Will ‘Holland, Michigan’ be fed into the ‘Fargo’ wood chipper?

Casablanca. Elizabethtown. Grosse Pointe. Towns whose names invoke immediate association with eponymous movies. There’s a sort of exoticism about these places, an inability to distinguish our knowledge of the place from the Hollywood representation.

Of no place is this likely more true that Fargo, N.D. The name immediately conjures up images from the Coen brothers’ film, replete with associations of bland politeness, bumbling criminal incompetence and bloody wood chippers.

But one man’s entertainment fodder is another man’s home. In the main, most people don’t like their places stereotyped, their native characteristics made fun of, their ways of life sneered at, or their cherished traditions and practices ridiculed – even if, as in the case of the Coen brothers, it’s done by natives with hyper-ironic cleverness. It’s never done with affection – especially by interlopers with a profit motive and no respect for local folkways. Indeed, it appears that many of the residents of Fargo were none too happy with the film’s portrayal of them.

So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I learned that last year’s top film on Hollywood’s vaunted “black list” of the best unproduced screenplays was entitled “Holland, Michigan.” It wouldn’t be unproduced for long, however; Errol Morris will direct, and it will star Bryan Cranston. To be fair, my many efforts to find and read the script came up short, so I speak only on the basis of synopses by those who have, as well as general judgments.

The story, taking place during Holland’s annual Tulip Time, involves a woman who suspects her husband of serial adultery, only to discover instead he’s a serial killer. In short, the synopses indicate yet another example of Hollywood’s fascination with violence and the darker aspects of life. Even if the movie has redemptive features, its apparent fascination with ugliness ought to make decent people pause.

If you want to understand a society, begin by looking at the stories it tells to and about itself, and then consider seriously the reflexive effects of those stories upon the culture. Libertarian writers have long criticized Plato for suggesting in The Republic that the poets be evicted from Athens, thus creating a “closed society.” But they neglect his actual point: the most powerful persons in any society are those who shape the imagination. Cultivating a virtuous citizenry requires attention to whom is telling the stories, and persons of intemperate character can never be free.

The film industry has become America’s foremost storyteller, and it has successfully wrapped itself in the First Amendment as a way of shielding itself against criticism. The Second Amendment cannot be used as an absolute claim to possess any firearm, and neither can the First be used to defend the explication of any vision of reality. Democracy, as Justice Robert H. Jackson said in his dissent in Terminiello v. Chicago, is not a suicide pact.

The shootings in Sandy Hook, Columbine, Virginia Tech, the Aurora theater and so forth ought to at least create concern that the endless glorification of violence to which two generations of Americans have been subjected has seriously polluted the fragile cultural ecosystem we all inhabit. The gun manufacturers and retailers ought not to be given a waiver in the wake of these events, but neither ought those who perpetuate a world where violence is seen as the solution to our problems, and where the noble and good is passed aside in favor of the base and ugly. Simply sitting through the previews in a movie theater is to be bombarded with twisted images of sadism.

Perhaps it can be argued that Hollywood is only responding to market forces, that as long as the public has an appetite for violence, Hollywood will keep feeding it. But that is hardly appealing to the better angels of our nature, and is in any instance an abrogation of the responsibility of a storyteller: to tell stories in such a way that they not only make sense of our world, but create meaning pertaining to our journey through it.

So count me among the nervous Hollanders who worry about Hollywood pumping its sewage into our fair city. I cringe at the thought, like a Fargo native talking about wood chippers, of having to explain to non-natives that Holland is nothing like its representation in the film. I blanch when I think of all the ham-fisted ways in which we will be mocked. I pray that our civic leaders don’t sell our reputations, and our souls, for tainted dollars. Hey Hollywood: leave us the hell alone.

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Fri, 04/04/2014 - 1:31pm
I wouldn't get too upset, it sounds like a potential "Pure Michigan" moment if the movie is a success, location shooting should help bring in tourists who will want to see where certain things happened, whoever gets their restaurant featured in the movie is really going to clean up financially. Yes, most likely the conservative nature of the town is going to whacked pretty bad with the film with various hypocritical attitudes laid bare etc. Maybe a subtitle for the move would be "death among the tulips". I know you are being serious with your essay but I just wanted to take a different perspective.
Sat, 04/05/2014 - 9:21am
That's a nice thought, ***, but if the story is "set" in Holland it's unlikely to be *shot* there. Just as West Michigan stood in for Bloomington/Normal, Illinois in shooting for "The End of the Tour," some other area will probably host principal photography for "Holland, Michigan" with, at best, a few cover shots being done in the real Holland, and those mainly to qualify for Michigan's generous film funding support which lets Hollywood collect subsidies far in excess of their spending here. As for follow-on tourism, I'd FAR rather see the wasted film subsidy funds go into legitimate tourism-friendly projects, such as road repairs or, I suppose, more Holland-based "Pure Michigan" ads.
Sat, 04/05/2014 - 4:15pm
That is all probably true and it would be interesting to see a Pure Michigan ad that touts the roads even if they did get fixed up (somehow I think we are only going to get a short term band aid approach from the legislature) "smooth roads...its pure Michigan". :)
Nancy Derringer
Sat, 04/05/2014 - 1:47pm
Of course, what's really amusing is that none of "Fargo" even took place in Fargo. IIRC, the action shifted between the Twin Cities and Brainerd, Minn. But the name has become shorthand for a certain sort of north woods locale as shown in the film.
Tamara B.
Sun, 04/06/2014 - 8:00am
I saw "Escanaba in da Moonlight" in the U.P. with a theater full of my fellow Yoopers. (Well, about a third full.) I think we all anticipated great fun, but there was very little if any laughter. Not because anyone was offended; we simply didn't recognize these characters and their actions. Many times since then, native downstaters have told me how much they enjoyed that movie. We're glad you all like it, but it completely misses the mark as far as I'm concerned. Sorry, Jeff Daniels, and sorry Holland if this movie is made by a non native. You will see the difference between character and caricature.
Sun, 04/06/2014 - 4:08pm
I'm not worried about it since the director has no where the clout of the Coen Brothers. In addition, we always have "Mr. Holland' Opus" to fall back on. Holland will continue to be what it is - a delightful place to live, work and raise a family. No Hollywood schmuck and his warped work will change that (although it does raise questions about the wisdom of continuing to dole out state film tax credits).
David L
Sun, 04/06/2014 - 9:16pm
Agree, Dirk. No doomsday here. Holland's culture and reputation is far too strong to be impacted by a film that likely will be shown at indie theaters and get little attendance anyway.
Mon, 04/07/2014 - 8:21am
Unfair. You didn't read the script.
Mon, 04/07/2014 - 1:11pm
"Hollywood pumping its sewage into our fair city" I found the above phrase to be precious and have to copy an article that I had published in Liberty Magazine 5 years ago. The source of real sewage; Bipartisanship always puts me in mind of sewage and the Grand River in West Michigan. Seems that stormwater drain pipes for the City of Grand Rapids had been routed through the city's sewage treatment plant, and that everytime that it rained heavily millions of gallons of raw sewage overflowed into the Grand River. Hours after the spill, the good burghers in Ottawa County thirty miles downstream surveyed bits of red white and blue , mostly toilet paper and candy flavored condoms bobbing in the river water. Democrats in Grand Rapids had long since spent their tax dollars hiring their otherwise unemployable supporters; they couldn't afford a proper fix for the problem. The Republicans in Ottawa County were especially infuriated when it was intimated that they should spend their own money to fix the problems of their upstream tormentor.
The problem persists. Environmentalist Democrats in Grand Rapids, worried about money, manage to overlook this disgrace and tolerate the Republicans' suffering remarkably well. Here bipartisanship provides a solution. The Democrats in Grand Rapids should pass a law prohibiting flushing toilets during rain storms. And Republican politicians in Ottawa County ought to convince their constituents that the red, white and blue floaters in the river are just Post-it notes warning against swimming
Wed, 04/09/2014 - 12:09pm
Errol Morris has never, as far as I've seen, written or filmed a word or moment that was "ham-fisted". His sensibility is rich in subtle nuance and the complexities of human choices, both hopeful and disturbing. I was a classmate of Ethan Coen's throughout our childhoods, and though he and his brother enjoy using hometown names of people and places in their many films (even those films not set in the Midwest), I'd say most of us didn't take 'Fargo' personally; we recognize the power of their storytelling and the humanity beneath their sometimes dark, open-eyed exploration of human nature -- even if their exaggerations sometimes reveal cultural traits and constricted views that are worthy of caricature. I have never been to Holland, Michigan, but a good friend spent most of his childhood there after emmigrating with his family from The Netherlands as a boy. From his many stories I can anticipate a perceptive artist like Morris will find, as in all human communities, mud amongst the tulips.