Table of Contents
2. The rural idyll
3. Landscape in cinema
4. Analysis of The Laramie Project (2002)
4.2. Hate Crime
5. Analysis of Boys Don't Cry (1999)
5.2. Hate Crime
7. List of works cited
While the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge or skyscrapers are common images that might come to mind when thinking about the city, the stereotypical associations with the Midwest are far different.
The Great Plains and acres of farmland might be some of the first associations one has when thinking about the Midwest. Through various documentaries and movies a certain image of this area has been formed, a stereotypical ideal image so to say. The wide open range of the country is subject to many songs and more so to many movies.
The rural idyll is an expression that everybody can link at least a few thoughts and images to. Mostly, it is not only a stereotypical way of seeing the Midwestern towns and their residents, but it describes the idyll of an American town. Filmmakers and writers widely put this idyll to use with different goals. If either to underline the beauty of a love story or to use the idyll as a way to contrast with a plot telling a gruesome story.
Can the landscape of the Midwest, in the sense of a stereotypical idyll, be utilized to emphasize the brutality of hate crimes?
In order to answer this question, the construction of rural idyll will be explained, as will be the consequent concept of anti-idyll. Further the use of landscape in cinema will be described. In the analysis The Laramie Project (2002) and Boys Don't Cry (1999) will be used to show the utilization of landscape. The last part will explain how the use of idyll and anti-idyll can influence the perception of brutality.
2. The rural idyll
As in most binary thought patterns, the definition of one term requires a distinction from the contrary term. With regards to rural this would be urban. Bell claims that rural is nothing else than “urbanism's other” (150), and therefore, what society seems to perceive as idyll in the rural landscape, is a picture created in and through the city. The importance of urbanity has grown through popular culture and the tendency of young people striving after a life in the city. The appeal seems to lay in the restless and ever so fast changing lifestyle. The stereo-typical ideal city in mind might be Los Angeles, or New York. Typical adjectives associated with these urban areas are big, loud - not with a negative connotation, but rather as in free, connected, but still anonymous if desired, and man built. In the description of rural countryside none of these adjectives fit, but even though cities are a desired living space for numerous people, rural life is constructed to be desirable, as for example by owning a weekend escape outside the city in the countryside. Constructed is the important word in this context. The ideal of rural landscape was constructed by the media, films, poems, songs and many more factors. To pick one example, the television series Little House on the Prairie shows many features still associated with the rural. The show depicted a hard life in an open range. The ideals of owning a piece of this land, building a house on one's land in the wild or farmed landscape. The size of the properties entailed that neighboring farms were often miles away, creating the image of isolation and a secluded life. But still being included in a town where one knows another. Life in the rural landscape was shown to be harder, but also simpler, more modest and more peaceful than in the city.
A quote by William Cowper “God made the country, and man made the town” (qtd. in Bunce 1) underlines how the countryside is perceived in an ideal, God made way. In this context the word idyll is often used. The Oxford English Dictionary defines something to be idyllic if it is “full of natural simple charm or picturesqueness.' (“idyllic”). As shown before, the ideal picture of rural landscapes was formed through various factors. So even though often seen as rustic and wild, they have been subject of glorification resulting in a stereotypical picture of natural simplicity and peace. Bell identifies three ideals when dealing with rural idyll, namely 'farmscapes', 'wildscapes' and 'adventurescaps' (150). As for the issue of this term paper, the focus will lie on the first two, as the adventurous idyll is not expedient. 'Farmscapes' combines all agricultural landscapes, not focussing on profit- yielding agriculture, but rather on hard manual work. Opposed to this utilization of rural landscape is the 'wildscape' which unifies all landscapes untouched by humans. Both ideals will be discussed in detail further on.
The ideal set before is obviously a positive one. So if a glorious positive ideal exists, it might as well be turned around to create an anti-idyll. In the construction of the idyll, all disturbances were eliminated in order to create the perfect image. When constructing the anti-idyll these disturbances are knowingly utilized and overdrawn. Thus idyll and anti- idyll are not opposites, yet two viewpoints of the same space. Transferring this to the examples made before, the anti-idyll does not offer a free life in the open range, but rather a lonely life in no-man's-land. Hard work does not happen on fields, it happens in factories, if the people have work at all. So life is not simpler, it is more boring. More insight into the fundamental differences will be shown in the analysis.
3. Landscape in cinema
As mentioned before, landscape can create any desired mood if used in the right way. The diverse use of setting is nothing new or exclusive to cinema, but was also an important subject as far back as the 16th century (cf. Lukinbeal 3). One essential publication regarding the topic of landscape's use is Landscape as Theater by Jackson. Even though he was referring to theater, the claims he made concerning landscape can still be applied to cinema today by interpreting cinema as an evolution of theater. In this context Lukinbeal called cinema an “immediate artistic predecessor” (4) which draws on the same staging and production methods originated in theater productions.
There are different ways in which landscape can be used in cinema. First of all landscape can be used as space. In this case landscape is a mere tool to spotlight the actions of the film. The space as such could be anywhere and does not relate to any space in particular. On the contrary is landscape as place. In this regard actions are placed in a specific space making use of its “sense of place and history” (Lukinbeal 6). By using an existing 'reel'1 landscape, its complexity can be further used as part of the ensemble, with its own importance to the actions (cf. Lukinbeal 6). Lastly landscape can also be used in a metaphorical way, appealing to link certain characteristics to certain areas in a stereotypical way (Lukinbeal 14).
4. Analysis of The Laramie Project (2002)
The Laramie Project is a movie adaption of the same titled ethnodrama2 by Moisés Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project, which deals with the hate crime against Matthew Shepard, who died consequent to a brutal beating in Laramie, Wyoming.
The movie starts out by showing a long shot of the railroad, transitioning to the next area shot tracking back from the church to reveal the old town center. In the background lie sunlit mountains and the scenery is accentuated by church bells. In the free range the state sign of Wyoming is shown, also sunlit, stating Wyoming is 'Like no place on earth'. There are shots of children playing and riding their bikes. Starting into the movie, the filmmakers use shots to create a positive image of Laramie. By using good weather shots and highlighting them with sunshine, Laramie is depicted in a very favorable way. Good weather is associated with a positive and peaceful surrounding. Additionally, the cut of not only the image of the church, but also the church bells in the background support this interpretation of peacefulness.
Further into the movie there are shots of the Laramie Lumber Company and farmland, as well as interviews with farmers. As mentioned before, hard work is part of the ideal set in the rural lifestyle. Life as a farmer and businesses as the Laramie Lumber Company represent said ideals, which are enforced by the 'farmscape' pictures the filmmakers create.
Moreover do the filmmakers not only focus on hard work as part of rural tradition, but also on religious and social traditions. Beyond using churches in the opening, they are a recurring image. On the one hand there are recordings of actual church buildings, mostly accompanied by church bells or chorals. On the other hand some backgrounds during interviews show religious items. Therefore through the use of images the film suggests religion to be a wide spread value in the community. On a related note, the vigil is also noteworthy. But social traditions are also shown, such as the homecoming parade. During the parade, a large part of Laramie's community gathers alongside the street to watch the parade and cheer on the numerous groups marching along. The traditions develop the initially created positive and peaceful image further, adding a character of calmness and consistency.
Other recurring area shots are of classic cars from the 50s, simple housing and the traditional housing in the town center. So tradition goes further than holding on to old values and continues on to a simple and old lifestyle. Exemplifying modesty is another part of the previously set preconditions of idyll.
Lastly open range shots are used recurrently. Most shots show acres and acres of rich green pastures. There are even interview sequences filmed while walking through the grasslands. Showing not only the openness of the landscape but also metaphorically representing freedom contributes to the stereotypical rural. This ideal is what Bell described as the 'wildscape' (Bell 150), a seemingly pre-cultural nature, not yet disturbed by human work. Attention should be paid to the fact, that the crime scene is also part of the wildscape shots. Displaying the surroundings, including the weathered fence where Matthew was tortured, it still remains part of the calm and open idyll.
While overviewing opening shots are typical of landscape's use as place, the fact that Laramie is mostly depicted stereotypically negates this view. As mentioned before, the use as place utilizes the complexity of an area. Capturing history and area as one makes it possible to create a landscape able to take part in the action, whereas Laramie merely serves as a space. This assumption is reinforced by the fact that the images shown of Laramie are not exclusive to this town, but could have been filmed anywhere in the Great Plains. This is supported by one of the characters, stating that “this could be any main drag in America”.
4.2. Hate Crime
While focussing on the extremely positive view of the surroundings one might forget the action set in this landscape. But when interpreting Laramie as a mere background to the hate crime committed, it defies the importance of the idyll created.
As usual in the genre of ethnodrama, there are no scenes showing the crime itself or reenactment of it. But throughout the film numerous scenes give detail about what happened, in which condition Matthew Shepard was found and what reactions it caused.
1 The term 'reel' means, that any landscape used, no matter if it is real or fantasized one, appears reel to the audience of film or theater (cf. Lukinbeal 4).
2 For more detail on ethnodrama see the essay on The Laramie Project by Baglia and Foster.