(originally published in The Scene-January 2011)
So, this month kicks off a yearlong experiment in cinematic analysis that this column will undertake in hopes of gaining a deeper appreciation of the relationship between a motion picture and its chosen environment. Every film has to be set somewhere, and for the express purposes of this monthly, poor-man’s attempt at journalism, I choose to pinpoint a film set in each of the 50 sections of this, our so beloved, red-blooded behemoth, the United States of America.
That settles it, 50 states=50 films. One per state, and the rules for each are simple: each film must bare a genuine attempt to embrace and convey some substantial measure of legitimate representation of whichever state it happens to be planted in. The movie has to dip beneath the surface and get a feel for its setting and the kinds of personas that inform it.
Some cases can prove appealing, others appalling; either way, an impact must be made for a picture to join the club. This first edition will sort through four fitting examples, some more current than others (as will be the case on through to December), and each from distinctly colorful spots in this here America.
Down By Law jumps off first in the far, dirty southern reaches of Louisiana. Entry number three in director Jim Jarmusch’s indie-chic canon, the film puts Jarmusch’s relaxed, minimalist character study routine square in the midst of swampland after a meander through depressing, early ’80s New York (Permanent Vacation) and a sprawling trek from NYC to Cleveland and on to somewhere in Florida (Stranger Than Paradise).
The initial linking thread here is musician/thespian John Lurie, who has a role in each picture, here playing a small-scale mack daddy who falls for a police sting and finds himself sharing a ruddy jail cell with an aimless disc jockey (Tom Waits) and an endlessly babbling Italian fellow (Roberto Benigni) with a limitless enthusiasm for, well, “being.”
Their shared (mis)adventures entail a jailbreak followed swiftly by a whole lotta stumbling through the bayou woodlands and later a run in with a small, off-to-the-side eatery peopled by one lonely Italian woman (Nicoletta Braschi), who provides the men with a temporary safe haven and blossoming romantic potential for Benigni’s character.
What qualifies this particular film as a worthy representation of Louisiana (as opposed to some more obvious, up front choices; i.e. Angel Heart, Streetcar Named Desire, maybe even one of the many Katrina documentaries, whatever) is that it understands that little extra something that I find myself often looking for and, thus, have applied toward the meat of this experiment, the relation between the human characters in the story and the unique specifics of their surroundings.
Via careful, richly detailed monochrome cinematography by esteemed Dutch cameraman Robby Müller, the viewer is able to glean copious visual subtleties within the frame. His imagery breathes with a depth and weight that can almost be called a character in and of itself. From establishing shot passages of New Orleans’ architecture (French Quarter ironwork, inner city housing projects, jail cells and shotgun abodes all in the mix) and street-bound wandering souls, to moss-laden swamp waters and long, winding roads, Müller’s bold black and white bayou holds its own and plays fruitful accompaniment to the picture’s misfit trio.
This is a smooth and satisfying little neo-noir slice of life with top shelf, deadpan turns by both Waits and Lurie bounced to max effect off the pure mania of Bengini. Down By Law has been a member of the Criterion Collection (spine #166 on a two-disc set) since 2002 and that would be the only edition one ever need bother with. criterion.com
Moving one state straight north, Arkansas, brings us to a film which probably most readers have at least seen or heard of once. Sling Blade is both Bill Bob Thornton’s tour de force embodiment of a “mentally challenged” feller named Karl Childers and rich homage to his home state.
The resulting film was, of course, a genuine sleeper hit with award show adulation and of the moment pop culture referencing following suit as expected. What makes this film fit with the program here is its adherence to the rural culture of the small town that the endearing Karl must learn to get by in.
To recap the basic premise for anyone who may have forgotten or never bothered with the film in the first place, Karl has just been released from the “Nervous Hospital” (as he terms it), where he’d been placed for a homicidal outburst he had as a young lad (he offed his mom and her lover). With only a handful of books to his name, Karl re-enters society and quickly makes friends with a young boy (Lucas Black), his mother (Nataline Canerday), her homosexual buddy (John Ritter) and later finds an adversary in said mother’s drunken, abusive beau Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), who likes to yell and throw shit, y’all know the type.
Billy Bob expanded this story from a previously realized short (Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade) and he won an Oscar off the resulting script. The strengths in this picture, apart from the more obvious points of acting and direction, come from small, taken-for-granted details that inform the traits and behaviors of those who thrive within the storyline. The natural affinity Karl has for repairing and maintaining small engines is just an easy example; the quaint particulars of the dialog is another.
Sling Blade shares its residence in this month’s group of cinematic choices by way of building up some epic storytelling prowess off of a convincing small town foundation (it even manages to borrow that Down By Law brain trust-Jim Jarmusch-for a clever cameo).
Composer Daniel Lanois and cameraman Barry Markowitz blend the Gothic and the romantic vibes at a level that serves to equally complement the work as a whole, the end product looks especially masterful considering the less than $1 million in production costs. This film, too, has been double disc’d, this time by the Miramax goons, and even if you’ve already gone through it, it bares revisiting. miramax.com
Over to the east a spell, in that thing they call North Carolina, another filmmaker with leanings to rural folks and their day-to-day methods of gettin’ by named David Gordon Green, has set down roots for his debut film George Washington.
Carrying the heavy influence of the elegant human poetry of early era Terrence Malick (see Days of Heaven) and the bygone days of big studio, auteur-driven cinema, Green and his partners have sought to craft a proud, authentic, widescreen meditation on time and place.
The film centers on a fairly compact network of friends and acquaintances who live, love, meander, banter on about trivia on top of trivia with asides to things broken and tangential, and ultimately have to face a sudden interjection of tragedy.
Green and his cinematographer Tim Orr have taken extensive pains to give the film a class-A look to tell the interlocking life lessons earned and learned by the bottom of the economic food chain characters (black and white skinned alike) the film is based around.
Again, the lasting value of this piece, and what sells its depiction of back roads North Carolina, is the natural essence of people and place (with maybe just a few shades of something like Harmony Korine’s Gummo bleeding through). This is yet another strong presentation of an area without the convenient devices of formula and pricey effects dressing.
Gordon Green has gone on to further his reputation as a director that needs to keep making movies and telling stories, with such solid films as Snow Angels and Undertow under his belt (and yes, he’s the same guy who called the shots on the demented pot-head extravaganza Pineapple Express). What George Washington does is, for myself at least, serve as a primer of sorts on the human mechanics of a place slightly less familiar, of people not so much like me yet ever the more intriguing because of it. Props once more to Criterion for helping get this thing out into the world (spine # 152).
Ok, enough with the fictional shit, time to get real...maybe a little bit too real.
The fourth and final state to fall under the microscope this month would be the one mentioned in the title, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. This is a documentary centered around a year spent in the company of many, many members of the very sprawling White family tree.
This is a clan at once immortalized in a key track (“D Ray White”) on arguably Hank Williams III’s most accomplished album Straight To Hell and demoralized in the eyes of many of the non-kin types living in their immediate vicinity of Boone County, WV.
We are provided with insight into the ramblings and excesses of Jesco, Mousie, Maime, Poney (who has managed to escape to Minnesota, of all places) Sue Bob and so on, all giving not close to one good goddamn as they party out the rest of their highly dysfunctional days on earth, often under the clearly fed up watch of clan matriarch Bertie Mae.
Within this thing, you get it all -- alcohol abuse, pill abuse, firearm abuse, physical abuse, English abuse and abuse abuse. At one point, a woman is shown snorting drugs off a table during her stay in a hospital immediately post-childbirth.
One of many branch stories involves an imprisoned young man (that would be Sue Mae’s son, Brandon) relating how he wound up shooting his uncle, while another charts one of the White girl’s actually having a go of the rehab thing. The film (sporting several key members of Jackass as executive producers, as if that should surprise anyone) starts out as sheer train wreck genius but eventually just grows numbing. It all leaps around the clan White and even steps out into the sane world to lend screen space to several of the more upstanding Boone County citizens, one of whom makes the pivotal connection between such live in the moment, devil may care behavior and the undeniably harsh conditions of the major (legal) method in which people in this region (and of this lack of any stable education) can carve out a living, the coal mines.
So what does this nasty, redneck ass business have to do with the ongoing theme established here in this article? Well, if almost 90 minutes of watching some severely ugly bastards such as these drink, snort, fight and debase their way through waking life ain’t enough to stain one’s desire to pay a visit to the Western portion of them Virginias, then I’m afraid nothing will.
Here’s the website: wildandwonderfulwhites.com. Now, go git!
That should suffice for this first installment,
46 states/46 films to go...