Big screens and small towns

Some years back I read a book called SMALL-TOWN AMERICA ON FILM: The Decline and Fall of Community by Emanuel Levy and wasn’t that impressed.

While working on The Aliens Are Here, however, I reread the section dealing with Invasion of the Body Snatchers and found it stronger than I remembered. A few months back, I sat down and read the whole thing. It is indeed better than I remember.

Levy looks at America’s long fascination with the small town as the heart of the nation and how that played out in films from the 1930s through the 1980s.

The same themes (big city vs small town, community  vs. individual, eccentricity vs. conformity) and stock figures (spinster, richest man in town, disruptive outsider) though they play out differently. Unsurprisingly 1930s films give more weight to the superiority of small-town morals and the value of conformity, though even they can admit some degree of darkness. Small-town widows crop up in a lot of these stories, plus corrupt leaders in films such as It’s a Wonderful Life.

In the 1950s, by contrast, there’s more emphasis on how stifling conformity can be, and that the disruption outsiders cause can be a net gain. In the 1980s, when financial crisis in farm communities was a hot topic, there were multiple “save the family farm” films such as The River, showing the small towns sliding into decline.

In the 1950s we get interest in the suburbs, which movies and print fiction have been scowling at ever since. Not as authentic as the small towns. Lacking the vibrancy and culture of big cities. Shallow settings for shallow people, most of whom are probably cheating on their spouses (always a popular theme, as in the 1960 image below).

Reading Levy’s book got me thinking how this applies to SF films, many of which are set in small towns. For example we have It Came From Outer Spacewhich has scientist Richard Carlson filling the role of the eccentric and outsider who doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the community (the same can be said of the shapeshifting aliens). In  Invasion of the Body Snatchers the community is tight knit; the alien intrusion corrupts and destroys it.

Then there are those time-travel movies that show their protagonist she made a terrible mistake (it’s always a woman) moving away from her small town and thinking she could do better than her childhood sweetheart:  Eve’s Christmas, Holidaze and Back to Christmas to name three. They’re annoyingly sexist, always judging the female lead for thinking that going off to pursue a career is a good idea (a common theme in non-time travel films, such as Sweet Home Alabama).

I’m not sure the small-town setting is always important though. While Midwich Cuckoos (cover by Dean Ellis) plays up the effect of alien rape and impregnation on the small community, and the 1960 Village of the Damned has a community feel, the 1995 remake (reviewed at the same link) is so listless that there’s no significance to setting it in a small town.

Give Small Town America on Film is now 40 years behind in its film coverage, I find myself wondering if there isn’t material enough for a new one. But I have a lot of fiction to get written before I even think of that.

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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