Sunday, 20 May 2012

Dustin Lance Black is Angry about Being a Southerner

We'll get back to photography in the South soon, but in light of our recent conversations about stereotypical views of Appalachia, I want to reflect for a bit about my response to an article in this week's New Yorker.

The New Yorker article is about a movie, and movies are a kind of photography, so I don't think I'm too far outside my usual focus in doing this piece. This is a new movie, just coming out, set in the South, named Virginia, named for the central character, not the location, of the movie.

Although the nominal setting of the movie IS Virginia Beach, VA, even though it was actually filmed in Michigan.

Go figure that one. There is a major motion picture studio in Wilmington, NC, which I'm sure would have been happy to make this movie, if for some reason the State of Virginia had not been available.

They do make movies in Virginia, too, though Black and Friend seem blissfully unaware of it. 

You can see the Preview of the movie here.  And read the New York Times's review of the movie here.

But I direct you to this movie, not for the movie, but for rome comments in this week's New Yorker from the movie's writer and director, Dustin Lance Black, an Academy Award winning script writer and director who grew up in Live Oak, TX.

Black wrote a brilliant script for a powerful movie called Milk, about the gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Black won a richly deserved Academy Award for his work on this movie.

Now Black has written and directed a new movie, Virginia. He decided, in the run-up to the opening of this movie, to sit down for an interview with The New Yorker's Tad Friend.

Black and Friend apparently had a good and jovial conversation, during which, apparently, Black decided to unload on his native region.

All Southerners, Black told Friend, really dream of getting out of the South, and all really dream of moving to Los Angeles. Southerners, in Black's account, "all flock to the Gulf of Mexico on our vacations and pretend, but we know, when we're wiping off the oil with little baby wipes, that this isn't the dream."

Black's brother Marcus died recently, of cancer, and Black wants us to know that "he got out of the South physically . . . but mentally and emotionally I don't think he ever did." As though there is some link between his death from cancer and his inability to get out of the South "mentally and emotionally."

Black himself, however, "got out," he tells Friend, with "an abiding air of gratitude," because his mother married a soldier and moved the family to Fort Ord, California, and Black then moved on to Los Angeles, and presumably to the fulfillment of his dreams. 

Black's comments to Friend about the South left Friend with the impression that a movie like this would NEVER be shown in the South. 

Virginia is opening this weekend, writes Friend, in his New Yorker story, in an art movie theater near you, "as long as you're near an art house pretty far from the actual South."

Such comments might have been understandable  in the New Yorker in 1952, but in 2012, they are simply unacceptable. The New Yorker Editorial Staff ought to be ashamed of themselves for publishing such an out-of-date and  condescending piece.

This movie will be shown, and will find an appreciative audience, for sure, in Atlanta and Athens, Ga, and in Raleigh, and Durham, and Chapel Hill, and Charlotte, NC, and in dozens of other towns and cities across the South.

Besides, I've been to Los Angeles, and I thought that Gertrude Stein got it just about right when she said of southern California, "There's no there there." Southern California seems to me to be a place of images and facades and illusion, a place lacking in history and community.

I'm going to give Black a pass on his comments, because -- if one is an artist -- the story one tells about oneself is the story one tells to make possible the creative adult life that one seeks to live. The Story of the Artist who is Born in the South and Feels He Must Go Elsewhere to Thrive as an Artist is an old and familiar Southern story. We know that story well, and we try to forgive those who feel they must use it in their marketing.

After all, one's story is one's own business, I think.Although I strongly suspect Black will find he has a larger audience for this movie in the South than outside of it.

But Friend's role in this is inexcusable. 

Friend clearly needs to get out of New York City more, needs to visit a region where thousands of exceptionally creative and artistic people are making rich and meaningful lives for themselves and making exceptional art out of the complex, and, yes, often difficult and challenging history of the South, and the personal experience of making meaning out of growing up in and living in the South.

After all, so much of the art of the South is the art of America, from blues and jazz to Faulkner and O'Connor and Walker and Angelou.

Friend digs up the old joke Pat Conroy claims his mother told him when he told her he wanted to be a Southern writer. "My mother," Conroy says, "once told me, 'All Southern literature can be summed up in these words: On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.'"

Conroy could tell that story, and make that joke, because it was a self-deprecating joke, a joke that acknowledges the literary legacy of the South made by a young Southern writer who hoped to find his place in that legacy of imaginative struggle with Southern history. 

This story is relevant only to Conroy's own story as an artist and a Southerner. 
Here's the official plot synopsis for Virginia.

"VIRGINIA is a funny, touching drama that looks at the American Dream and what it takes to keep it together.

"VIRGINIA stars Jennifer Connelly in the title role as a beautiful yet unhinged single mother who struggles to raise her son Emmett while dreaming of escaping her small Southern boardwalk town. Her long time affair with the very married, Mormon Sheriff Richard Tipton is thrown into question when he decides to run for public office. 

"Things are further complicated when Emmett begins a romantic relationship with Tipton's daughter. Virginia and the town are full of secrets and everyone knows Virginia can only keep things together for so long. "

The Preview makes the movie look tragic and funny, and the plot summary makes it sound like a charming variation on the genre of the Southern Movie, which is of course the movie about life in small towns populated with colorful and quirky characters who all speak with Southern accents.

We've seen this movie before, of course; some recent versions include Fried Green Tomatoes, Steel Magnolias, and The Help.

You can read the results of this interview on page 23 of The New Yorker's issue for May 21, 2012. I can't link you to this interview because it is behind a pay wall, but you might want to pick up a copy.

I'm firing off a note to the editors of the New Yorker but I wanted to share the gist of my comments with this blog's readers before I do.

Now, back to Southern photography.

When I read about Virginia's Virginia, I thought about the image above, by Marion Post Wolcott, of a country store and juke joint in Melrose, LA, in 1940, one of the small number of images made by federal photographers on Kodachrome during the Depression.

It, and others like it, are on display now in a show called Full Color Depression, at Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies, through July 23rd, 2012. Definitely well worth a look, if you happen to be in Durham.

No comments:

Post a Comment