Cinematic States of America: a book review

Born in Belfast, Gareth Higgins lived in a nation torn apart by politics and religion. His escape was the local cinema. Film opened up an alternative reality for him:

Because of the violence that engulfed my community, the limits of home–where people were killed because of their voting preference or religious beliefs or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, where religion was politics, and politics was violence–were too restrictive for me to accept as the boundaries of being human. Places like northern Ireland struggle to emerge from the lie that being a person is to be merely a receptacle for ideology or a machine for someone else’s use. In those moments when our hearts provoke our minds, we all know this lie equates life with death. The movies sparked this for me. I wanted a cinematic life because dreaming was easier than waking reality. (20)

As an adult, Higgins emigrated to the States. In an effort to understand his adopted homeland, he sought out and watched film set in each of the 50 States (and Washington D.C. because evidently, it’s kinda a big deal).  The result is Cinematic States, a collection of essays which explores America, its dream and landscape.  By writing about American film state by state, Higgins explores how these movies  reflect their context (or at least shows the contradictions).  Each of the movies chosen (and there are good ones and bad ones) had an impact on Higgins and contributed to a deeper understanding of America and himself.  The themes of the movies and the topography of place, allowed Higgins to explore virtues and features of American identity and through that, he illuminates our deep longings.

The state-by-state format constrains Higgins somewhat in his movie choice.  He chooses Bull Durham in honor of his adopted home town, Durham, North Carolina.  The Wizard of Oz is chosen for Kansas,  Fargo for North Dakota,  Rocky for Pennsylvania,  and My Private Idaho for Idaho, Robert Altman’s Nashville for Tennessee, etc.  Other states are less obvious and Higgins choices are more surprising.  He is also constrained by personal taste . There are only four sports movies profiled in the list (five if you count Nebraska’s Teen Wolf). In each instance, Higgins takes care to show that while it is a ‘sports movie’ it is about more than just sports as if there was ever a sports movie that wasn’t really about something else (i.e. Bull Durham is about opportunities and ordinary folk, Field of Dreams is about dreams imagined and realized, Riding Giants is about chasing thrills and Rocky is about heroism and self respect).  I think there should be more sports movies profiled, especially for States where the  best entertainment in  every town is the high school game.  There is absolutely no excuse for choosing Close Encounters of the Third Kind for Indiana without even once mentioning Hoosiers.  

But getting hung up on Higgins cinematic choices would be to miss the point. If I wrote this book I would have a different list of movies (though I love his choices more than not).  What makes this book great is what Higgins tells us about the American dream, our relationship to it and how movies reveal the truth about ourselves: our hopes and desires,  our longing for transcendence, our imperfections and failings. He does this through the films of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, Robert Altman, Clint Eastwood, etc. We have all seen at least some of these movies and Higgins guides us into their meaning and the truth about ourselves.

I think any lover of film, Americana or pop culture will appreciate Higgins portrait of America.  I give it four stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book for free from the publisher or author, via Speakeasy, in exchange for my honest review.


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I am a pastor, husband, father, instigator, pray-er, hoper, writer, trouble-maker, peacemaker, and friend. Who are you?

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