“It Looks Like Kentucky” : Representing the Midwest in Promised Land

Curator's Note

Promised Land centers on the debate over fracking. Steve and Sue have come to a small town to buy up the mining rights for their giant corporate company, "Global Industries." It's a film that works hard to evoke a sense of place. Most of the movie takes place entirely in the fictional town of McKinley — a rural, run-down, one-horse town that is supposed to look at home in any fly-over state, without actually being filmed in any of them.

Filming took place in Western Pennsylvania.  There are only slight references to McKinley's geographical location, and only if the viewer is really looking for them. Aside from a brief reference to Teterboro Airport (New Jersey), locations are simply, “the State” or “the City.” While driving, Sue says, “I can’t believe this is right outside the city...it looks like Kentucky.” My sense is that it is supposed to take place in a small Midwestern town, but the film avoids directly identifying McKinley as such. This might then seem like an odd film choice for a discussion of Midwestern states, but it is precisely the film’s slipperiness around location that fascinates me. Why not outwardly identify the location in more detail? Why does the film work to obfuscate the locations? For example, Steve and Sue late discuss that "McKinley is the entrance point into the whole state."

Lawrence Buell argues that there’s been a trend in American literature to focus on nature and rurality in setting, theme, and tone. However this focus on rurality has not extended to the realities of a Hollywood production. While there remain exceptions, such as the television show Nashville, many more productions are content to film in the "Hollywood North." So when Sue evokes the image of Kentucky, people watching from the American coasts might have no visual referent for what Kentucky really looks like. All of these “looks like Kentucky” impressions are built on imperfect Hollywood representations. These midwestern states remain -- to many -- identical looking fly-over states.





"that is supposed to look at home in any fly-over state, without actually being filmed in any of them" Simone- What a wonderful line that perfectly captures the flyover mentality. The "looks like Kentucky" line also suggests that all of Kentucky is interchangeable -- which is just a subset of the any state is interchangeable idea. Given the fracking focus, it does actually make sense that it is set in Penn., making it all the odder that it is not identified by name ever. I think this is one of the things that I found dissatisfying about the film -- that it is meant to be a reasonably serious look at the consequences of big oil/gas and their ability to manipulate public opinion and behaviors but this seriousness is undermined by the utterly generic representation of the reality of rural community. That and the cheesy Hollywood ending. "Two hours outside of any city looks like Kentucky" -- how is this meant to be interpreted? As an ominous warning of the rural "wasteland" that one encounters if they ever leave the safe confines of urban America? Or more in keeping with the film's plot, that there are millions of frackable acres waiting to be exploited? Or am I being too cynical here?

I enjoyed your post Simone- Middle America's place as a simultaneously visible yet invisible and unnamed remains fascinating and worth interrogating. As such, it seems to stand in as a holder for all of rural America and, in some ways, outdated values and lifestyles. I want to pick up on Dr. Harkins' comment about how the excerpted line is to be interpreted. I agree that it seems to be a warning- not only of the wasteland that one might encounter but as a threat of where one might be exiled to, fall to, or end up at if one is expunged from the city. (Similarly, one might be trapped in the Midwest, desperate to leave.) Simone, I think you bring this up in response to Adam's post earlier this week. This idea is fascinating to me because the flyover region seems to lurk everywhere, just out of reach, but a very close reality to many city dwellers. In what ways might that closeness contribute to the need to disavow, disregard and distance from the region?

I had a longer draft that included the irony of a movie about fracking filming in Pennsylvania but hiding that fact, which has always made me think that they really didn't want the film to seem like Penn. I don't think you are being too cynical, I think there's a fair amount of truth to Steve's rant in the film about the land not being as profitable as it once was. Then again, I suppose that depends on how you want to continue to define "successful." I also can't decide how the film means for us to interpret it's seemingly ambivalent feelings about small town life. Should we embrace small town life, as Steve does at the end? Or run away from the vast middle to the more profitable urban areas? I'm also interested at how this intersects with some movement in the blogsphere of young people ditching their high powered jobs and moving to the country.

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