The peculiar rhythms of the American South, along with its rich history of folklore and stock of surreal, eccentric archetypes has always been a draw for film makers seeking to capture the region’s undeniable mystique. Culturally, the South occupies a unique corner in America, at once familiar, but also foreign and unknowable. To outsiders, Southerners seem to view the world differently and matters of race, religion and community can appear steeped in a kind of conservatism that borders, at least on the surface, on the fanatical. There’s a mysterious quality to the numerous subcultures that populate the South and they get murkier the further down the Mississippi you travel.
In the early days of American sound cinema, film makers exploited the Grand Old South as a backdrop across a host of genres, but this idealized version of the South lent itself especially well to historical romances, of which Gone With the Wind was its most famous iteration. This highly-fictionalized — and highly successful — interpretation of the traditional South tapped into the Dixie mythologies of dashing gentlemen, Southern Belles and a grateful underclass. In the changing political landscape of the ’50s and ’60s however, the South’s cinematic representation took a nosedive and it was transformed into a dangerous place where violence and backwardness dominated. Films such as Cool Hand Luke, Easy Rider and Deliverance depicted the South as a backwater of ignorance, intolerance and bigotry.
Over the last decade however, a different kind of Southern film has emerged, still steeped in some of the same regional perplexities as those that came earlier, but offering a more contemporary (and less stereotypical) vision of the various subcultures that continue to exist there. One of the most compelling examples of this change is director Jeff Nichols’ Mud (2012). The script, also by Nichols, follows two Arkansan teens who stumble across and befriend a wanted man named Mud. What follows is a classic tale of adventure and love set within a coming of age drama and it’s one of the most engaging American films in recent memory. Mud joins a growing list of critically-acclaimed films from the last 10 years that share certain themes and attributes. Taken together, Beasts of the Southern Wild (Louisiana), Lance Hammer’s introspective Ballast (Mississippi), Winter’s Bone (the Ozarks), Richard Linklater’s Bernie (East Texas), William Friedkin’s controversial Killer Joe (Louisiana again) and David Gordon Green’s underrated Gothic chase film Undertow (Georgia) are beginning to form something approaching a genre; the Southern art house drama.
While varying in tone, there are common threads that run through each of these films. As a locale, the South offers contemporary film makers a unique setting unencumbered by the deafening white noise and endless distractions of our modern world and it is onto this canvas that some of the most interesting American dramas in recent years have unfolded. These films share a Southern Gothic lyricism and Twainian whimsy and their plots typically take place within small communities where everyone knows one another. The communities are insular and often populated by the working class poor. Affairs are handled internally and residents are suspicious of external meddling. Government institutions and law enforcement agencies are mistrusted because they rarely seem to have the community’s best interests at heart and as a result, people rely on each other when assistance is required.
Language and dialogue play a key role in Southern art house dramas as well. Regional accents are utilized to inform (and sometimes misinform) the audience about central characters. The lilt and cadence of Southern speech also reminds us that we are in a place where time has slowed down and people don’t race from one thing to the next. Physical environment plays into it as well, from the stark, flat, featureless desolation of Ballast to the rolling, forested Ozark foothills of Winter’s Bone, place becomes a character unto itself, further evoking the sense that setting is instrumental in the telling of these stories.
Youth often play a central role in Southern art house dramas as well. The young protagonists at the centre of Mud, Winter’s Bone, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Undertow are all free to explore the world around them with a kind of immunity from adult input that’s reminiscent of what the childhood experience was once like for everyone. Fictional or not, the South depicted in these films has a kind of old-fashioned nobility and honesty that’s both nostalgic and easy on the soul. The self-reliance that underpins these communities echos simpler times when people said what they meant and meant what they said.
Setting a film in the South these days grants film makers a kind of narrative clarity that’s difficult to achieve as readily elsewhere. Modern urban locales are simply too fractured and too complex to serve as effective settings to tell simple stories any longer. In much the same way as films set on trains once did, the South, with its intimate and insular communities, offers contemporary film makers a clearly-defined setting to represent society in microcosm. Like the train passengers hurtling down the track in the cinema of the past, setting a film in the South similarly isolates its characters from outside influence, creating a miniature version of the world onto which film makers can project their stories and continue to explore of the human condition.
In a way, at least in the movies, The South has risen again.
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