Seen ’em Malle

Jan 13, 2007

Ijust got back from an around-the-world trip to Minnesota, India, and Paris, and I did it all in about seven days. I’m not proud to admit that all of that traveling was actually done from the shabby couch in my Brooklyn apartment, while staring at a 27-inch TV screen. The “vacation in your living room!” approach may be a cliché at this point, but it’s also a rather fitting introduction to a body of work that did indeed transport me: Louis Malle’s documentaries, which we’ll be releasing as the second Eclipse series this Spring, and which have been somewhat under the radar over the past forty-odd years, certainly in comparison to his fiction films. So there was a great sense of discovery for me, as there will undoubtedly be for many—both for these underseen films, and for the places they capture.

And having consumed almost the entirety of Malle’s documentaries (which range from 1962 to 1987) in such a short period of time, I can’t help but notice the unity of spirit between them, of just plopping down a camera and seeing what will come of it (Malle often said he began each documentary without a set agenda). The films he shot in India are gorgeous, huge, maddening, and exhilarating, and the French docs from the early seventies, which survey the lives of everyday working-class people waylaid on street-corners or caught in mid-weld in an auto factory, are fascinating signs of the times—yet is it too obvious that I’m most drawn to Malle’s foray into the American Midwest, God’s Country, which meanders eloquently around the people in the farming community of Glencoe, Minnesota?

I don’t know how Malle was able to get such unadorned, generous clarity from these hospitable strangers, but his camera’s searching gaze absolutely dashes any stereotypes one may have about the narrow-mindedness of the heartland, even teasing out the liberal attitudes in many of these people. My favorite moment in the movie comes when Malle interviews a young office worker in her late twenties (whom he later dubbed the Madame Bovary of Glencoe when editing the film), who invited him back to her small apartment. An initial standoffishness gives way to an outpouring of honesty, and she begins to treat the camera as though a confessional booth, remarking upon the dashed dreams and compromises that come with living a provincial life. She doesn’t find herself attracted to the men of Glencoe, who all drip with a machismo she finds off-putting, and at age twenty-six, already acknowledges herself as something of an old maid. It’s a good thing Malle didn’t try to set her up with Glencoe’s “most eligible bachelor”: a sometime actor/ full-time cow-inseminator, often seen elbow-deep in bovine anus.

God’s Country was shot in 1979, and then in 1985 Malle went back and filmed his coda, which depicted the effects of the Reagan-era recession on the town’s economy. It’s now been twenty years since the film was first shown, and I can’t help but wonder if Malle would have revisited the town again, perhaps every decade or so (like Michael Apted’s Up films or Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Sunset), if he hadn’t died in 1995. There’s such an intimacy to the film that I would like to find out what all those Glencovians have been up to: Did farming equipment become too expensive to keep up with? Have many of the town’s workers been replaced by machines? How do they feel about Bush II? Do they have iPods? And maybe some Glencoe locals will buy a copy of the film Malle made for them and us in this DVD set we’re putting out…just that possibility is enough to bring me joy.