Tag Archives: movie

Kevin Costner Cutting Cabbage

It’s been a long time since Kevin Costner showed up in a worthwhile movie. Not nearly as long, though, as it’s been since a real Central Valley farming town appeared in one.

They both star in a movie that I saw recently at Walt Disney Studios called McFarland USA, which portrays a kind of unvarnished rural America that amounts to risk-taking I don’t associate with either Costner or Disney.McFARLAND

McFarland USA (in theaters later this month) is based on the true story of Jim White, a football coach who moves to the tiny Central Valley farming town in the 1980s and, instead, creates the McFarland High School cross country team with kids who work the field before coming to school, the children of longtime farmworkers.

The team becomes state champions – a feat the school has achieved nine times. McFarland USA is great tear-jerking sports filmmaking.

For Costner, this comes after a series of movies that seemed to me (though I’m no Hollywood insider) the last gasp of a major career (Draft Day), and may help resuscitate it.

He’s played this part many times. This time, though, he allows himself to be here in all his wrinkles, befuddled a good part of the movie in this foreign land with a U.S. zip code; he’s no longer quite the stud in control that he was during his heyday that began in rural America with Bull Durham in 1988.

Costner deals in fantasy, like every movie star. His has always been a certain kind of American (usually male) fantasy, and often about the nobility of white rural and/or small town America, in particular. Bull Durham, which launched him, had it in spades.

Problem is that part of America has been taking a pounding since at least Bull Durham (farm crisis, depopulation, Walmart). (The latest scourge, about which I’ve been writing, is a locust cloud of prescription pills and heroin.)

It’s the unblinking (within the genre’s limits) look at this rural America into which Costner is thrown that makes this flick worth the time. One place is a cabbage field, in which Costner stoops under the brutal Central Valley sun along with Mexican farmworkers. This is an unfamiliar country for the guy whose last appearance in modern rural America was in the far less complicated Field of Dreams Iowa in 1989.

The movie’s backdrop is its richest attribute: the orchards and streets of the Central Valley, home to some of our poorest towns – McFarland among them. “Are we in Mexico?” his daughter asks as the White family first drives through town.

Embracing this milieu allows the movie, and the star, a few other surreal scenes.

There’s Costner as a proud but stumbling father giving his daughter an impromptu quinceanera, a word he cannot pronounce. Another shows the kids training by running around the local prison – doesn’t every Valley town have one?

McFarland USA is Disney through and through. You’ll whiff Stand and Deliver, as well as Rudy and Hoosiers. It’s still effective filmmaking – I counted five tearing-ups – with a poor, stunningly photogenic, Central Valley town at its center.

We learn that all White’s runners go on to better lives, many, it seems, working for one level of government or another.

That’s not surprising any more.

The Central Valley has inspired thunderous works of art and activism on the plight of the oppressed – Grapes of Wrath, of course, the main example. But none ever stuck with the story long enough, I always thought. For, by and large, people don’t take it lying down for long. They struggle. They move on, they move up; in time, they’re allowed the luxury of forgetting where they came from.

Had Steinbeck followed the Joads, he’d have watched their kids become the next generation of cops and city councilmen along the 99 – and forget their manners when it came to the Mexican-Americans who moved up the highway to take their places in the fields.

I lived in Stockton from 1989 to 1992 – about the time McFarland USA is set. By then, the kids of those Mexican-Americans that Cesar Chavez organized in the 1960s had become cops, restaurant owners, and farmers themselves – and didn’t seem to care too much for the illegal northern Mexicans who worked the fields.

Those northern Mexicans who came to pick in the 1970s and 1980s were amnestied into America. Their kids are today the labor contractors and farmers (and cops). They’re trying to figure out the newest pickers – Mixtec and Triqui Indians from southern Mexico – who seem as foreign to them as his students seemed to Jim White when he showed up in McFarland fresh from a failed Idaho coaching job.

But all that is backstory to a movie that combines some classic sports melodrama with a look at a rural, small-town USA, and, with it, an icon of square white American manhood cutting cabbage in the sun.

Photo: McFarland USA

Leave a Comment

Filed under California, Culture, Global Economy, Mexico, Migrants

LOS ANGELES: Warren Oates and migrants to L.A.

Lately, I’ve been struck by how the folks who come here looking for movie or music stardom from all over the US are part of what keeps Los Angeles vibrant.

These are wannabe actors, singers, musicians, dancers, writers — folks who’ve been told by their high school drama or choir teacher in Nebraska or Louisiana that they have talent and ought to test themselves out in Hollywood.

These folks add as much dynamism and energy to the LA economy, I’d bet, as do immigrants from Mexico or Korea or somewhere, here willing to do what it takes to piece together a new life.  They just don’t stand out the way immigrants do.

I wonder what would happen to LA’s restaurant industry if they stopped coming. Probably the same as would happen if all the Oaxacans left. (Just at a Westwood restaurant where our busboy was a man from Abasolo, Oaxaca.)

I was reminded of this just now after seeing a movie with one such fellow — Warren Oates, who for my money is nearly the greatest character actor of American movies. Anyway, I can’t think of any better at the moment.

He made a bunch of great westerns, and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. I just saw The Brink’s Job, which has a couple of fantastic scenes with Oates. Starred as John Dillinger and was in In the Heat of the Night.

You know it’s gonna be good if Warren Oates is in the thing.

Came from a burg to LA, like so many. A town in western Kentucky that apparently doesn’t even exist any more. He’d entered a drama troupe in college in Kentucky then made his way out west.

Seems to me his career was made possible by a late 1960s/early 1970s’ ethos of casting rugged, authentic-looking guys in westerns and as outlaws and the like. A revisiting of the Western movie, and a revision of the history of the American West in film that took place in those years.

Otherwise, he might well have faced a bunch of Gomer Pyle roles.

As his star rose, he became part of a Hollywood counterculture rat pack that included Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson and did a lot of things that aged him quickly.

Died too young — at 53, I was surprised to learn. I have to say he looked a lot older than that when he passed in 1982.

Warren Oates — an American original, no doubt.

Here’s a conversation with his biographer, Susan Compo.

Leave a Comment

Filed under California, Culture, Los Angeles, Migrants, Southern California