America’s Heart & Soul (9/10)

Copyright © 2004 by Tony Medley

This starts with spectacular aerial shots of America; mountains, deserts, lakes, rivers, all in gorgeous cinematography by master cinematographer Louis Schwartzberg. But this is not about geography. It’s about the people who inhabit the geography.

The first person we meet is Roudy Roudebush, a horse wrangler in Telluride, Colorado. As with everyone else we meet in the film, Roudy tells his own story in his own words (once riding his horse into a saloon to get a drink of water). After Roudy, we meet 24 more, all telling their own stories in their own words, all backed up by spellbinding cinematography.

One thing that struck me was how many of the people we meet have music as a main fulcrum in their lives. Like George Woodward, a dairy farmer in Waterbury Center, Vermont. Even though George tells us that being a dairy farmer is a seven day a week, 52 weeks a year job, he still finds time to write songs, perform with his band, and direct and act in plays at the local theater.

The wisdom one derives from these people is astounding. Minnie Yancey, a Rug Weaver in Berea, Kentucky, who has been broke many times, says, “You can’t worry about being broke because in the end all you have is you.”

Although most of the people we meet are ordinary folk, we do meet some people that society would hail as successful, like Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream in Williston, Vermont, and Ed Holt, a wine grower in Santa Maria, California. What’s different about them, however, is that they aren’t the typical Type A, driven personality just working themselves to death. Both are doing what they love to do, and just happen to make a lot of money doing it. Holt sums it up, saying, “I want to die in a vineyard working the grapes. That’s my retirement plan.”

The beauty of this film isn’t limited to the cinematography, which is worth the price of admission, but in the philosophies of the people profiled. It’s inspiring to listen to these people who are stars in this film just because of random choice. Schwatzberg got together his team of eight people and set out in a van, driving across the country, filming the vistas and people who struck their fancy.

As an example, Schwatzberg says, “We were gassing up the van in the hills of Appalachia when a woman named Minnie Yancey came up to me and said, ‘You don’t look like you’re from these parts. You look a little lost.’ We had a short conversation, in which I found out she makes rugs, and we made a plan to come back and film her on the way back; now, she’s one of my favorite stories in the film. So, did I find Minnie? Or did Minnie find me?”

This is a film that will make you laugh and cry. The last vignette is the story of Rick & Dick Hoyt. Rick was born as a spastic quadriplegic, cerebral palsy, non-speaking person. Instead of going along with his doctor’s suggestion and putting him in an institution, his parents kept and raised him. Dick, his father, became a runner at Rick’s request and they run in marathons. We see them in the Boston Marathon. If you can watch this without tears, there’s something wrong. But they are tears of admiration for the love and dedication of a father for his son.

So the film is a mixture of laughter, awe, admiration, and poignancy. There’s no violence, sex, special effects, or plot. But this is one terrific film.

June 4, 2004

The End