In their place was supposed to be weeks in which we would have a succession of ‘days out’. This was particularly true of September when we were celebrating our 25th Anniversary as well as our Birthdays. In fact I was ill for most of the week. We did manage one day out in which we enjoyed glorious weather driving through Wales to Lakes Vyrnwy and Bala and the mountains thereabout, and finishing with a dinner at our favourite Shropshire riverside pub.
As usual I had a wonderful assortment of gifts from Amazon ; however questionable their practices may be there is no question that in personal terms they have had a transforming effect on my Birthday and Christmas presents!
Naturally I have been unable to watch any ‘serious’ films (or television) this month. However I did see New in Town directed by Jonas Elmer and starring Renee Zellwegger; the latter plays the part of an ambitious Florida businesswoman who is sent to a small Minnesota town to ‘restructure’ the local factory, on which the town depends. Naturally in the course of the film she finds proper values and love, and also manages to turn the plant into a big commercial success. New in Town belongs to that distinguished genre of American movies which centre on the clash between Big City/Small Town (country) values, lifestyles, philosophies etc.. I have always been fascinated by this genre partly because it is very revealing for the outsider trying to penetrate American culture, politics and society, and secondly because there is absolutely no equivalent within English film culture. The reason for the latter is simple; here the City won and had won at the very latest by the end of WW1. If one wants to look for English equivalents one has to go back to Court/Country divides of the 16th to 18th centuries, or to City/Country divides in the 18th and 19th centuries. One can find this sort of discussion and dichotomy in Trollope but that is probably its last flowering. In reality even in his day England was an overwhelmingly urbanised society, and it did not take that long for political power and influence to follow. I do not mean of course that the English countryside ceased to exist or that it does not play, in various more or less mythologized forms, an important part in the national consciousness. But as a political force it is utterly insignificant and this means that there is no real cultural ‘bite’ to be obtained from examining the City/Country dichotomy. Even the briefest glance at a map of electoral representation in England will show this ( I have deliberately said England because while Wales and Scotland are also urbanised societies the issue is more complicated there for a number of reasons). This is not to say that there are not all kind of similar dichotomies in England – North/South, London/not-London being the most prominent – but nothing to resemble the Big City/Small Town divide on which the films I am referring to play.
Now I do not imagine for a minute that the accepted conventions which these films play to and upon are solidly based in reality. That, in any case, is not very interesting. What they represent are mythologies and extremely interesting ones. I certainly don’t have time to start going into all the qualities or deficiencies which tend to be associated with each of the ‘categories’ ( as I think they may fairly be described) but very broadly the City is seen as ambitious, soulless, hurried, grasping, avaricious while the Small Town is generous, slow, religious, individual. Now there is one particular problem with this. How do you reconcile the latter ‘good’ values with capitalism – basis of the American way – which in fact depends mainly on the former ‘qualities’. There are therefore a smaller subset of films which try to get round this conundrum, and it is to this subset which New in Town belongs. I will mention a couple. And we should note that in all three films it is women who play a leading role in the reconciliation of Small Town and capitalism. First is Baby Boom (1987) in which Diane Keaton plays an uber-yuppie whose existence is turned on its head when she ‘inherits’ a baby. Forced by her NY employer’s lack of sympathy to leave her job she moves to a small town where she discovers, after the usual travails, values and love and finally establishes a business selling home-made baby food which becomes a massive success. Thus in this template movie the circle is squared and we have happy Small Town capitalism. Now I should instantly say that there are a lot of gender issues in this film (indeed in all of them). Keaton in her NY incarnation is known as the Tiger Lady and part of her ‘journey’ is to become a less driven, ambitious woman – more perhaps ‘feminine’. However, it is not the gender issues I wish to consider (and am certainly not best qualified to do so). What I emphasise is that the film’s essential project is to show that really successful capitalism is wholly reconcilable with Small Town values; indeed is as American as apple pie (and apple is the first flavour of the baby food she markets if I remember right!).
A much more interesting and altogether better, though much less successful, movie in this subset is Other People’s Money (1991). In this the central character, Kate Sullivan played by Penelope Ann Miller, is a NY lawyer/financier who has left her Small Town in search of freedom and opportunity. Her step-father (Gregory Peck) with whom she has a tricky relationship, is forced to call on her help when his factory becomes a potential victim to a big shot financier played by Danny de Vito. Although the climax of the movie is a shareholders movie in which Peck and de Vito offer competing visions of capitalism (which we might call Big City/Small Town versions) it is Miller who offers the chance for some reconciliation between the visions. What makes this film far superior to Baby Boom is the fact that the conflicts are multifaceted (de Vito to Peck, Peck to Miller, Miller to de Vito – and the latter two have a decidedly strange love/hate relationship) and are not all resolved at the film’s close. In addition to this it is well-written (the source was a stage play) and very competently directed by Norman Jewison (writing about it has made me want to re-watch it! so there may be more on this).
However whatever Baby Boom’s deficencies it is something of a masterpiece in comparison with New in Town! Indeed it is hard to understand how given a template which offers at the very least a near guarantee of emotional uplift the film could be as bad as it is. I suppose some responsibility must lie with the director, Jonas Elmer, but everything about the movie – script, performances, cinematography is bad. Zellwegger seems acutely uncomfortable, which is no surprise given the weakness of the script. Conceptually though the film’s enormous flaw is that it presents us with no real alternatives. The Florida scenes – which are brief – show us caricatures of corporate nobodies, and the shots showing the emptiness of Zellwegger’s life there are so obvious as to be risible. These movies work best the more dynamic and interesting and real the conflict is shown to be. Even in Baby Boom there was a genuine clash of values. Another problem was the overt introduction of religion – it is part of the Zellwegger’s character’s deficiency that she lacks religion and attention is repeatedly drawn to the Small Town’s religiosity. Now while this is certainly an underlying theme of the dichotomy – and one which is made explicit in its manifestations in other media, notably Country Music (take a song like The Judds terrific John Deere Tractor as an example) – in the cinema, especially for non-American audiences, it is uncomfortable and has anything but the intended effect (ie: I am left thinking I would like to get the hell out of that place!). This is because cinema manifests, makes obvious, in a way which music does not. In summary New in Town is a very bad film, which manages to make a fine actress look awkward and to mess-up a sub-genre which should at the least be heart-warming, and at best thought-provoking.
On television I was again unable to watch anything of any seriousness but did catch a new ITV police drama set on the West Coast of Ireland called Single-Handed. This was another big disappointment; it was based on the tedious premise that to be serious or good a police drama must be unremittingly bleak. The Small Town here was a nightmare beset by every kind of corruption and perversion. The truth is however that this is just as unreal, and just as much a cliche, as the halcyon Small Town of the American movies which I have been discussing above; and a good deal less entertaining to boot! The big television event of the month was the arrival of Julia Mackenzie as the latest incarnation of Miss Marple; I want to discuss this in more detail however so will leave it for now.
Finally to video games. I spent much of this month – it was that kind of episode – playing the superb Fallout3 from Bethseda,who are also the makers of Oblivion IV. I have remarked before on how strange it is to play these two games together – one set in a fairly standard RPG fantasy world of elves and magic, the other in a post-nuclear apocalypse future, but sharing considerable structural and gameplay similarities. In both cases the strength of the games is in the totality of the imagined worlds, the freeform nature, excellently conceived and unique levelling systems, the ability to choose different ‘paths’, and the sheer enjoyment to be had in the game play. Fallout is excellent for me in that it is a ‘shooter’, but one can plump for either a turn-based or first-person mode – as I am useless at the latter the existence of the former is vital. I was extremely disappointed to finish the game – I have done every side-quest and completed the main story-line (which ends in death) though admittedly not explored every part of the vast world-map. Fortunately however the Game of the Year edition which contains five new missions will soon be available! Although of course now I am well again I don’t know when I will get to play it – it is always my intention to keep on with the video games as a valuable form of intellectual relief when I am well, but somehow this never seems to work out!