Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Dec 5: David LeGault on Tom Bissell's "Escanaba's Magic Hour"

Have you ever seen the movie Escanaba in da Moonlight? Ever even hear of it? Well I have, for better or worse. I watched it once, in 2001, when the movie was premiered at (where else?) the movie theater in Escanaba, Michigan, one of the major population hubs of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a population of roughly 13,000. I went and saw the movie with my parents and sister, and it is no exaggeration to say that this is one of two, possibly three times in my life where I went to a movie theater with my family. It is not something we did together, and as a kid who went to the movies with a religious fervor, it stands out as a pretty significant. And it was: a famous actor from Hollywood (Jeff Daniels) wrote a movie about our little-known community and was even filming it here! We could sign up and be extras and would be famous by association. We would have what at least I wanted: some recognition of our existence, of some tangential connection or significance to the world at large.

I don't believe we talked on the car ride home. What was there to say? There are jokes and there are parodies and there are stereotypes, and for a place where I never felt fully connected, I don't know if I've ever felt so offended by a piece of entertainment. I can't accurately describe how unbelievably awful this movie was, like extended scenes where conversation was made up entirely of farts, where a man is publically ridiculed for having never shot a deer (and privately ridiculed by his wife who doesn't consider him a man), where aliens abduct the men at hunting camp before eventually transforming into a deer who is actually—I shit you not—the spirit of the man's dead grandfather. We drove home in awkward silence, aware of how there was nothing to say other than we would never get another chance like this.

Today, friends laugh about it when someone inevitably brings it up in conversation at informal high-school reunions; we laugh about a movie we can hardly remember; we create and join Facebook groups called "Escanaba in da Moonlight ruined my life." We laugh, but there's still the pain from that initial cut: outsiders came in and we felt like they were one of us, like these Hollywood-types could ever understand. They didn't, and because of their failure, nobody else will, either.

* * * *

Nostalgia is a sentimental longing for the past, particularly a period or place with happy personal associations. Although these feelings can come from a trip to our hometowns or a visit from a childhood friend, nostalgic connections to music, books, movies, and television allow a writer to connect with their audience. It's why we like reading celebrity gossip; it's why we go to comic conventions, buy overpriced nonsense on eBay, and get ironic tattoos: we can connect with others through a shared history—one that is both universal and incredibly personal. It's one of the appeals of pop culture writing. Some writers (I'll go with Klosterman since he's the easiest example) do this particularly well, looking critically at a subject that we haven't taken seriously, or maybe one we hate, and making it a valued part of our shared cultural experience.

This is a roundabout way of talking about Tom Bissell's essay, "Escanaba's Magic Hour," found here as well as in his collection, Magic Hours. Admittedly, I am biased by my own strong feelings about the essay's locale and subject matter: Bissell is hanging out with the production crew as they film Escanaba in da Moonlight, and I see myself in his description of the Midwestern rubes, the (literally) hundreds of articles about the filming and production, about the locals getting in the way with their desire for autographs or conversation, about the desire for fame, for cultural significance.

And a big part of my own excitement comes from reading about an event I experienced: I remember the call for extras in the football stadium; I remember the joy when I first discovered Bissell was from Escanaba; I remember that the out-of-place athletic director he writes about, with whom I've had several run-ins, all of them awful and mostly embarrassing high school nonsense. Bissell achieves what the movie never did: showed the place where I'm from, with legitimate sincerity, without the need for stereotype or maudlin descriptions of tanking industry or hunting culture.

He writes my hometown better than I write my hometown; I might hate him for it.

Of course, this is the point when I remember that this essay is about how foolish we are when encountering celebrity, how much stock we place in cultural significance, particularly as rural Midwesterners. And though I've never met Bissell I can already see him turning celebrity in my mind— one I admire for this piece of writing, for his urban versus rural sensibilities, for being one of Us. None of this should be particularly surprising, and yet…I feel like I should know better than to put so much stock in this.

Even now, I know nothing.

Even now, I crave for the lost potential of Escanaba in da Moonlight, for the feeling that the place where I'm from matters to anyone. We "Yoopers" have continued to chase that pop culture moment: Ben Affleck's Reindeer Games (filmed in Canada) involved a casino robbery at (supposedly) the same casino where my mom briefly worked; Jimmy Stewart's Anatomy of a Murder was filmed in nearby Marquette and is still revered for it; The Rolling Stones flew into town for their tour manager's funeral and it was front page news for weeks.

Even now, I kind of want to hang out with Tom Bissell, to cling to this Escanaban writing aura, to see how this writing can come from the same place and the same pop-culture hunger in an artistically-starved Delta County childhood. Maybe we can hang out at Drifters now that the Dew Drop Inn has closed up for good; or maybe we can go to Hereford & Hops for some microbrews and steaks that we cook ourselves. Afterwards we can head over to the Delft or the Stalls and make fun of the high school kids in their shitty Trans-Ams filled with subwoofers that rattle in our chests like the fist of God. Or maybe we can go to Gladstone Video and rent a copy of our movie, watch it with our friends and talk about how we could probably kick Jeff Daniels' ass. Maybe we can see that we all have these cultural hang-ups; that essays like this help us understand where they're coming from.

David LeGault's essays have recently appeared in Hobart, Fourth Genre, and Ninth Letter. He lives and writes in Minneapolis, where he fills recycling dumpsters with old books for a living.


  1. Sweet layers. I remember when I was in grad school and SLC Punk came out and Sean Fightmaster was a main character, I went around saying, "Sean Fightmaster kissed me by the waterfountain at a 7 Seconds show when I was 13" as if that was the height of fame and achievement. It is nice to be known. You make the layers of known awesome here.

  2. Also. What's with all the alliteration here: "In the hard cold of a waning afternoon in early March, I stand on the hash-marked permafrost of my hometown football field in Escanaba, Michigan, and wait for a motion picture to be filmed."
    All those H, W and F sounds. Perhaps Yoopers love a soft consonant.