In 1975 successful French filmmaker Louis Malle moved to the United States and began the second phase of his career, which soon resulted in the production of the feature, Pretty Baby (1978). But although Malle was mostly known to the public for his feature films, he was also an outstanding documentary filmmaker, with some magnificent credits during his French period that included Phantom India (1969) and Calcutta (1969). So when he arrived in the US, he brought his personal, cinéma-vérité-style documentary approach to the American scene. His first documentary film in the US was commissioned by PBS in 1979, and he was given freedom to choose any subject in America that captured his fancy. He eventually settled his focus on the life in a small town in Minnesota, which became the subject of his God’s Country (1986).
Glencoe, Minnesota, the subject of God’s Country, is a farming community about 100 kilometres west of Minneapolis, and its population today of around 5,000 is still about what it was when Malle paid his visits. The film comprises three main sections and becomes increasingly personal (that is, reflecting Malle’s personal fascinations with what he has found) as it progresses to each successive stage:
- Overview of the Town (about 30 minutes)
- Specific Subjects of Interest (about 40 minutes)
- Revisiting the Town Six Years Later (about 20 minutes)
In the opening scenes I wondered if this film was going to be another European cosmopolite’s dismissal of provincial American hicks. Was this going to just another freak show depicting how humorously weird American Midwesterners are? The film opens with Malle entering Glencoe by road and encountering an elderly lady wearing an odd-looking cap and weeding an overgrown garden near the street. Although she looked a little odd, she turned out to be amiable and wiling to engage. And so it turns out with most of the Glencoe people we encounter in the rest of the film. This first part of the film is general survey of life in the town as seen by the interested French newcomer. After the old lady, we observe some typical small-town Americana:
- The American Legion and its concern for honouring Vietnam war veterans
- Bingo games
- The local Church and its pastor
- The American fixation with mowing and maintaining a well-groomed lawn
- A girl’s softball team
- A cordial local policeman who attends to a town with virtually no crime
2. Specific Subjects
In the next section Malle zeros in on a few people who open up their homes and give him a more intimate view of life in the town.
- We spend about ten minutes visiting the home and farm of a 28-year-old farmer and his wife.
- Then Malle visits a lawyer, Arnold, and his wife, Millie, an aspiring local playwright. Though they, like the great majority of the local populace, have been long-time supporters of the conservative and pro-military Republican Party, their son was a Vietnam war protestor during that war. Although Arnold and Millie approach the subject of that protest cautiously, they gradually open up to Malle and reveal how they came to support their son’s conscience-driven opposition to the war, which led to his arrest (he had been arrested in connection with an attempt to burn local military draft records).
- We meet Steve, who, besides being a performer in the town’s local theatre group (which performs Millie’s satirical plays), works in the local farming industry as the man who inseminates cows. This rather gruesome procedure he performs several times an hour on cows, who put up with this intrusive action without too much protest. Steve is in his thirties and a committed free-loving bachelor. He approvingly remarks on the attitude of the local citizenry of this laid-back farming community to avoid condemning alternative points of view (such as that exemplified by his own lifestyle).
- Glencoe’s young women provide the next topic of interest, and Malle is briefly fascinated with one young woman pumping gas at a local petrol station (perhaps not so common then in France?). He moves on to focus on a remarkable young woman, Jean, whose conversations with Malle were the highlight of the film for me. Jean has an ordinary job as a social security employee at the local court and also has a second job as a bartender on weekends. But Jean is not so ordinary – she is thoughtful, sensitive, well-read, and a free spirit. She has renounced her Roman Catholic faith (over the subject of abortion), and she openly shares her thoughts about life and the world around her in a series of candid film clips.
- The care of the elderly is then considered for about five minutes. Even though Glencoe is not a large town, it seems to have a well-equipped nursing home for its elderly. Although the health of these people is looked after, Malle has some grim shots of extremely frail and probably senile people in this facility living without hope or interest in life.
- The final part of this section is devoted to a wedding of a young local couple. There is a traditional ceremony featuring a soulful singing of “We’ve Only Just Begun”, followed by a dance/reception. But then for the rest of the afternoon the entire wedding party engages in a lengthy bar-hopping trek. Traditional habits apparently persist in this town, even on what would seem to be the most important day of one’s life.
3. Revisiting the Town Six Year Later
Although Malle’s original visit to Glencoe was in 1979, there were some work interruptions and funding delays that delayed completion of the film for six years. Finally in 1985 Malle returned to Glencoe with his crew to see what had changed. This section then serves as something of sobering reflection on what time has wrought.
The old woman gardener on the road entering the town is still there and still, now at the age of 91, cheerful and industrious. The fixation of lawn-mowing is unchanged. Steve is still a bachelor and still inseminating cows round the clock. But there have been some changes, too. The banker/farmer has died of a heart attack, and the liberated Jean has moved to Florida. But perhaps more significantly for the population at large, the town is now suffering from a severe downturn in agricultural food prices. Farmers are struggling to make ends meet, and some of them are going under. The big farmer, shown in the first section of the film as prosperous and contended, now has heavy losses and is intensely frustrated – he ominously reveals his growing sympathies for the fascistic Posse Comitatus group that fantasizes in Jewish-led conspiracies behind every discontent, and he predicts impending violence in the area.
To close the film, though, Malle turns away from these frustrations and signs of gloom and visits again with Arnold and Millie (the parents of the student antiwar protester). Millie is still writing and producing plays at the local theater. Over dinner, Arnold reflects philosophically on the growing darkness that he sees coming over modern society – its increasing obsession with material greed and the decline of traditional values and fellowship.
In earlier documentary films like Phantom India and Calcutta, Malle displayed two contrasting, concerns: an interest in the spiritual dimension of the people and an identification with the French progressive, leftist focus on social justice, particularly for the working class. One concern was directed towards personal fulfilment, and the other towards the collective good. Accordingly, one can detect in those earlier films Malle’s sympathies shifting back and forth, as he observes local religious practices, on the one hand, evidently holding back the material progress of the Indian people and at the same time offering them something uplifting and wholly lacking in Western societies. This tension is never really resolved in those films, but that two-sidedness is part of what makes those films enduringly interesting – they evoke the depths of unresolved conflicts that remain in today’s world.
Since throughout God’s Country Malle has let the people of Glencoe speak for themselves, the film may appear at first glance to be entirely removed from those concerns present in Malle’s earlier documentaries, and many viewers may be tempted to see the film as merely a snapshot of a small town – a banal cataloguing of a remote and not very exciting village. But though the talk is largely about the mundane aspects of the townspeople’s daily lives, Malle finds Glencoe fascinating, and so do I (even though I am from a town very much like Glencoe, myself). In truth the film offers more than just local-color Americana, and it does carry implicit allusions to those earlier Malle concerns. What evidently fascinated Malle, and what comes through gradually as one watches the film, is the general innocence and cordiality of these people. The ethos behind this social behaviour was epitomized by lawyer Arnold’s remarks at the close of the film. His basic concern for the preservation of common piety and decency was the message that Malle wanted to convey. The people observed in this film are ordinary commonfolk, but on the world stage, they are extraordinary – they mostly seem to treat everyone they encounter as their equals, and they are honest, genuine, and modest (the effect of their interpersonal directness is accentuated by having them speak directly into the camera). This not only shows where Malle’s interests in personal fulfilment and social harmony converge; it also points to the kind of society that we want to have – and if we already have it, as in Glencoe, we want to preserve it. This is God’s country.