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The “Southern” Project, Sneak Preview #1

One year ago, I introduced a planned series on “Essential Southerns: Hollywood’s Forgotten Genre.” As I worked on it, though, the series continued to grow and grow in size and scope. Eventually, I knew it had passed well beyond the bounds of a mere blog feature and threatened to overwhelm everything. If I were to publish all of it here, I would have to rename this “The Southern Film Blog.” Tempting . . . but not what I want this site to be. But I promised you a list of films last year, and I aim to deliver a list of films. So, here’s a little preview of my “Southern” project in 4 parts. Enjoy!

nashville

Nashville (1975)
Screenplay by Joan Tewkesbury. Dir. Robert Altman.
Perf. Ronee Blakley, Ned Beatty, Keith Carradine.

What it’s about: A diverse group of 24 characters converge on Nashville for an extended weekend leading up to a major political primary. Each has their own talents, desires, and reasons for being there, which intersect, collide, or quietly pass each other by as their relationships shift and evolve. Eventually, all of them end up at a momentous rally for a populist third-party candidate that brings their shared story to a thematic head.

nashvilleposterWhy it’s essential: Released right between the Watergate scandal and the American bicentennial celebration, Nashville speaks for a disillusioned decade. This is the “Athens of the South” as a stand-in for the nation as a whole, a giant slice of Americana with all the tragedy and comedy of American politics, religion, and entertainment, as they intersect in the drama of the country-western music industry. Nominated for multiple Oscars and later inducted into the National Film Registry, Nashville is generally regarded as Altman’s greatest film, and it is certainly his most ambitious.

Among the many things Altman gets right is the huge role that musical performance plays in the film. Most of Nashville‘s many songs were written for the movie by the actors that perform them, and there is something like an hour of singing, more than a third of the film’s run-time. As a result, many of the most significant moments take place in the context of a live performance, including the shocking final scene at the political rally, where a star is born in the aftermath of a great tragedy, singing a song of almost-apathetic passivity in the face of exploitation. It is an incredibly bleak ending, but then again … maybe it isn’t?

This is a true ensemble film unlike anything that came before it, and its influence is clear on many later films and filmmakers. No one of the two dozen characters emerges as more significant than the others, and they meet and mingle their way through the film in surprising and unexpected ways while the camera glides in and out of their lives. Because it follows so many characters in such a documentary-like fashion, Nashville ends up showing us lots of different kinds of relationships: romantic, familial, friendly, and many of a much more impersonal sort. But more than that, it’s about portraying a community (and a nation) where people are basically commodities, whether financially or politically or in some other way, and everyone is okay with that. Post-Watergate cynicism rolls off of all this in waves, but moments of genuine hope and human connection still shine through here and there, even at the end. Nashville is satire, and very sharp, pointed satire at that. But it cares too deeply about its characters, and shows us their humanity too clearly, to only be that.

But is it worth watching? Nashville is not a short film, and depending on how you look at it, either a lot happens, or nothing at all does. And if country-western music is not to your taste, you may struggle through it, even as it effectively sends up the industry much of the time. Nevertheless, this is a movie that rewards the dedicated viewer, and even stands up well after multiple viewings. There’s just too much to really take in the first time: too many great performances, complex relationships, and characters and events whose full significance develops slowly. This is a full-on dramatic miniseries expertly distilled into a single film.

djangounchained

Django Unchained (2012)
Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino. Dir. Quentin Tarantino.
Perf. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio.

What it’s about: Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist and bounty hunter, frees a slave named Django and enlists him to identify a trio of brothers. The operation is so successful that Schultz takes Django on as his permanent partner, and Django convinces Schultz to help find and free his wife Broomhilda from the clutches of vicious slave-owner Calvin Candie.

djangounchainedposterWhy it’s essential: Quentin Tarantino has crafted an impressive career around sophisticated homages to disreputable genres. Django Unchained is his tribute to the trashy blaxploitation Southerns and Spaghetti Westerns of the 1970s, an adrenaline-fueled blend of Old West and Deep South. Controversial, even for a Tarantino film, due to its treatment of race and racial violence, Django was still a critical and box-office success, and won numerous accolades and awards, including 2 Oscars out of 5 total nominations.

In classic Tarantino style, Django basically ignores historicism, instead creating a pulpy, post-modern vision of the antebellum South that draws heavily on the cultural imagination for lurid details like “Mandingo” fighting. More than just a catalog of sordid Southern cliches and the horrors of slavery, though, the film is primarily about revenge; not only revenge by Django against his enemies, but by the entire black race against white slave owners. Tarantino upends what we know about actual history, and also what we expect from a movie set in the antebellum South. The climax explodes in an orgy of black-on-white violence that ends only when Django has killed everyone on the plantation who was complicit in the oppression. He even dynamites the plantation mansion, the primary cultural symbol of the slave system.

Tarantino uses blood on film much the way Jackson Pollock used paint on canvas: liberally splattered, but not haphazardly as a casual observer might believe. The enormous body count of the movie’s finale is the cathartic pay-off to multiple hours of watching white masters subject their black slaves to every sort of dehumanizing cruelty imaginable. Much like D.W. Griffith before him, Tarantino rewrites history with lightning, using the power of his medium to share a different vision of America’s racial past. Unlike Griffith, Tarantino makes no pretense of telling it “the way it was,” only the way we might wish it had been.

But is it worth watching? Few directors working today can match Quentin Tarantino for sheer stylistic flair, as he has proved in film after film. Django Unchained revisits many of his familiar themes, and feels like a spiritual sequel to (or perhaps self-plagiarism of) Inglourious Basterds. Django is flawed in ways that Basterds is not. In particular, the film’s final 30 minutes are somewhat self-indulgent and rough. But much of it is great, even brilliant virtuoso filmmaking.

ourhospitality

Our Hospitality (1923)
Screenplay by Clyde Bruckman. Dir. Buster Keaton & John G. Blystone.
Perf. Buster Keaton, Natalie Talmadge, Joe Roberts.

What it’s about: Willie McKay, a displaced Southerner who grew up in New York City, learns that he has just inherited the family estate back in Kentucky, and that the McKays have a vicious, generations-old feud with the Canfield family. On the train ride out, he falls in love with fellow traveler Virginia, and she invites him to come for dinner. He accepts the invitation, not realizing that she is Virginia Canfield. However, the Canfield patriarch decrees that the code of Southern hospitality dictates they cannot harm anyone, even a McKay, while he is a guest under their roof, prompting Willie to find every possible excuse to overstay his welcome.

ourhospitalityposterWhy it’s essential: Our Hospitality was Buster Keaton’s first true feature-length film (his previous feature, Three Ages, is really just three comedic shorts connected by a common theme), and is one of his most entertaining, hilariously funny from beginning to end. Keaton chose to set the story in the antebellum period so that he could indulge his passion for antique trains (which he set about recreating with meticulous historical accuracy), and the film’s various train sequences foreshadow his success in The General without exhausting the comedic possibilities of the railroad.

For a comedy that revolves around family (well, dueling families), it is appropriate that Keaton also made the production a family affair, giving parts to his father and his infant son, and casting his pregnant wife as his leading lady. The whole film practically glows with the enjoyment Keaton seems to have had making it. Meanwhile, his light-hearted take on the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud sharply satirizes some of the absurdities of Southern society, deriving endless fodder for amusement out of the contradictions between the pride Southerners take in “their” hospitality and the region’s reputation for violence.

Ultimately, though, Keaton only mocks Southerners in the same gentle spirit with which he pokes fun at the quaintness of the past: out of apparent nostalgia and affection. The same affection for the South is apparent in some of Keaton’s other films as well, notably The General and Steamboat Bill Jr. As he was born in Kansas to a family of traveling vaudeville performers, it is difficult to say exactly where Keaton’s affinity came from. Perhaps it was merely a canny response to the market for all things Southern. Either way, Keaton manages a more effective critique of Southern hypocrisy than more vocal contemporaries like H.L. Mencken through humor, historical distance, and the silent art of early cinema.

But is it worth watching? This is Keaton at his most playful, somehow making the comedy look completely effortless. That’s not to say that what he does looks easy, though. A perilous waterfall rescue during the movie’s climax features a stunt that is easily among the most jaw-dropping feats ever committed to film. While certainly not as celebrated as The General, Our Hospitality is every bit as enjoyable to watch, a true gem of its era (or any other).

deliverance

Deliverance (1972)
Screenplay by James Dickey. Dir. John Boorman.
Perf. Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty.
From novel Deliverance (1970) by James Dickey.

What it’s about: Four men from Atlanta head into the wilderness for a weekend canoe trip along a stretch of river that is about to be flooded out by a dam. On their way downriver, they are attacked by a pair of vicious, inbred hillbillies. Both sides suffer casualties, and the survivors must battle both nature and each other if they want to leave the river alive.

deliveranceposterWhy it’s essential: This is one of those films that instantly invaded the popular imagination and has remained firmly embedded there ever since. Critically-acclaimed and a box-office hit, the film was nominated for 3 Oscars, and was eventually selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. It has inspired countless imitations and parodies in the decades since it was released.

Deliverance is a kind of Southern horror entirely different from the spooky Gothic films that had been more typical of the genre. This was horror in the wilderness, where the natural danger to inexperienced city folk was further heightened by the threat of murderous, freakish country folk. Boorman and Dickey populated their film with the weirdest, scariest-looking hillbillies they could find, and it is difficult to say now how much they were inspired by stereotypes and how much they created them. Either way, after Deliverance, the sound of mountain banjos took on a decidedly more sinister tone.

What most people miss is the film’s ambiguity towards its city heroes, whose actions and attitudes are questionable at best. Dickey’s original novel draws a sharper parallel between their actions and their fate, essentially presenting their canoe expedition as a rape, and the nearly-completed dam as the river’s annihilation. They, in turn, face rape and ultimately annihilation at the hands of two “river people.” Their ultimate triumph is not particularly triumphant, and they return to the city haunted by nightmares of what transpired outside the safe boundaries of civilization.

But is it worth watching? Even after so many years, Deliverance is still thrilling, and still terrifying. Many moments stick out in memory, but the “Dueling Banjos” and “Squeal Like a Pig” scenes are both certainly deserving of their famous (and infamous) reputations. Each of the four principal actors is perfectly chosen. Reynolds plays to type as the rugged, skilled outdoorsman, but then against type when he is ultimately helpless, unable to be the hero. Meanwhile Voight is the quiet, sensitive everyman who is forced to step into that role instead. This was Ned Beatty’s first movie, though he has since performed in countless Southern films, and Ronny Cox had acted in front of the camera only twice before. Both are excellent.

intheheatofthenight

In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Screenplay by Stirling Silliphant. Dir. Norman Jewison.
Perf. Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates.
From novel In the Heat of the Night (1965) by John Ball.

What it’s about: Virgil Tibbs, a black homicide detective from Philadelphia, is picked up in Sparta, Mississippi while traveling north by train. A local deputy suspects him of having murdered a local bigwig. When the redneck Sheriff Gillespie learns who Tibbs really is, he reluctantly invites him to stay on and lend his expertise to the investigation.

intheheatofthenightposterWhy it’s essential: In the Heat of the Night works equally well as civil rights drama and crime thriller, but its real significance can best be illustrated by the conditions surrounding its production. The film’s subject was considered so volatile in the mid-1960s that before it could be green-lit, its producer had to prove to the studio that the film could make money even if it weren’t shown anywhere in the South. Then, the film’s star, Sidney Poitier (the only black leading man in mainstream movies at the time), agreed to do the film only as long as it was not shot anywhere in the South, either. Poitier had good reason to be concerned; just a few years earlier, while delivering money and support to civil rights workers, he had been pursued by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Although it has several memorable moments, the film’s most crucial scene occurs in Endicott’s greenhouse. Endicott, a wealthy plantation owner, answers Tibbs with syrupy condescension. However, his geniality turns to rage when he realizes that Tibbs is there to question him in connection with the murder, and he strikes the black man across the face. Without hesitation or pause, Tibbs backhands the white man in return. Everyone else in the room freezes in shock, and Endicott asks Gillespie what he intends to do. Gillespie, as fascinated as he is horrified, quietly replies, “I don’t know.” Reportedly, white audiences, who had never before witnessed such retaliation from a black character in a movie, were just as unsure about how to respond, but black audiences, unsurprisingly, erupted in cheers.

Despite a predictably cool reception in the Southern states, In the Heat of the Night still ended up being one of the biggest box-office draws of the year. It was also nominated for 7 Oscars, and won 5, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor (which went to Rod Steiger for his performance as Gillespie). Poitier went unnominated that year, despite playing major roles in three of the top-grossing films of the year (he had already become the first African American man to win an Oscar in 1963). Poitier and Steiger are the perfect foils for each others’ characters, and it is difficult to imagine either performance working without the high caliber of the other.

But is it worth watching? In the Heat of the Night is still a compelling film. It wisely lets the mystery drive the story, and allows the other relationships to play out naturally around that. Thus, what could otherwise have been a tiresomely sanctimonious parable about race becomes a very believable personal drama about one racist sheriff who grudgingly learns professional respect for one black detective. The film never pretends that the solution to the issue of race is as straightforward as the solution to the murder mystery, but it subtly undercuts the audience’s preconceptions at every turn.

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~ by Jared on May 11, 2014.

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