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American Cinema and the Southern Imaginary

American Cinema and the Southern Imaginary

Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    American Cinema and the Southern Imaginary
    Book Description:

    Employing innovations in media studies, southern cultural studies, and approaches to the global South, this collection of essays examines aspects of the southern imaginary in American cinema and offers fresh insight into the evolving field of southern film studies. In their introduction, Deborah Barker and Kathryn McKee argue that the southern imaginary in film is not contained by the boundaries of geography and genre; it is not an offshoot or subgenre of mainstream American film but is integral to the history and the development of American cinema. Ranging from the silent era to the present and considering Hollywood movies, documentaries, and independent films, the contributors incorporate the latest scholarship in a range of disciplines. The volume is divided into three sections: "Rereading the South" uses new critical perspectives to reassess classic Hollywood films; "Viewing the Civil Rights South" examines changing approaches to viewing race and class in the post-civil rights era; and "Crossing Borders" considers the influence of postmodernism, postcolonialism, and media studies on recent southern films. The contributors to American Cinema and the Southern Imaginary complicate the foundational term "southern," in some places stretching the traditional boundaries of regional identification until they all but disappear and in others limning a persistent and sometimes self-conscious performance of place that intensifies its power.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-3724-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Southern Imaginary
    (pp. 1-24)
    Deborah E. Barker and Kathryn McKee

    In Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, the movies tell people who they are and where they are: suspended in a South that is as much imagined and represented as it is concrete, as much created and performed as it is organic. The neighborhoods and the seasons Binx Bolling smells borrow their scents, at least in part, from the movies that have themselves shaped his expectations for ordinary, non-Hollywood space. In Ordering the Façade: Photography and Contemporary Southern Women’s Writing, Katherine Henninger maintains that the U.S. South’s visual legacy is as strong as or stronger than its fabled oral tradition.¹ Henninger’s argument...

  5. I. Rereading the Hollywood South

    • The Celluloid War before The Birth: Race and History in Early American Film
      (pp. 27-51)
      Robert Jackson

      By the time D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation arrived on the big screen in 1915, cinematic representations of the Civil War had been around for nearly two decades, virtually the entire lifetime of the young medium. The early twentieth-century America into which the film was released was marked not just by the memory of that war but also by complex forces of progressive reform, Jim Crow segregation, the woman suffrage movement, the maturation of popular culture and its realist critiques, and perhaps most importantly at mid-decade, the fiftieth anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox coupled...

    • Mammy’s “Mules” and the Rules of Marriage in Gone with the Wind
      (pp. 52-78)
      Riché Richardson

      Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider’s 1995 runaway bestseller, The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right, questions and even self-consciously resists the prevailing logic of second-wave feminism concerning gender relations and marriage and emphasizes more conventional approaches to dating for contemporary women to meet and marry their dream guy. Fein and Schneider argue that career-oriented, take-charge “[n]ineties women simply have not been schooled in the basics—The Rules of finding a husband or at least being very popular with men.” While the authors suggest their support of feminism, the book implicitly concedes biologic differences between male and...

    • Bodies and Expectations: Chain Gang Discipline
      (pp. 79-103)
      Leigh Anne Duck

      In overviews of film history, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) is known chiefly for its Depression-era success as a “social problem” film, popular with audiences and influential in penal reform. In its day, the film benefited from the charismatic lead performance of Paul Muni and a notoriously chilling conclusion: Variety warned, “It leaves the women limp.”¹ It also received substantial publicity from the continuing legal travails of Robert E. Burns, the actual fugitive on whose autobiography the film was based. Thus, in its aesthetic appeal and topicality, director Mervyn LeRoy’s work promoted Warner Brothers’ reputation as...

    • The Postwar Cinematic South: Realism and the Politics of Liberal Consensus
      (pp. 104-121)
      Chris Cagle

      In a critical early scene in Panic in the Street (Elia Kazan, 1950), a representative from the U.S. Public Health Service challenges the New Orleans mayor’s office and police on their failure to acknowledge the potential for a dangerous epidemic in the city. The narrative is a contagion story cloaked in a crime thriller, but it is equally a psychological drama between the men trying to stop the disease. The relationship between Lt. Cdr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) and police captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) represents allegorically a new political arrangement of the postwar years, with the film’s three-act structure...

    • A “Professional Southerner” in the Hollywood Studio System: Lamar Trotti at Work, 1925–1952
      (pp. 122-148)
      Matthew H. Bernstein

      In the minds of many studio-era Hollywood talents, executives, and administrators of the 1920s through the 1950s—as in the view of many Americans—the South was a region apart, a foreign country, one whose customs and beliefs, particularly concerning race and race relations, were quite strange. Director Rowland Lee casually listed the South among foreign markets when he commented in 1927 that the studios never informed him “why his picture didn’t do well in the South, why his picture didn’t do well in England, why his picture could not be shown in Germany.”¹ Twelve years later, this view had...

  6. II. Viewing the Civil Rights South

    • Black Passing and White Pluralism: Imitation of Life in the Civil Rights Struggle
      (pp. 151-178)
      Ryan DeRosa

      In his classic essay “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama,” Thomas Elsaesser views stylistically sophisticated films by directors such as Vincente Minnelli or Douglas Sirk as the fruition of melodrama’s potential to evoke a hegemonic social structure on the brink of implosion. The import he gives to narrative cinema in the social history of melodrama derives from the musical and spatial properties of the melodramatic form: “Considered as an expressive code, melodrama might . . . be described as a particular form of dramatic mise-en-scène, characterized by a dynamic use of spatial and musical categories, as...

    • Remembering Birmingham Sunday: Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls
      (pp. 179-193)
      Valerie Smith

      Birmingham, Alabama, especially pre-1970s Birmingham, often conjures up images of white racism at its most virulent.¹ During the period from 1947 to 1963, fifty black homes and churches were bombed. The Birmingham police department and Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, commissioner of public safety, were notorious for their aggressive opposition to civil rights activism.² Photographs of the white military tank in which Connor patrolled black neighborhoods and footage of police officers beating, fire hosing, and setting dogs on demonstrators circulated nationally and internationally, putting a face on southern white resistance to black demands for equal rights and social justice.

      After the...

    • Exploitation Movies and the Freedom Struggle of the 1960s
      (pp. 194-216)
      Sharon Monteith

      In the 1960s a small but significant number of pulp movies used civil rights in the South as a dramatic trigger, specifically massive resistance to the Freedom Rides in 1961 and to the voter registration drives that culminated in Freedom Summer in 1964. The movies were released in the moment in which the South became synonymous with racist mobs, burnings, and bombings in the popular imagination, and they capitalized on deleterious images of the South. The insertion of northern middleclass “foreigners”—“red diaper babies” and students from Ivy League schools—into the “savage” South was not only a media dream...

  7. III. Crossing Borders

    • Mapping out a Postsouthern Cinema: Three Contemporary Films
      (pp. 219-252)
      Jay Watson

      In Inventing Southern Literature, critic Michael Kreyling credits his predecessor Lewis P. Simpson with coining the concept of the “postsouthern.”¹ Simpson unveils the term in an essay from his 1980 collection, The Brazen Face of History, that traces a crucial shift in regional literary sensibility from the so-called Southern Renascence of the 1930s and 1940s—whose modernist quest for “a vision of social order at once strongly sacramental and sternly moralistic” was, according to Simpson, complicated and ironized by the contingencies, displacements, and “mystery” of the southern past—to a postwar stance marked by increasing skepticism toward the legitimacy of...

    • The Native Screen: American Indians in Contemporary Southern Film
      (pp. 253-276)
      Melanie R. Benson

      One of the greatest literary hoaxes of all time occurred when Forrest Carter successfully passed off as autobiography his charming little book The Education of Little Tree (1976).¹ The purported memoir tells the story of a young boy orphaned at the age of five and sent to live with his grandparents in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. His grandmother is Cherokee and his grandfather, while white, is well tutored in the “Native Way.” Young Forrest is thus introduced to his heritage, aided by a shamanlike Cherokee called John Willow. Heartwarming episodes ensue. The novel enjoyed modest but steady success until,...

    • The City That Déjà Vu Forgot: Memory, Mapping, and the Americanization of New Orleans
      (pp. 277-292)
      Briallen Hopper

      In the first Hollywood movie made and set in post-Katrina New Orleans, the Jerry Bruckheimer–Tony Scott action thriller Déjà Vu (2006), a spectacular disaster hits the Crescent City. Hundreds of men, women, and children die horribly in the water; corpses float to the surface; and body bags line the streets. Doug Carlin, a New Orleanian federal agent played by Denzel Washington, is angered by the devastation and haunted by the needless death. He risks his life to go back in time and prevent an American tragedy.

      Viewers may have the feeling that they’ve been here before. But the tragedy...

    • Humid Time: Independent Film, Gay Sexualities, and Southernscapes
      (pp. 293-316)
      R. Bruce Brasell

      Independent feature-length fictional filmmaking is a relatively recent phenomenon in the southeastern United States, one that opens an avenue of self-representation different from Hollywood. In the 1980s Ross McElwee and Victor Nuñez were hailed as regional southern voices, McElwee in the area of documentary film and Nuñez in fiction film. Nuñez’s position as the premier southern audiovisual fictional storyteller solidified in the 1990s with the release of Ruby in Paradise (1993) and Ulee’s Gold (1997).¹ Nuñez, however, was considered an anomaly until the beginning of the twenty-first century, when David Gordon Green arrived on the scene with George Washington (2000)....

    • Papa Legba and the Liminal Spaces of the Blues: Roots Music in Deep South Film
      (pp. 317-335)
      Christopher J. Smith

      This essay is about an idea of the blues: as it has been perceived, appropriated, framed, selected, and reflected in the medium of four films set in the U.S. South. It is about the blues as they were, and are, imagined to be in the world of Hollywood fiction, the flickering chiaroscuro of the narrative cinema. I analyze liminality—the use of ritual to create social states permitting the transformation of identity or behavior—as representation in filmic blues experience. Just as Delta blues virtuosity existed in the liminal “space in-between,” filmic fiction has sought to portray and evoke that...

    • Revamping the South: Thoughts on Labor, Relationality, and Southern Representation
      (pp. 336-352)
      Tara McPherson

      During the 2006 Oscar telecast, Academy Awards president Sid Ganis commented on Hollywood’s efforts to help rebuild New Orleans post-Katrina, citing the production of several films in the region. Subsequently, a good deal of film and television production moved to Louisiana, particularly to Shreveport. While the rise of “Hollywood South,” as Louisiana is now sometimes known, might seem an act of good will on the part of the film industry toward a storm-ravaged region, the seeds for this change were planted before Katrina wreaked havoc along the coast. In July 2005 Louisiana State House Bill 731 took effect, providing healthy...

  8. Contributors
    (pp. 353-356)
  9. Index
    (pp. 357-374)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 375-375)