Enjoying this video, I think, is an inalienable American right. I couldn't resist it.
(HT: Georgia Sports Blog)
Thursday, June 14, 2007
This "review" was done in conjunction with the Spike Lee piece for the Oxford American. Enjoy.
Cataloguing is now a fool’s errand. It’s best done as a cocktail game played by mock Elizabethans and workaday ironists, lovers of futility. Definition has become absurd, even regarding the sexes. The canon and its kind are defunct, undermined by rhizomes of minority literatures and performativity theories. Earnest litanies are the exclusive trade of academics, obscurantists, and human dynamos–folks like Harold Bloom whose dryness, oddness, and mind-numbing productiveness help deflect insult. Make a list; suffer the stings and arrows of cavilers and anarchists. Invite impolite accusations of defective methodologies and criteria. With your inadvertent omissions provoke an infinite comment loop, generating compulsive and riotous list-making that underscores the inherent impossibility of making lists.
Southern film’s primum mobile index is Larry Langman and David Ebner’s Hollywood’s Image of the South: A Century of Southern Films, published in 2001. The compilers’ measuring stick for Southernness is sound enough: “When we categorize a film as a ‘southern,’ we mean to say that it has passed the ‘Confederate test.’ The action either takes place at any time in one of the states that composed the Confederacy or else it takes place during the Civil War in some other state but Southern troops are involved” (ix). Langman and Ebner, unfortunately, ought to apply their standard a tad more rigorously.
The problems are legion. Anyone old enough to enjoy Patrick Swayze’s matchless time would agree a list of Southern films that excludes (1) Roadhouse, the dramatic touchstone for a huge slice of honky-tonking Southerners, is fundamentally flawed. There’s no (2) Thunder Road either, presumably because of its setting in Kentucky outside the Confederate pale. But running whiskey in suped-up cars was always a native Southern experience (NASCAR!). Hollywood later understood that fact and duly relocated its moonshining fare below the Mason-Dixon line, the most notable example, of course, a rowdy marathon from Atlanta to Texarkana and back. If Thunder Road is excluded on the grounds of extra-Confederacy, then (3) the whole chapter on feuds should be struck through, as this especially Silent Era delicacy seems to occur solely within the provinces of Kentucky and West Virginia. The compilers also (4) cull through films about Texas with apparent painstaking discrimination. Truth be told, Texas ought to be a genre unto itself, which is the way Texans would want it.
All the same, it was still a Confederate state. If you’re going to count The Buddy Holly Story about a geeky boy from Lubbock as Southern, where’s The Sugarland Express or A Perfect World? From this point the objections become more specific: (5) Shouldn’t Showboat be recategorized from “Economic Conditions” to “Discrimination”? (6) Brubaker in “The New Politics,” not “Law and Order”? It may touch on the Ku Klux Klan, but is (7) The FBI Story really Southern? (8) What is Warren Beatty’s Bulworth doing here? (9) And where’s No Time for Sergeants, Sergeant York, Doc Hollywood, Gator, Angel Heart, and even Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Hard Target? (10) Etc., etc.
Anyone old enough to enjoy Patrick Swayze’s matchless time would agree a list of Southern films that excludes Roadhouse, the dramatic touchstone for a huge slice of honky-tonking Southerners, is fundamentally flawed.
As a cultural tool, however, Hollywood’s Image of the South is an invaluable first step. With the assumption that production roughly equals consumption, the book’s categories begin to gauge the historical notions about Southerners. One peculiar institution seems a little more Southern to the last century’s imagination: the chain gang. “Law and Order”–composed of films about chain gangs, prisons, and courtroom contests–accounts for 8% of the book’s total entries. It’s followed by six categories at approximately 7% each: “Southern Decadence and Dark Shadows,” “Family Survival,” “Economics of the New South,” “Show Business: Way Down South in Dixie,” and the vague double set of “Social Conditions” and “New Social Conditions.” The Ku Klux Klan comprises only 3%. And films about the Civil War and its aftermath as well as ones that tap into Antebellum romanticism all tally 5% or lower. Most, too, were made before mid-century. The smallest pile belongs to “Political Conditions,” as in nineteenth century political conditions. Apparently, people just don’t go for biopics of Andrew Jackson.
Langman and Ebner broaden their categories to encompass almost everything; nonetheless, there’s one glaring oversight and it’s really no fault of theirs. Hollywood and the American imagination have failed to conceive of the modern South of the past twenty-five years. Where’s the agribusiness Dixie? And where are the films about the cities besides New Orleans and Savannah, squeezed for their Old World charm and grotesqueries? The suburban and exurban swaths outside the happy Southern megapolis, say, of Atlanta or Houston, are absent. There’s only one film that might cover that territory, Alan Pakula’s Consenting Adults, and its suggestions are troubling for future Southern culture and cinema–because a plot about subdivision-living upper middle class swingers could happen anywhere.