No one — ghost or not — is confusing Iowa with heaven these days. If a baseball player walked out of a cornfield today, he’d probably wind up in a messy genetic trademark lawsuit with Monsanto. But maybe his prolonged exposure to Round-Up would have turned him into a mutant super-litigator and he’d actually win! Only then would the landowner’s father return — this time to help him make some hand-painted anti-vax signs to display along the highway.
Iowa has lost the connotation of magical and romantic Americana once attached to it in films like Field of Dreams and The Bridges of Madison County. And it has also lost the older, more deeply-seated character association with patriotic, agrarian simple-folk.
Forget about Iowa Stubborn and Iowa Nice. We’ve entered the age of Iowa Sick and Iowa Nasty.
And while our changing views of this state have accelerated lately in light of ever-worsening current events and jaw-dropping leadership failures, this trend has been under way for decades. As authors Marty S. Knepper and John Shelton Lawrence show in The Book of Iowa Films, depictions of Iowa in pop culture — which for generations had been marked by pastoral imagery and good-hearted (if sometimes soft-headed) people of the land — took a major turn toward more accurate, more complex, and sometimes more frightening characterizations in the late 20th and early 21th centuries, attended by an explosion of independent film production in the state. “From 1918 through 2000 our filmography lists 251 Iowa films,” the authors report. “In the twelve years from 2001 through 2013, 159 films appeared.”
Knepper and Lawrence, who began their work while colleagues at Morningside College in Sioux City, spent years researching and writing what became The Book of Iowa Films, a remarkably comprehensive — and well-organized — survey of Iowa as a setting, filming location, or character referent in movies, from 1918-2013. The bulk of the book consists of a film-by-film guide with cast lists, production details, and plot synopses, along with information on what makes each one an Iowa film.
Iowa had a special role as a setting in World War II-era cinema, discussed in an interesting essay included in the volume. The films One Foot in Heaven and Cheers for Miss Bishop, both from 1941, were used “to promote democratic ideals, glorify sacrifice, and indirectly promote intervention in the European War.” A couple years later, Happy Land (1943) and The Sullivans (1944) represented “the sentimental movies made during the war that aimed to tell — and sell — the story of ‘why we fight’ and to reconcile the public to the inevitable loss of life.” The authors argue that Iowa provided an image of mythic pastoralism linked to the theme of “agrarian martial virtue” that can be traced all the way back to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Patriotism, bravery, sacrifice, and democratic ideals were directly associated with rural life and knowledge of the land.
The 1970s and ‘80s saw a wave of independent filmmaking by Iowa artists, with a number of titles directed by Russell S. Doughten, Jr., and Donald W. Thompson. They both founded their own production companies and made topical Christian-themed dramas that sound pretty interesting and appear to be quite hard to find.
I’m most familiar with Iowa movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and there are a lot of big ones from this period. I think the Iowa film that resonates the most with me is What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), starring Johnny Depp, Juliette Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio (in his first Oscar-nominated role), and featuring an amazing performance by Darlene Cates in one of her only film appearances. This is a de-romanticized but heartfelt vision of small-town Iowa and Iowans that actually looks and feels right.
Gilbert Grape contrasts with the “magic pastoralism” exemplified by Field of Dreams (1989) and also noted in films like The Music Man, The Bridges of Madison County, and Michael, as well as the documentary Dreamfield (1998) about magical tourist experiences at the Dyersville filming site of Field of Dreams.
I was especially intrigued by the authors’ depiction of the 21st century independent film movement in Iowa, which shows no signs of slowing. These days more Iowa movies are being made by Iowans or people with Iowa roots and as a result the depictions of the state have grown to reflect the lived reality — good and bad — of this place. That reality is a history of colonialism and Native American removal; ecological destruction and its attendant human health consequences; corporate agriculture; racism and white supremacy; drugs and violence; and withering, de-populated small towns. And it’s a reality that is not all-white, all-Christian, and all-heterosexual, which is also reflected in contemporary portraits of Iowans.
If Iowa film has made a sharp turn toward realism, as Knepper and Lawrence suggest, then maybe it’s a sign of our ability to move past the myths about Iowans and start confronting the true (and not very nice) heritage of this damaged, bloody, but beautiful state.
The most exciting part of reading this book, for me, was discovering the incredible wealth of virtually unknown independent feature films and documentaries made in Iowa. I was reminded of Iowa’s vast independent music scene (which we often cover for this blog) in which artists perform largely for their peers, creating interesting original work that is only ever heard by dozens-to-hundreds of listeners. But in addition to the hard-to-find obscurities, a number of the titles can be found online. Here are a few films I’ve discovered through The Book of Iowa Films that are streaming at the moment:
Yidl in the Middle: Growing Up Jewish in Iowa (1999) — streaming now on Kanopy
Filmmaker Marlene Booth returns to her hometown of Des Moines to explore her upbringing and family history in the context of the city’s Jewish community. While Booth and her interviewees seem to agree that Des Moines is a nice place with a lot of nice people, this very “niceness” is also shown as a silent force for conformity, repression of differences, and a distinctively Iowan brand of smiling insensitivity and discrimination.
The filmmaker’s father Hyman Booth was a star high school athlete who was embraced by his peers and became Des Moines’ only Jewish firefighter of his time. He loves Iowa and his many friends there but in a subtly revealing scene, one of his old firefighter buddies finds it hard to believe that Hy had experienced discrimination in his career, remarking (as many, many others have in similar situations): “Well I don’t know, that kind of surprises me, if it’s true.” In a later scene, Booth interviews Louise Nan who took a pioneering stance against anti-Semitism in Des Moines in a widely-read open letter published in the Des Moines Register that took the Wakonda Club to task for its secret-ballot vote to continue excluding Jews from membership in the club in the early 1960s.
Booth directs with a light touch and a sense of curiosity, and overall the film is a loving portrait of her hometown’s thriving Jewish community and her family’s role in it. But it simultaneously complicates the notion of Iowa Nice by exposing how this phenomenon tends to mask and protect restrictive cultural borders in service of White Christian norms and privileges. In this way the film is a great example of the turn toward complex over idealized depictions of Iowa, in addition to just being a great, quick watch.
Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (2008) — streaming now on Kanopy
A moving and impressive documentary on the influential cellist, composer, and singer who was raised in Oskaloosa before running away to San Francisco in 1967 where he befriended collaborator Allen Ginsberg, eventually ending up in New York City.
The film traces his unique musical journey from his days as an avant-garde artist working as musical director of The Kitchen to his success as a producer in the early disco scene to his extraordinary ‘80s songwriting work that resulted in the posthumously-celebrated album World of Echo. Friends and contemporaries including Ernie Brooks, Philip Glass, and Ginsberg discuss Russell’s musical genius and outsider persona, which is repeatedly associated with his Iowa upbringing.
The film, directed with love by Matt Wolf, dwells on Oskaloosa where Russell’s parents are interviewed in some of the film’s most touching scenes. His longtime partner Tom Lee continued to regularly visit Russell’s family after his death in 1992 and is shown arriving at the Des Moines Airport to the loving embraces of Russell’s parents.
His music remained obscure until 2004 when Audika Records began to reissue his massive (mostly unreleased) catalogue which was received with critical acclaim and has been widely influential since. And the posthumous albums are still coming: The latest collection Iowa Dream was released by Audika last year.
Zadar! Cow From Hell (1989) — streaming now on YouTube
This is an obscurity that I’d never have found without The Book of Iowa Films. It appears to be very out-of-print but there is a VHS rip on YouTube right now. This is a fun independent comedy from Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater, a sketch troupe founded in Iowa City that was active from 1975 to 1990.
A Hollywood film director wants to return to his small hometown in Iowa to make a movie with all the locals. The producers have determined that the movie is called Zadar! Cow From Hell but that’s as far as they’ve gotten. They are given the thumbs-up by the Iowa Film Board (including one guy who looks like a young Terry Branstad) and production begins, with the confused but enthusiastic Iowans helping out in any way they can, whether they want to or not.
This is a movie by Iowans for Iowans. It makes fun of movie clichés about Iowa, foreshadowing the cinematic reappraisal of the state that became more prominent in later decades. There’s a lovably homemade, low-budget quality to the movie that feels very familiar, a sense that we-did-the-best-we-could-with-what-we-had, which ends up also being one of the film’s themes as the locals embrace their inner creativity and show a willingness to work together toward a humble artistic goal. The soundtrack by Greg Brown seals the deal: This right here is an Iowa movie.