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Why Can't America's Heartland See Itself on the Big Screen?

By Landon Palmer | Indiewire January 31, 2014 at 9:12AM

Zack Snyder's "Man of Steel" neatly summarizes the relationship that contemporary Hollywood films commonly have to the vast, diverse American landscape. The city is where things happen: where news is made and disseminated, where heroes and villains can stage their big coming out, and where people and buildings get spectacularly destroyed.
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Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent in 'Man of Steel'
Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent in 'Man of Steel'

Zack Snyder's "Man of Steel" neatly summarizes the relationship that contemporary Hollywood films commonly have to the vast, diverse American landscape. The city is where things happen: where news is made and disseminated, where heroes and villains can stage their big coming out, and where people and buildings get spectacularly destroyed. In "Man of Steel," this buzzing city is the Manhattan-modeled Metropolis; the film's Kansas, by contrast, is more of an idea than a place, despite its name referring to an actual state as opposed to the fictional Metropolis. Regional America is regularly portrayed as a "heartland" located perpetually in a nostalgia-infused past, where one comes of age, loses their innocence, acquires virtues, and prepares for a destiny realized in a "real life" elsewhere -- that is, life in The Big American City. That the Kansas of "Man of Steel" was actually filmed in northern Illinois highlights the lack of specificity applied to regional America by this film and others like it. Regional America of the movies is defined less by its own unique character, and more by what it is not.

This hasn't always been the case. Throughout the 1970s, numerous filmmakers -- including Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, George Roy Hill, Peter Bogdanovich, Terrence Malick, Martin Ritt, Bob Rafelson, John Huston, and even Big Apple auteur Martin Scorsese -- lent their cameras to the rural America of small towns, hard labor and lonely highways, depicting each region in a way that sought to capture its local character and history. Regionalism was not a generalizing metaphor or a received symbol in these films, but an opportunity to tell stories of distinctive American locales. While a few notable regionalist films have been widely released since, they are increasingly fewer and further between in a global Hollywood that prefers fictional locales or interchangeable cosmopolitan settings for everything from romantic comedies to fantasy epics.

The problem, of course, is that few ever see a release wide enough to reach areas of America comparable to those represented in these films.

Recent independent films have affixed a renewed lens onto American regionalism, one that takes up the mantle abandoned by a post-Spielberg/Lucas Hollywood. A feast of cinematic locavorism, such films are often shot on location and are supported by members of the community, who sometimes become directly involved in the production. These films do not, in short, portray rural America arbitrarily or vaguely, and they refuse to perpetuate received ideological assumptions or lazy stereotypes. These films seek to represent their respective regions with palpable honesty and authenticity, rejecting any lingering assumptions about the city's inherently superior storytelling capacity.

The problem, of course, is that few ever see a release wide enough to reach areas of America comparable to those represented in these films. That Hollywood overwhelmingly prefers the city while indies provide the few films that actually survey the country has birthed something of a paradox beholden to our current distribution systems: wide-release metropolis-based films play nationwide, while smaller films set in the rural US almost exclusively play in the big city markets that carry platform releases. Such films rarely get out of this bind until the "bigger markets" have been tested.

2013 alone gave us Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder" (Oklahoma), David Gordon Green's "Prince Avalanche" (Texas), David Lowery's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" (Louisiana/Texas), Amy Seimetz's "Sun Don't Shine" (Florida), and Yen Tan's "Pit Stop" (Texas), none of which topped 60 screens. This year's Sundance portends another crop of solid rural storytelling, with films like Jeremy Saulnier's "Blue Ruin" (Virginia/Delaware) and Jim Mickle's "Cold in July" (Texas/New York) generating some solid buzz. That many of these movies are worth your time is beyond contention; how and if they will be seen is a different matter entirely.

But several developments suggest that the archaic models which have long divided these films from potential audiences might be in the throes of erosion.

"Mud"
"Mud"

Writer/director Jeff Nichols saw his Arkansas-set third feature "Mud" substantially outperform his previous two films, "Shotgun Stories" (Arkansas) and "Take Shelter" (Ohio), in part because distributor Roadside Attractions proved willing to take risks that defy the conventional wisdom of indie rollouts.

Nichols told Indiewire that when he made "Mud," he didn't think of it as something that should be reserved for "arthouse theaters in New York and LA," but rather approached the film as a piece of classical American filmmaking. He said of his experience with his first two films, "I had seen a platform release on ‘Take Shelter' and had very mixed emotions about it, and I had seen a platform release on ‘Shotgun Stories' which was a fairly nonexistent release. But I'd just seen them come and go, and I don't live in New York or LA. I live in Austin. With ‘Take Shelter,' I was a little unfair to Sony Classics. I kept saying, ‘They're not doing anything.' [A friend in New York] said, ‘But I see stuff' [about the film], and it never trickles out of those main hubs. With ‘Take Shelter,' I told myself, ‘It's slow and it's kind of an odd movie with a weird ending, and maybe it deserves to just play there.' So you reason out your lack of success."

This article is related to: Alexander Payne, Nebraska, Man of Steel, Mud, Jeff Nichols, Filmmaker Toolkit: Exhibition, Filmmaker Toolkit: Distribution, Filmmaker Toolkit: Production, News