Shit
Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream, John Derbyshire, St. Martin's Press, 1996
Peekaboo's Masks, 2492 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco
West Beirut, director Ziad Doueiri, 1999
"The Smartest Cartoonist on Earth," Daniel K. Raeburn, The Imp, Vol. 1/No. 3, 1999
Mad Monster Party, Rankin/Bass Productions, VHS, Deluxo & Black Bear Press, 1967/1999
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill, America's Best Comics, 1999
Hermenaut No. 15: "The Fake Authenticity Issue," editor Joshua Glenn, summer 1999
Guillow's Sky Streak rubber-powered balsa-wood glider (without landing gear)
Webvan
Very Emergency, Promise Ring, Jade Tree, 1999
Mean Magazine No. 5, summer 1999
Slickaphonics, Replikants, KillRockStars/Rue St. Germaine, 1999
"Cash, Interesting, Summer Holiday", The Young Ones, Foxvideo (BBC Video), 1988
Driver (PSX), GT Interactive, 1999

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