After the Farm Crisis: The Critique of Neoliberal Society in What's Eating Gilbert Grape?
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Neoliberalism restructured both national and local economies, including rural areas in the Midwest that were simultaneously hard-hit by the 1980s Farm Crisis. The struggle for the people who inhabit these small communities, along with the opportunity to reimagine an alternative, sets the stage for Lasse Hallström's What's Eating Gilbert Grape?
The rise of neoliberalism in the United States restructured the economy on both national and local levels, recognizable through a shift towards a low-wage, service-oriented economy and an attitude that, above all else, “people need to be flexible to meet the demands of markets.” This restructuring occurred across the country, including rural areas like those in the Midwest that were simultaneously hit hard by the 1980s Farm Crisis. And, as with other places across the country, these small communities were grappling with the impact of this economic structure on their everyday lives, as seen in the increase of interpersonal violence and suicides during and after the Farm Crisis.
This atmosphere sets the stage for filmic works like What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993) by Lasse Hallström. This film's focus on a small Iowa town in decay shows the aftermath of a restructured American economy, including the lack of choices left across the country in the early-1990s. Yet it is through the town and, specifically, Gilbert Grape, that this disempowerment is questioned – along with the seeming necessity of larger corporate structures that have rewritten our landscapes into the 21st century.
In order to unravel this thread, I will discuss how this particular film is situated in the larger historical context of the Farm Crisis, as well as its cultural position as an economically distressed rural area in the early-1990s US, before moving on to discuss the interweaving of loss, death, and opportunity at the level of the individual and the communal landscape. Finally, I will discuss how one person's rebellion – even a quiet and self-contained one – can provide an alternative view for other people to explore a deeply depersonalizing economic system.
The Farm Crisis and Reflections of Neoliberalism
Grape is set in the time period immediately following what is commonly referred to as the Farm Crisis. And although Grape never directly mentions the Crisis itself, its specter hangs over the entire mise-en-scene of the film. Some scenes show rolling fields, some in the planting stages but never seen in harvest; other times, we see marginal fields with a few rolls of hay and nothing else, perhaps here and there a lone tractor working. This landscape forms the base from which to view an implied loss that hangs over the town and, in particular, the protagonist, Gilbert Grape. Gilbert is an embittered man with a severely dysfunctional family and little opportunity, “left behind” in a dead end job in a dying Iowa town. Among Gilbert's main social circle is his morbidly obese mother, Bonnie Grape, his sisters Amy and Ellen, a mentally disabled brother Arnie, two childhood friends, Tucker and Bob, and Betty, a married woman with whom he is having an affair. But Gilbert also clearly feels trapped by two, more abstract forces: the suicide of his father and the position of himself and Endora as compared to a wider world to which he has no access but people like his upwardly mobile if absent brother Larry, a figure only mentioned in passing, do. However, Gilbert begins to see his life differently through the influence of Becky, a young woman who while traveling the country with her Grandmother, takes up a brief residence in Endora due to a broken down camper. This relationship allows Gilbert to view himself, his town and his family with love, compassion and forgiveness, qualities that will become necessary in the wake his mother's death and his family's consequent departure from Endora at the end of the film.
Endora reflects the fate of many US rural areas across the course of the twentieth century. For some scholars, the death of the rural could be seen as part of a “continuous state” that has been occurring since the introduction of industry. However, by all accounts, the U.S. Farm Crisis of the late 1970s-1980s created a disaster for Rural America generally speaking, and the Midwest in particular. By the 1980s, the high-risk loans that were practically given away in the 1970s to help farmers make their operations more efficient could not be repaid, due to a variety of factors. Thus, farms, homes, and land were either sold or foreclosed upon, and entire communities were wiped out, as the towns that had sprung up to support an agricultural economy suddenly found their economic base eroded: schools shrunk and Main Street businesses closed as the population dwindled and, for those people who were still around, there was less money to spend around town. Gilbert's description of Endora as a “town where nothing much happens. And nothing much ever will” reflects the realities of the post-Farm Crisis small town as well its association as a place without any future hope. This point is underscored by the shots of an empty Main Street, surrounded by storm clouds and run-down buildings, with an emphasis on Gilbert's place of employment (Lamson Grocery) and the ever-present water tower in the immediate background. The desperation of the town is highlighted by the quick shot to the nearest local supermarket (Foodland), located “miles out of town on the interstate.” The flow of traffic on the highway and the filled parking lot appears as a beacon when compared to Lamson Grocery – the sunlight acting as a spotlight to highlight the centrality of a place “where everyone else shops.”
Gilbert's position in a seemingly stagnant town takes on a specific meaning when seen in light of the Farm Crisis, but it also represents a kind of slow grind that is in some ways symbolic of the economic restructuring experienced by the country as a whole. Although the Farm Crisis is obviously a rural phenomenon, the disappearance of community and the economic restructuring that foreclosed opportunity played out across the country, in both urban and rural locales. Urban areas as well as rural areas were deeply impacted by a “new economy” shifting towards service – whether that service is defined as low- or high-skilled — and fueled by the impact of globalization, deregulation, and automation on the manufacturing sector. The loss of “good” stable employment in this postindustrial economy created a vacuum where both low- and high-skilled wage earners in certain industries could not find full-time employment with decent wages and union protections, creating a growing disparity in wealth, and decimating small towns and cities alike.
In a mirror to this specific kind of restructuring, the rural areas hard hit by the Farm Crisis could be seen as the “quintessential American community” in a new neoliberal age. The factors redefining rural America existed in parallel with what was being experienced across the country, fueled in part by the New Democrat “third way” that, throughout the 1990s, advocated for a compromise between Regan's trickle-down economics and a concern with increased government intervention, yet ultimately had the effect of shrinking government spending and handing more power to the corporate sector Some of the impact of such policies mirror what scholars have recognized in rural communities during and after the Farm Crisis: the corporate take-over of businesses and personal choices, reinforced by a rhetoric where the individual is to blame for their hardships even as restructuring makes it next to impossible to realize one's self outside of a framework that views economic success through a very particular lens. Even Robert Reich, the Secretary of Labor for a portion of the Clinton presidency, is well aware that within this restructured economy, the “majority of Americans...are losing ground in the global economy” because many of the jobs created not requiring a postsecondary education do not pay adequate wages, and the ones that do require advanced skills are highly competitive and regionally centralized. Further complicating this disparity is the fact that the most successful people and communities invest their money in their own segregated enclaves, creating a feedback loop in which where one is born may greatly determine their ability to participate comfortably in this new economy.
Without manufacturing or agriculture, entire communities needed to reimagine their economic lives; yet, in the hardest hit places, there was little to replace what was there before. In economic terms, just as in more urbanized areas of the country, rural America experienced an economic restructuring that refocused to the “in person services” industry. This change meant that in rural areas dependent upon agriculture, there was also a decrease in available well-paying jobs off-farm, replaced with low-wage service positions like those found in fast food; even “public sector employment” was shrinking due to the government's decrease in funding to sectors like education. In cultural terms, those communities that do not flourish within such a framework are seen as collateral damage, not fit enough to survive within a kind of manufactured Social Darwinism.
Endora is a poster child for what one of these “left behind” failures looks like: it is “dead,” economically and socially, and within such a view, it is only fitting that the corporate food chains (grocery and fast food) take it over, seemingly building upon a place where, in Gilbert's own words, “nothing much happens.” However, Gilbert's character also gives insight into the complex experience of a community's economic restructuring, and it is through his subtle criticism of this process that helps imagine a world outside of the confines of neoliberalism.
Centralizing the Periphery
Gilbert Grape's transformation occurs within a seemingly irrelevant and desolate landscape that could be seen as a “negative counterexample” to modern America. However, Gilbert's transformation occurs in concert with the landscape, which makes the rural itself a voice of change even as it exhibits loss and decay. Through this process, the rural landscape transcends its role as merely a setting for the actions of the characters and is brought from the “periphery to the margins” for a spectator who may themselves draw on a catalogue of “cultural knowledge and sensibility” in order to attribute meaning to the images before them.
As both mass market and scholarly reviews of the film demonstrate, the “cultural knowledge and sensibility” of the contemporaneous viewer may be less than sympathetic when applied to the film's imagery. Yet, Gilbert's perspective lends an empathetic component to the assumptions generally attached to such rural landscape and its people. Gilbert's story is played out amongst two intersecting planes, one that is comprised of the town of Endora and the other that is his family. While his family brings deep pain and embarrassment to Gilbert, and is also one of speculation and ridicule within the town, it is also clear that this family is a reflection of the position of Endora within American culture as a cast-off in the modern world. Note the opening scene of the film: a close-up of a distant point on a country road, with Arnie's voice-over asking “Are they here yet?” followed by a zoom out that mimics the traveling of this country road, dotted with a handful of cows and a lone tractor working the fields, and towards the two characters who are waiting to watch the yearly “passing through” of traveling campers. These campers are clearly a source of fascination for Arnie, who simultaneously can't wait to see them and can't wait to go back home, as well as for Gilbert, who sees them as other-worldly beings who are arriving from “three million miles” away. But as the camera zooms out, the viewer – as an outsider who may very well belong to such a distant “there” — is being invited in to Gilbert's life and the community of Endora. And maybe we agree with Gilbert's original pronouncement that the campers/we would be “doing the right thing” by passing through Endora, a town where nothing much seems to happen. But as the film quickly reveals, such a simple landscape belies the complexity of the lives within it.
One way in which this film expands upon the complicated nature of a seemingly stagnant town is through an exploration of death – not as a final state, but as a movement towards rebirth. And, as the film seems to suggest, this moment is crucial in defining how one moves forward. As in Gilbert's own life, the town itself is caught between a sense of loss and a desire to move forward; indeed, death seems to hang everywhere. While Albert Grape's suicide in 1978 was clearly a defining moment in the Grape family's downfall, it can also be read in parallel to the decimation of the town's agricultural roots, as it occurred in the same time period as the beginning of the Farm Crisis.
Along with Albert's death, the loss of the “whole food” that is associated with traditional agriculture hangs in the periphery of the film. The community's transformation from agricultural stronghold to neoliberal decay is one that can be gauged by the processed food industry employing the town. According to Eric Schlosser, the processed food industry (which includes fast food and pre-packaged grocery items) is a “commodity” and “metaphor” for the unchecked reach of a corporate America beginning in the latter part of the postwar period. Part of this metaphor illustrates the prospects of the American people in regards to the lack of meaningful employment; according to Schlosser, in the 1990s, the “restaurant industry” was “America's largest employer,” yet it generally does not pay a living wage. To further this alienation in a rural context, the same kinds of technologies that allowed fast food corporations access to a steady supply of produce since the 1950s have simultaneously made it impossible for the small farmer to compete, and those remaining “beholden” to the chain of vertical integration that supplies these establishments. The false exterior of nourishment served by this industry is further exemplified by the engineering and chemicals that comprise the final product, something that has infiltrated not just fast food items but the “food” that also can be found in supermarkets.
In the film, the consumer alienation associated with fast food establishments is brought to bear on the new economic opportunities introduced to places like Endora that have endured deep loss. In a scene later in the film, the new fast-food establishment Burger Barn arrives amidst personal and communal sorrow and mourning, and a series of images cement this interrelation between hope by way of new industry and personal loss. The pre-fabricated restaurant arrives during a community member's funeral, driven along a country highway in the background of the cemetery. A series of shots illustrates the complicated nature that underscores this kind of a service industry for towns like Endora. As this building makes its way through the landscape, the viewer sees a close-up of Tucker's obvious joy, but we also hear the eulogy of the Reverend and see Albert Grape's gravesite, images that are additionally intercut with images of Bob (a mortician who brings his own specter of death everywhere he goes). As a result, the progress associated with the Burger Barn, and the promises of opportunity associated with such an establishment, is inextricably linked to death. Further, the long shots of the brown and expansive landscape that almost swallow up the funeral party within the empty fields and the long march of the Burger Barn making its way down the road creates a sense that this community has little other choice than to sacrifice itself to what this building represents, an almost hopeless future built upon a lost past.
In the above scene, the viewer is invited to see the empty promises of rebirth offered by these establishments, and to do so through the pain that exists just below the surface of such restructuring. In addition to Gilbert's suffering, there are many instances in the film where the downfall of old institutions is highlighted, first through the Lamsons, who are mystified by the success of their rival, Foodland (“It's those lobsters, isn't it?”) and the decay of their own Mom and Pop store. These folks, like the rest of the town, are part of a more general trend, a point that emerges when we consider Gilbert's friends, Tucker and Bob. In an early scene of the film, where the entire town has assembled to watch Arnie climb the water tower, Tucker appears alongside the rest of the town, complete with flannel shirt, pick-up truck, and John Deere baseball cap. Seconds later, Bob's own business vehicle, a hearse, emerges on the scene, and dressed in his funeral suit, he stands next to Tucker. The connection between death and the scene unfolding is clear, not just in regards to a fear of Arnie's fall (or, for Bob, the opportunity presented by such a fall), but also to Tucker's character himself. The sense of death that surrounds Bob is juxtaposed with the working-class figure, which then becomes transplanted on the communal activity that is occurring around him.
For Tucker in particular, and in contrast to Gilbert, the way out of this liminal state is to embrace neoliberal institutions as much as possible. Tucker is a man who has the potential to be a skilled laborer, as we see in his improvements to the Grape house over the course of the film. But, obviously, he cannot find an occupation that will pay him for this knowledge in construction and other trades, as we see in his obsession with employment at the incoming Burger Barn. As Tucker talks up the corporation to Gilbert, he touts all kinds of neoliberal rhetoric to establish the worth of the restaurant: the science of the food process, an “efficient” business model; the opportunity for advancement on a supposedly meritocratic corporate ladder, where the top position that he could attain would be Assistant Manager. In this way, the facsimile of a barn (which we see later in the film in the funeral scene just mentioned) represents the fake front of the rhetoric espoused by Tucker, a front that references a way of life that had been demolished in part by the very institution that has appropriated it as a false symbol. After all, these are just words to cover a reality marked by the disappearance of agricultural and other working-class jobs due to the farm crisis as well as the deindustrialization that had become the hallmark of neoliberal practice by the early 1990s.
Gilbert rejects the kind of corporate rhetoric openly embraced by Tucker. When Tucker extols the virtue of Burger Barn – first, as he is working on the exterior of the Grape home, and second, during breakfast at the town's cafe – the shots of Gilbert's face clearly express his doubts about the incoming fast food chain. While Tucker discusses his employment opportunities, Gilbert is shown in close-up as either unimpressed (as at his house) and then later on in the cafe, as completely disgusted and perhaps outright oppressed by Tucker's rhetoric and the new institutions within which he has put his faith. As Tucker states, the Burger Barn will be “right down the road from Foodland” — a symbol of the death of Endora's unique institutions and Gilbert's own livelihood as a Lamson's employee.
While the viewer is granted full access to Gilbert's disgust with institutions like Burger Barn, they are also invited to take on Gilbert's subtle critique and to note how it might interrelate with his own personal life and the town of Endora. If we consider the first conversation at the house, we move from a close-up of Tucker as he initially praises Foodland, then a close-up of Gilbert's reaction, before taking an objective perspective from a distance as Tucker attempts to repair the Grape family home, Gilbert standing aimlessly to the side. This shot incorporates a larger rhetoric of saving supposedly communities supposedly “left behind” in this new economy (symbolized by Tucker's embrace of what the Burger Barn represents as he works on the house) in contrast to Gilbert's appearance which represents an alternative disgust at this kind of development. The tug-of-war that emerges between these two options become imprinted upon the house itself and its place within the freshly-plowed fields that surround it.
Reimagining the Future
Now the question arises: does Gilbert have any other options to re-envision his life outside of the structures that are currently surrounding and potentially reigning him in? The answer can be found in his eventual relationship with Becky. As we see at the cafe, as Tucker again continues to espouse the “innovations” of the Burger Barn that make it superior to other fast food establishments like Burger King and McDonald's, the close-up of Gilbert's disgust and audible sigh expresses that he cannot stand being present during this rhetoric. But then the camera takes on his perspective as he gazes out the window: once an old truck passes by his view, Becky walks by with her bike and, as he notices her, the shot follows her across the cafe's window. Thus, it is not just Gilbert who is entranced by her, but the viewer as well. But it would be a mistake to see this scene as foreshadowing a narrative where Becky alone – an outsider to Endora – saves Gilbert from his current prison. Instead, it is their interrelationship that allows Gilbert to reimagine himself differently, for it is in this shot where we repeatedly switch perspectives between Gilbert's growing interest in Becky and then as Becky looks back with another kind of interest. Tucker narrates these multiple shot/reverse-shots with the virtues of Burger Barn's corporate ladder, until he notices Becky, which silences him and thus leaves open an alternative possibility to this rhetoric.
The effects of Becky's presence, while obviously central to Gilbert's transformation, can also be brought to bear on the community at large. Gilbert's process of reimagining his self occurs within the landscape, which is itself thoroughly integrated with the Grape family's sense of loss and humiliation. In yet another scene where Tucker is trying to shore up the Grape house, Albert Grape's suicide is first invoked, through Gilbert's fear of entering the basement as well as Arnie's repeated squeals (“Dad's in there!”). When Gilbert chases Arnie to try to quiet him, we cut to Tucker's half-revealed face staring out at them in confusion, before taking on his general field of vision to watch them wrestle in a plowed field. As a result, this family trauma becomes written on the signs of agriculture still existing in the landscape, a connection further solidified in the next shot, where Tucker apologizes to Gilbert for forgetting about the place of his father's death. After this one-sided conversation, the camera cuts back to observe the two friends in a tableau, on the porch of a decrepit house set next to Tucker's run-down truck and the unending fields in the background.
We can contrast this sorrow to Gilbert's experience of the landscape in Becky's presence. After a home-cooked dinner outdoors where Becky asserts that, in contrast to Gilbert's view, Endora is “as good a place as any,” she calls his attention to the beauty of the landscape during a sunset. The scene opens with a brilliant fiery sunset before cutting to their private conversation. As part of this conversation, the viewer is shown yet another tableau – this time, of two friends sitting amidst hay bales in a field now bathed in an orange glow – underscored not by pain, but by wonderment and patience, which then underscores Becky's desire to see where Gilbert lives. This sentiment later continues as the two walk down the road towards his house, passing by fields, under a large sky in the last moments of a sunset. During this walk, both reveal a bit of their painful pasts, something kept in balance with the beauty just experienced. Thus, when Gilbert points out his house in the distance across a large field, a darkened silhouette against the fiery sky, he also shifts the viewer's perspective, asking us to contemplate it as a thing of beauty in extension to the sunset scenes that we have seen previously. In this way, Becky's curiosity and openness begins to transform Gilbert's (and, indeed, the viewer's) view of the house and landscape into a complex portrait, full of both pain and beauty.
Becky's attention to the hidden elements of the landscape makes it more difficult to see it as a barren wasteland where “nothing happens.” In this way, Becky becomes a catalyst for both Gilbert and the viewer to understand the plight facing Endora, a place that is in the process of rebuilding itself into the low-wage, in-person service industry that has characterized many parts of the country, whether urban or rural. But it becomes more difficult to celebrate the arrival of such an industry once we recognize that this rebuilding is an attempt to replace a pre-existing community, built and then destroyed on one kind of economy, with an unfulfilling and predatory corporate economy. The choices left to Gilbert and Endora thus become choices that people across the country may also need to make. Does one adapt to this depersonalizing system? If not, how can they move forward?
The film certainly does not adopt an uncritical view of neoliberalism, in contrast to the prevailing wisdom of the era. As illustrated at the grand opening of the Burger Barn, the rise of the service industry as an answer to what was lost in personal and economic terms is not a cause for celebration. Amidst the spectacle of brightly colored streamers and balloons, complete with a high school band and Tucker's laudatory remarks, we are again reminded of death through Bob's hearse. This comic moment contradicts what the owner of Burger Barn claims in his speech: “In a time when so many things are falling apart, Endora decides to give Burger Barn a chance. A new breath of life.” The sad irony of this speech is particularly underscored as Gilbert then discovers that Becky will soon leave town. In this way, Gilbert’s own loss of hope can't be extricated from the low-wage service industry celebrated by places like Endora, Iowa, and as he stonewalls her attempts to reach out to him, his sadness is imprinted over the landscape itself, appearing outside the truck's windows during their long, silent ride back to her camper.
The potential represented by Becky and Gilbert's relationship is thus held in tension with economic restructuring as represented by Burger Barn. But it isn't until Gilbert is forced to go to Foodland to replace Arnie's ruined birthday cake that this tension becomes a kind of existential crisis, one that appears unavoidable for Gilbert and, in fact, the whole of Endora and places like it. As he enters the store, the tight focus on his face (with the full parking lot and interstate traffic behind it), illustrates Gilbert's awe and sadness, and the impact of the few life choices that he is faced with in this new world. The limited life choices trapping Gilbert are in part related to his family, but they also relate to the entire industrial complex that has reigned in rural places like Endora. The squeaky clean and convenient mega-store that he finds himself in at this moment is the perfect metaphor for the ruins of the Farm Crisis: a consumer's dream that separates her/him from the larger implications of the disappearance of the small-scale, local farmer as well as the industrial agriculture that has popped up in their place. Foodland, and the stores most like it, push the lowest price for the brand name processed foods that have become the staple of the American diet, offering “new low non-food prices” as the entrance sign proclaims, and replacing the “Farm Fresh Produce” ironically proclaimed in the background of Gilbert's cake purchase. And while this scene demonstrates the sadness of Gilbert's plight – and the necessity of having to shop at such a place – his emotional descent really begins upon exiting the store, Foodland box in hand, and seeing his employer wordlessly sizing up the store, and Gilbert, from inside his running car.
The extent of Gilbert's crisis becomes clear when, after hitting Arnie later that night, he drives his truck towards the town's limits in an obvious attempt to escape the bleakness of both his family's and Endora's current situation. The darkness that surrounds Gilbert as he contemplates his actions just past the “Now leaving Endora” sign illustrates the palpable if intangible pressure of the past, present, and unknown future that weighs upon him. Yet, Gilbert does not choose to escape like his father (death) or his brother (upward mobility); instead, he turns around and seeks out Becky, who offers one last night where Gilbert can come to terms with the desolation that surrounds him. Through various long shots, the mutual relationship of this couple is written on Endora's landscape: first as a small glare of campfire against the dark sky as Gilbert speaks in more detail about the trauma of his life, and then the next morning, as the couple is seen sleeping amidst the empty fields that surround them. Thus, the existence of pain already written on the landscape is joined by a kind of reconciliation, setting the stage for Gilbert's homecoming for Arnie's birthday party. Gilbert asks and receives forgiveness for his actions from his family members, but it is the landscape that is always in the background of this evolution.
Thus, Gilbert's reconciliation with Mama can be seen as a kind of reconciliation with the town itself. Mama's fear that she is a “burden” to her children is once again set against the Endora landscape — houses in the distance, empty fields — outside the window. But this admission of guilt and pain is a source of strength, not an admission of inferiority, reinforced by the positioning of the two during their exchange. By the end of their conversation, Gilbert is kneeling in front of Mama, almost as a subject to his queen, becoming her “shimmering knight in armor” as she names him on her death bed in a later scene. At this point, Gilbert can introduce Becky, and what Becky represents, to his mother and Endora as a whole. And it is what opens the viewer to understanding the complexity of a figure who first appears, in the words of one reviewer, as “grotesque.” Such a misconception is challenged when Becky is first introduced to Mama, where the camera swings around to a close-up of Mama's face and her greeting, “Hello,” meant not just for Becky but for the viewer as well.
The reconciliation between Gilbert and his mother and the esteem and respect transplanted on to Mama makes the tragedy of her death all the more poignant. The viewer is asked to contemplate this sorrow, and what it means for the children, in light of the larger situation of Endora. The camera lingers on the details of Mama's last ascent upstairs and like her children, who watch in silent awe, the viewer dwells on Mama's movements: the feet moving up the stairs, the hands clutching the banister. After she completes her journey to what is to be her death bed – Albert Grape's black and white photo on the nightstand overseeing her process – we move to a long shot of the house amidst the barren fields, the sisters cleaning up the birthday party, still surrounded by Arnie's birthday banners. The backdrop of the Grape family amongst Endora's fields once again intersects the family's situation to that of the community: the slow decline of the family that began with their father's suicide and that will end with Mama's death, a demise that itself takes place against a backdrop of lost promise as embodied in Albert's photo as it is juxtaposed to his wife's present state. Arnie's Burger Barn visor when he finds his dead mother further links the lost promise of the Grape family to communities like Endora, one of the institutions that will contribute to its own slow death. The next long shot of Arnie running outside the house to his sisters transplants his sorrow to Endora, something that simultaneously keeps the viewer at a distance from this private family moment while, again, connecting the family to Endora as a whole.
These final moments create a complex portrait of Gilbert, his family, and Endora. How can one come to terms with the restructuring of livelihood, and how can hope, possibility, and potential be found within this loss? Can the past and its echoes of pain and suffering that continue into the present be balanced by a new beginning?
Perhaps it is inevitable that the children set fire to this house and Mama's body. The metaphorical house is not sustainable – even the foundation is crumbing – and so something must be done. As Jane Blocker points out, it is not until these demons are excised that the children can move on to a future that most likely exists elsewhere. However, the fire that is set is also meant to restore dignity to Mama – to Endora and the past – in a kind of funeral pyre. And while we are invited to dwell on the flames as they engulf the house – initially, we see a trail of fire follow the same path of Mama's final ascent – we cannot forget the conflict that this symbolic fire brings to this family/the Endora community. For, while the burning house is set against the darkened sky, filling the entire screen for the viewer, it cannot be extricated from the “Happy Birthday” banners that we see on the porch of the house, and whose reflection in its windows becomes disrupted by the burning interior. The children are birthed into a new life, but what does the future hold for them?
Perhaps one thing to do is to begin again within the restructured economy, as Gilbert's voice-over recounts his sisters' move to Des Moines. Or perhaps another reaction is to stay unattached to any particular place, like the freedom associated with Becky and her grandmother's nomadic travels. Gilbert and Arnie make this latter choice as they join the campers instead of watching them drive through Endora, as they did in the opening scene of the film. This freedom allows Gilbert an opportunity to discover a new life outside of the neoliberal institutions that can offer only heartbreak and pain. As Gilbert's voice-over relays, “Arnie asked if we were going to go, too, and I said, “Well, we can go anywhere if we want.” That anywhere, wherever that is, might look brighter in comparison to the low-wage and unstable service industry that has now overtaken communities like Endora.
The arrival of the campers and Gilbert's choice to roam with Becky is, just like the opening scene, transplanted over the country road snaking through the empty fields of Endora. As a result, Gilbert's choice to live outside Endora's restructuring is one that also becomes available to the community as a whole, in addition to the viewer who may be aligned with the campers, the outsiders, just “passing through” but not putting down roots anywhere. The endless road thus offers a way to envision one's self outside the institutions that perpetuate the myths of neoliberalism that align progress with perpetual growth and efficiency at any cost to individuals or communities. In this way, the film becomes a reflection of the larger processes that have rewritten the country coast to coast, rural, suburban or urban. It documents the loss of many communities, and the options available to them as they pick up the pieces after the farms disappeared, or the factories shut down, or the public schools laid off more and more employees. Most importantly, the film asks us what we will do now and if we have to accept the options laid out to us. For even if it is not feasible or even desirable for many of us to return to a nomadic way of life, the film considers whether it is possible for us to take up a nomadic stance–unburdened by things and institutions–to the world in which we live.
Stacy Denton is a scholar whose interdisciplinary research is applied towards understanding representations at the intersection of whiteness, class, and rurality, with a specialty in post-1945 US society and culture, and has published articles on representations of this demographic in literature, film, the social sciences, and journalism. She is currently a Sessional Assistant Professor at the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design, York University, Toronto.
See, for example, Kathryn Marie Dudley, Debt and Dispossession: Farm Loss in America's Heartland (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000) and David B. Danbom, Born in the Country: A History of Rural America, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 254.
When the market turned on farmers of commodity crops, many people were put in a position where they could not afford to pay the loans that were so freely given just years earlier. See Steve H. Murdock and F. Larry Leistritz, “Chapter One,” in The Farm Financial Crisis: Socioeconomic Dimensions and Implications for Producers and Rural Areas, eds. Steve H. Murdock and F. Larry Leistritz (Boulder: Westview Press, 1988).
Saskia Sassen, “Deconstructing Labor Demand in Today's Advanced Economies: Implications for Low-Wage Employment,” in Laboring Below the Line: The New Ethnography of Poverty, Low-Wage Work and Survival in a Global Economy, ed. Frank Munger (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002). For a discussion of part-time job creation in the 1990s, see Chris Tilly, Half a Job: Bad and Good Part-Time Jobs in a Changing Labor Market (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996).
William C. Berman, From the Center to the Edge: The Politics and Policies of the Clinton Presidency (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2001); Michael Meeropol, Surrender: How the Clinton Administration Completed the Reagan Revolution (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1998).
Ibid., “Open Secrets.” This framework has contributed to our present Big Ag control of the food supply. See Conner Bailey, Leif Jensen, and Elizabeth Ransom, “Chapter One,” in Rural America in a Globalizing World: Problems and Prospects for the 2010s, eds. Conner Bailey, Leif Jensen, and Elizabeth Ransom. (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2014).
See Bailey, Jensen and Ransom; Cornelia B. Flora and James A. Christenson, “Chapter One,” in Rural Policies for the 1990s, eds. Cornelia B. Flora and James A. Christenson (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991); David L. Brown and Louis E. Swanson, “Chapters 9 and 10,” in Challenges for Rural America in the 21st Century, eds. David L. Brown and Louis E. Swanson. (University Park: The Pennsylvania University Press, 2003).
For the editors of the collection Film Landscapes, the questioning of this sensibility brings to the fore political commentary and new opportunities for viewers when considering particular landscapes. Graeme Harper and Jonathan Rayner, eds., Film Landscapes: Cinema, Environment and Visual Culture (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), 4.
One example can be seen in Stella Bruzzi's review of the film, which credits Hallstrӧm for finding meaning and beauty in a “town that jumped off life’s carousel long before the Big Dipper came along and made everything hazardous.” Stella Bruzzi, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?,” review of What's Eating Gilbert Grape, directed by Lasse Hallstrӧm, Sight and Sound 4-5 (1994): 59.
David Harvey discusses the importance of “ideological influences” across diverse channels like media and education that assert the supremacy of neoliberal institutions in everyday life. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 40.
Many scholars already mentioned here have pointed out the rise of Big Agriculture, in part, as a result of government policy and the losses suffered by the 1980s Farm Crisis. The effects, though, are strongly felt into the present, through the industrialization of our food system as evidenced in things like industrial farming practices and GMOs. For a relatively early study, see R. Douglas Hurt, Problems of Plenty: The American Farmer in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002).
Taking this point further, Jane Blocker refers to Bonnie Grape as a “heroine,” as a sacrifice that frees her children from the very home that haunts them. Jane Blocker, “Woman-House: Architecture, Gender and Hybridity in What's Eating Gilbert Grape?,” Camera Obscura 39 (Nov 1998): 149.
For a discussion of this dilemma for rural youth in the Midwest, see Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009).