I know, I know, it’s been awhile. It’s just that life sometimes gets in the way… At any rate, I’ve watched a few films lately that congeal around an interesting theme, and I thought it might be worth mulling over in writing. The story of the city mouse and the country mouse goes back at least to Aesop’s fables (maybe further), but in the Twentieth Century the story took an unexpected turn. By the 1920’s, urban and suburban development started to cause a massive shift away from agrarian ideals and towards metropolitan life. The struggle contained in that shift is plainly reflected in the narrative content of films throughout the world.
In America, the underrated Harold Lloyd is one of the great straddlers of the rural/urban divide, and no film demonstrates this more than Girl Shy (1924). Lloyd stars as a shy country boy, so nervous when talking to women that he stutters uncontrollably. Despite this handicap, he’s written a book about his lovemaking prowess, and travels into the city to visit a publisher. On the way he encounters the rich (and very metropolitan) heiress Jobyna Ralston, and they fall into a state of complete, mutual infatuation. After the usual plot pleasantries and amusements, Lloyd is forced to race from the country into town to rescue his beloved from marrying an oily big city bigamist – and the entire last half hour of the film encompasses Lloyd’s trip from the country to the city, during which he uses a variety of transportation types (car, streetcar, motorcycle, horsecart and horse) as he races to the rescue. The chase not only physically exposes the transformation from rural to urban, but also manipulates the dichotomy between the pure, traditional rural values and the morally problematic pitfalls of city life. The country boy saves the city girl, but there’s no question as to which locale is preferable.
A few years earlier Henry King explored the same split in his The Seventh Day (1922) wherein a yacht full of wealthy wastrels is forced into port in a rustic town where they’re exposed to quaint rural concepts like “work”, “church”, “sincerity” and (of course) “love”. Once again virtue triumphs as humble fisherman Richard Barthlemess and his quaint, young sister triumph over the corruptions of the city, enabling improbable love matches with two of the city folk.
As urbanization accelerated, some filmmakers tried to straddle the line by setting their stories entirely in the country and having main characters problematically pine for the big city. In both Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie (Henry King, 1952) and Beyond the Forest (King Vidor, 1949), discontented women desperately hope to escape small towns by traveling to the nearest metropolis – Chicago. In each case, they’re willing to manipulate others and compromise themselves in pursuit of the glamour of city life, and in both instances they’re cosmically punished for their malcontented (and implicitly amoral) pining.
The theme emerges even in documentaries as diverse as Humphrey Jennings’ English Harvest – which thoroughly romanticizes country life, and which can be seen here:
Or Godard’s British Sounds, which implicitly criticizes modern work with a segment set in a contemporary auto factory for which the soundtrack is entirely composed of the noises of the shop floor (oh that Jean-Luc!).
Even more interesting to me, however, is the way in which the theme continued (in a perverted way) in a couple of other recent films I watched. The otherwise execrable Green Card (Peter Weir, 1990) features Andie MacDowell trying to cheat her way into an apartment lease via a fake marriage, because the particular apartment includes an elaborate indoor greenhouse. Her duplicity is especially ironic given that her life seems mainly to revolve around efforts to encourage the planting of gardens and green spaces throughout Manhattan, thus returning to city-dwellers some of the contentment and clarity previously attributed to country folk.
More amusingly, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (Eli Craig, 2010) inverts standard horror movie formulas while returning to a country/city theme. Tucker and Dale are “hillbillies”, but they (and the farm-raised college girl who befriends them) are much more reasonable than the city-bred college kids who cause so much trouble by bringing their wanton ways to the country.
In narrative theory, the city/country theme is an example of a “masterplot” where a basic story (in this case over two thousand years old) recurs with minor variations. Having watched all of these films over the last three weeks, it was striking to me how this particular plot has been manipulated over the course of the last hundred years, and what that clearly suggests about the massive changes in physical existence (and moral conceptions) mankind has experienced in that time frame. Heaven only knows how it will change further over the next hundred years…