God’s Country (1985)

Directed by Louis Malle

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The shot I remember most in God’s Country, a 1985 documentary, shows an elderly woman in a retirement home, seemingly unaware of anything that’s going on around her while a toothpaste commercial plays loudly in the background, out of focus.  On its own, this shot suggests a world and a time in which we are under the thumb of corporate advertisements, maybe a place in which the consumer landscape shouts at us and we are too beaten down to do anything about it.  This isn’t quite the same as, say Minority Report, in which there are personalized video ads literally calling to you by name, but the scene is equally unsettling.

But this is just one shot, one vignette of life in Glencoe, Minnesota in 1979.  Glencoe is a farming town about 80 miles west of Minnesota.  French Director Louis Malle wanders around town with his camera (he shot the 1979 portion of the film himself), and interviews all kinds of people, from children to a couple elderly folks with vastly different outlooks on life.  Malle pries into their lives, though not in a mean-spirited way.  He is just as curious about these people in this small, tight-knit town as I am, almost forty years later.

The life in Glencoe in 1979 is very different from life in 2017, particularly where I live in California.  I can’t help but imagine that Malle, as a foreigner, saw their lifestyle with the same curiosity a time-traveller might have.  If this were filmed by an American, maybe the routines and rituals on small town America wouldn’t stand out in quite the same way.

Malle seems so genuinely and politely curious about their lives as he asks why certain people got married so young and why others still haven’t gotten married.  The questions towards the bachelors and bachelorettes, about their single lives, might feel invasive as those people surely got the same questions from their own friends and family, but Malle approaches the married couples with questions of a similar tone.

He asks a lot about desire and dreams, both of the young and the old.  The first person we meet is an elderly woman who seems to care about nothing more than tending to her garden.  Her persistence, commitment to her garden and general positivity act as a symbol for the entire town.  Not long after, Malle goes to a street festival where we meet a wide variety of characters, all drinking in the good vibes.  They are happy and positive, and later we’re told that such positivity came from the strength of the farming industry (which dominated the town) and later the belief in the Reagan administration.

When Malle returns to Glencoe in 1985, the town is much different, and the people tell him that it’s all because of the farming depression.  They will then attribute this to Ronald Reagan, and the film becomes much, much more political, though not because of Malle, just because of the people he talks to.  The feeling I’m left with is that, in good times, politics is mostly undiscussed, but it’s only when things aren’t going well that it comes up, and suddenly politics is ruining their lives.

About 75 of the 90 minutes of God’s Country is set in 1979.  The film, to me, isn’t as much about the change in the 6 years between when Malle visited the place as much as it is about the snapshot of life in a specific time and location.  I’m a sucker for films about time and change (Linklater-esque, basically), and I think change is inherently fascinating.  Think about any movie where, at the end, there is a title card that says “5 Years Later.”  If you’re like me, you’re on the edge of your seat, wondering where these characters ended up, even if it’s a silly time jump in a movie like Horrible Bosses.  In these moments, particularly in fiction, the time jump gives the filmmakers the ability to do just about anything, and we’ll buy it.  In a typical film, any change a character experiences has to be believable and set up by something in act 1.  But in a time jump, particularly one of multiple years, the character can do or be just about anything, and, well I don’t know what to say other than I’m so interested in seeing how a character changes.  Hell, even La La Land had a time jump, and the “where are they now?” credit sequences at the end of any movie based on real events is sometimes more interesting than the movie itself.

So that was the reason I watched this film, but the focus is mostly on time in one moment.  Again, Glencoe is a very positive town in 1979.  One farmer, a 28 year old man, expresses extreme optimism about his life, about farming, and about his hope, shared with his wife, that his sons will go into farming.  It’s not until 1985 that he admits that he hopes they find another, more lucrative occupation.  But in 1979, the focus is on his family (he and his wife married young), their kids, and his love for his job.  Malle even talks to his wife about what she would consider her occupation: homemaker, housewife or other?  She says she likes to see herself as a partner with her husband, because the farm and the household are equal aspects of their lives.  Malle, curious about their family dynamic and the young age with which she married, asks if she had any other dreams as a younger girl, and she says she wanted to be an airline stewardess but let such dreams ago when she met her husband.

I don’t even know if the people on camera realize how vulnerable they come off as.  I think God’s Country is so gripping because there is so much these characters are willing to talk about, based on Malle’s direct questioning, and so much they feel under the surface, like any human I guess.  But in 1979 Glencoe, life seems to be dictated by a set of agreements, whether cultural or religious or other.

The farmer’s wife let her dreams go because she decided to get married, because that’s what you do.  Did she question getting married so young?  Not really, because that’s what people do.  Then she says that things are changing, and women in 1979 will wait even until they’re 22 to get married.

In another ‘scene,’ we watch the actual wedding of a young couple, of which the bride is only 17.  This scene comes directly after a series of shots of the quiet, almost complete stillness of life in a retirement community.  This is later into the documentary, after we’ve seen and talked to a number of people about their lives as adults, as workers, and how they feel about married life or bachelor hood.  Louis Malle has painted a picture of this community where people are expected to do certain things, and some of the people rebel against that but most go with it.  Then he shows us the end, so to speak, in the form of the retirement home.  It’s a haunting place because the people on camera look to be only a step away from death.  The person we first meet, leading us into the retirement home, is a resident who hates it there.  “Where would you rather be?” Malle asks, and the man replies, “in a graveyard.”

It’s not an optimistic outlook, and it’s not a hopeful place.  Based on the scene’s placement in the film, it feels as if Malle intends to show us that life, even in the end, can feel somewhat underwhelming, like a serious of broken promises.  In other words, it feels like the magic has been stripped from these people’s lives somewhere along the line.  They live and work according to a series of guidelines, and then they die.  That seems to be why this scene moves directly from the retirement home to the wedding, which the people involved might see as a celebration but which we see as the first of a series of compromises and unwritten rules which will guide their lives.

Now, I don’t think Malle intends for this to be so pessimistic.  In fact, he seems quite taken with the subjects of his documentary, even openly admitting how much he loves them.  So maybe this is simply my perspective, as a single person in California in 2017.  Life as it is in God’s Country might not be so different in a similar town today, so I’m certain that part of this feeling is due to my own experiences.

But the wedding felt familiar to the solemn wedding scene in Riding in Cars With Boys in which a young Drew Barrymore gets married out of wedlock to the guy who knocked her up, and both of them have no idea what they’re doing, and they know it.

Louis Malle talks to a few kids too, while he’s at it.  These are people who are more hopeful only because, well they’re kids.  One ten year old eagerly shows off his family’s giant John Deere tractor.  To him it’s a dream come true, but within a few years this will simply become his job.

I guess the ultimate feeling I’m left with is that we are taught to buy into a certain ‘dream’ at a young age, but then we quickly realize that this isn’t a dream.  By that point, though, we are too bought in to do anything about it.  Maybe you realize you don’t want to be married, but you already have a kid or two.  Or maybe the people in this film don’t regret any of what they do.  When we meet many of the familiar faces 6 years later, in 1985, they seem happy enough, outside of the farming depression.  Their focus is on their industry and their family, not themselves.

Except for one man, a bachelor, who at age 31 in 1979, explains that he has a five year plan, to be married possibly by age 35, if he feels like it.  In 1985 he’s 37 and still single.  The man jokes about being single, but there seems to be some sadness there.

Another woman, who refers to herself as getting ‘up there’ in age as a single woman at almost 27 years old, talks about her frustrations with the Catholic Church and her acceptance of unmarried life should that be her path in life.  She is one of my favorite characters in the story, someone who has dealt with enough frustrations to not buy into the same life that seems to be packaged and sold to someone else, but someone with enough heart to carry on.  She got pregnant at 18 and gave the baby up for adoption, knowing that she wasn’t equipped to raise a child when she still felt to be a child herself.  Her acceptance of being single is immediately contrasted with a woman who says that, a year previous, she enjoyed being single but that now she wants to be married because she’s lonely.  The way she says it sounds like a wolf howling at the moon.  She feels pained, and I’m surprised at how Louis Malle got such honest and open testimonies from people on camera.

The folks of Glencoe let him inside their houses and into their families.  As Malle himself says, they are open, caring, inviting people who work hard and work well.  The time jump to 1985 would seem to make this more political, showing the suffering among the farming industry and the way a town like this has been forgotten by a “movie star” president.  Malle has such compassion for these people, but he still hints at the other side of small town life in a just about all white town.

He asks one woman, the almost 27 year old, about how a homosexual would get along in Glencoe, and she laughs, almost nervously, about the prejudice such a person would face.  This scene almost comes across as if the woman herself might be prejudiced against homosexuality, even after she seemed to be so progressive in so many other ways.  Or maybe it’s just that she didn’t want to admit how conservative the town was.  It was unclear where she stood on the issue, but talking about it at all seemed to make her uncomfortable.

Earlier Malle asks one young farmer about the lack of black people in Glencoe, and the farmer simply says they don’t stick around, while also suggesting that people here don’t much like men and women of a different color.

But these questions aren’t attempts to discredit or villify the subjects of the documentary.  If they are prejudiced in a certain way, certainly by today’s standards, it’s only because of how they were raised.  And though that may not be a good enough justification for outdated beliefs and opinions, it’s the same reason they marry at such a young age or go into the family business.  These are people who grow up into a way of life handed down to them, and the farming depression discussed in 1985, at the end of the film, suggests the first break in lineage, between farming fathers and their sons who now might go into something other than farming.  The gap between the lives of the parents and kids in this time period could be seen as the turning point between life back then and life today.  College was optional to the kids in 1979, but the parents in 1985 are already saving up for their 7 year old’s college fund.  Life is changing.

God’s Country is just simply and utterly fascinating.  This is a time capsule, of life in a place at a specific time, and it feels cinematic in so many ways because of how close and intimate Louis Malle is able to get with his subjects.


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