God's Country

In 1979 Louis Malle, the much respected French film director, visited the town of Glencoe, Minnesota, population 5,000. I have no idea why that town. But while there he made a 90-minute documentary, God’s Country, of some of the residents who lived there. I was totally engrossed by each of the individuals he interviewed.

Glencoe is about 60 miles west of Minneapolis and is a farming community with a population that is mostly of German extraction. We meet seed farmers, dairy farmers, those who raise and bred cattle and pigs. There are 9 churches and most of the people are religious.

Malle spends a fair amount of time probing the individuals he depicts in the film—an elderly woman who tends a large garden, a free-spirited woman who works in the Social Security office, a policeman, residents of a nursing home and several farmers. He is amused by how much lawn mowing they do. (Soon the communities in drought-stricken California will be forbidden to have lawns.}

What struck me most about these people was how articulate they were, the intelligence and downright wisdom they display in responding to Malle’s questions. Several had not graduated from high school, none had attended college. And yet they conveyed the kind of intelligence you might find in any group of college graduates.

Yet, not everyone in Glencoe is so open-minded. No African Americans live there, and there appears to be a great deal of prejudice against them, as well as gays. One farmer makes it clear he resents Jews who, he claims, govern the market for his products. A bright young woman claims that Glencoe men “have never had a conversation with a woman.” I doubt Glencoe is unique in that respect.

Many of the younger people are moving elsewhere, giving up on a long family tradition of farming. They feel there is no longer any financial future is staying on the land. One seed grower reported he lost $100,000 the year before he was interviewed.

I imagine the people who live in Glencoe and the life they lead there are not a great deal different than anywhere, big city or small. People get by, they have successes and failures, some years are better than others, and everyone keeps dreaming.

Six years later, Malle returned to see if anything had changed. To some degree it had. Farm prices were down even further and the economy was struggling. The film concludes at the family dinner of a Glencoe lawyer, who says the country now has,

an obsession with greed… it’s horrible but good people won’t take it much longer: They aren’t going to subscribe with this philosophy of greed.”

Sounds pretty contemporary, doesn’t it?