Cinematic States (Higgins, 2013)

cinematic statesThere are film critics and then there are movie guys.

You know the former. They love to talk about the new Romanian film they saw at some film festival, make sure their top ten lists are full of films most readers will not have seen (and so can’t disagree about), and sniff at some entertainment vehicle that you thoroughly enjoyed.

The latter will talk about movies instead of “films,” and they will talk about the movies you love and why you love them.

Gareth Higgins is a movie guy. He loves, loves, loves movies.

Not all film critics who write books do. More importantly, Higgins understands that you love them too. More than with most film critics, a conversation with Higgins is as much about sharing his joy than it is about validating or contradicting his opinions.  Cinematic States: Stories We Tell, The American Dream Life, and How To Understand Everything* is a series of musings on Higgins’s life-long passion and his adopted homeland. The book has a chapter for each American state. Higgins will look at a representative film and discuss the ways that film has mediated his (and our) perception of what that part of America is really like. You may not agree with Higgins’s take on every movie (or his opinions about the state of America for that matter), but you’ll sure have fun thinking about how right or wrong you think he is.

The pleasure of such projects lie in their inclusiveness. One doesn’t have to be a cinephile to play along. While classic films such as Sullivans Travels, Nashville, or Chinatown get mentioned, this is a list (and book) with more populist leanings. It starts with Bull Durham and the Black Hole and ends with On the Waterfront and Brokeback Mountain. In between there are some obvious choices (go to the back of the room if you pick anything other than Gone With the Wind for Georgia) and some quirky personal inclusions (hard to think about Michigan without thinking about…Somewhere in Time). That’s not a knock, though. These books are only pretentious when they try to be definitive. The extent to which they are quirky is the extent to which they are fun.

moviessavedsoulHiggins, the author of How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films likes to mix film commentary with autobiographical detail. When done poorly, that technique can come across as narcissistic or ill-informed. In Higgins’s writing, though, the biographical detail is almost always used to contextualize his appreciation for the film rather than the other way around. When he tells you he didn’t necessarily feel safe walking around the neighborhood where scenes from a favorite film (Bull Durham) were shot, that detail is as much about how the landscape has changed as it is about how the stress he felt on some particular day.

Some of that detail is important, too, because one of the subtexts of Cinematic States is the way in which our understanding of America is informed more by media image than actual experience. Autobiography, too, is shaped by the way we reconstitute experiences into more or less pleasing narratives. In his Florida chapter, Higgins relates that visiting Disney World was one of the biggest letdowns of his life, in large part because the reality of long lines and crowded venues was and is so different from the idealized fantasy fueled by that intoxicating mix of enthusiastic imagination and commercial images.

If the insistence on covering all fifty states in a separate chapter impedes the kind of in-depth cultural analysis that might use Higgins’s outsider perspective as a starting point rather than an end in itself, it also keeps the chapters relative concise. The prose style makes it a quick, enjoyable read as well. Cinematic States makes for the perfect airport book or holiday gift. There’s a little something for everyone.

Cinematic States will be released in November, 2013 by Burnside Books.

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