Small-Town America in Film:The Fall and Decline of Community

In each and every decade, different film genres were used to explore the imagery of small-town life:

In the l930s, comedy was a prevalent genre;
In the l940s, serious dramas and war films;
In the l950s, melodramas and the “women's film”;
In the l960s, melodramas but also innovative (non-genre) films;
In the l970s, horror films;
In the l980s, comedy dominated again the production of small-town films.

Within the generally favorable attitude of American film (and dominant culture) toward small towns, there was variability in concept and diversity in images. Each of the six decades presented and represented different symbols and meanings of Small-Town America. The political, and ideological conditioning of small-town products becomes evident when a group of typical films, made in the same decade, are compared and contrasted. As Barbara Deming noted, a social pattern emerges, “a plight more general, sensed by the public, a condition that transcends the literal situation dramatized by any single film.”

The claim that every film is unique, or sui generis, and should be examined in its own right, is countered by the sociological approach, which analyzes a large group of films in terms of their recurrent narrative structures, thematic concerns, and stylistic devices.

During the Depression, one of the solutions to the nation's social and economic problems was “the return to the soil.” Most films praised uncritically the virtues of small towns and country life (“State Fair”), though only few (“Our Daily Bread”) proposed the establishment of agricultural communes. Indeed, within the context of dominant ideology, King Vidor's critical views of urbanization and industrialization made him and his film suspect of propagating Communist ideas.

By contrast, Capra's populist films (“Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”) were more commercially successful and more characteristic of the decade. They drew sharp contrasts between the values of the small-town and the Big City, condemning the corruption, greed, and impersonality that prevailed in the Big City.

A darker, more ambiguous portraiture of small towns marked the films of the l940s, despite the fact that the country was at War. The stylistics of film noir was used to convey a bleaker vision of small towns. Even Capra's upbeat and sentimental “It's a Wonderful Life” contains a darker sequence: Life in Bedford Falls without George Bailey. This nightmarish imagery was often subconscious, operating beneath the films' surfaces, but it was there for viewers who wanted to see.

The heroes of some l940s films (“The Best Years of Our Lives”) are products of deep crisis of faith, each mourning a vision of happiness which eludes him. But, in the final account, Capra's optimistic belief in the community and its values is unmistakable and unshaken. Continuing the tradition of the Depression, Capra envisions a rather integrated community, composed of individuals who sacrifice for one another and for the town as a whole.

In the l950s, the ideological attitude toward small towns began to change and movies became more critical in their portrayal. Ordinary life in small towns was depicted as emotionally stifling (“All That Heaven Allows”), intellectually suffocating (“Peyton Place”), and sexually repressive (“Picnic”). But despite such strains, narrative texts of the decade still propagated the centrality of patriarchal ideology, described by Robin Wood as: “The organization of sexual difference within the patriarchal order, a project whose ultimate objective must be the subordination of female desire to male desire.” At the same time, most of these movies could not conceal their ideological strains and their neat resolutions in the form of forced happy endings were not always entirely convincing.

Still, up to the late l950s, Main Street was more than a row of offices and stores. Small towns boasted communal pride and concern for moral virtues. They had a clear moral center and a strong and visible collective conscience. This was often demonstrated in lengthy trial sequences and speeches (“Young Mr. Lincoln,” “Peyton Place,” “To Kill a Mockingbird”). Order and stability in small-town films were typically and satisfactorily represented by policemen, politicians, doctors, and other service professionals. With the possible exception of “Kings Row” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” up until the late l950s, classic narratives embodied strong, almost irrational, belief in the possibility of healing and the restorative power of doctors and psychiatrists.

In the l960s, however, as a result of the political assassinations, the Vietnam War, and the social protest movements (the women, the black, the students), dominant culture, which had always been defined by white, middle-class men, was challenged. Questions were raised about the validity of the bourgeoisie as the only sanctioned lifestyle. Some critics, such as Noam Chomsky (“American Power and the Mandarins”) and Philip Slater (“The Pursuit of Loneliness”), believed that some of the country's problems stemmed from its strong, unrealistic belief in technological progress and scientific knowledge.

Indeed, in films of the past three decades, there is no communal life, no attempt to integrate individuals into the town as a whole. Individuals are more likely to be on their own, and Main Street exists as an abstract set of vague values. Individuals in such films (“Crimes of the Heart”) insist on–and succeed in–separating themselves from the town's mores. The town, and, by implication, American society at large, no longer possesses the moral authority to demand unqualified sacrifice from its people.

The gradual decline and disintegration of community life in America were expressed in “The Chase,” “Alice's Restaurant,” “Easy Rider.” These films dealt with imminent or actual breakdown of morality, showing that the old patriarchal order and capitalistic system do not function effectively anymore. Forms of disintegration appeared on each and every level, from the most micro level of the individual to the most macro level of society as a unit. The motifs of disintegration were expressed in “loss of control” over both individual and collective lives. Protagonists of small-town films gradually lost their sense of identity and self-worth, lacking any sense of direction.

The dominant myths of nostalgia, paranoia, and revenge appeared in small-town films of the l970s. All three themes expressed elements of collective consciousness and national psyche, particularly the increasing alienation from the central political and legal institutions. Political authority in such films was depicted as corrupt and ineffectual in solving society's problems.

There was a new preoccupation, or even obsession, with achieving celebrity status in every type of film made: small-town (“Crimes of the Heart”), rural (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “Sugarland Express”), and urban (Scorsese's two great films, “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy”). These movies showed the cynical but true facts that criminality and outlawry can get their practitioners instant fame. In “Taxi Driver, Travis's craziness is interpreted as heroism by the press, and in “King of Comedy,” even though Rupert is jailed, his crime (kidnapping a popular talk show host) turns him into a desirable hero.

In the l980s, with the resurgence of a neo-conservative and patriotic mood, epitomized by the Reagan and Bush's administrations, many small town films was marked by nostalgia and reaffirmation of virtues associated with small towns, such as commitment to the land and strong family life (“Country,” “The River”). The decade saw films that resorted to the simpler old times (“Places in the Heart”, “Field of Dreams”) and traditional values (“Hoosiers”) as consoling and reassuring myths. However, films of the 1980s were also characterized by contradictory trends: A strange combination of cynicism, irony, and nostalgia. These contradictions in values resulted in the production of compromising (“Resurrection,” “Baby Boom”) and incoherent (“Raggedy Man,” “Racing with the Moon”) texts.

If you want to know more about this subject, please read my book,
Small-Town America in Film: The Fall and decline of Community.