10 Films of Pastoral America

There are a variety of nostalgias that we contract. The memories they recall are of two kinds: those we’ve personally recorded and those we haven’t. Nostalgia for people, places, or times we never actually experienced tends to be broader. Whole cities or neighborhoods, epochs, ways of life, or zeitgeists are likely subjects. I have my own rather fictional, rather vague, nostalgia-inspiring memories. A Brooklyn navy yard ruled by a real admiral with a real tri cornered hat; desolate jalopy-lined streets in soho and tribeca during the 70’s and 80’s; a downtown manhattan where street vendors sell fresh oysters; a downtown manna hatta littered with middens of oyster shell refuse; an erie canal channeling oyster-filled barrels (they keep very well) inland to America’s bosom country; stagecoaches and herds of buffalo traveling together across the great plains… When I abandon myself to introspection I find that many of these images come from films. So in the spirit of misplaced nostalgia I present to you 10 of my favorite films that feature the United States at their most rurally poignant.

1) Days of Heaven (1978)

Terrence Malick’s astonishingly beautiful mid-western. Richard Gere is a seasonal laborer who prostitutes his beloved to the local feudal lord and pretends to be her brother, frolicking throughout in pastures of ruddy American wheat.

2) Badlands (1973)

Another Terrence Malick film — his most modestly pseudo-philosophical. Sissy Spacek is winningly naïve as she indulges in spontaneous, romantic, roadside killing.

3) McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

Robert Altman called this an anti-western. I have troubling telling westerns and anti-westerns apart, though. Warren Beatty is Julie Christie’s super duper clueless and frustrating but lovable pimp, and we understand her to be conflicted and therefore human as she navigates between her sympathy for him and the exigencies of borderland prostitution.

4) Alice in the Cities (1974)

My favorite Wim Wenders movie. After the first half hour set in Germany, not the U.S., but illustrative of post-war American culture precisely in how starkly (and pervasively) it’s set against Germany’s own. Lisa Kreuzer joins Sissy Spacek in the pantheon.

5) The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

The consensus among academic literary people these days is that John Steinbeck was too tedious and unselfconscious a moralizer (“he had an agenda”). But a stiffer sense of virtue really did prevail at the beginning of the 20th century. This film’s howling dustbowl is fit to characterize the most arid and/or noble of westward leading wanderlusts.

6) Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

A good film if you need inspiration either to quit or adopt the transient lifestyle. It’s really really good.

7) Boys don’t cry (1999)

The bluest eyes in texas skies still haunt me for sure. Chloe Sevigny joins the pantheon of American film goddesses but Hillary Swank can’t because she’s a boy.

8) Daisy Miller (1974)

The last three are all Peter Bogdanovich films. Daisy Miller is an adaptation of Henry James’ novella of the same name. Cybil Shepherd, out of sheer force of character, disregards victorian standards of behavior, and insodoing leads her would-be-beloved to suppose she’s a harlot. She’s drawn to people and likes to talk and so appears incorrigibly flirtatious, but really she’s just whipsmart and earnest. Another film about America not set in America.

9) The Last picture show (1971)

I have a distinct nostalgia for small windswept towns in the Texas panhandle. Besides being hilarious and terribly sad, this film is also a good illustration of what happened to small, white-picket-fenced, baseball loving communities in the heartland when John Steinbeck’s sense of virtue expired.

10) Paper Moon (1973)

Ryan and Tatum O’Neal are unwilling travel companions. Tasked with delivering her to surviving relatives, he attempts instead to swindle and jettison her. Their temperamental similarity grows apparent and they swindle strangers instead.