"God’s Country" - Louis Malle (1986)

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:
  1. Overview of the Town (about 30 minutes)
  2. Specific Subjects of Interest (about 40 minutes)
  3. Revisiting the Town Six Years Later (about 20 minutes)
1. Overview of the Town
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
Malle also shows an interest in something that might not occur to the locals: the Caucasian ethnic uniformity of the town. Are there many native Indians and Black people around? He speaks with one old man who discusses what he knows about the disappearance of the Indians from the area after the outbreak in 1862 known as the “Sioux Uprising”. Malle also surveys the local farming industry and chats with the owner of the largest farm and another man who is both a farmer and the local banker. The farming business in this area appears to be a balance between dairy and agricultural farming. The overall picture is that of a relatively prosperous and contented town that is shielded from the world’s problems.

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.
This entire section serves to accentuate the first section, but in greater depth and intimacy.

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.
★★★½ 

The Being of Entities in the World

An important section of Heidegger’s Being and Time is his treatment of the “Being of the Entities Encountered in the Environment”, for the point of view taken here greatly affects the tenor of the entire work. Heidegger sees as fundamental to Dasein’s being-in-the-world what is called concern. In our everyday dealings in the world, that which is not characteristic is dealing which grasps and manipulates entities in the environment rather than merely perceives their existence. Thus the analysis is that of these entities so encountered, rather than any abstractly postulated entities of nature. This analysis is in keeping with the phenomenological approach, but it fundamentally affects our eventual attitudes. The central theme is the concern of Dasein – it is that which constitutes the encounter with entities. Thus Heidegger says:
“The achieving of phenomenological access to the entities which we encounter, consists rather in thrusting aside our interpretative tendencies, which keep thrusting themselves upon us and running along with us, and which conceal not only the phenomenon of such ‘concern’, but even more those entities themselves as encountered of their own in our concern with them. “ [1]
Entities that Dasein encounters in its concern are called equipment, but Dasein is not thematically aware of this “equipmentality”. Rather, the nature of the encounter is termed readiness-to-hand.
“The ready-to-hand is not grasped theoretically at all, nor is it itself the sort of thing that circumspection takes proximally as a circumspective theme”. [2]
The important thing here is that the entities encountered are not simply brute-existent (present-at-hand) which are injected with the quality of readiness-to-hand by Dasein. This would imply that the entities are first encountered as present-at-hand and are later provided with the characteristics of readiness-to-hand. But Heidegger insists on maintaining the priority of readiness-to-hand. Heidegger introduces phenomenologically the concept of present-at-hand entities with the idea of unusability. When an entity presents itself as unusable (e.g. when it is damaged), its unreadiness-to-hand presents itself. Likewise when a utensil is missing for some project or when one obstructs the completion of a project, the unreadiness-to-hand is manifest. The unready-to-hand utensil, which is normally used to bring about the completion of a project, is suddenly unable to function in this way. When a hammer is broken, it immediately presents itself as incapable of hammering. Now, before the particular reason for the malfunction is observed, that is, at the moment when only its incapability for being used to further the project is noticed, then it is apparent that presence-at-hand lies behind the readiness-to-hand. This does not mean that presence-at-hand is more fundamental.
“This presence-at-hand of something that cannot be used is still not devoid of all readiness-to-hand whatsoever; equipment which is present-at-hand in this way is still just a thing which occurs somewhere.” [3]
It seems that readiness-to-hand maintains its priority. The damage to the equipment is still not a mere alteration of a thing – not a change of properties which just occurs in something present-at-hand” [4] Thus we are not observing pure presence-at-hand. The development seems to suggest that presence-at-hand is related phenomenally to thematic awareness of readiness-to-hand. Heidegger observes on this point that
“the presence-at-hand of entities is thrust to the fore by the possible breaks in that referential totality in which circumspection ‘operates’; how are we to get a closer understanding of this totality?” [5]
A footnote to this sentence in the text explains that in the earlier editions of the book, the word for readiness-to-hand was used instead of that for presence-at-hand. Thus Heidegger, himself, must have thought that the thematic awareness of readiness-to-hand brings about the concept of presence-at-hand.

Thus we are given two kinds of being of entities in the world, which are to a certain extent cofundamental (to Heidegger):
  1. The Being of those entities within-the-world which we proximally encounter – readiness-to-hand;
  2. The Being of those entities which we can comes across and whose nature we can determine if we discover them in their own right by going through the entities proximally encountered – presence-at-hand. [6]
If we again examine these concepts on the ontic level, we can more fully see the argument. All entities encountered in our concern are ready-to-hand instruments. Thus a pencil is seen as a writing implement – that which will serve to complete the project of writing. It can also be seen as a piece of wood that will burn, or a light object that can be thrown. No matter how it is encountered, it is seen as a utensil of some sort. One might argue that the idea that the pencil is the same thing in all of these situations is lost. But that is the point: the entity is a utensil, not a thing-in-itself. If an unreadiness-to-hand doesn’t appear (a broken pencil), then there is no awareness of the pencil as a thing other than its function in the given project. Of course we can reflect upon the single pencil as something to be used for many different projects, but it is still always in terms of some readiness-to-hand. When a pencil is perceived as broken, it is still perceived in a ready-to-hand way. It must be discarded, repaired, or ignored, but it always seen in terms of its readiness-to-hand.

The question now arises, where does presence-at-hand come in? When we look at a rock, we see it as ready-to-hand. As soon as we see it as a “rock”, it is assigned to the referential totality of ready-to-hand entities. Jean-Paul Sartre in his novel, La Nausée, depicts Antoine Roquentin as overpowered with a feeling of nausea when he reflectively observes a root in a park. Roquentin becomes aware that there is something beyond the root as it is perceived in all of its referential connotations.
“‘This is a root’ – it didn’t work any more. I saw clearly that you could not pass from its function as a root, as a breathing pump, to that, to this hard and compact skin of a sea lion, to this oily, callous, headstrong look. The function explained nothing: it allowed you to understand generally that it was a root, but not that one at all. This root, with its colour, shape, its congealed movement, was . . . below all explanation.” [7]
However, I do not think that Roquentin is nauseated because he perceives the presence-at-hand of the root. Rather he is nauseated precisely because he can’t. No matter how he looks at the root, he is overwhelmed with the mental abyss staring at him when he tries to penetrate to the presence-at-hand of the root – the existence of which can be postulated but never perceived. Everything that is perceived, every situation, is perceived in terms of antecedents and consequences. This suggests Heidegger’s concernful Being of Dasein and the category of cause-and-effect for Kant. This quality of antecedents and consequences is characteristic of all human knowledge, because it is rooted in human perception. If the ready-to-hand entity is perceived in terms of antecedents and consequence, then this is the being constitutive of it. The pencil is seen in terms of making a blank piece of paper full of writing. The future situation of a paper full of writing dominates here.

If ready-to-hand entities (all entities perceived) are in terms of antecedents and consequences, then the essential element of these entities is time. Time is the succession of events. When an environmental situation changes to another situation, time has elapsed. Thus an entity which is thought of in terms of antecedents and consequences has time as its constitutive element. Heidegger, himself, suggests this in his analysis of care and temporality:
“Coming back to itself futurally, resoluteness brings itself into the situation by making present. The character of ‘having been’ arises from the future, and in such a way that the future which ‘has been’ (or better, which ‘is in the process of having been’) releases from itself the present. This phenomenon has the unity of a future which makes present in the process of having been; we designate it as ‘temporality’. Only in so far as Dasein has the definite character of temporality, is the authentic potentiality-for-Being-a-whole of anticipatory resoluteness, as we have described it, made possible for Dasein itself. Temporality reveals itself as the meaning of authentic care.” [8]
Here, however, I believe that temporality arises from the idea of the ready-to-hand. The thesis of temporality being constitutive of readiness-to-hand is entirely consistent with Heidegger’s conception of time (above). That is, the present is the past projecting into the future.

As we noted earlier, presence-at-hand is not immediately encounterable for Dasein. Yet Heidegger suggests that pure science is handled in terms of presence-at-hand. He points out that the concern attendant upon any encounter with a ready-to-hand entity precludes the possibility of mathematical functionalizaton. Thus he says,
“By reason of their Being-just-present-at-hand-and-no-more, these latter entities can have their ‘properties’ defined mathematically in ‘functional concepts.’ Ontologically, such concepts are possible only in relation to entities whose Being has the character of pure substantiality. Functional concepts are never possible except as formalized substantial concepts.” [9]
This, however, is not consistent with our concepts of entities. Presence-at-hand is pure substantiality without the ascription of any properties, no matter now formal. All functional concepts are eventually relatable back to some sensory perception, whether it is the reading of a meter, hearing a buzzer, or seeing an image. This must be so in order to have experimental verification of scientific theories. As areas of knowledge become more sophisticated, they may seem to be more fundamental, but they all eventually go back to some empirical observation – this observation being exclusively of ready-to-hand entities. The physical theory is then a complex organizational framework of ready-to-hand things, and it, too, is ready-to-hand. As the quest for fundamental particles in physics becomes more and more sophisticated, it becomes increasingly evident that the theories are mere mathematical tools which seem to eliminate the need for the idea of a present-at-hand entity. That is, there are no longer discrete entities in modern theory, but just a vast space-time continuum with wave-like peaks and valleys which appear to be entities to our senses in the macroscopic world. This only indicates that present-at-hand entities are in no way necessary for physical speculation, even for "fundamental particles” of nature. Even physicists no longer believe that they are dealing with present-at-hand entities – that is what the “revolution in physics” is al about. Physical theories are seen only as mathematical interrelations of sets of data that are valid only in so far as their empirical predictability is successful. Thus physics and all other realms of knowledge are exclusively thought of in terms of the ready-to-hand.

What, then, is presence-at-hand? It is a kind of dimension characteristic of utensils. Since it can only be phenomenologically approached by the observance of an unreadiness-to-hand, this idea seems justified. If all the readiness-to-hand were to be removed from an entity, we would have its presence-hand. This can only be thought of logically, since when a certain readiness-to-hand is seen absent from an entity (an unreadiness-to-hand appears), then a new and different readiness-to-hand will show itself to Dasein’s consciousness. If we were to reflect on the utensil, we could approach presence-at-hand as a logical limit by contemplating the removal of all readiness-to-hand. In precisely the same way the concept of infinity is a logical limit, that is, it’s sum can never really be conceived, but by successive addition of units, we can approach infinity as a limit.

It seems quite possible that presence-at-hand is not unlike pure aesthetic speculation. This would suggest, if the foregoing is accepted, that pure aesthetic speculation, i.e. a purely aesthetic encounter of anything, is completely impossible, but that the idea may be approached as a limit.
Thus he who pursues the aesthetic way of life can never really achieve a fully aesthetic experience, and thus full aesthetic satisfaction is impossible – only nausea is the result.

The world seen as strictly utensils can lead to many ethical implications in view of the fact that the future dominates the outlook of the individual (“The Primary phenomenon of primordial and authentic temporality is the future.” [10]) The duty of man is then centered around projects that are continually set before him. Many of these implications are carried out in great detail by the Utilitarian philosophers, such as Dewey.

The important point is that central to Heidegger’s thesis is the idea that entities of the world are all encountered as utensils, and this fact can override other less fundamental tenets when implications of his philosophy are being considered.

Notes:
  1. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (1927), translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (1962), Harper & Row, p. 96.
  2. Ibid., p. 99.
  3. Ibid., p. 103.
  4. Ibid., p. 103.
  5. Ibid., p. 107.
  6. Ibid., p. 121.
  7. Jean-Paul Sartre, La Nausée (1938), translated by Lloyd Alexander (1959), p. 174.
  8. Heidegger, op. cit., p. 374.
  9. Ibid., p. 122.
  10. Ibid., p. 378.

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