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August 22, 2006

TT: In a strange land

Art doesn't have to be true to life to be good, but when a work of art is true to your life, it strikes a special chord. On occasion music has this effect on me: I can think of any number of pieces that appear to embody my feelings about the world so precisely that I feel as though I might have written them. Much of Aaron Copland's music has that effect on me, as does the streetlights-at-dusk melancholy of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, Charles Mingus' elegy for Lester Young.

My guess is that most people are more likely to respond in this way to works of art that make use of words, and in particular to movies, which at their best are capable of creating an impression of reality so total as to be overwhelming. For my part, though, I haven't seen many movies that seemed true in any significant way to my personal experience. Only three spring to mind, and two of them, not surprisingly, are about music. Steven Kloves' The Fabulous Baker Boys and Tom Hanks' That Thing You Do both remind me so strongly of episodes from my own life that I can't watch them without being plunged into autobiographical reverie.

The third is Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me, and there the identification is even more complete, for I don't know of another film that captures so perfectly the look and feel of life in small-town America (except for Junebug, which comes very close). In Hollywood, ordinary middle-class life is a state to be escaped, not examined. Unlike their novel-writing counterparts, American filmmakers are almost never willing to set a serious drama in a believable-looking small town, or even a medium-sized city located anywhere other than on the East or West Coasts. To them, the vast expanse of terra incognita known in New York and Los Angeles as "flyover country" is little more than a breeding ground for cross-burners, serial murderers, and Republicans. You Can Count on Me is utterly different from such films. It's not that Lonergan idealizes the town in which his characters live: he is completely honest about the narrow limitations of their world. Yet he still gives them their due, sketching them with a novelistic richness of detail that defies the simplifying art of the pitchman.

Another film that penetrates deeply into the byways of flyover country is Robert Duvall's The Apostle. Religion in the movies has typically meant either Going My Way or Inherit the Wind, with next to nothing in between. How much more daring, then, for Duvall to have made a film about the culture of southern Pentecostalism that doesn't seek to expose anybody or anything, but opts instead to portray in a straightforward, uncondescending manner the transformation of charming Sonny Dewey, a hard-drinking womanizer from Texas who makes an easy living as the upwardly mobile pastor of the Temple of the Living God, into the painfully earnest Apostle E.F., who preaches every Sunday at the One Way Road to Heaven Holiness Temple of Bayou Boutte, Louisiana, and spends the rest of the week working as a grease monkey and short-order cook. To see the Apostle E.F. standing in the aisle of a sweltering clapboard church stripped of all ornament but a cheap chromo of Jesus, hoarsely stuttering spiritual platitudes and waving his Living Bible like a blunt instrument, is to behold a spectacle at once absurd (if tragically so) and thrilling.

I thought of The Apostle and You Can Count on Me as I watched the Berkshire Theatre Festival's revival of Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles, a play that is greatly admired for the similar precision with which it portrays the lives of a group of bright young men and women of upper-middle-class privilege. What struck me most forcibly about its characters was the near-complete extent to which they were insulated from anyone unlike themselves. Needless to say, I live in their world, but I was born and raised in a different one, and I never need reminding that most Americans neither talk nor think like the members of the urban verbal class with whom The Heidi Chronicles is populated.

Of course it's perfectly possible to make serious and memorable art out of the lives of such folk. (Whether or not Wasserstein succeeded in doing so is another matter, one that I'll be taking up on Friday in my Wall Street Journal drama column.) Besides, it's a truism that authors write best when they write about what they know, and given the transformation of America's elite universities into instruments of meritocratic change, it's increasingly less likely that our college-educated artists will know much about anybody else. Back in the days of John P. Marquand and Louis Auchincloss, these institutions served as finishing schools for the northeastern upper class. Now they act as search engines that locate and recruit young men and women of promise from all across America, then indoctrinate them with the cultural assumptions of the New Class. Instead of going back where they came from, there to leaven the cultural loaf and in turn to be influenced by local opinions and customs, the successful products of the meritocratic machine are more likely to migrate to New Class-dominated cities and suburbs, where seldom is heard a contradictory word.

This being the case, I expect it's a fairly safe bet that the plays and films of the coming decade will look less like You Can Count on Me or The Apostles than The Heidi Chronicles. Nor is that the worst thing in the world: I like witty repartee as much as the next critic. Yet I can't shake the lingering feeling that such plays are written in a foreign language that I speak fluently but in which I do not dream. And I still cling to the hope that I'll someday get to review a play with which I identify as closely as I do with, say, Tom T. Hall's Homecoming, a country song about a traveling musician who pays a brief visit to his admiring but uncomprehending small-town father:

I guess I should have written, Dad,
To let you know that I was comin' home.
I've been gone so many years
I didn't realize you had a phone.

I saw your cattle comin' in,
Boy, they're looking mighty fat and slick.
I saw Fred at the service station,
Told me that his wife was awful sick.

No, we don't ever call 'em beer joints,
Nightclubs are the places where I work.
You meet a lot of people there,
But no, there ain't no chance of gettin' hurt.

Posted August 22, 2006 12:00 PM

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