Let Us Now Prepare to Eat our Sacred Cows
I cringe in the dark as Billy Bob vamps his way through Sling Blade,
as hapless Peter Fonda grapples with a drug-addled daughter in Ulee's
Gold, and finally as, yup, Billy Bob again, caught between a Big Fat
Bigot Dad and a Tragic/Sexy "Other" girlfriend, waxes conflicted in
Monster's Ball. Stringy-haired drugsters, neurologically warped
psychopaths, hot (but redemptive) interracial sex—this is the troika of
cinematic clichés all signifying The South, as predictable and
easily digested by preconditioned audiences as a side of grits. Critics
rave, awards pile up. I wonder, what can these people be thinking?
These three over praised flicks can easily be read by flattered
audiences as "The South--thank God we won the Civil War." The intellectual
patina of the characters and plot devices may disguise but never overcomes
the mainstream pan-racial stereotypes older than film itself. The
unfortunate writers and actors do their best to redeem the text, even as
the stars appear to be reading from the dusty screenplays like Jezebel
or GWTW. I despair that after one century of moviemaking and
perhaps more significantly, movie viewing, it is simply not possible to
make a movie without squeezing the old stereotype dishrag for a last drop
Then into the dark corners of my cinematic funk comes John Sayles, a
writer/director who has earned his auteur status the hard way, by
chronicling stories of interesting originals and of compelling nobodies.
His latest, Sunshine State, tells the story of a small town
Floridians struggling for personal, racial, and community identity in the
rich and complicated World of the Here and Now, millions of miles away
from the traditional filmic South. Mind you, I am not asserting
Sunshine State is a perfect film; overly long at two and a half hours,
it meanders through several story lines that somehow miss each other or a
conclusion by a hair. Yet the characters and their narratives set a new
and high standard of originality and humanity for future filmmakers who
delve into the Southern world.
As usual, Sayles' film is an ensemble piece, but the primary stories
belong to two women, white motel manager Marly and her black contemporary
Desiree. The intelligent and dissatisfied Marly runs the Sea-Vue Motel for
her aging parents and is considering selling to a group of developers who
want to turn the entire funky island into a resort, "nature on a leash."
Desiree is nervously returning home to face the mother who sent her away
years ago to keep the pregnant teen far from the raised eyebrows of her
proud and prosperous black neighbors. One would expect Sayles to turn
Marly into a cracker or champion for the poor but wise underdogs fighting
capitalist running dog developers, but this doesn't happen. One would
expect Desiree to return a victim of the prurient and patriarchal larger
world, but this doesn't happen either.
Marly wants to sell the motel to finance a life equal to her gifts. Her
story is about her quest to find the best way to accomplish it. Desiree
returns home after 25 years, her long ago pregnancy ending in miscarriage,
with a compassionate and thoughtful physician husband and a successful
career herself, hardly the victim. They move edgily towards each other, as
real mothers and daughters, in that colorblind struggle for understanding
and forgiveness that occurs daily within all families. Both women turn
their old stereotypes on end in stories that are quiet surprises and
eminently watchable. Other minor characters in the film echo these
nontraditional racial and geographical stories. Dr. Lloyd, the elder of
the black community, actually mourns the passing of segregated Lincoln
Beach and its sense of community. The group of developers, whom we see
only sporadically and in the act of golfing, are actually nice guys and
act as a Greek chorus for this elegiac story of the town and its
transformation, as Marly and Desiree struggle to make their own place in a
world that is larger and tougher than race or gender. The older generation
mourns and steps aside, and the developer-gods watch as the humans play.
The characters in this movie and their stories, although framed by race
and real estate squabbles, are human history, at once above our
understanding and hidden within the recesses of each human heart. As Marly
and Desiree stake out their own unique claims to happiness, their stories
are new, unexpected and a challenge to filmmakers who will follow.
The film opens with a scene of a phony buccaneer pirate ship set aflame
by the disturbed young nephew of Desiree's mother. Francine, a chamber of
commerce official, has created out of whole cloth a history of pirates and
treasure for the skeptical townspeople. The phony legend never rings true
for them or the audience. Eventually, Desiree and her husband come to care
for the boy; and, within the safety of his family, he begins to mature.
This scene of old false histories destroyed by the young is the leitmotif
of the film and, I would assert, for the old filmic South.
Patricia Ducey grew up in the Midwest, graduated from college in
Alabama, and lives outside LA, in a suburb where everyone is from
somewhere else. She recently returned to school for an MA in Film and
write screenplays and fiction. She now writes full time and dabbles in day
jobs. Her TV and screenplays have garnered awards from both the Nicholl
and Austin Film Festival competitions. She is active in the zoetrope
writers' community and has been published in the phone-book.com and
the upcoming Snow Monkey.