The American South is the only part of the US that has officially lost a war.
Well, okay, prior to Vietnam, of course … and the present hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. But believe it or not, the Civil War, fought a hundred and fifty years ago, still haunts the American South and gives it, among other things, a huge cultural chip on its shoulder and an outsider’s hunger for legitimacy.
That makes the South an odd place to practice the art of film. The gorgeous landscapes, the vast, incredible history, the rich and varied subcultures notwithstanding, feature films made about the American South are usually created by people who come in from ‘Fly-to Country.’ Generally, these crews arrive from New York or LA, set up in the most typical locations, the actors adopt ridiculous accents, and the director says ‘Action!’
I’m exaggerating, of course, but it does sometimes seem just that bad. Like any foreign occupation, these crews arrive with a sense of superiority and more than a handful of preconceived notions, most of which are romanticized versions of something they read in a Flannery O’Connor short story (or worse, saw in a movie influenced third-hand by a Flannery O’Connor short story). Like any region, the real American South is much more complex and less exotic than the idealized version plodding around in peoples’ heads.
I have directed several ‘Southern’ films. My next movie, a supernatural thriller called The Mourning Portrait (written with Patrick Greene) will be produced by the excellent folks at Belladonna Productions and has been in development for some time. Thankfully, no one involved has brought up ‘The Accent.’ A period piece, there will be trouble enough finding the proper locations and vehicles and such; worries about visual cliches and dropping the ‘G’s at the end of words are gladly not part of my challenges.
On film, for better or worse, the South has been often fetishized into a ghost of itself – either the rural lowclass drag of gun racks and trucker hats, or the steamy steel magnolia high rises of cities like Hotlanta. Perhaps the most egregious sin perpetrated on the South in film is the dreaded ‘Southern Accent.’ Even the best actors are not immune: Much as I admire the late Natasha Richardson, her dialect in Nell seems to be just one stretched, flattened vowel away from slipping into parody. Other actors sometimes fare better – usually the British or Australians (Cate Blanchet in Billy Bob Thornton’s The Gift is still the best southern accent this writer has ever heard).
Not to say there haven’t been great filmmakers from the South. Florida’s Victor Nunez is an example of a regionalist that gets it absolutely right – the shifting, prismatic qualities that make up a place. His Ruby in Paradise, or Ulee’s Gold, beautifully capture the Florida of its time without being overt about it. It’s just another movie set in another well-drawn place. Billy Bob’s Slingblade feels pretty right, too. Of course, he’s from Arkansas.
Arkansas’ David Gordon Green has lived in the South, and gets it okay – his George Washington was startling precisely because it showed black kids lounging around in the Winston-Salem sun without relying on a hip hop soundtrack. Jody Hill’s East Bound and Down (the first season, anyway) got the New South absolutely right – the strip malls, the car lots, the half-empty, suburban McMansions wilting in the North Carolina heat. Memphis’ Craig Brewer did okay with Hustle and Flow – the accents were a bit chewy, but the locations were right on.
Jim’ Jarmusch’s Mystery Train tried to get Memphis right, but ended up just mythologizing it. Which is okay, as long as we don’t pretend that that’s what Memphis is really like (same goes for New Orleans and Jarmusch’s Down By Law.) A better Memphis filmmaker may be Kentucker Audley, whose post-mumblecore Open Five just premiered at the Atlanta Film Festival. From what I’ve seen, Open Five looks to be stunningly authentic. And Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories also got its regionalism right, as well.
Paul Thomas Anderson explored the San Fernando Valley in several films – does that make him a regionalist? What about Scorsese and his fascination with Little Italy? (His Cape Fear – and the venerable DeNiro – are among the Southern Accent Worst Offenders.) This year’s indie darling Winter’s Bone takes place in the Ozarks, but can’t it also have taken place in rural Wisconsin? Frozen River was memorably placed in upstate New York – but it would have been just as effective unfurling near the Lummi peninsula on the Washington/Canadian border.
So my task on The Mourning Portrait is to make a believable Southern film … without being too Southern. For a time, we discussed shooting The Mourning Portrait on the other end of the Appalachian chain – up in Nova Scotia. The mountains are different there – smaller, rounder, odder. But there’s a ghostliness to the landscape and the architecture was utterly magical, and I knew right away that it would work. The film’s region would technically have changed, but the essence would have remained the same. We may have lost some of those lazy cultural touchstones – banjos, people talking about hollers and ‘cricks’ – but that’s not an entirely bad thing.
I was happy to consider placing my erstwhile Appalachian film in another locale, because I know that in general, film — perhaps the most purely escapist art-form — is excellent at pulling viewers in and allowing them to live vicariously in another situation. So to explore exotic locales and take people to places they’ve never before been to – that’s part of the gift of movies. It could be shot in Denmark and still have the same power, right?
And let’s not pretend that other regions in the US – whether the dusty, coyote and harmonica-haunted Southwest, the hip-hop cops and barrio gangs of LA, the blues clubs and cold weather badges of the Second City – are immune to cliché. It happens everywhere.
So it’ll be okay if people call The Mourning Portrait a Southern film. That’s cool with me. But really, it’s just a movie that takes place in a place. Just like every good movie.
And anyway, where do you live?