Monday, January 24, 2011

Does Where You Live Affect Your Disposition


James Reasoner was talking about Winter's Bone recently, the movie and book, and said that while he appreciated its merits, it just didn't speak to him. Its bleakness put him off.

And I began to wonder why it spoke to me. I live farther from that part of the country than he does. But I live in a place that is similar in many ways--a place where poverty and despair are a few blocks away.

I wonder how much where we live and where we come from affect the sort of books and movies we watch appreciatively. Do people from Detroit, Manchester, Newark, Mexico City and the Ozarks relate to books and movies like Winter's Bone more? If you live in a bucolic place, does a movie set in Detroit or after an apocalypse or in a meth lab in the Ozarks seem foreign and thus uncomfortable to you. Or is it an innate sensibility that forms us. Or childhood? What do you think?

22 comments:

Todd Mason said...

I think it's a lot more personality and artistic interest than location. I split my time between two rather run-down, but not devastated, suburbs of Philadelphia; I liked WB the film a lot (certainly the best I saw in a theater last year). I'd have to ask James or look back at his blog or list reactions to, say, Cormac McCarthy (or H. A. DeRosso...or Jim Thompson...) to see if it was the bleakness or what that might've put him off WINTER'S BONE...

Meanwhile, I liked I AM LOVE marginally better than BLACK SWAN, though both have big swatches of No...just No. Is that a geographical thing?

Todd Mason said...

or, as I should've written, if the bleakness alone put him off WB...

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think a movie like either of those either sweeps you away or it doesn't. If you stop to smell the roses, they might not smell as good as you think.

Naomi Johnson said...

Location, location, location?

I don't know. Like you, I'm not so far removed from poverty and despair. And not just distance, but childhood was pretty spare, too. I'm a child of Appalachia so I definitely can relate to the Ozark setting in WB.

I don't think my reading preferences are a matter of location though. Not one of my siblings enjoys the same kind of books as I do, in fact, none of us have the same favorites in books as any of the others. I'm the only one who favors bleak.

Richard R. said...

For me, it has less to do with where I live or have lived as it does the tone of the book, the writing. Bleak doesn't cut it for me, if it's unrelenting. Unrelenting is a word that is important in this discussion, as it defines a very different book than one with tough scenes or moments but over all has balance. Example: I wouldn't mind reading a book about a man without water trying to get across a desert, but if that was the whole book, just suffering and thirst, without any relief or other point (irony aside) I'd not enjoy it. He has to get rescued, or find a way out on his own, or something to relieve the stark vision of death by thirst.

Where I live now is wet, at least this time of year, and grey. I don't mind that, but it's nice to see the sun peek through every now and then. Same with books.

I'm okay with being made uncomfortable (in a book or film) but not to the exclusion of anything else. I tend to be less interested in inner-city, urban settings. I have lived in that setting, but long ago when it wasn't so grim and threatening, not a gun-and-drug-filled nightmare.

So ultimately I agree with Todd - it's personality and artistic interest, plus personal values.

pattinase (abbott) said...

So you would not want to see 127 Hours about the guy who has to take drastic steps to survive. Now, that I wouldn't see.

K. A. Laity said...

Well, I was miserable the three years, eleven months, two weeks, six days, seven hours and ten minutes I lived in Houston, but I don't think that setting a film in Houston would automatically cause me to dislike it.

What impressed me about Winter's Bone (well, one of them many many things that impressed me about the finest film of 2010) is the surprise moments of beauty, little sparkles that broke up the horror of the situation.

I see now that the popularity of the very flawed film The Social Network has to with the geeks-as-gangstas wish fulfillment aspects. I'm sure the male reviewers who have trumpeted it found it a lot less bleak and obliquely flattering to their sensibilities.

Anonymous said...

Really interesting question. To be honest I waited to see what some others answered.

It's hard for me to answer about where you live as a factor as I've lived in the outer boroughs of New York (call it "middle class") my entire life.

As for books I think it's the writing that makes the difference. I do like the books of Woodrell and James Sallis set in a similar area though I've never been there in my life and would certainly not want to live there.

I read a lot of mysteries, as you know - some years I've read 80-90% mysteries - and there are certain plots (even within subgenres) that I generally like or dislike.

For example (and there have been many filmed examples of this): a guy drops off his wife at a motel and two minutes later she's vanished and everyone denies she was ever there. I don't believe it so I don't like it. (You can see why I disliked THE EVENT from episode 1.)

Any kind of vast, all-knowing and all-seeing conspiracy where someone is on the run from a (usually) government agency that can track your every move, anticipate what you will do next, corrupt all local agencies and kill anyone who might help you, ditto - I don't believe it so it just isn't for me.

I know this doesn't really answer the question but it's where my mind went.

There has to be a character I can care about &/or identify with to get me involved. I read the book INTO THE WILD but didn't see the movie because I thought the guy was a suicidal jerk, not a hero.

I've quit more than one long-running mystery series because the protagonist was so unlikeable (to me) that I couldn't stand to read about him/her any more. Too many books, not enough time to waste it on something I don't like, even if I've liked earlier books in the series.

One more, a variation of the earlier conspiracy thing. Some unknown psycho (presumably) who wants to get revenge for something or other, has imprisoned a loved one and will kill her (it's usually a her) unless you figure out who he is and where she's being held in an allotted amount of time, and no police allowed.

Sorry, not going to play.

Again, I apologize for how disjointed this is but it's pretty much off the top of my head.

Jeff M.

Travis Erwin said...

I do think so, but I might not until i wrote a memoir and my latest series of blog posts about my childhood.

Rob Kitchin said...

To be honest I don't buy the argument that location and experience necessarily has a strong effect on what books we appreciate. Over the last couple of years I've read novels set in 30 plus countries in a range of settings and a range of social/economic conditions (which range from bleak poverty to highly wealthy). I have experience of very few of the places or the social situations. I've not worked in the police, or as a PI, been a criminal, or victim of major crime, etc., and yet I love crime fiction. It's the quality of the story telling, the plot, characterization, dialogue, etc., that allows me to connect to the book. I thought Winter's Bone was a great bit of storytelling. As to what shapes taste, I'm not sure, but I suspect that you'll find people from lots of different places and social backgrounds will like the similar things, and also disagree on others.

Dorte H said...

It is definitely a part of me that I grew up in a village so small it practically didn´t exist. I have lived in cities for short periods, but I am a country/village person, and I can relate to village settings in Scotland, Ireland, the Ozarks etc. Your neighbours know everything you do even before you have made up your mind, and it is impossible to hide or try to be someone else. Plenty of sins, weaknesses, poverty and even loneliness out there, yet that´s where I feel at home.

Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - I think where one lives does have an effect on one's disposition and assumptions. But I'll qualify that by saying it depends on whether one's grown up there or not. I believe that our most lasting dispositions and impressions are created by where we grow up.

Joe Barone said...

Where we live certainly affects our range of expreiences. I've lived almost all my life in very small towns, 10,000 or fewer, sometimes many fewer. We now live in a town of 100,000, the largest place we have ever lived.

I enjoy reading books about cities--Boston, New York, etc.--but I don't understand city thinking or city imperatives in the way I would if I had grown up in a city. And very few of the books I read about small towns really understand small towns. As much as I like Parker, he doesn't write about small towns well. He might write a good story about a small town, but the wirting itself shows that he doesn't know small towns.

John McFetridge said...

I think Margot is on to something, it depends on where you grew up. These days a lot of urban public housing units can feel very much like small towns because a lot of people know one another (and are related to one another, lots of extended families).

I remember a line from the TV show Barney Miller when a character was trying to make nice to Det. Harris and said he lived just outside Harlem. Harris said that was kind of like living, "Just outside of Sing Sing."

I'm always suspicious of stories that are relentlessly bleak, they just don't feel real to me.

George said...

It's hard to imagine a bleaker city than Buffalo. Shuttered shops, empty streets, random violence. I had no trouble with WINTER'S BONE, both the book and the movie (which was one of my favorites of 2010).

John McFetridge said...

George, do you know of any good books recently set in Buffalo?

Cap'n Bob said...

Since I've lived all over, in houses, apartments, billets, and tents, and been in the poor side of town as well as the middle class, city and country, setting doesn't bother me much. I can relate to everything but the very rich, and I've seen enough of that in the media to feel a sense of what it must be like.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Great answers here that run the gamut. I have spent my entire life in cities--and usually poor ones. So a book set in a village seems quaint, restful but a bit unreal. A book set in a rural hellhole, more real. I find a lot common to relate to in Woodrell than in Miss Marple stories. St. Mary Mead's probably exists but not for me. And Jeff and others are right-a good writer can make any setting exciting, real, compelling. Setting is very important to me. Maybe some stories can be set anywhere but not the kind I like. Rural Sweden is not so different from rural England as we see in the BBC Mankel series. And Manchester looks a bit like Detroit 187. The world grows small.

Todd Mason said...

And James himself notes the distancing effect prose can have vs. naturalistic drama...

James Reasoner said...

Late to the discussion, as usual. I still don't know why WINTER'S BONE the book worked better for me than the movie version did. I don't think it was the location, though. I've always been a small-town guy, and there are places not much different from those in the film only a couple of miles from where I live now. And some of the characters in the movie actually reminded me of relatives. (My family is from the Ozarks.)

Also we shouldn't neglect the possibility that I was just in a lousy mood that night . . .

Charles Gramlich said...

typically I prefer books either set very far away or in very different environments than the one I know, or I like when something set in my type of environment is turned completely upside down. I almost never read books that reflect the kinds of things I know intimately.

pattinase (abbott) said...

That's a great policy. Getting out of your comfort zone.