Finally got around to watching Jonathan Demme’s humane documentary about Jimmy Carter ‘Man from Plains’ last night – a film about the most useful post-Presidency in US history. What struck me the most was not the fact that President Carter invests body and soul in the cause of peace and justice – this part of his story is so familiar already. No, the most eye-opening element of the film, which, I suppose, should also have been the most obvious, is the home life he shares with Rosalynn after 60 years of marriage. They have a rhythm to their lives that wouldn’t look out of place on an episode of ‘Little House on the Prairie’, except Pa and Ma are often away from home saving the world.
Cultural representations of southern living have been too entangled in the history of racism to fully break free yet; but the life the Carters have – a bit of a cookout here, building a house there, a bicycle stroll here, negotiating peace between Israel and Egypt there (and I don’t say it this way to trivialise them at all) – seems to me to only be possible in a context where people know the difference between meaningful work and frenetic activity, rest and laziness, community and overcrowding.
(As for the film, well, I love Jonathan Demme’s work – ‘Rachel Getting Married’ was one of the most honest and dramatically engaging films of last year; but I’m not the greatest fan of the approach he opts for in his documentaries – they tend to be unobtrusive fly on the wall pieces, without any questions coming from the director to the subject – I would have liked more of a sense of President Carter’s interior journey, his motivations and inner conflicts, his struggles and how he feels when he sees something like success.) Having said that, the integrity with which he carries himself, and the story of what he has done in the three decades since he left office, contrasting with the speakers’ circuit and junket tourism that provide the very expensive bread and butter of most former presidents, and sketched in this movie represents one of the most obvious personifications of Richard Rohr’s notion that ‘the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the good’.