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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.Published in