South Dakota and the Movies: Part I

When I was young, I was a film buff. It began in my teens, when I saw Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries and realized that movies could possess the same powers of expression that I found in literature. Until then, I experienced cinema on a spectrum from awesome Harrison Ford movies (e.g., Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Fugitive) to entertaining-but-banal Harrison Ford movies (e.g., Clear and Present Danger, which I remember really well for some reason). I liked movies, but I loved books, and I sort of dismissed film in general as a pale substitute for novels, short stories, and poetry.

This changed with Wild Strawberries, and I spent the next eight years obsessively searching through the Cedar Rapids library’s VHS section, the University of Iowa’s DVD catalogue, and (eventually) Netflix’s mind-blowingly comprehensive collection of titles. I was breaking away from Evangelical Christianity during this time, and movies sort of became my new religion.

Snobby little shit that I was, I started out exclusively watching non-American films, which I (along with everyone else) naively referred to as “foreign films.” Bergman was first. Next, the Germans: Lang, Fassbinder, Wenders, and (especially) Herzog. I never much cared for the Italians (too gaudy, I thought) or the French New Wave (I did like Godard’s Contempt and Band of Outsiders). Eventually I discovered Andrei Tarkovsky, a revelation. The long history of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cinema intimidated me, but I made my way through the classics. By the time I started college, I had made my peace with American filmmakers. I watched almost anything with a good reputation (I was never omnivorous enough for the pleasures of “bad movies” or camp). Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” reviews and the Criterion Collection replaced the Bible in my imagination.

In 2006, I moved to Massachusetts and started graduate school. I didn’t plan to stop watching movies, but it happened. New relationships, life in a big city, and the workload of a PhD program overwhelmed my free time. I let my Netflix subscription expire. Despite the abundance of good cinemas in Boston, I went to the movies less and less. I certainly had some memorable filmgoing experiences during this time: The Tree of Life at the Kendall Square Cinema; a new print of Blade Runner at Coolidge Corner; Synecdoche, New York at the beautiful Somerville Theater, where my therapist and I pretended not to see each other; numerous films at the Brattle. But on the whole, movies gradually became less and less important to me.

Ten years ago, in spring 2012, my wife won a tenure-track position at South Dakota State University. We moved to Brookings, a quaint little prairie town, and began a life very different from what we had known in Massachusetts. Although our time in the Mount Rushmore state began happily enough, we eventually became very dissatisfied. Like so many doctorate-holding humanists throughout the world, I had trouble securing a permanent position at our university (or any university). By 2020, I had lost my teaching gig due to budget cuts and COVID.

All the while, we were saddened by our ever-dwindling social circle, our friends who kept moving away. We also keenly felt the limitations of small-town life; the remoteness of Brookings from the rest of the nation (four hours from the nearest big city) and from our families; the one-party state politics (South Dakota was redder than Massachusetts was blue, and the “conservative” governor seemed to have no ideology apart from self-aggrandizement—she was more interested in a career at FoxNews than in governance); and the increasingly toxic environment of academia (ideologically and administratively, both in general and at our particular institution).

We contemplated moving to Sioux Falls. I cannot overstate what a wonderful place Sioux Falls is, especially for a mid-sized plains city: great amenities, great food, and an amazing Orthodox church. But the commute between Sioux Falls and Brookings was long (treacherous in the winter), and we were increasingly unhappy not only with Brookings, but (especially) with Nicole’s job.

By autumn 2021, we decided to pack our bags, sell our house, and move to my comparatively more urban (and fast-growing) homeland, eastern Iowa. Yes, Iowa may not seem like much of a change from South Dakota, but a state of nearly three million people, within easy driving distance of Chicago, feels much more connected to the world than South Dakota, a state whose population is the same as Indianapolis’s!

Am I being snobbish and unfair to the many good and worldly people who live in South Dakota? Absolutely. We had great friends there and, like I said, I had a great church. But I’m almost 40 and I’ve long ago stopped pretending that I can overcome the natural desire to live in a place I love. I don’t need to live in Brooklyn or Austin or San Francisco, but I want to live somewhere I’m reasonably happy. We moved to Iowa to be closer to family, to be closer to things that matter to us. We were willing to sacrifice all this for an academic career back when we loved academia, but we didn’t love academia anymore.

So a lot changed during our nine years in South Dakota. My desire to teach and write about literature—once the raison d’être of my entire life—waned. My identity fractured. I stopped making friends. I felt perpetually frustrated. I became spiritually adrift, at least until my conversion to Orthodoxy in 2019/2020 (a definite bright spot of our time there). Of course, the fact that a lot changed for us in Brookings isn’t really surprising: nine years is a long time, and everyone changes significantly over the course of a decade. For better or worse, South Dakota was a significant period of our lives.

My relationship to movies remained as inconsistent and scattershot as it had been in graduate school. But my wife and I did continue to go to the movies now and then, even if we didn’t have access to many arthouse cinemas and even amid the rise of bingeable “Golden Age” television (which constituted the bulk of our streaming diet). Reflecting back on those years, a few of my South Dakota moviegoing experiences really stand out. These movies impressed me, moved me, and stuck with me. These movies were bookmarks in the years of our life in Brookings; I projected onto them, and still project onto them, the phases, moods, and changes we experienced during that time.

In my next few blog posts, I will write about twenty-five movies that I watched and loved while in South Dakota, all of them released between 2012 and 2021. I will reflect briefly on each film: how I remember it, what I liked about it, and why it moved me. Each post will cover five films, all in alphabetical order—I will not “rank” the movies or treat them as “the best” of those years. These are simply movies that were released while I lived in South Dakota and that meant the most to me at that time.

When I was a teenager, my feelings toward movies were intense. I was an intense teen, and I had intense (and more than a little annoying) feelings about the things I loved. Today, my relationship to cinema is more relaxed. I watch movies (and read books, and consume art) much more casually. My responses are more personal and more authentic. I am more myself than I was twenty years ago. I don’t need to see everything, or rank everything, or understand everything. I understand very little, in fact, but I think I understand enough. I suppose that constitutes some form of maturity. If so, it happened in South Dakota. This newfound sense of myself—looser, calmer, less knowing, less needy, less childish (I hope)—is the best, most valuable thing I took away from those years.


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