The McSweeney’s Books Preview of Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours.
BY TOM BISSELL
In Magic Hours, award-winning essayist Tom Bissell plumbs the depths and scales the heights of the creative process. From the set of The Big Bang Theory to one of David Foster Wallace’s last works; from the otherworldly universe of Werner Herzog’s films to Tommy Wiseau’s simply alien cult film The Room; from Iraq war documentaries to video-game character voices, Bissell asks why people choose to make the things they do and he shows us how they do it with startling insight and biting humor. What are sitcoms for exactly? Can art be both bad and genius? Why do some books survive and others vanish? Bissell’s exploration of these questions makes for gripping, unforgettable reading.
Today we offer an essay from the book, “Escanaba’s Magic Hour: Movies, Robot Deer, and the American Small Town.” To purchase Magic Hours, please visit our store. For a list of places where Tom Bissell will be reading, click here.
ESCANABA’S MAGIC HOUR
Movies, Robot Deer, and the American Small Town
MAGIC HOUR: The brief periods of dawn and dusk that allow enough time for shooting, but also create some striking effects on film.
— The Complete Film Dictionary
EXT. ESCANABA AREA HIGH SCHOOL ATHLETIC FIELD—TWILIGHT
In the hard cold of a waning afternoon in early March, I stand on the hash-marked permafrost of my hometown football field in Escanaba, Michigan, and wait for a motion picture to be filmed. So far, I have seen almost nothing of what moviemaking is rumored to consist. I have seen a brief game of touch football break out among the crew. I have seen the film’s star, writer, and director, Jeff Daniels, field the same question from four different journalists. I have been introduced to one of those journalists by Daniels, an irreducibly dreamlike introduction, since that journalist happened to be my childhood best friend, Mike. I have seen many, many lights—enormous, mutant lights whose wattage is equal to a perpetual camera flash—moved all over the place and overheard complicated justifications for doing so. And I have listened to three Escanabans, standing together near the field’s entrance gate, tell me what they think of the production: “It’s interesting,” “It’s interesting,” and “Pretty interesting.”
The one scene on tonight’s call sheet is a nightmare sequence in which Daniels’s character realizes he is standing in his underwear before a stadium of Escanabans. The film’s producers were hoping for a turn-out of 4,000 local extras. What looks to be 600 have been herded into the center section of the bleachers, leaving huge swaths of seating utterly empty. The trouble no doubt began with the request for extras the Movie People placed in Escanaba’s daily newspaper. There were three provisos.
Proviso One: No one would be allowed to bring alcoholic beverages. Why this is a problem: Escanaba is the sort of place where family friends earn nicknames like A Liter Later. Booze is, quite simply, a cultural staple.
Proviso Two: No one would be allowed to wear “any clothing from professional sports teams,” since to do so would force the producers to pony up permissions fees. Why this is a problem: Escanaba is the sort of place where people (people, meaning more than one) paint their homes the colors of their favorite football team. More often than not, this means the green-and-gold of the Green Bay Packers. It is immensely difficult for many grown-up Escanabans to leave their homes without some NFL logo displayed somewhere on their bodies. Many people’s “good” coats happen to be expensive leather jackets the breasts of which are emblazoned with a gigantic Packers G. This is not to suggest that these people don’t own other, non-NFL-related clothing, only that to forbid it, for whatever reason, is to disapprove of it, and since rural Midwesterners are highly self-conscious, a good way to ensure that large numbers of them will not show up for your movie shoot is to tell them what they can and cannot wear.
Proviso Three: No one would be allowed to leave his or her seat, not even for bathroom breaks. Why this is a problem: From what I was able to gather earlier in the day, this simply baffled everyone. A woman I ran into at the mall all but scoffed at the idea of sitting still for four hours “without a bathroom.” The Movie People’s fatal error here was their failure to explain why no one could leave his or her seat. At stake, of course, is the film’s continuity. If people are getting up to relieve themselves, a scene that takes hours to shoot yet occupies thirty seconds of film time will be riddled with hundreds of inconsistencies. So what was a sensible request on the part of the Movie People came off to Escanabans as a veiled if really weird threat.
Mike and I are not the only members of the press here to cover the film, which is nothing less than the biggest story in Escanaba’s history. The film’s producer, Tom Spiroff, a Michigan-born, Los Angeles-residing man in his early forties, approaches our journalistic flotilla. He is wearing a small fortune’s worth of North Face arcticwear and, in a gesture of superhuman kindness, greets every one of us by name. This includes the pretty redhead from the local television station, a tall fellow from the Flint Journal, and a reporter from a national wire service who interviewed Mike three days ago. Mike, a graduate of a top-flight midwestern law school, has reason to believe that he will find himself cast in the man’s coming dispatch as Escanaba’s rube reporter, which he does not relish at all.
The remaining two journalists, both locals, ignore the filming entirely and discuss last night’s barnburner between the Carney-Nadeau Wolves and the Rapid River Rockets:
“Good game there, eh?”
“Oh, yeah. That was really something.”
Their accents are rich with the atonal music of the Upper Midwest, so this exchange is more accurately rendered as:
“Good game dare, eh?”
“Oah, yah. Dot was reely sumptin.”
To appreciate just how newsworthy, by Escanaba standards, this film is, one needs only to peruse a recently published millennial Escanaba retrospective, which includes in its “Faces of the 20th Century” a local chemist who invented something called “bloodberry gum” and a man who “helped bring natural gas service to the area.” What’s more, the Movie People are here not to use this lonely ore town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as an anonymous backdrop; they are here to carry Escanaba to the silvery brink of eponymous fame. Daniels’s film is titled Escanaba in da Moonlight, a bit of marketing audacity equal to setting a sitcom in Qom. They’ve been here, filming, for a little over a week, and within a month they will be gone. “Like gypsies,” promised Daniels, a little cruelly, to the local newspaper, in one of the several thousand articles it has so far published on the film. (Most of these articles were written by Mike, who has privately—and, I fear, quite seriously—vowed to shoot himself in the face if asked to write another.) But Daniels is mistaken. I know Escanaba’s delicate musculature too well. The Movie People might leave, but they will never be gone. This movie will be, forever, a part of it.
An incidental curiosity of living in New York City, as I do, is how often one finds oneself on the entertainment industry’s participatory edge. One learns quickly to correct one’s path as to leave undisturbed the crew doing exterior shots for Law & Order as they wait for the perfect wash of Sunday-morning light to fall across Beekman Street. Cities, like movies, are extradimensional, most easily defined by what they are not: neither suburb nor town, neither novel nor play. The immense grandeur of cities is often the hatch through which people escape places like Escanaba. Although the city escape is spatial and difficult to repeal, the movie escape is much simpler—a temporal hegira of ninety minutes in familiar darkness. This is what makes the Movie People’s presence in Escanaba so incongruous. Rather than supply Escanaba with their industry’s latest distraction, the Movie People will make Escanaba itself distraction’s newest template. In return, Escanaba will play the part of that myth-fogged place so popular with Hollywood’s illusionists: the American small town.
Escanaba is an Ojibway word meaning either “red buck” or “flat rock.” (Local gallows humor holds that the Ojibway were exterminated before this could be cleared up.) It is not a wholesome town, no clean-living idyll where Clark Kent comes of age. The summers are lovely but brief, the winters long and Siberian. Its industries are extractive and blue-collar. Its tourists, who usually come from nearby, even tinier towns, refer to Escanaba as “the city.” The good-looking, athletic boys I went to high school with did not go on to Yale or Wall Street. Many are still here, managing restaurants or selling cars. The people are not especially nice, which is not to say Escanaba does not have many fine people. “Nice” is a surface with little relation to inner decency. It takes some doing in our Pentium-processed time to be Caucasian and poor, but there is a lot of solemn Caucasian poverty in Escanaba. This is best illustrated by the local newspaper’s personal ad section, in which a disproportionate number of ads begin: “DWF, 21, single mother…”
The question remains whether “small town” signifies anything today beyond its modest adjective-noun mandate. The Census Bureau refuses to define what a “small town” is. A city, according to its definition, is any settlement of more than 25,000 people. Anything below that is, in an enigmatic tautology, a “place.” A sad fate for a way of life upon which whole architectures of faith were once built, and one wonders if the Movie People are here as apostates or revivalists or for one last sweep through the small town’s abandoned pews.
Whether one is from Nashville or the Upper West Side, one’s hometown means something that often outstrips our ability to explain what. Small hometowns, in considerable ways, tend to mean even more. A young woman with a mohawk becomes immeasurably more intriguing when she claims Portage, Wisconsin, as her birthplace rather than Westport, Connecticut, and one can safely assume that the young urban striver who hails from Winner, South Dakota, regards himself differently from his fellow straphangers from Westchester. I, too, have always privately cherished telling people I’m from rural Michigan, especially in a city in which very few can say the same. Imagine my alarm, then, to learn that a film will soon offer an entire nation its own vicarious Escanaba. And so I have returned to the place in which I was born and raised and love very much to determine how much of it the Movie People will take and how much they will leave behind. Will Peoria play in Peoria?
I abandon my colleagues and sidle toward the half dozen Movie People gathered at midfield, all of them huddled around Daniels’s stand-in, an Escanaban named Rob Hosking. A Steadicam operator walks a tight circle around Rob, beginning his sweep focused on Rob’s face and ending it with a clinching shot of the stadium’s bleachers. Gary Goldman, Daniels’s assistant director, watches the shot’s rehearsal within a hand-held monitor. Gary is a good-natured, ruthlessly efficient commercial director from New York. He wears sunglasses regardless of available daylight and a tight white ball cap one suspects is in place to keep his skull from detonating. “Let’s do it again,” Gary tells the Steadicam operator, and speaks, commando-style, into the miked collar of a sporty Day-Glo orange jacket: “Right side. Camera right side. Copy.”
As the sun sets behind the thick pine stand that perimeters the football field, the lack of extras begins to become a problem. To appreciate how crucial extras are to tonight’s filming, one must know several things about Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. First, citizens of the Upper Peninsula are known as “Yoopers,” an inelegant transliteration of “U. P.,” as this underpopulated and fearsomely bleak stretch of land is known. The U. P. is separated from the rest of Michigan culturally and geographically, connected only by the Mackinac Bridge, an architectural marvel built as recently as 1957. The U. P. might be the most rural part of the country, as well as its least familiar. Some maps neglect to include the border separating the U. P. from Wisconsin, an accidental annexation that, if made official, would please the vast majority of Yoopers, who feel a stronger cultural identification with Wisconsin anyway. Finally—and in light of tonight’s scene, not to mention the whole film, this is a key point—for Yoopers, deer hunting has near religious significance. The first day of deer season is actually a school holiday—Deer Day, it is called—and the entire place is a hotbed of gun crazies and gun-craziness. Despite this, there were, in 1997, in the Upper Peninsula, a land mass larger than Massachusetts and Connecticut combined, and which contains a population of 300,000 Schlitz-drinking, deer-slaying yahoos, a grand total of eight murders.
In Escanaba in da Moonlight, Daniels plays Reuben Soady, a luckless forty-year-old who stands in danger of becoming the oldest Soady in history to have never bagged a buck. The film—which is, incidentally, a comedy—details Reuben’s efforts to kill a deer. Some will perhaps be unsurprised that the film is being independently produced. Even Daniels, in my interview with him, was quick to point out that he “doesn’t hunt,” and that the film is really a love story. Let me say that, as an erstwhile Yooper, I am not especially fazed by the script’s deer-murdering aspects, even though I do not hunt either. Hunting occupies an elemental chamber within the consciousness of rural Americans, for whom the semantic schism between pig and pork and deer and venison is harder to justify. More to the point, deer are the stupidest terrestrial mammals the planet has so far known. They are essentially locusts with hoofs. When not eating or breeding, they like to launch themselves into traffic. If hunting in Upper Michigan were abolished, thousands of deer would starve during its brutal winter, and its highways would be a living obstacle course.
Reuben’s nightmare, then, finds him before his mocking fellow Escanabans, all of whom chant “Buckless! Buckless!” and wave aloft signs that say things like “Da Buckless Yooper.” If the scene comes off, Escanaba in da Moonlight could mark the first instance in cinematic history of a central character being derided for his inability to slaughter a highly beloved constituent of the animal kingdom.
I mention the crowd problem to a unit publicist, who explains that tonight’s filming is in direct competition with the Escanaba Area High School athletic department’s Fan Club Fund Raiser across town. “It’s a really big deal here,” she tells me. I nod, even though it is the first time I have ever heard of this Fan Club Fund Raiser. The Movie People hoped to counteract the Fan Club Fund Raiser by staging one of their own. By paying two dollars, each extra can sit on his or her oversized Midwestern keister and know that not only will they appear in the film, but their money will go to benefit the high school’s athletic department.
This explains the mysterious presence of the high school athletic director himself, who ambles along the set’s edge with a displaced air. He is a gigantic, yeti-like man well known for bullying the athletes he dislikes and granting unseemly quarter to those he does not. He is obviously feeling put out, and I feel a small pang of sympathy until I recall the inspirational leaflets he used to stuff in his players’ lockers during football practice, each filled with nuggets of inadvertently chilling advice: “In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current.” I remember the final game of the catastrophic season I spent as a hapless nose guard for Escanaba’s Catholic junior high squad, the Holy Name Crusaders, a massacre commenced upon this very field. After being bulldozed by the opposing fullback, I walked to the sideline, removed my helmet, and fainted. It was my third concussion of the year. When the emergency-room doctor informed me I would never play football again, I nearly wept with relief.
The walk-throughs are done. The sun has set and the blue-black Midwestern sky is shotgunned with nebulae. Some gaffers are placing oval filters over the gigantic 600-watt HMI lights. As the crowd is hit with their celestial illumination, Jeff Daniels emerges from the stadium’s adjacent locker room and walks across the field. Upon sight of him, the crowd lets out a small gasp that flatlines into courteous applause. Daniels is bearded, flanneled, clad in long underwear, and convincingly rural, which is by way of saying he looks terrible. This is the first film he has directed, and each twenty-hour workday has etched some new crag into the topography of his face. Since the film’s finances were raised privately, whether he will ever do this again depends largely on its success.
Daniels confers with Tom and Gary, his breath unfurling in long white banners. Tom and Gary stand there, listening, their own breath chugging out of their noses in little locomotive puffs. Daniels looks tired in that scary, familiar way one’s father looked tired, pouring himself a drink at the dry bar, after letting someone go that day at work. I have always found Daniels’s stardom slightly puzzling. Not in the way one finds the stardom of, say, Tom Hanks, in such clear defiance of celebrity’s iron laws, but puzzling in a pleasing, even inspiring way. Daniels looks like any number of big clumsy Midwesterners I grew up around, and I am not at all shocked to learn he was born in Michigan. I wonder if Daniels’s appeal has something to do with the fact that many men, if asked to cast their lives without undo conceit, might settle on Jeff Daniels to play themselves.
Tom, Gary, and Daniels break apart, and suddenly Daniels jogs out to the strip of track at the base of the bleachers and raises his hands to the crowd. A small, startled cheer. Daniels mock-reproves them and raises his hands again. Six-hundred suddenly animated voices shout back some innominate huzzah. Daniels segues into a prancing burlesque, whipping off his flannel and throwing it over his shoulders like a feather boa. “Hey, we like it!” one undeniably intoxicated voice shouts back at Daniels, who, as he turns away from the crowd, is smiling not the rictus of celebrity but an actual human smile.
“Well,” Daniels mutters as he walks past me. “We got a few people. It is three degrees out here. They’re not stupid.”
As some final preparations are undertaken, I wander up into the stands, looking for someone I know. The crowd is not my demographic, most of its members very old or very young. I do see in the stands a number of well-dressed middle-aged women who “support” the town in its every endeavor, whether it happens to be turning out for the filming of a movie or the construction of internment camps. My PRESS button earns me several “Hello!”s from crowd members, each followed by a hurt silence when they realize I do not plan on interviewing them. A duo of ear-muffed junior high girls assails me, both asking if I write for the local newspaper. I tell them why I’m here. Herpes Magazine? one gasps, and rushes over to a gaggle of friends. Herpes Magazine sees a quick, contagionlike spread throughout this small portion of the crowd. I am on my way back to the field when I see two quiet boys sitting in the front row. Both are decked out in green-brown camouflage, and they observe the Movie People very closely. I sit next to the boys and ask them what they think. “I think it’s really cool,” the older one, Scott, tells me. He shakes his head. “Nothing really happens in this town. Now that there’s something pretty big happening, people will think Escanaba’s pretty cool.”
Scott knows nothing of the difficulty Daniels faces in getting this film distributed. He does not know that, despite the alien style with which the Movie People comport themselves, fully nine tenths of them are from Michigan. All he knows is that a movie camera will soon turn our way, and that, when it does, our small hometown in the middle of nowhere will be the only place in the world that matters. Scott’s anticipation is so intense that, for a moment, I believe this too.
EXT. MAIN STREET—NIGHT
After tonight’s filming, Mike and I drive down Main Street. It is 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night and the streets are empty, the stoplights set on hypnotic yellow blink. Escanaba seems vaguely unwell. Nearly everything is closed. When one thinks of small towns, no two words are as suggestive as Main Street. They call up tableaux of a tree-lined avenue where the day’s business is leisurely but efficiently transacted, a bustling vena cava through which every citizen passes to reach her town’s rejuvenating heart. But Escanaba’s heart has been stopped dead by the coronary thrombosis of commercial expansion out on Lincoln Road, a McDonald’s- and Burger King- and Wendy’s- and Blockbuster- and Walmart-beset thruway that streaks past Escanaba’s western edge. Largely underdeveloped when I was a child, Lincoln Road has now made Main Street a pale mercantile ancillary. A number of Main Street’s storefronts are abandoned, with no one rushing in to fill the void. And I am devastated to see that Sakylly’s Candy, a Main Street stalwart, has opened a slick new headquarters right off Lincoln Road.
Not that Lincoln Road is a commercial dynamo. As Mike and I turn onto it, I am struck by a curious lack of entrepreneurial cunning. Every restaurant and strip mall has a sign, and beneath every sign is a glowing white marquee. Instead of festooning these marquees with some incentive to stop in, Escanaba’s brightest business-owning lights have, almost to the one, opted for William Carlos Williams-like austerity. “Buffet,” reads Country Kitchens’s marquee. That of Elmer’s Country Restaurant is comparatively encyclopedic: “Polish sausage, kraut.” The marquee belonging to Suds N’ Sun tanning salon, while informative, seems to address some grievous past oversight: “New tanning bulbs.” Only Nanoseconds, a quick-stop found off Lincoln Road’s main drag, does much to bring meaningful tidings: “Marlboro Carton $21.58.”
The new radio station, Mix 106 FM, has scored Mike’s and my roaming to Smashing Pumpkins and Wyclef Jean. I have difficulty accepting this. Not too many years before, I nearly lost my board operator gig at a local radio station by playing Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome” at three o’clock in the morning. We take a spin by the new cineplex, where actual, profitable motion pictures are playing. As teenagers, Mike and I used to drive two hours to the nearest big city—this was Green Bay, Wisconsin—hungry for escape. Only there could we see Reservoir Dogs or Malcolm X, since all Escanaba’s moribund theater had to offer was The Exorcist III or Rocky V epochs after their opening weekend. Mike and I relied on family safaris to Chicago to procure rap albums, but when we coast past one of Escanaba’s new dance clubs, we feel within the cockpit of my father’s Mountaineer the concussive urban thud of base. Mike and I special-ordered Life of Brian from Southside Video, whose uniquely crappy selection of slasher flicks we’d exhausted, but one pass by the new Blockbuster reveals unending walls of videos and DVDs.
After I left Escanaba, I felt some dignity that I had come of age far beyond the fallout of the cultural atom smasher. The movies I saw or albums I bought or, later, books I read were not much colored by the inducements of culture brokers. The pickings were slimmer, sometimes maddeningly so, and not always sophisticated, but I was never less than certain that I had picked them. This is what makes rural, small-town people so opinionated. Strong opinion is the necessary attendant of choice, however limited, while fashion is the bootlick of exacting coercion.
If I were growing up in Escanaba now, Amazon.com would happily suggest which books or compact disks to buy. Over the Internet, I could chat with people as distant as Newark or Portland, erasing the demarcations of isolation, a visible suburbanite to a vast, invisible city. The Movie People have come to capture Escanaba’s isolation, which exists, still, in every empty street and darkened storefront, but it is an isolation that is, increasingly, identical to that of a thousand towns just like it. All of them are attuned to the same cultural pulsar, as distant as it is familiar, as relentless as it is indifferent.
INT. ROSY’S DINER—MORNING
While driving to today’s shoot, I find that the Movie People have closed off several blocks of Main Street. A small crowd of Escanabans stands at the barricade, shaking their heads in outrage. I would like to point out to these furnaces of rural anger that driving a single block north will grant them passage to wherever it is they wish to go, but I also know this is not the point. Routine in small towns is not ruptured lightly.
I park and walk down Main Street to Rosy’s Diner, where I see that the Movie People’s infestation has already taken root. I suddenly realize that I have not, as clearly as I can remember, ever before walked down Main Street. As a boy I dirt-biked the whole of Main Street almost daily, and as an adult I have driven down it thousands of times, but the slow-moving vista of its storefronts and clean sidewalk slabs is disassociating in a revelatory way. No one walks in Escanaba. Ever. No doubt this bears some relation to the astonishing fatness of many of its citizens.
Rosy’s Diner is a small, sensationally yellow building found a few doors down from the bank where my father works—the kind of place that serves Coke in glass bottles and where lunch for two rarely vaults into double digits. During the grim summer following my early withdrawal from the Peace Corps, my father and I ate lunch here every day and tried to figure out what I would do with my life. I arrive at Rosy’s to find the Movie People adjusting the set’s lighting.
“Wait,” one gaffer tells another, after placing a light. “This one’ll be dangerously close to being in the shot.” I ask the gaffers, Isn’t every light here dangerously close to being in the shot? There are five different batches of lights: three outside, shining into Rosy’s, and two even brighter ones inside. Every possible place upon which the camera will not turn is a bulwark of hot white light. One gaffer smiles, walks over to me, and explains that movie-making is 10 percent good lighting, 10 percent production value, and 80 percent standing around and eating Gummi Bears, of which he offers me several.
I am squired to the back door of Rosy’s, my escort and I stepping over cables and heavy black boxes stenciled with “Mid America Ciné Support.” As we muscle our way through the sound equipment crowding the kitchen, I see that, in the diner proper, Daniels is in the midst of directing a scene. Wearing a thick flannel shirt and fingerless hobo gloves, he kneels next to a table where his three actors are seated and will soon pretend to chat over tepid coffee. Daniels speaks quietly, every word freighted with consequence. The actors listen, eyes narrow and mouths tamped, while a makeup artist dabs their faces with white foam cubes.
Gary Goldman wanders around Daniels and the actors, pointing out every possible disruptive influence within the scene’s frame: “There’s spilled water on the table. Do we care? There’s no steam coming off that coffee. Do we care?” Watching all this adamant preparation, I try to conceive of how a bad film is ever made. Daniels’s budget is only a little over $2 million dollars, yet nothing seems to fall outside consideration. Nothing seems hurried or rushed. Rosy’s is filled to its gunwales with incredibly conscientious, hard-working Movie People whose focus on getting down the scene well has made the room a cauldron of concentration. Did a mandarin like David Lean prepare this thoroughly, or was his vision so honed he merely willed things into place? What of the journeyman director tapped for the new Martin Lawrence vehicle? Does he sit down with his AD night after night, day after day, and debate how to light Lawrence? Through what alchemy does the leaden spectacle of three actors surrounded by lights and cameras and twenty other people transform into art’s precious metal? One can only conclude that no one, least of all the Movie People, is quite sure of how this happens. Their preparation is backlit by this terrified lack of surety, and just as David Lean collapsed in bed at night, certain of total failure, the journeyman director holds a small cameo of expectancy that he will, finally, wrest from his overworked script and unappealing star something with which the declining remains of his conscience can abide.
Behind me, Tom Spiroff stands in the kitchen, talking to a Detroit Free Press reporter. He will later be quoted as saying: “I’m completely confident we’re making a movie any studio is going to want to distribute…. The novelty is these Yoopers, who are a special breed of people you haven’t seen in movies before.”
“Last looks, everybody!” Gary hollers. Tom and the reporter break off their conversation. A subterranean silence falls within Rosy’s. The second assistant director snaps his slate. Daniels nods in a deep, comprehending way. Gary yells, “Action!,” a moment-specific imperative, like “Charge!” or “Full speed ahead!” that no human being could ever tire of being paid to shout.
They shoot the scene—three hunters talking—several times. Movie People really do say things like, “That was perfect. Let’s do it again.” Between takes, an elderly woman standing to my left asks me, “Do I have to yell out ‘Flash!’ if I’m taking a picture?” She is clearly a native Escanaban, and I wonder how she has bypassed the wranglers whose job it is to keep Escanabans off the set. I whisper that I don’t think flash photography is allowed during filming. She then asks, “Is that man in the chook from Escanaba?” Since the man in the “chook” is an actor, I feel confident in telling her no. “Is Jeff here?” she whispers. I fix her with a long, icy stare. When the takes are completed, Daniels walks over and introduces the elderly woman to the Detroit Free Press reporter.
She is the owner of a deer camp the Movie People are using for exterior shots. I now feel like a jackass, and compound this by eavesdropping on the woman’s subsequent interview. Her use of “Jeff” is not framed in grossly arriviste terms at all. She’d never heard of Daniels before the filming. The delighted Free Press reporter asks her if she ever thought her camp would be used in a motion picture. “Not really,” she says.
I wander outside to see Tom Spiroff valiantly holding up his conversational end with a stout Escanaban and his young son. The man talks animatedly of just about everything. Tom remains heartrendingly kind, even after his responses have fallen to a take-me-to-your-leader tonelessness. “Really,” he says. “Huh,” he says. The man sallies forth into some new topic, and I can sense the psychic battle being waged behind Tom’s faceplate: I will be nice. I… _will_…be nice. This is another skirmish in the undeclared emotional war between Escanaba and the Movie People. The Movie People, so far, have been regarded in Escanaba as surprisingly courteous. “Good, normal folks,” one person told me. But they are not normal folks. They are making a movie, one of the more abnormal endeavors a group of human beings can undertake. One senses that Tom knows that the smallest lapse with this Escanaban will poison the garden of friendly relations he has assiduously pruned. One senses further that Tom also knows, and detests, how unfair a burden it is to have to disprove the negative of Movie People’s reputed baseness to an entire town twenty-four hours a day.
Here two selves stand in naked confrontation, the Small-town Self and the Hollywood Self, each severed from its context, each forced to create a new, precarious reality. For the Escanaban, this reality holds that, while he is impressed with Tom, he is not overwhelmed by him, and by enjoying with him everyday conversation, he will allow this Hollywood movie producer a respite from the fakery he believes makes up Tom’s world. For Tom, the reality is defensive and turns back on itself, a metaphysical hairpin that actually forces him to portray the normal, friendly person he is. Having to concentrate, in interaction after interaction, on being oneself must be ontological hell, and I catch a sudden glimmer of why so many famous people lose their minds.
I simply cannot bear to watch any more of this, and hurry away.
“In some ways,” John Clayton writes in Small Town Bound, a primer on abandoning the toxic urban lifestyle, “moving to a small town is like moving to a foreign country…. Compared to your old neighbors, these people really are different… A slip-up may be costly. Despite the best of intentions, your statements or actions…may send the wrong message, and you’ll find yourself disliked.” Even for a booster like Clayton, the small town is ineffably the Other. Some of Clayton’s pointers (“If you truly have a secret that absolutely nobody should know, then tell absolutely nobody”) read like transcriptions from a counterintelligence manual; others (“Your brash New York sales technique may offend reticent dairy farmers”) come off as deconstructions of New Yorker cartoons. But in the face of lifestyle decompression, Clayton is optimism’s archangel. Small-town folk may at first be unsophisticated and a little frightening, he assures, but by obeying draconian rural protocol and (the implication is clear) not expecting very much, you will soon become a welcome member of the community.
Clayton’s evidence-gathering in the case of Small Town v. City will be greeted by many without skepticism. Most Americans, after all, do not live in small towns but in suburbs or micropolitan “edge cities,” such as those outside of Phoenix, Houston, and Atlanta. Whether hated, loved, mourned, or celebrated, the small town is, to those who do not live in them, an alternate universe whose values fall hideously short or gloriously surpass those of their referents. Many of our stumping politicians speak plangently of their small-town origins, while most mass entertainments prefer a more cynical vision of small-town life. However small towns are portrayed, they are never Now, and they are never You.
For browbeaten city-dwellers whose rural flight needs more codified guidance than the bromides of Small Town Bound, there is Norman Crampton’s The 100 Best Small Towns in America. Crampton ranks small towns according to their “uniqueness” and “quality.” His complicated formula involves average income, percentage of nonwhites, crime rate, and local government spending on education, among other brow-wrinkling concerns. Communities like Beaufort, South Carolina, and Provincetown, Massachusetts, with their singular mission of providing summer housing for millionaires and sucking money out of tourists, score highly in Crampton’s playoff. (Escanaba, needless to say, does not merit a mention.)
When discussing the thousands of anti-Provincetowns lacking the restorative power of boutique art and agreeable socioeconomics, small-town boosterism goes only so far. “The good small towns are booming,” John Clayton writes. “The bad ones are dying.” Probably, Clayton would toe-tag my hometown in an instant. Escanaba offers its citizens almost nothing appreciable beyond a stagnant local economy and community theater. Despite this, a good chunk of each graduating class hangs around. Every year enough old high-school acquaintances migrate back from Milwaukee or Detroit to give vague misgivings to those of us with no such designs. In a small town, success is the simplest arithmetic there is. To achieve it, you leave—then subsequently bore your new big-city friends with accounts of your narrow escape. Indeed, when I was younger, I felt certain that what kept small-town people in their small towns was some tragic deficiency.
My stridency was fortified by American literature’s constellation of small-town exiles. Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, and Sherwood Anderson all wrote their best work after abandoning their small Midwestern hometowns. Only Cather opted for aria. Hemingway, typically, chose silence, not once writing about Oak Park, Illinois. Fitzgerald seemed to hold his Minnesota boyhood in a regard that is half sneering, half heartbroken. In Main Street and Babbit, Lewis horse-whipped America’s small towns so ferociously the latter has become synonymous with everything strangling and conformist about them. Anderson is the most influential small-town anatomist, his Winesburg, Ohio famously coining the term “grotesques” for small-town people and inspiring what might best be called the “Up Yours, Winesburg” tradition in American literature.
But I am left with the nagging feeling that, long after leaving my small town, I remain a small-town person. While suburbs tend to produce protoplasmic climbers for whom ascension to the city is a divine right, small towns leave a deep parochial stamp. I have dwelled happily in New York City for several years yet still find edgy discomfort in cell phones and being kissed in greeting by acquaintances. I would like to credit my dislike for swanky Greenwich Village drinking holes to high-minded asceticism, but I know it is animated by the same wretched self-consciousness that kept many Escanabans away from the filming. Small-town people live in dread of any substantiation of how out of it they secretly suspect themselves to be. This is why many small-town men dress so hideously, and why many small-town women do such upsetting things to their hair. One never risks rejection when one has made that rejection inevitable.
On my way out the door for the last day of location filming, my father asks where the Movie People are shooting today. I tell him where “we” are shooting and, while driving to the set, marvel at my unthinking use of the first-person plural. My self-election to the parliament of moviemaking is not star-fucking solipsism as much as it is an involuntary submission. When your town is incorporated into another reality, your very identity succumbs to the resultant vortex.
Today the Movie People are filming in Northtown, Escanaba’s economically depressed district. In perfect storybook synchronicity, the division between Northtown and its flusher counterpart, Southtown, is the long stretch of Main Street. Since Escanaba lacks any minority presence, Northtowners and Southtowners are forced to dislike one another. I am from Southtown. Worse yet, I grew up on its toniest street, Lake Shore Drive, a descendent of an ancien régime Escanaba family whose kingly house overlooks the city park and the oceanic glory of Lake Michigan.
Today’s scene takes place at Reuben’s house, where he attempts détente with his unhappy wife. The Northtown home the Movie People have selected to film is a biggish, olive-colored two-story on the corner of Fourteenth Street and Second Avenue; it is in sore need of a paint job. Despite the fact that it is the coldest day of filming yet, a savage temperature not unlike that of the moon’s solar lee side, a fairly large group of Escanabans has materialized to watch the filming and been corralled into a line across the street. Gary Goldman, in his ever-present sunglasses and white ball cap, paces up and down the sidewalk while talking into his cell phone.
Two large production trucks pull up and are gingerly emptied of equipment. One guy, loaded with an armful of walkie-talkies, calls alms: “Get your red-hot walkies!” Movie-making might be the only occupation without potential lethality that encourages such rampant walkie-talkie use.
Several of the gaffers and grips are wearing “I love Escanaba” buttons on their jackets. Even though they are busy, this inspires me to strike up some conversation. For just about all of them, Escanaba in da Moonlight is their first “feature” experience, though many have done production work in commercials and public service announcements. They are counting on this movie’s success no less keenly than Daniels: the best boy, Hans, is working his way through community college in Lansing at a garage-door manufacturer. I am about to ask whether they truly love Escanaba when I see an old high school friend, Doug, talking with Daniels’s stand-in.
Doug is both Mike’s cousin and the fullback against whom I concussed myself in that junior-high football game. He is also the only person I know who has been shot for non-geopolitical reasons, taking an accidental bullet in the leg while deer hunting a few years ago. Doug’s femur was shattered, and he walks with a noticeable limp. Doug, I learn, has signed onto the film as its Gun Safety Consultant. I congratulate him on his gig, and he regales me with amused but not at all mean-spirited stories of the Movie People’s innocence in things ungulate.
The Movie People arrived with the thought of using a tranquilized farm deer for the hunting scenes. But a tranquilized farm deer proved difficult to procure. A mechanical deer was thus obtained from the local branch of the Department of Natural Resources, a notion so oxymoronical I swoon at the thought of it. Why, I ask, does the DNR have a mechanical deer? “To catch poachers,” Doug replies. Robot deer are patrolling the forests of Upper Michigan, and clearly I am here covering the wrong story.
A couple approaches the set with a mixture of trepidation and privilege. They are, it is quickly determined, the owners of the house that a whole troop of Movie People are recklessly stomping into and out of. I ask the woman, Michelle, if she’s worried about her home. She’s not, she tells me, jerking a little as the screen door bangs shut for the fiftieth time. “They gave us excellent insurance.”
A stressed-looking Jeff Daniels is talking to a cameraman about (what else) lighting the driveway-parked pickup truck he’ll be sitting in for the duration of this scene. Daniels’s co-star, the unfairly beautiful Kimberly Norris Guerrero, most famous for an appearance on Seinfeld, waits nearby with her unfairly handsome significant other. Michelle abandons our conversation and approaches Daniels, asking him timorously if he’s “too overwhelmed” to sign an autograph. It takes Daniels a moment to look at her. When he does, his mouth is smiling but his eyes are cold and featureless. In a patient, considered tone, he tells Michelle he’s working right now, and asks that she wait until he’s done working. Michelle laughs in a nervous, humiliated way and hastens back to her husband’s side. It is hard to fault Michelle much here, since I imagine that, in her mind, it was pretty damned generous of her to cede Daniels her home, but it is equally hard to fault Daniels’s brusque reply, since he was in the middle of a conversation and child-proofing his personal space while on the job is something he shouldn’t have to do. It is an all-around ugly scene that everyone pretends not to have noticed. Michelle and her husband soon join the phalanx of Escanabans watching safely from across the street.
Daniels climbs into the cab of the battered Ford pickup and Guerrero takes her place at the driver’s-side window. Both suffer eleventh-hour preening at the hands of a makeup artist. Their conversation will first be shot from Daniels’s perspective, and amassed on the Ford’s passenger-side is a platoon of Movie People: the cameraman, the second assistant director, some gaffers, and the condenser mic operator, each frozen in a differently uncomfortable pose. Providing further distraction is the lights, all perched on thin metal stands called “lollipops,” and a huge white deflector that resembles the screen upon which children are lobotomized by elementary-school filmstrips. Beneath this sensory ambush, Guerrero and Daniels are now expected to have a quiet, character-revealing conversation. One does not need to see their awkward initial takes to grasp how ludicrously difficult motion-picture acting can be.
The Movie People will try to use as much native sound and dialogue as they can, since post-production redubbing is so expensive. It is therefore extremely important, Gary is explaining to the crowd, that everyone keep very, very quiet and very, very still while the cameras are rolling. The crowd is a cooperative of nods. Gary walks back over to the Movie People’s side of the street, where he motions to a production assistant carrying a bullhorn.
A bullhorn-enhanced voice fills the air: “All right, everybody. No walking. Quiet, please.” Although I am standing at least twenty feet away, the block is wreathed with such silence I can hear Guerrero and Daniels’s conversation perfectly. Noah, the sound mixer, a lanky, longhaired young man in a white Irish sweater, sits nearby at his portable digital audio recorder, monitoring the sound levels over his headphones and minutely adjusting the console’s numerous pots. Noah looks pleased until a neighborhood dog begins barking. The dog barks, in fact, through the entire take, and stops, with mysterious precision, the instant the take is complete. Gary motions for another bullhorned edict for silence, and Guerrero and Daniels begin anew. Five seconds in, the dog is at it yet again. Noah’s eyes roll skyward, Gary is now helplessly scanning the neighborhood, and the production assistant is brandishing his bullhorn in a way that leaves little doubt of its canine-bludgeoning potential. When the dog’s tireless larynx has spoiled the third take, another production assistant is sent on a door-to-door scour of the neighborhood.
A few minutes later, the production assistant, smiling and a little shaken, returns. The dog’s owner has been confronted. Unfortunately, the man is not one of Northtown’s finer citizens. This is not surprising, since finding an adult male at home at eleven o’clock on a Tuesday morning suggests dedicated unemployment. The man was unmoved by the production assistant’s request that his dog be taken inside during the filming. The production assistant—wisely, I think—decided to leave it at that, and after everyone talks the situation over it is suggested that perhaps the bullhorn is the dog’s Pavlovian trigger.
A fourth take is attempted minus the prefatory bullhorn. A weird, fretful aura descends upon the production. No one—not Gary, not Noah, not the crew, not the crowd—is listening to anything but this immaculate, fragile quiet. The dog’s cue comes and goes, but we are no longer attuned to anything so specific. The late-morning twittering of birds all around us seems as raucous as a cocktail party. Footfalls register like exploding shells. It is pure aural anxiety. Near the end of the take, a crowd member’s baby begins to cry. She turns and quite frankly sprints away from the crowd, her wailing infant mashed to her chest. It is as though she has just been gassed. At this, some more loutish crowd members begin to laugh. Gary stands there, tight-mouthed, while Daniels and Guerrero, wholly alone in the temple of art, finish their take with a soft, scripted kiss.
On the following take, a school bus grinds gears two blocks away. The take after that is made unusable by an inopportune car horn coupled with a rotten muffler. Several takes, in fact, suffer invasion by questionable mufflers. After what feels like the three-hundredth endeavor to film twenty seconds of human interaction without some spike of unbidden sound, Gary looks up with a beleaguered smile. “Are there any cars in this town,” he asks no one, “that have mufflers?”
By now a small cadre within the crowd has openly turned against the Movie People. They are men, three of them, and their faint laughter is filled with hyenic contempt. They sport mullets, wraparound Oakley sunglasses, and shiny vinyl jackets with the names of local bars splashed across their backs. They are the sort of Escanaba he-men my friends and I, when in high school, approached outside of liquor stores and bribed to buy us cases of Milwaukee’s Best. No one is paying these men much attention, though some members of the crowd have, in isolationist disapproval, inched away from them.
The battlements of filmmaking are moved from the Ford pickup’s starboard side to that of its port. Daniels and Guerrero, their stand-ins in place, have taken refuge around a space heater. Gary is on his cell phone again, probably thrilled that soon he will not have to endure such endless set-up and potential distraction. Tomorrow the production moves to a closed set in an abandoned health club just outside of town. The Movie People have constructed within the health club the simulated interior of a deer camp, and there the film’s remaining scenes will be shot.
As I watch the laughing, truculent men, I remember a story Gary told me a few days before. Last year, he directed a Visa commercial starring New York Yankees manager Joe Torre in Washington Square Park. Torre had, of course, just captained the Yankees to World Series triumph. Gary expected to do a good amount of Torre-shielding from gawkers, but other than a few raised fists and discreet hails, Gary’s production was left unmolested. After Gary told the story, we exchanged some pleasantries of the Isn’t-New York-Great variety. Yet I know that, for most of those New Yorkers, leaving Torre alone was striated with all kinds of apprehension, foremost of which is the New Yorker’s singular desire to never ever seem eager or unguarded or gauche. I know, too, that these sneering Escanabans embody an exact inversion of that same desire. Why, then, do I loathe these men with such sudden intensity?
The lives of the laughing Escanabans are not too difficult for me to imagine. Their cars have shitty mufflers. They are smokers, drinkers, their romantic and occupational histories Iliads of woe. No doubt they have “some college.” No doubt they’ve swabbed enough aircraft carrier decks to have decided that Escanaba isn’t so bad after all. These upper midwestern Jukes and Kallikaks live in a culture which despises them, consume entertainment produced by people who mock them, and it is suddenly hard to fault their powerless laughter at a film in which they will find no representation, not even as tough-talking rednecks deodorized by horse-sense philosophy.
I realize, then, that this film is not intended for these men. Or for Escanaba. Or for any small town. It is meant, instead, for that know-nothing American monstrosity, the target audience. Although I understand the pressurized financial contingencies that make this necessary, I do not, at this moment, much care. Loyalty is the small town’s blood, and assault from without is its transfusion. I work myself into such a lather it occurs to me only gradually that I am a potential bull’s-eye in that target audience. My own private Escanaba shares some crucial denominators with the Movie People’s: both are vessels of studied triumph over the inadequate past, both are backlit by the glow of the irrecoverable, and both are utter fabrications. Our Escanabas exist, but do not remain.
I abruptly thank the Movie People for having me and walk back to my father’s truck. At the Second Avenue block-off stands a lone Escanaban. She is an old, old woman, thin in a nasty-looking way, with a nestlike white permanent.
“Dumbest thing I ever saw,” she tells me, waving her hand at the distant Movie People. “I don’t think it’ll even be any good.”
“Oh,” I say, walking past her, “I think it will be.”
Her look of cruelty softens into something hopeful, even tender, and she no longer seems nasty, but a confused small-town woman filled with doubt. “You think?”
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