Larry Van Meter spots an anomaly in a Forties Western:
Unable to find a seat on the train, she is rescued by Jim Gardner, who owns the luxury car at the back of the train. Jim as it turns out is one of the new Oklahoma millionaires, having struck it rich in the oil fields of Sapulpa. He’s also a cad, clear to everyone except this “New Woman.” Gardner takes a shine to Catherine, gives her the nickname “Kitten,” and invites her to get off the train with him in Sapulpa. Now, maybe [director] Albert Rogell wasn’t paying attention during this scene, or maybe he had forgotten his Oklahoma geography, but the train from Cleveland to Kansas City doesn’t stop in Sapulpa. But maybe this is Oklahoma’s fate in the American cinema, an indeterminate place somewhere on the American map.
Which explains, sort of, the premise of Sooner Cinema: Oklahoma Goes to the Movies (Oklahoma City: Forty-Sixth Star Press, 2009), edited by Van Meter, which collects nineteen essays on the image of the Sooner State as portrayed in American film, from the days of silents to the present, with stops at Cimarron, The Grapes of Wrath and The Outsiders, just to name a few.
Telling a tale set in “an indeterminate place” has its advantages: you can make it up as you go along, as Albert Rogell did in 1943 while shooting In Old Oklahoma, which he actually shot in even-older Utah, and nobody will raise a fuss: for the 297 million Americans who don’t live here, Oklahoma could be as remote as Timbuktu. They know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is, well, kinda bland, when it isn’t openly hostile.
Sooner Cinema acknowledges this phenomenon without taking umbrage. Filmmakers tell stories, and sometimes those stories drown out considerations of place: those snowcapped mountains just outside McAlester in True Grit don’t resemble anything you or I have ever seen just outside McAlester. But True Grit‘s story wasn’t about Oklahoma so much as it was about the No Man’s Land it was once thought to be in the territorial days and ultimately, it was about John Wayne, a man bigger than any No Man’s Land ever was. In this context, getting the facts straight about Oklahoma is a secondary, maybe tertiary, consideration. In fact, Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory, a biography of Woody Guthrie, somehow manages not to mention Oklahoma at all.
Then again, being associated with a vague sort of mythology may work to Oklahoma’s advantage. Van Meter notes in his introduction:
[I]s there any Wyoming film that doesn’t show the Grand Tetons? or a Colorado film that doesn’t incorporate the Rockies? or a Hawaii film that doesn’t show a surfer? Oklahoma films aren’t compelled to show the state’s X to prove its Oklahoma-ness.
If you live here, and if you ever expect to have to explain to someone from New Jersey or New Brunswick or New Delhi what it’s like to live in Oklahoma, Sooner Cinema will make your task that much easier: you’ll know the difference between celluloid and reality, and you’ll be able to tell when that difference actually matters. And if this task somehow doesn’t fall to you, you’ll still have the pleasure of discovering some cinematic wonders set practically in your own back yard. If this be mythology, make the most of it.
(Review copy furnished by the publishers.)