When I was a student at University of New Hampshire, I took a class co-taught by Jane Bellamy (who is now at University of Tennessee Knoxville). Two things she said that semester stick with me. The first is more a question of how she said things. She would talk about how a book is about concrete things (its plot/content), but about other things (its larger formal and ideological significance/s). When she said the second-meaning about, she would drop her voice an octave and add gravel to it. I stole this approach immediately, and use it to this day.

The semester after Bellamy’s class (which she co-taught with Sandhya Shetty), I took a class that Janet Aikins Yount taught. During one class, she told the class that anyone who does their standard reading on any and every text (what Jane Bellamy called “pouring the book into the theory grinder”) is doing the text and themselves a great disservice. Your reading of the text, she made quite clear, needed to emerge from the evidence in front of you. Thus, I wrote a not-particularly great seminar paper for that class. I took some solace in her comment that she was happy to see that I tried to stretch myself.

I’ve been thinking about Jane and Janet a fair bit as I’ve been watching Jack Nicholson movies for a chapter in Hollywood’s Imaginary Geography. I don’t really like Jack. If pressed, I’d probably say About Schmidt is my favourite Nicholson film. But so help me, when I sat down and looked at the films that get lumped together in the Hollywood Renaissance canon, I saw that he occupies a significant place in the canon. The empty space at the centre of the Hollywood Renaissance’s vision of America is especially clear in Nicholson’s films through 1980.

The pink dots are the more or less agreed-upon Hollywood Renaissance films, the grey the top 25 films from 1967-1980, and the green dots are Nicholson movies from 1967-1980. I can already see that I forgot to add in Richmond VA from The Last Detail and Estes Park CO from The Shining, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.

Hollywood Renaissance Jack Nicholson Top 25

What we can see in the Nicholson locations is the road trips his films take up the coasts (Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail) and across the bottom third of the country (Easy Rider) with a few coastal locations (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Carnal Knowledge, Chinatown). There’s no middle America. In fact, the only distinctly middle American filmmaker in the Hollywood Renaissance is Peter Bogdanovich, who has Paper Moon and The Last Picture Show. But otherwise, the sense of “flyover country” is quite strong. To riff on the tagline for Easy Rider, when the film brats went looking for America, they couldn’t find it anywhere in the midwest.

Last Detail Portsmouth NH 3

Chinatown Echo Park 1

Five Easy Pieces derrick 2

I would never have consciously decided to write about Jack Nicholson (at least not like I was happy to write about Burt Reynolds), but what his movies are about, in terms of their locations/geography, emerges quite clearly out of the data.