On the Fate of Communities in America


I was watching the film Picnic (1955) the other day which stars William Holden, Kim Novak, Rosalind Russell, Arthur O’Connell, Cliff Robertson and others. It’s one of my favorites. For those who haven’t seen it, a restored, high-definition version is available and sometimes makes the rounds on Turner Classic Movies. The story, for those unfamiliar with it, takes place in a rural community smack dab in the middle of what we now call flyover country. It was shot in various locations in Kansas, and centers around the arrival of, Hal Carter, played by William Holden, a star college school football player who comes in search of his college roommate looking for a chance to start again after a series of missteps and trouble with the law after college in the wider world beyond.

Holden’s Hal Carter, is a restless spirit, frustrated and angry at times, lost, but occasionally exhibiting a self-deprecating sense of humor, recognizing his own shortcomings. He has the idea that he can become successful if he’s just given a chance, but also has the naïve notion that perhaps he can also do so by skipping a few steps. Before looking up his old friend, Alan Benson, played by Cliff Robertson, the wealthy son of the wealthiest agribusiness owner in the town, Hal has a chance encounter with Benson’s girlfriend, Madge Owens, played by Kim Novak, and is immediately smitten. The contentious love triangle and other sub-themes (or B stories) fill out the plot of the film. One of the other storylines involves an old maid schoolteacher, played by Rosalind Russell, in arguably the best role of her career. Her desperation for marriage shifts into high gear and becomes hysterical and then delusional (helped a bit by several snorts of rye whiskey) from Howard Bevans, played by Arthur O’Connell who is fearful of losing the independence of his prolonged bachelorhood.

The many messages about life, love, and the restless American spirit that Inge’s play explores, and the amazing performances by the actors, are worth exploring further. But what struck me on this most recent viewing of the film is the lengthy sequence, montage really, around the festivities of the rural community’s Labor Day picnic, using hundreds of locals from Halstead, Kansas who are engaged in a series of races, sing-alongs, talent contests, pie-eating contests, complemented with crying babies and tired folks fanning themselves in the hot sun while watching a musical group on stage. The picnic sequence, for the most part, documents an actual picnic with only the narrative of the film framing it on either end. It’s a chronicle that gives us a glimpse of the community’s personalities and dynamics in an America perhaps quickly receding from our public consciousness and seen now from the perspective of Americans today in communities still reeling or still contending with COVID lockdowns, irrational mask mandates, hysteria, confrontation, public friction, riots, shaming by elected leaders (mayors and governors), accusations, and purported victimization by imagined oppressors. For those of us who experienced something akin to what the picnic scene in the film depicts, it beckons to us. For those too young or too sheltered to have witnessed something akin to what is shown, how much poorer are their lives and how much emptier their future?

Another glimpse of what’s at stake comes surprisingly from another film, Scottish director Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero. I won’t spend a good deal of time now fleshing out the plot and the characters suffice to say that MacIntyre (or Mac), a young American in the acquisitions department of Knox Oil and Gas of Houston is given the responsibility by his chairman and CEO, to buy up a small Scottish fishing village for the purposes of converting it into an enormous oil refinery. Mac ends up falling in love with the place, its natural surroundings, and its many eccentric and welcoming and accommodating villagers, so much so, that at the end of the film upon his return to his high-rise apartment in Houston he wistfully empties his coat pockets of collected seashells, holds them to his nose to take in the smell of the beach on which he spent hours whiling away the time as the purchase deal was being entertained. Mac’s wistfulness is essentially the longing for that close-knit village filled with laughter, music, dancing, drinking, fellowship, quirkiness — community. Community that is absent in his yuppie, high-rise Houston environs. Thus, the caution, we may only appreciate the value of community when we no longer have it.

My brothers and I lived in several communities for the most part up and down California, that seemed to exemplify the best of what America and its residents and schools and organizations like the likely-to-be defunct Boy Scouts of America could offer for families and for children. I’m sure that sentiment has a wistful sprinkling of nostalgia. So be it. You can immediately experience a sense of community when stopping to refill your gas tank or to get a cup of coffee and a piece of pie at a diner, in the more rural towns of California, particularly on the long drives on Highway 88 in the western slopes of the Sierra or on Highway 395 along the base of the Sierra’s eastern slopes. Small towns like Lone Pine or Independence, or Bridgeport (see the film noir movie Out of the Past to get a glimpse of Bridgeport), or the slightly larger Bishop (pictured). And, of course, that sense of community is still present in thousands of towns throughout America. But those communities are in the crosshairs of establishment elites in Washington, woke tech giants, and radical Marxist ideologues with often cloaked agendas.

In the very excellent film, The Founder, about Ray Kroc and his effort to create a national brand for McDonald’s restaurants, Kroc, played by Michael Keaton conveys to the actual founders of the original McDonald’s in San Bernardino, California his vision:

Note that there is no cynicism in the way the filmmakers and Michael Keaton portray Kroc’s vision. Thankfully. Beyond the confines of a story about how the most successful restaurant chain in the world came to be (a story that should taught and a film that should be shown in every high school or especially every college-level business course), Kroc’s vision of America as a community might be dying. And yet, in communities around the country, perhaps Americans are finally waking up to what could be lost if the radical and often hidden agenda of the Left succeeds.

Listen to the voices and the protests raised at school board meetings in the last several weeks against the obvious racism of Critical Race Theory and its demonization of Americans whose skin pigmentation happens to be a lighter shade than others. So much for Martin Luther King Jr.’s colorblind society where everyone should be judged on the content of their character not the color of their skin. MLK is passé. One is obviously not woke if you believe what Martin Luther King, Jr. so beautifully and fervently articulated.

And thankfully, we can hear the irate voices of Americans protesting the indoctrination and brainwashing of children on a whole host of issues from teaching kids younger than twelve how to masturbate and fornicate, to becoming vocal advocates for the pseudo-science of climate hysteria, or to dismiss the guidance from their own parents about their own gender identity or sense of basic right and wrong. And take a measure of comfort that the idea of America and the idea of the American community may yet survive despite social media censorship — but certainly may not survive without a fight.

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  1. KentForrester Moderator

    Nicely done, Brian.  I know Bridgeport well because my sister and husband had a cabin in Bridgeport, overlooking a river (can’t think of its name), just on the edge of Yosemite.  My sister was a volunteer at the Bridgeport Library and loved her job. 

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  2. Percival Thatcher

    White people eating watermelon! Unironically!

    Someone somewhere has been triggered by that.

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  3. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell

    Percival (View Comment):

    White people eating watermelon! Unironically!

    Someone somewhere has been triggered by that.


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  4. Flicker Coolidge

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    White people eating watermelon! Unironically!

    Someone somewhere has been triggered by that.


    Undisguised racism.

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  5. David Foster Member
    David Foster

    Note that as actual communities have become less of a thing, the word ‘community’ is used obsessively by politicians and the media.  They will not say ‘bad public education is particularly damaging to people of color’, they prefer to say ‘is particularly damaging to communities of color.’

    I think this marks a retreat from individualism into collectivism.

    Fox does it too, btw.

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  6. DrewInWisconsin, Oaf Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oaf

    David Foster (View Comment):
    I think this marks a retreat from individualism into collectivism.

    Absolutely. It’s very subtle, this shift to collectivism. Note the number of “group projects” have increased in classrooms.

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  7. CACrabtree Coolidge

    Excellent post.  As hard as it is to imagine now, Appalachia, even deep in coal country, had solid, family-centered communities.  Beginning in the 60s, when the steel mills (among other industries) began to fold, those communities started to fall apart.  As young people left high school, they moved to metropolitan areas and seldom returned.

    The process picked up steam in the 90s when the Green movement’s pressure started the move away from coal.  Following that came government dependency and the opioid epidemic.  (See Hillbilly Elegy & Dreamland.)

    And the “intellectual” Left cares not one iota.

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  8. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks

    Small towns are monocultural incubators of small-mindedness and prejudice, don’t you know – just look at Inherit the Wind. Aside from the local town atheist, who sticks around to annoy the locals, and the Kindly Doc, who has keen insights on human nature, everyone else is a God-bothering simpleton too stupid to make it in the big city.  

    Local Hero is a wonderful film, and has one of the best soundtracks of the 80s.

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  9. Brian Watt Inactive
    Brian Watt

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Small towns are monocultural incubators of small-mindedness and prejudice, don’t you know – just look at Inherit the Wind. Aside from the local town atheist, who sticks around to annoy the locals, and the Kindly Doc, who has keen insights on human nature, everyone else is a God-bothering simpleton too stupid to make it in the big city.

    Local Hero is a wonderful film, and has one of the best soundtracks of the 80s.

    There is a moment near the beginning of Local Hero, when Mac and Danny, after hitting the rabbit with the car, that they are engulfed in fog on the road to Ferness and must sleep until the morning when the fog lifts. Mark Knopfler’s music sets the proper mood of magic and mystery at that moment and suggests that Mac is about to enter an almost otherworldly, dreamlike realm (complemented with meteor showers, the aurora borealis, and fine whiskey) for the remainder of the film where he’ll be introduced to life and community that moves at a much slower pace than what he’s used to where having a Porsche and a fine stereo system aren’t as important as he once thought. 

    In my initial outline for this post, I thought about including the negative depictions of small towns and rural America by Hollywood, which the movie industry continues to crank out, typically showing locals as rubes, hayseeds, racists, and bible-thumpers…but there are so many hours in a day.

    Additionally, there are numerous causal factors contributing to the decay and disappearance of community in America leading up to the present day which would make for a much lengthier, i.e., Coming Apart by Murray kind of work, and touch on topics such as the transition from a labor-based agrarian economy to a more industrialized/automated version, the allure of more urban and suburban lifestyles and opportunities, the demise of the authority of the Catholic Church, a more permissive society regarding sex and divorce, the devaluation of human life especially after Roe v. Wade, the influence of Marxist ideologues throughout the academy, the ever-growing centralization of government at the federal level, and numerous other factors.

    The pandemic and the recent election and reversals of the previous administration’s policies and a more centralized authoritarian state from D.C., CRT, and a militant LGBTQ agenda seem to have signaled a more heightened attack on rural and suburban communities in America. The sudden, quite vocal participation of citizens at school board meetings and in city council and county board meetings recently may be an indication that all is not lost. 

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