HOLLYWOOD GOING HOME American films misplace the sense of place

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The great American novelist Thomas Wolfe has lost his fame but gained a more spurious kind of celebrity as a consequence of the only one of the million-odd sentences he wrote that is still remembered: "You can't go home again." And there's an even more oppressive irony underlying this accidental notoriety.

He was wrong.

You can go home again. Hollywood does it over and over again.

To see "Fried Green Tomatoes," for example, is to go home again, in the classic movie sense. It's to go home to a home that perhaps never quite existed. "Fried Green Tomatoes" is set in a remembered southland, equally riddled with myth and exaggeration. But what you remember, what you feel nostalgic for, has little to do with life. You remember other movies.

It's all familiar, almost to the degree that it's been formalized. The looming trees and dirt roads, and flat, honky-tonk music pulsating in a bluesy night. Hardscrabble faces of people who've had to pluck life out of an unforgiving land. A river and usually a swamp, filled with gelid black water and a population of cawing birds. The low, orange sun of twilight or dawn. Amiable, subservient blacks at the edge of the frame and the story. A vapor of violence hanging in the air, thick as the scent of the wisterias and redolent of the ancient crime of slavery, the original sin in this lost American Eden.

And always: a tangled family history full of mad cousins and mutant uncles, a heroic father figure struggling against the madness in the genes, a stalwart mother-figure, and the tragic death of a young man, usually in some wretched accident, a death whose ramifications hang heavily over the story.

I mention the "South" of "Fried Green Tomatoes" only because it's one of the most frequent and obvious of the regional stereotypicality that is so much a part of American film culture we all but take it for granted. In fact, our movies could not exist without it, at least not in the same form. And it happens that the last few months have been especially rich in "Souths."

In "Prince of Tides" Nick Nolte hails from a twisted Southern family who learned repression and self-loathing among the tidal pools of South Carolina; the gimmick of the movie is how, by an extended stay among New York literati, he's able to cure himself, which is a major miracle on the order of "Song of Bernadette" as those boys have never been able to cure themselves of a cold! In "Cape Fear," "Southerness" is metaphysically enmeshed with a particular kind of brutality in which liberal lawyer Nolte (again!) was haunted by white trash rapist Robert De Niro, finally driving Nolte and his family deep into the swampy river of the title, where he and De Niro get down and dirty and fight like Neanderthals in the mud.

Then, not too long ago in "Rambling Rose" Laura Dern was the slightly nutsy visitor acting irrationally while in the embrace of a proud Southern clan headed up by the great Robert Duvall. As a minor wrinkle, no boy died in "Rambling Rose." But before that there was "The Man in the Moon," where indeed the boy died horribly (a farm implement threshed him to death) so that dewy-cheeked Reese Witherspoon could learn about life and death. In David Lynch's sprightly "Wild at Heart," a kind of white-trash "Wizard of Oz," the South is another land of violent gremlins, sick parents and twisted children.

Indeed, one could fill a whole book with movie-Souths, dating back through the years and probably originating with the grandpappy of Southern literature. That was, of course, the inventor and sole proprietor of a hundred square miles of haunted thickets and brushy mountains, of troglodyte Snopeses and aristocratic Compsons, of wild bear and wilder men (and some pretty wild women) called Yoknapatawpha County, Miss.: William Faulkner.

Faulkner's imaginative power was such that the South has never escaped it, and even other major artists like Tennessee Williams drew from it. Faulkner stands like a very colossus over the region, much to the consternation of all those New South Kiwanis who'd like to see their area feted as the new fertile crescent of America. Until the last dingdong of doom, Faulkner's is the South whose old times there will not be forgotten, and there's scant that can be done about it.

If the South is the most commonly slandered American region in the movies, then Brooklyn is the most beloved. And just as "Fried Green Tomatoes" has put a "South" before us, so has the soon-to-be-released "Alan and Naomi" put a "Brooklyn." It's an odd Camelot, but it's a Camelot nevertheless.

The Brooklyn (and I'm using "Brooklyn" generically, to connote non-Manhattan New York, the ethnic neighborhoods of the four boroughs through which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers never danced) of "Alan and Naomi" is very much the Brooklyn of "Radio Days" and "Billy Bathgate" and any of the three dozen movies derived from Neil Simon's plays and on back through the years.

And, like the "South," the movie-Brooklyn is largely a distillation of a literary tradition; it reflects the late '50s and early '60s, when such writers as Philip Roth, Bruce Jay Friedman, Herbert Gold and Bernard Malamud were breaking out of their largely Jewish, urban, little-magazine readerships and reaching mainstream America. They were remembering, with varying degrees of warmth and horror, the zone that produced them. And in remembering it, they mythified.

The movie-Brooklyn is primarily a place of memory, as some older man remembers his childhood with affection and embracing warmth. "The neighborhood" is usually a place teeming with relatives, an extended family that reaches down alleyways and up into attics. There are hints of the dislocations of adult life -- strange uncles in undershirts without jobs must never be asked what they do for a living and even stranger aunts who cry all by themselves in their rooms -- but they are never confronted directly and remain part of that vast, mysterious land that lurks beyond puberty.

The blood network also functions somewhat like a neighborhood C.I.A. -- actually it functions much better than the real C.I.A. ever did, because it's always watching and it makes sure that the kids always toe the line. Thus boyhood adventures tend to run to mild diversions like stickball and never to heavy aggression like street violence. Sex is a vague rumor, devoutly yearned for but never obtained.

In this strange yet warm world, the mother is always the most powerful figure. From Portnoy's tyrannical fascist of a mama who threatened him with a paring knife if he didn't eat his lima beans to Alan's unbending paragon of rectitude (Amy Acquino) who insists that Alan (Lukas Haas) give up stickball with his Irish pals in order to help a refugee from the Holocaust regain her grip on sanity, the mother is the center of the universe, with a father as a lesser figure with a secular job in regular but powerless orbit around the mother.

The secret drama being enacted has to do with identity: Since Judaism is inherited on the mother's side, the mother is usually a symbol of the faith and the culture; her unbending rigidity is the culture's refusal to yield its hold on its children. The streets -- stickball, the possibility of sex, the inter-ethnic friendships and conflicts -- stand for mainstream America and the joys/horrors of assimilation. Give up on identity and become one of the crowd, or stay yourself, nestled in the bosom of the matriarchal family culture; that's the issue being argued under the "Brooklyn" movie.

Of course, it's all hopelessly banal. From the original vividness of Faulkner's South or Malamud's Brooklyn, the images have become tarnished and shopworn. It's one reason why so few American movies can really shock anymore -- it's that banality of place, that insistence on repeating without vigorous re-imagining the old patterns and precepts and visual coefficients. One pines for a South unrooted in Faulknerian imagery or a Brooklyn untainted by Jewish sentimentality. Until our filmmakers start thinking about the specific power of place in the movies they make, the movies they make will never have power.

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