October 23, 2011

Land of the Weird


            The other day I was in the post office, and when our transaction was finished the Chinese woman behind the bulletproof glass said, “You very nice man. What country you from?”

            It was a question that struck home. When you’re from the Midwest and find yourself living in New York, it can sometimes feel like you might just as likely have jumped off a boat from Angola or Venus.

            It’s no secret that to people on the coasts—specifically those in LA and New York, and particularly the so-called “creative” types—the Midwest is an irrelevant joke, a vast empty cultural wasteland. The only people who live there are obese backward farmers who all drive pickups, wear baseball caps, and own shotguns.

            The people in New York and LA who think that way are generally known as “fuckers.”

            Yes, there is something to the fact that the centers of the movie, television, music, theater and publishing worlds are divided between those two cities, and if you want to do anything in those industries on a more than rinky-dink scale you need to find your way to one coast or another, but consider this. The work that comes out of those two centers of power and influence—the books, the movies, the music—has a deadening, bland, middlebrow sameness about it. The artists and the corporate executives who produce this shit tend to see the same world in the same way. That sparkless, slug-minded perception is reflected in the crap they make, and that crap slowly permeates the rest of the country. Before you know it, everyone is seeing the world the way a slug from LA does, and everyone’s happy. (This explains why in recent months I’ve been asked to take interesting, clever projects and make them stupid, and take unique projects and make them the same as everything else. It also explains why I’m not working much these days.)

            People from the Midwest, however, have a long history of seeing the world a little bit differently. Maybe it’s the isolation, or the breeze off the Great Lakes. Maybe it’s the chemical fertilizer and cheese curds mixing in their bloodstream. I can’t say for sure. New York and LA may have a few eccentrics (and fewer every day), but they’re the store-bought variety, dummies who think dressing weird is all it takes. In the Midwest it runs deep in the bone. So much so that it’s not even seen as eccentricity. We’re an independent breed, is all.

            When you get creative types from the Midwest, and that unique perspective is reflected in their work, and that work in turn goes up against the films or music or books produced by the graph paper perspectives coming out of New York and LA, well, what the Midwest hath wrought can seem radical and shocking. “Alien” might be a better term.

            Let me give you just a quick and incomplete list of some of the weirdoes who’ve come out of Wisconsin.

            There’s Kenosha’s own Orson Welles, who broke the rules of theater, radio, and film, crafted the greatest film ever made as a result, and was subsequently destroyed by an industry that had no patience for his uppitiness.

            Nicolas Ray, a gay filmmaker who barely bothered to conceal the gay subtexts in classic fifties films like Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause.

            Bert I. Gordon, who shares a hometown with Welles, was the king of the low-budget giant monster film.

            Bill Rebane, another low-budget filmmaker, filmed his masterpiece, The Giant Spider Invasion, in Northern Wisconsin, where he grew up. As far as giant bug movies go, it’s pretty out there.

            Gena Rowlands, the actress who saw eye-to-eye with maverick director John Cassavetes and became a regular in his films.

            During the punk rock era in the 1980s, while bands in NY and LA were aping the Ramones and amping up the velocity, Wisconsin was producing bands like Killdozer and Violent Femmes, who confused the hell out of people for a long time because they didn’t sound anything like punk bands were supposed to sound.

            Then there’s radical architect and visionary, Frank Lloyd Wright.

            Hell, even our murderers weren’t like anything you found anyplace else. Other places had stranglers and stabbers. We had cannibals and necrophiles and Ed Gein and Jeffery Dahmer. (And dammit, we’re proud of them!)

            I’m using Wisconsin as a centerpiece, but the weirdness extends across the Midwest. You step across the border into Minnesota, you find the Coen Brothers, Bob Dylan, Terry Gilliam, and Prince, none of whom took the standard rules very seriously.

            Dip south to Indiana and you’ll find Kurt Vonnegut, a writer of such clarity and rationality that the sophisticates far too often mistook it as “quirkiness.”

            If you want to stretch over into Ohio, you’ll find bands like Devo and Pere Ubu, as well as Ivan Stang, founder of the Church of the Subgenius.

            William S. Burroughs was from St. Louis, and David Lynch was raised in Montana. It goes on and on.

            All of these people (some more so than others, granted) made a profound and dramatic impact on the culture by looking at the world in a very unique way. And while yes, most of them landed in New York or LA, I’ll always maintain that their unique perspective was the result of the formative years they spent in Wisconsin and the surrounding area.

            So just pause a moment the next time you’re about to dismiss the Midwest as nothing but flyover country—a land of cows and Tea Party members—remember that those yokels from Wisconsin have had a big hand in corrupting the youth and undermining the dominant culture. If it hadn’t been for Wisconsin, after all, we wouldn’t have War of the Colossal Beast.

            Think about it.


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