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Places in the heart.

Every so often, Bloomingdale's runs an elaborate promotion that involves re-creating an exotic locale inside its cavernous confines, the better to sell the clothes and cosmetics of another culture to the shoppers on Manhattan's Upper East Side. A few weeks ago, for instance, the clientele could "drink in the ambience . . . of a Japanese country inn," and go home with kimonos, watches and whatnot. Another time, the setting might be the arid ambience of the Serengeti, where customers could see Masai nomads model Ralph Lauren's safari collection, and pick up a pith helmet or two for Saturday in the Hamptons.

It is just such a piece of retail magic that Robert Benton has worked in Places in the Heart, a beautifully designed, impeccably acted, perfectly shot, well-lit fraud of a movie which sells ambience by the carload to consumers rooted in a very different time and place. The locale is a cottn-growing corner of Texas, and the moment is mid - Depression. Benton grew up then and there, and the material of his film is supposed to recall scenes of his childhood: a sheriff shot to death by a drunken black man; the lawman's wife forced to fend for herself and feed the kids; mom's sister curling the neighbors' hair in her parlor and getting two-timed by a rakish husband; a tornado; a threatened bank foreclosure; and a race against time and migrant cotton pickers to win the prize for the earliest harvest. All of the above are included in one long parenthesis between religious symbols: hymns and steeples at the beginning, communion and apotheosis at the end.

Whether the details are founded in fact or are even true to Benton's recollection is finally beside the point. Chroniclers of Waxahachie County lore report that Benton's mother resembled the hair curler; and an aunt, the widowed cotton farmer. But these are not merely slices of a boy's life in Texas; they look more like elements of a deliberately marketed message. Movie consumers enter the lurid atmosphere (created in large part by Nestor Almendros's fabulous cinematography) and sample the ideological wares. They are, briefly, that (white) rural America is the heart of the nation, that (Christian) religion is its soul, that the (genetic) family unit is its body and blood, and that the wages of hard work will be doubled and tripled and the take-home pay will be enormous in the Sweet By-and-By--a folk hymn actually heard on the soundtrack.

If the shoppers of urban America buy those myths, I suppose they'll buy anything, even Kenzo kimonos for beachwear and stuffed wildebeests for the trophy room. For the goods here are phony like that. Places in the Heart draws on religion and American mythology to present its history as an archetype, when in fact it is an exception.

With hard, honest work and the help of cheap black labor, Edna Spalding (Sally Field) keeps the bank at bay. But the fact is that the banks did foreclose on small farmers, so that agribusinesses (with massive government subsidies) now monopolize what cotton fields still exist. Tornadoes and other climatic acts of vengeance were wrought by an uncaring Deity to devastate the land and drive millions off it into Southern California country, where they found good jobs in aircraft factories and became Reagan Republicans. Edna practices a kind of patronizing populism toward eye-rolling, foot-shuffling, gospel-humming Moze (Danny Glover's humiliated handyman gets no last name). But in reality, Southern populism customarily showed its ugly, racist face, rejecting the notion of black and white together and institutionalizing separate and unequal. The family is hardly the bulwark Benton remembers, despite the current claims of post-feminists and politicians of both major parties. And religion has proved more divisive than uniting. The folks who sit side by side in Waxahachie's heavenly church would probably like to burn the books, determine the reproductive choices and straighten the sexual preferences of most of Places' trendy audience in the theater across from Bloomie's.
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Author:Kopkind, Andrew
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Oct 27, 1984
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