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Patricia Ducey

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 of water.

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 and the upcoming Snow Monkey.

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