by Chad Perman & Elizabeth Cantwell
The July before my sixth-grade year—that strange ugly void between child and adolescent, discomfort and confidence, no and yes—my family went to Austin, TX to visit my aunt, uncle, and two cousins. I don't remember whether we were there for the 4th of July or not, though the sense of the vacation that I have when I think about it now bleeds red, white, and blue. I know there were family car rides with four kids packed in a minivan; I know there were hot dogs and Coca Cola cans; I know there were games and amusement park rides and sprinklers. I know one night we went down to the bridge where the bats live on Congress Avenue and we stood outside under the smudgy, humid sky, and we laughed, and we waited for the spooky awful things to creep their way out from under the overpass. And when they finally did, they shuddered and swooped and shoved their way out into the urban streets to look for flies or fruit or masses of tangled hair or little sleeping kids or whatever it is that bats look for at night, and this collective mass of people turned their wide-eyed faces to the sky, and the clouds hovered, and it rained.
Or, at least, our parents told us it rained. And then were very insistent that we all take baths when we got back to my aunt and uncle's house, even though I'd had a shower that morning, and I really didn't think I needed to bathe twice that day. Years later, when recalling that night with my mother over ice cream, I was told that the "rain" was, in fact, bat pee or bat poop or bat spit or anyway some sort of bat excrement. And I'm sure my parents weren't the only ones spinning out a little white lie to their kids that night, pointing at the clouds and trying to explain away the moisture in our hair as something harmless, to scrub and laugh and bubble bath their way into a mild fantasy, one that allowed their children to enjoy the concept of something rather than face its unpleasant flesh. This is America, after all. If there's a way to spin a bleak reality into a fairy tale—to take a flawed body and airbrush it into crystalline beauty—we will do it, every single time.
Our love of narrative matches, if not exceeds, our love of democracy, baseball, and apple pie. The stories we tell are simultaneously glorious and terrifying—illuminating our shared experiences, while also helping create and shape our understanding of what it means to be American.
When you grow up in a place it's often hard to understand what that place is. How those trees and hills and lakes and skies have polished your skin like a stone. You need to get some distance from it, to see your own particular experience through someone else's eyes: a semester abroad your junior year; a thirty-something summer revisiting the haunts you used to frequent as a teenager, touching the wood on the tables in the old pizza joint, trying to figure out where things went wrong. A long conversation with a grandparent, working back through the family tree, staring at aerial pictures of farms you've never walked through.
And sometimes, that distance can come in the least distant place possible—your living room, your friend's bedroom, a movie theater on a summer night. Getting popcorn butter underneath your fingernails, watching the screen as some young woman or some old man drives down streets all too close to your own home, saying things you've said too many times (or heard said), crying at the things you've cried at. Loving things you've loved. Impossibly, in 105 minutes, a piece of the place we've come from—a winged strip of celluloid circling around our cities, our neighborhoods, our dinner tables.
The issue you’re about to read got its start as a small seed of an idea, as many of our issues do, a casually tossed-off “what about something like Americana?” from one of the editors during a monthly brainstorm. It made immediate sense, especially for July—a month of fireworks and American flags—and we set out to solicit essays on films that in some way spoke to, wrestled with, or reflected various aspects of America. The essays we got back from our writers were so compelling and important in their disparate takes on American identity that we found ourselves unable to whittle them down into a single issue. Which perhaps shouldn't be too surprising, given a country and culture that finds ample room for both Frank Capra and David Lynch, American dreams and darker underbellies. And so we’ve simply decided to include all of the fascinating essays we received, spreading them out over two consecutive issues (July and August).
This month’s pieces travel from those bat-peed-upon streets of Austin, TX (Boyhood) to the South Dakota badlands; from the suburbs of 1950s Connecticut (Far from Heaven) to the U.S. Capitol itself (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington); from a quintessential American small town (Blue Velvet) to the crowded floors of a Vegas casino (Lost in America); from high school football fields (Friday Night Lights) to a deserted movie theater (The Last Picture Show).
For nearly all of this issue's writers, America is something compellingly curious. How do we understand this place we’ve been born into? How do we make sense of both its physical realities and mythical dimensions, its small-town values and big city lights? What do these stories we tell ourselves, all these films we consume, tell us about ourselves? How do these narratives help inform, define, and shape the American experience?
Capra and Lynch have both recreated the terrain of this impossibly disparate, too-large country on the big screen, and—as our writers this month would assert—each of those depictions is, for better or for worse, precisely accurate.
—Chad Perman & Elizabeth Cantwell