A night shoot on Main Street, Durham
  • File photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • A night shoot on Main Street, Durham

A little more than a year ago, there was a motion picture production in downtown Durham. Called Main Street, the film starred Colin Firth, Patricia Clarkson, Ellen Burstyn, Orlando Bloom and Amber Tamblyn.

But really, its strongest claim to being taken seriously was that the author of the screenplay was Horton Foote.

Foote, who died in March 2009, is a big deal this year on Broadway as his Orphans’ Home Cycle had a triumphant limited run during the winter, prompting plans for its transfer to Broadway in the fall.

Still, that hasn’t been enough to get much attention for Main Street, which appeared at Cannes last week, according to a couple of online sites. Main Street isn’t listed on the Cannes website (and if you Google “main street” and “Cannes,” you’ll get nothing but hits for Stones in Exile, the documentary about the Rolling Stones 1972 album, Exile on Main St.). Instead, the film played at the market at Cannes, where hundreds of producers set up wildcat screenings in hopes of finding distribution for their films.

It’s worth looking at the blog post written by one Jordan Overstreet and reposted on an Orlando Bloom fan site. The review recaps the story start to finish. Although there’s a bit of a howler right at the top as Overstreet mistakenly writes that Foote based his script on Sinclair Lewis’ novel Main Street, what follows is fairly exhaustive, and she seems to be well-versed in film language (like “B-story”) and is comfortable criticizing Foote and John Doyle, the film’s director, for some of their narrative decisions.

Overstreet notes that Foote “penned the screenplay after a weekend visit to Durham several years earlier, during which he found downtown to be completely empty.” If the following passage from Overstreet’s account is accurate, it appears that the town in the film is called “Durham.”

The film, which marks Doyle’s first major motion picture venture, follows the intersecting lives of various members of the dying Durham community in upstate North Carolina. While home to the prestigious Duke University, a popular destination for many affluent Americans seeking higher education, Durham, as the film suggests, has not prospered in the influx of the nouveau riche; and this once vibrant empire of the North Carolina tobacco industry, has, like many small towns across the South, withered away.

This point is interesting because I interviewed David Linck, the unit publicist for the film, and he made a point of saying that real Durham was standing in for a fictitious Durham—that the community represented in the film would not be intended to be mistaken for real-life Durham. (He also told Kevin Davis and Barry Ragin much the same thing on their Shooting the Bull show.) That fine distinction seems to have been lost on this viewer, at the very least.

Main Street‘s version of Durham seems to be a place left bereft by the demise of the tobacco economy. Empty warehouses, empty streets, etc:

In Foote’s “B” plot line, he explores the newest generation to enter the Durham workforce through the characters of Harris Parker (Bloom), a police officer by day and a law-student by night, and Mary Saunders (Tamblyn), a sectary in a law firm who is dating her much older and very married boss. Harris remains in Durham to support his aging mother, while Mary appears to be stuck in her fear to move away from Harris, who is her high school sweetheart. Through this entrapment, Foote attempts to explain the loss of the Durham workforce—the kids are just moving away.

Overstreet offers thoughts on the lead performances before concluding that the film is a failure, but perhaps one that will survive nonetheless:

With such a well-rounded cast, a script from Horton Foote, and an acclaimed Broadway director on board, Main Street should have been a success, yet it is a total disappointment. … Perhaps if Doyle or Foote had factored in the thoughts of the audience, a very different film would have been produced; one that would have held my attention. Despite this, Doyle is successful in his overall goal of suggesting that sometimes death is the only means for survival. I wonder if the death of Main Street at the box office will help it survive, Mr. Doyle?

Another blogger’s assessment was shorter and harsher:

Main Street – great cast (Ellen Burstyn, Orlando Bloom to name a few) but we left after 30 mins into the film. BAD EDITING. TERRIBLE EDITING. Shots were misused, it should have started way later in the first scene, the opening montage was boring and repetetive. Could be great if it was edited properly

The complaints about the editing and pacing make me think that the film may, in fact, resemble other Horton Foote-scripted films—like Tender Mercies and The Trip to Bountiful, two excellent films that are also, at times, maddeningly slow.

Despite the concerns of some that the movie might damage Durham’s hopes of becoming a mecca for smart, cultured people, there seems to be little for civic boosters to worry about considering that Main Street hasn’t generated much more interest than these humble online reviews—faint, dismissive ripples in the movie blogosphere. Those who treasure Foote’s work, however, will have to hope that Main Street will somehow see the light of day, even if it’s only an unsuccessful curiosity.