The “Historical Pa” (Little House on the Prairie, Controlling Love, Etc…)

So apparently, it may be the case that David Gordon Green is switching gears again with a Little House on the Prairie film. I am on board with this, most probably because I am an ardent fan of the original TV version. Here is why:

1. The first season aired in 1974, the same year as Woman Under the InfluenceThe ConversationGodfather II, and Brakhage’s “Text of Light” which is right in the middle of the “decade under the influence.” Many films from this period are characterized by more contemplative visual approaches – longer takes and pans compliment wordless scenes of activity as a proxy for storytelling. And there are gritty moral undertones to these scripts, tapping into the darkest recesses of the American dream. While there is a biographical disconnect between the producers and directors of Little House and the Prairie and this great generation of filmmakers, there is a distinct aesthetic similarity between films of this era and the Little House and the Prairie directorial vibe. The show attempts to mainstream the same kind of moralist naturalism as marketable TV. A few indications in this regard:

  • Visually, it goes out of its way to simplify the composition of scenes as much as possible. There are four basic shots in LH. There is the panorama shot. Almost every time the show starts out with a shot of a wagon bouncing along the dusty trail set to a remix of the show’s basic score (sometimes this remix has a great funky doo-wop bassline to it with a jazzy little beat playing on the snare). There is the basic activity shot whether interior or exterior. The camera just groups people in the frame and lets them interact. There is the extremely extended close-up of a person’s face, or a group of faces, as they react to something (best example is the episode in which Johnny Johnson falls in love with a hooker in Mankato and four times during the show the camera cuts into a ten second close up of his face with the most pantingly lustful gaze). And there is the extended look at some facet of prairie survival by abstracting it from the scene. This basic shot is the most fascinating one in the show. The camera will zoom in on baking bread, the building of a fire, the melting of metal, the sawing of wood. It quickly evokes the childhood quality of wonder that underscores the original books.
  • All this is to say that the show intentionally slows itself down and reduces its directing to two basic modes. LH is either clear action and panorama, or the camera is letting the viewer witness and digest something. This second mode is so intentional that it becomes meditative, more than mere didacticism even if we are presented information as if in a natural history exhibit.

2. LH extends basic American ideals to their logical extremes, whether they are good ones or bad ones. And this is basically what American cinema in the 70′s is all about. Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t think LH is a repristination of the boldly capitalist ideals of early America. There are subtle criticisms of the privatized ethics that characterize such an ideology laced all throughout the storytelling. Here is a little town of boot-strapping (literally, they all have bootstraps, PA tucks them in at least once per episode) workers who are consistently having to pool resources to work out some problem in the community. If anything, we learn in the show that the personal acquisition of resources is totally unethical. Q.E.D.: The shopkeeper’s wife remains one of the most hated people in TV history. The scripts are rife with these little nuggets of anti-capitalist speculations that seem to be anticipating the rampant commercialism of the 1980′s. (An aside, the actress that plays Caroline, the iconic mother, was an avid supporter of women’s rights. She spent much of her career fighting domestic abuse, which is a strange sidelight for America’s classic “pioneer wife.”)

3. The “church” in LH is not a church. It is a cultural institution distinct from the pragmatic ethics of this little town. But, as both school and civic space, it becomes an important element of the show’s ongoing structure. I can’t think of a better example of church/state constitutional distinctions other than the great West Wing Jed Bartlet prayer episode. The lumber mill and shop are the town’s points of commerce, the church space serves as the center of its protestant liberal social ethic.

4.  The argument could be made that Cassavetes et al. landed on their particular methods of filming due to initial budget constraints. But, the simplified close-up shots of either faces and prairie life are obviously a conscious directorial choice (from a formal perspective) that enrich the show as visual art via an anthropological focus. There are no other TV features Landon was involved with as an actor that exhibited these visual characteristics, so I can’t help but think that somewhere between Bonanza and LH either he or one of his ass. directors stumbled upon a great way to make a TV show. In one choice episode Tinker Jones and all the kids gather their metal toys to cast a bell for the church. The resulting bell-making process montage presages the golden era of TV. It is hard to watch this sequence without thinking of the similar Andrei Rublev scene – both in terms of form and reader-response.

5. HT to Peter Chattaway on these comments from Lawrence and Jewett (Myth of the American Superhero) about “domestic redeemers” and the historical Pa:

In the Little House on the Prairie novels by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Charles Ingalls is barely able to support his family as a farmer and jack-of-all-trades. In the television series, Pa spends the bulk of his time and creative energy solving the problems of the community. The long, monotonous days and years behind the plow and building shelters with primitive tools have disappeared from view, while a series of domestic crises each finds neat resolution within the 48-minute-program time space. In one episode Ingalls almost single-handedly relieves Walnut Grove of a typhoid fever epidemic after the doctor and minister prove incapable of coping with the deadly threat…

In another television episode, Ingalls’ coolness and moral sense keep the community from an unjust lynching. The man entrusted to buy seed corn from a distant town is accidentally pinned under his wagon; but the ever-stupid citizens of Walnut Grove immediately conclude that he has made off with their money. They scorn Ingalls and discuss violent retribution; meanwhile, Ingalls himself retraces the route and finds the injured man in the forest, saving both him and the community. Like Dickens’ Esther Summerson, Ingalls has an unerring ability to tell “good guys” from “bad guys” and thus assures perfect solutions to moral dilemmas…

Perhaps the most remarkable facet of the domestic redemption scheme in the television version of Little House on the Prairie is its departure from the starkly realistic novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder. . . . There are moments of comfort, security, and joy in the stories, but the predominant tone is of hardships, some self-imposed by the failure of family schemes to live well on the adverse prairie, and there are no miraculous redemptions of evil bankers.

For children who have read the realistic Wilder novels for the past three generations, the years of the Little House television series ranked as a flagrant violation of historical consciousness. The large viewing audience, however, was assured that they were witnessing historical reality. . . . In place of mud and drought there are clean streets and barnyards and green fields. Instead of frequent tornadoes, grasshoppers, and blizzards, there are occasional bouts with adverse weather that always end happily. But the cumulative result of the transmutation is that the raw, threatening prairie and the ugly, raucous towns become Edenic. Natural evils that strike everyone without discrimination in the novels are distilled so that the Ingalls family is either spared or quickly retrieved by its virtue, hard work, and redemptive skills. The Pa Ingalls of the novels — the foolish, loving, bearded man plagued with mortgages, disasters, and crop failures — is alchemized in the television series into a handsome, smooth-skinned savior who devotes most of his time to rescuing the community. Historical details such as Pa’s stealing food for his family in The Long Winter and his fist fight at the land claim office in By the Shores of Silver Lake have been eliminted. The historical Ingalls family leaves behind a succession of abject failures; they miscalculate, lose their land, and have to move on. But the process of TV’s mythic alchemy makes them always triumphant in adversity, abiding in a stable paradise where children grow up romping over green meadows. The orchestra always comes in on cue to sweep the audience into a nostalgia for paradise.

This is where LH becomes more interesting. We now know that the “historical Pa” was more prone to anger than Landon’s pastoral version. The stress of prairie survival and constant migration was endemic in the era. I don’t think that dinner time was as happy in that household as the TV series depicts. LH depicts “Pa” as an of ideologically driven peacemaker who is constantly empowering the community rather than individuals to work through social and economic issues. In the first season, individuals in the town are continually stripped of financial independence and  become indebted to the town as a whole. The notion of “controlling love” as a description of this domestic intervention takes ecclesial notions of community, secularizes them, and revisits them in the guise of domestic conflicts.

One thing that was striking about the relatively recent miniseries version is that it preserves the early pericope in which a few Native Americans walk right into the house while “Pa” is out. The curt, tense, almost manner of fact way in which this scene transpires directly confronts the first few seasons of LH, in which the sanctity of the Ingall’s home represents the domestication of the prairie against all racial odds. The miniseries doesn’t mind tossing us into the confusion that attended western expansion: These Indians are scary! They are mean! But it is their land! Or is it? The LH TV series undercuts this ethnographic controversy by linking the social system of Walnut Grove to the Native American way of living. It is communal, non-capitalist, and bound to hunting/gathering. It is a holistic, and arguably mercenary, form of colonialism.

The miniseries version also does not shy away from the darkness of “Pa.” In reality, “Pa” was a very depressed and angry man, much different than his characterization in the Landon LH version. In LH, Pa is the ethical and social norm for Walnut Grove. But, the real Ingalls family most probably would have been one of the dysfunctional families around which episodes of LH tend to be based. In the grand scheme of things, the mini-series seems to pose Pa as a man wandering about the prairie because he just can’t settle down (which current “historical Pa” biographical info indicates), whereas the Ingalls family in LH becomes an icon of the pioneering American spirit.

6. The last few episodes are about this awful gawky kid named Johnny that Laura is desperately in love with. He goes to the “big city,” which really is just the next town over, to seek his fortune in life. What happens is actually well worth watching: Johnny falls in love with the local prostitute and shenanigans ensue. But Johnny is a microcosm of the town in these episodes. He has reached a point where it is impossible to actually remove himself from the communalizing effect of “Pa”. The town has become  so much a part of his personality that he can no longer function as an individual. This whole series of episodes is all about the LH variety of  “controlling love,” in that he is tricked into seeing that the world is such a horrible place that home is much safer for him.

So, all this is to say that the quandries posed by conflicting versions of the “historical Pa” make this fertile territory. Though I guess if Green casts Danny McBride as Pa, we will know which direction this will go. I can imagine that the anecdote about Landon sipping whiskey from styrofoam cups prior to filming (so the kids wouldn’t be scandalized) is appealing to Green’s finer screenwriting talents.

(I want to thank Ken Morefield [Associate Professor of English at Campbell University and one of the most read-worthy film critics out there] for helping me shape these thoughts.)