A Feature Review of
Cinematic States: Stories We Tell, the American Dreamlife, and How to Understand Everything*
*(Mostly. But Not Really. But Sort Of.)
Reviewed by Brett David Potter
Film is oneiric. When we all sit together in a darkened room, fixated on the flickering shadows dancing on the luminous silver screen, we engage in a kind of collective dreaming. As film theorists have pointed out, it’s Plato’s cave without anyone standing up to interrupt the show.
Accordingly, when it comes to understanding ourselves, the places we inhabit, and the people we are becoming, our shared cinematic dreams are a natural place to start. This is nowhere more true than when it comes to the nation of dreams – the United States of America – and its dream capital, Hollywood. Gareth Higgins’ Cinematic States is an attempt by an outsider – a recent immigrant to the land of the free and home of the brave – to better understand America through its celluloid fantasies. This is not film criticism per se; instead, Higgins aims for something both more modest and more profound:
“I wanted to know what the movies said about the place I was now living. If I
wanted to enter the myth of America in real life, I would have to take the
movies as seriously as they were willing to take me.” (33)
Woven into this odyssey is Higgins’ own story; born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland, his first awareness of the strange and wonderful complexities of America came through the movies. As a fellow non-American, I can relate; when I finally went to San Francisco, it seemed familiar after having seen it as the setting for so many great films. (Star Trek IV, for example, when the Klingon Warbird flies under the Golden Gate Bridge, or the scene by the water in Vertigo.) Even for those of us who did not grow up within its borders, America’s collective dreams are manifest for all to see in darkened theatres around the globe. We have fallen in love with the brightest of these mythologies – “the magical teenage rebellion of Marty McFly in Back to the Future, the Abrahamic vision of Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the day from which Ferris Bueller would almost certainly never recover” (65) – and long for the childhood innocence in which we first succumbed to their charms. However, we have also been spellbound by visions of horror and dysfunction, the darker side of the American mythos. As Higgins writes, “America’s dream of itself… suggests that lack, or the fear of it, is at the heart of the American shadow.” (95) If the silver screen is a mirror, it reflects the true countenance of the nation, one that often resembles Norman Bates as much as it does Atticus Finch.
Higgins currently lives in Durham, North Carolina, where he is the director of the annual shalom-pursuing faith, justice, and music gathering called the Wild Goose Festival. He writes with freshness and honesty about the celluloid stories which make up his adopted country, inviting us on a conversational journey through American film history. Eschewing the “my year of _____” narrative structure we associate with Morgan Spurlock, A.J. Jacobs, and the blogosphere – and, in terms of cinema, such recent books as Nathan Rabin’s ironic tour through cult cinema My Year of Flops (2007) – Higgins instead curates a wry and insightful national filmography by unfolding the significance of an iconic film (or two, or three) for each one of the states of his adopted country. We start with Alabama and move in alphabetical order to Wyoming. In so doing, we get not only a tour of the mythic America of the movies but a bit of Higgins’ own story as well. He also weaves in a good dose of local history (did you know Alabama means “clearers of the thicket”?). At first, the various chapters seem to not have much in common; the films chosen for each state range from the sublime (2001: A Space Odyssey for Utah) to the ridiculous (There’s Something About Mary for Rhode Island). But gradually they circle back to the same theme: What kinds of dreams do we dream? What do these dreams tell us about ourselves, and about America? And finally, the question posed in one of the author’s favourite films, Field of Dreams (Iowa) – “What kind of dream am I trying to make true when I’m awake?” (149).