“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” Dwight Eisenhower 1953
“There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics (notably from the clergy) for the beenfit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are many times when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures, and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people, who thereupon take leave of sanity and responsibility. And it occasionally happens that this underworld becomes a political power and changes the course of history.” Norman Cohn Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy And the Protocols of the Elders Of Zion 1967
“Apart from the extremely lazy way the film shorthands its characters through regional and class stereotypes, Hillbilly Elegy is an incoherent, meandering, misogynistic tangle of vanishing subplots and vague ideas. I hesitate to even call them subplots since that suggests a plot arc to begin with. For example, I honestly spent the whole movie wondering why the opening leaned so heavily on the narrator’s childhood summers in Kentucky — his seminal time spent with “my people,” a phrase he said over and over again like Moses freeing the Israelites — even though we never returned to Kentucky or his extended family again. Our hero, real-life memoirist J.D. Vance, spent most of the film treating ‘his people’ like shit.J.D. is easily the most loathsome protagonist since Holden Caulfield.” Aja Romano
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy
“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” Dr. Johnson
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings
Since 2016 all of us here in the blue cities we’ve been unable to dodge the question, “Who are the Trump voters?”
The question comes with the underlying assumption that they’re some sort of monolithic bloc that lives somewhere in the middle of the country where many are busy producing something we could call in the aggregate, food. The average city Bolshevik finds them a curious lot who makes – at the very least – my cadre shake their collective heads and ask, “Who are these people?”
To which I answer, what would you like to know?
I grew up in a town with a population of roughly 7000 people in rural Colorado. While we were considered the big city in the area it was possible to drive a little over an hour to find hamlets and villages which had populations of less than 500 people, one of which was the town where my grandfather lived. While he was retired from the grocery business his siblings all lived nearby and were cattle ranchers, i.e. The Future Cheeseburgers of America. His brother-in-law had been a functionary of one kind or another in the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association until finally in the early 1950s when he became “President of the whole shootin’ match.”
In addition to having box seats at The Western Stock Show Rodeo, he and my great-aunt were considered the local aristocracy.
James Buchanan Watkins spent 86 years on the planet and in all the time he was known to friends and family as Jimmy. After I was old enough to drive I would go see my grandfather and take him on errands, chief among which was a stop at the post office. We’d go in to get the mail and buy stamps. More often than not Uncle Jimmy was there as well. We were usually the last to greet him as the other locals had to stop, tip their Stetsons, and pay respects.
Think of it as the local cow-tow.
Granddad didn’t have much for use for the ceremony. He thought it made Uncle Jimmy “A stuffed shirt, all that goin’ to his head, you can trust him to vote a straight Democratic ticket anymore.”
And my grandmother’s opinion?
Funny you should ask.
Simulacrum and its Discontents
For the past couple of days I watched and re-watched a few sections of Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy, a film that carries the onerous burden of explaining the Trump voter once and for all. The movie got that honor due to its source material, the book of the same name by J.D. Vance. Book reviewers believed it was the single best view as to who those people are who didn’t vote for Hillary. What followed, according to the conventional wisdom, was to turn it into a motion picture that would eventually be advertised in Variety under the heading, “For Your Consideration.”
Seemed simple enough – get a couple of brand-name stars (Glen Close and Amy Adams) and a major director. (Ron Howard)
And who knows more about what it’s like to grow up in a small town than Opie?
And this is where it went off the rails for the movie reviewers who called Elegy little more than Hollywood’s idea of how poor people live. Several sites gathered up reviewers like Aja Romano (see above) who had come from small towns and who were aghast at how the movie was in no way related to their own first-hand experience of growing up in the middle of nowhere. Like them I have some problems with the film in that there’s no there there. As Richard Brody said in his New Yorker review –
Yet, paradoxically, this cultural blankness, this reductiveness, isn’t just an error of omission on Howard’s part; it plays like a calculated aspect of the drama—and, even more strangely, like a positive trait, a mark of authenticity. The film’s stagings, images, and tones are as formless and as vague as its characters’ mental lives, and that vagueness replaces elements of Vance’s book which are politically and ideologically quite explicit—and which have been criticized for the simplistic lessons that they extract from his experience.
Long story short – of all the movies every made Hillbilly Elegy certainly is one of them.
Oscar bait it’s not.
In no way is the Vance character in the movie is as loathsome as Holden Caulfield or Anakin Skywalker because the character is devoid of a personality. He has all the likability of a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder combo deal. The only character worth watching is Glen Close who plays the family matriarch, Mawmaw. In Mawmaw I saw much of my own grandmother. When Vance brings home the top grade in algebra he doesn’t get a big hug and a kiss on the forehead from his grandmother. Instead he gets a stern look and a talking to that this is just the start, the opening skirmish, the real battle to do make something of yourself and get out of this place is just beginning.
That cold and calculated tone, that resolve, that lack of warm and fuzzies also described my grandmother. She was an iron-willed lace-curtain Irish Catholic. There was no way her daughter and her only child was going to grow up in a cow town. She walked out on my grandfather and forged a new life and drove it into my mother, who then drive it into me, that we’re no cow punchers. At no time were we going to ever have to get up before dark and wade through cow shit to make a living. We were not going to break our backs and be beat down by life with nothing more to show for it but box seats at the rodeo. In small towns it’s the grandparents who step up. (In my case due to the sudden unexpected death of my mother from previously undiagnosed cancer when I was 14.) The previous generation more often than not finds that once again they’re the ones driving the bus. When that comes along they double down. Mawmaw’s confession that she could have done better job raising Vance’s mother is a telling moment, but different that the ones that followed my mother’s death. Back then my grandmother squared her shoulders and once again drove the message home that we were always on the razor-thin edge of falling back into the abyss – the entropy that can hold you to a place – a place that’s no damn good for you.
As a sort of bookend I kept thinking back to American Graffiti. Granted, it’s a highly romanticized version of small town life. (George Lucas’s Amaracord) AG takes place in 1962. Jack Kennedy is still alive, the WW2 generation is firmly in control of everyday life, and the front end of the Baby Boom is starting to pass through high school. Piketty said that at the end of WW2 less that one-third of the American population had graduated from high school. Here we see that life is full of high school kids so the idea that the next generation will do better than the previous one is still valid.
Most of the movie revolves around the tension between old friends Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (OPIE!) as to stay or go. The movie serves as the original template for end credits which answer the question, “Where are they now?” The end titles lets us know that Curt left and Steve stayed and married his high school sweetheart. (Cindy Williams) Grafffiti speaks more to my experience which I think applies to Elegy as well.
There’s them that stays and them that goes.
Like Mawmaw my grandmother was all too aware of the entropy – the way small town life can lull you into never leaving.
It also helps if you don’t fit in.
Not that I’d know anything about that.
Small towns assign you an identity, e.g. “You Smiths are all alike. Ain’t none of you any damn good!”, but if you leave and return to visit sooner or later you will get, “You think you’re better than us, don’t you?”
Working from the idea of who stays or goes you can see in retrospect that the people you grew up with all had many different trajectories. In this case some of us started off in different directions as early as age 14 or 15. We had already been growing apart by the time we reached age 18 so it was little wonder that some of us scattered and some stayed. I managed to internalize my grandmother’s will to get off the bottom rung of cities and to make sure the offspring would live in a better place.
In short Elegy is worth a look, but don’t get your hopes up. It doesn’t offer any answers or revealed truths. It is kinda what it is which isn’t saying much.
Tip of the tin foil lined M’s cap to Mr. Sharp who sent this – a Chevy ad featuring 1970s Krautprog phenoms Popol Vuh.
Setting aside for a moment the strong resemblance between this ad and those awful cloying Coke commercials that run before the feature film, you gotta wonder what’s going on here?
If you’re going for wide appeal shouldn’t you be using Billie Ellish?
How many cars are you gonna sell if nobody but antiquarian prog-rock geezers pay close attention to you commercial?
Speaking of movies – Borat 2 is also worth a look. The movie is greatly reminiscent of the Cheech and Chong movies – you see the joke coming from a long way off, but you laugh at it anyway and feel a bit sheepish that you did.