The United Cinematic States of America

Guest post by Gareth Higgins

“You have to be a stranger to the landscape to regard it as a view.” — Geoff Dyer

“I wish I had your passion, Ray, misdirected as it may be. But it is still a passion.” — Terrence Mann to Ray Kinsella, in Field of Dreams

Author’s note: I’m delighted to be participating in the Glen Workshop this coming June, and would love you to join me to explore the personal (and American) dream narratives in cinema. The journey I took into this subject changed my life, and I hope we can have a similar impact in exploring the same questions together.

My new book Cinematic States takes a look at American myths in one of their most powerful forms. Looking at one movie from each of the fifty states of my adopted homeland I’m asking whether a Kansas yellow brick road really does lead to the end of the rainbow, and does it first have to pass through Colorado’s Overlook Hotel? Amidst the multipurpose woodchippers, friendly exorcists and faulty motel showers, resurrected baseball players and miracle-working gardeners, what do the stories we tell reveal about ourselves, and how can we reimagine who we are?

It was a fascinating experience to research the book, and I discovered immense wells of rich variety in this country that is so easily dismissed by many for its errors, real and perceived.

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Each Woman Mary, Each Child Christ

I found respite recently in Jeanne Murray Walker’s essay on Alice Munro in Image, describing Munro’s domestic fiction, and related utterly to Walker’s wrestling with “Doing Something Important.” It is a place I find myself often, wondering if the few hours a week I have of child care for the baby are an example of my missing what I am supposed to be living and learning. Jesus does not say to come to him as someone Doing Something Important, but as a little child.

You’re not supposed to write about your own children if you want to be a real writer. Too cliché, too sentimental. But what about the one whose birth we so recently celebrated? This isn’t sentimental—it’s the real deal. A child is born in Bethlehem, and he is the king of kings. This is earth shattering. There’s something there we’re meant to learn. Maybe even everything.

A December 2004 article in Time notes that the nativity story is the part of the Jesus history that gives scholars most trouble. Only Matthew and Luke talk about the birth of Jesus, and like most parallel accounts in the Bible, their stories contradict each other. Neither account is given much room on the page for a holiday of such current social and commercial import.

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Eve, the Apple, and the Need To Know: The Imago Dei Project

I’ve been thinking about Genesis lately. In this past month, the lectionary included Eve’s succumbing to the serpent and my study group talked about the troubling fallout in perceptions of gender roles, about what might have happened if Eve hadn’t eaten the apple, about a human tendency toward disobedience.

Today I’m thinking about certainty. Eve and Adam didn’t happen to simply miss curfew, or miss an animal-naming deadline; they ate of the tree of knowledge. Another discussion might consider the aspects of good and evil implicit in this knowledge, but I’m struck by the concept of desiring knowledge so much we are willing to face God’s punishment.

Most of my conscious life I’m hoping for, even demanding certainty. I want to know the one right school to send my kids to, the one right way to raise them, the one right way to eat, the one right way to exercise. My demand for certainty yields little but frustration. The time I spend with art I’m willing to know a little bit less. I read a collection of short stories for a class this past weekend, and turn over the possibilities for each narrative in my head.

Leon Kass found much to turn over reading Genesis. A professor at the University of Chicago, he began his study for general interest, and it became an obsession. What he had planned as a diversion became the near-700 page The Beginning of Wisdom. His 700 pages do not find much in the way of certainty. Instead, Kass suggests Genesis is rife with lacunae offering up and even demanding exploration, offering a narrative of metaphysical and ethical truths. A midrash he mentions in a footnote explains the significance of starting Genesis with bet, a letter closed on three sides and open to the direction of the text, so the reader is permitted only to investigate the time of the world’s creation into the time that we live. Each letter itself has meaning, bringing the level of significance from grand theory to minute detail, wider and deeper than literature lovers even know to look.

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The Truth Told Slant

Every winter I plunge into darkness.

As Seattle days shorten to eight hours with clouds covering most of the sky and the city readies for ten months of showers, my inner world becomes as bleak as the world outside. I burrow through three seasons like a shrew mole through the mud, tunneling deeper to cry, surfacing only to complain.

Born and raised in New York, I’ve not adjusted in twenty-seven years.

I suppose this isn’t surprising. All my grandparents were natives of Sicily, a place where even in winter daylight persists for ten hours with nary a cloud in the sky. The people of Palermo wake to sun 228 days per year.

When my grandparents immigrated to the US, they did well to settle in Manhattan, where the sun shines over Central Park 235 days each year. The Space Needle basks in sun rays only fifty-eight.

My doctor calls my melancholy SAD (seasonal affective disorder), a depression caused by lack of sunlight resulting in low serotonin. Those who experience it suffer desolation, petulance, anxiety, and social strain.

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The Poetry of Self-Absorbed Young Love

Until I was thirty-two, I was afraid to think about God. I panicked at what I called “ultimate questions.” In my journal when I was twenty-nine, I wrote: “Life-and-death is the only real drama. But I’m afraid to get close to it.”

Yet I’d keep begging my husband George, teasingly, to “tell me the meaning of life.” It was one of the playful routines of the first six years or so of our marriage. We’d giggle at his lack of an answer—giggle because we were sure that any answer would be a religious cliché we’d scoff at.

We’d met while getting our doctorates in literature, and the thing in life we were most confident of—and quite arrogantly charmed by—was our own brilliance. If life did have a meaning, we were certain that we could find it (or produce it) in our own minds. [Read more...]