MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
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Monday, October 6, 2014

October 6, 2014: AmericanStudying Appalachia: Wrong Turn and Deliverance

[I’ve already apologized to West Virginia in this space, but this week I’ll go further: AmericanStudying Appalachia through five compelling sets of cultural texts; and leading up to a special weekend post highlighting a few wonderful resources for further Appalachian analyses.]
On images of the clash between American cultures, and how to rethink them.
In that post apologizing to West Virginia, I highlighted jokes as a cultural medium through which stereotypes about a region like Appalachia can be developed, reified, and spread. There are other cultural forms that have contributed to that process as well, of course, and high on the list (as always in the 20th and 21st centuries) would be films. Take the Wrong Turn series, for example: while in many ways conventional slasher films, the Wrong Turns (or at least the first, which is the only one I’ve seen) define their beautiful 20-something victims-in-waiting as city kids, encountering a murderous family of Appalachian hillbillies who are definitely cannibals and probably inbred to boot. Even the film’s title suggests that by heading into this Appalachian space at all those city kids were making a fundamental (and fatal) cultural mistake.
Making a similar mistake are the four city slickers—or rather, per the opening line of the trailer, “suburban guys like you or your neighbor”—on an Appalachian canoe trip into a hugely distinct cultural world in the film Deliverance (1972). It’s fair to say that the film’s two principal characters both have something meaningful to learn from their Appalachian ordeal—Burt Reynolds’ confident outsdoorman needs to learn his limits; Jon Voight’s quiet intellectual needs to connect to his wild side--but at the same time the ordeal is destructive enough (killing one of the four and permanently traumatizing the others, as the nightmare with which the film concludes makes very clear) to qualify as a wrong turn for sure. And the film’s Appalachian antagonists, while not quite as grotesque or overtly cannibalistic as those in the slasher films, are otherwise pretty similar: likely inbred, definitely violent and murderous toward outsiders.
On the other hand, there’s an undercurrent—literally and figuratively—in the film (one more consistently present in the 1970 James Dickey novel) that adds a distinct element to the relationship between city and country, “civilization” and Appalachia. As scholar Wyatt Phillips argued in my NeMLA panel on cultural rivers, the film’s Appalachian world is literally disappearing, its towns and homesteads gradually flooded by the effects of a newly built dam on the Coosawattee River. That’s been a real, ongoing historical process in Appalachia, as illustrated by the film’s use of an actual such location: Lake Jocasee, created by flooding after the Duke Power Company built a South Carolina dam. The film never quite overtly makes the point that, seen in this light, it is instead the Applachian characters whose lives and homes are threatened by the outside world; but by featuring these flooded settings, Deliverance does allow its viewers to consider that other side of this American cultural conflict.
Next Appalachian text tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

4 comments:

  1. Good post. But really the oddity of Appalachia is it's geography. That's what made the movies of the city slickers coming to the mountains so scary, it's location is central and yet so foreign to those that choose not to live here. Where I live in Appalachia in a 3 hour drive I can reach large metropolitan areas, but people from those areas will joke if they hear dueling banjos they are out of here. You get kind of tired of the stereotypes but then for some I'd play dueling banjos to get them to leave!! The development of Appalachia comes down to geography more than anything else. Good post look forward to the next.

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  2. Hi Denise,

    Thanks very much for the comment and those thoughts. Makes total sense, and is a great argument for what differentiates this local region (since at least some of my focal points throughout the week could potentially be applied to lots of other regions and places as well).

    For everyone, I'll just note that you should add Denise's great blog (accessible through clicking on her name above) to the roster of resources and voices I'll be sharing in the weekend post!

    Thanks again,
    Ben

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  3. What I loved about the book was the unabashed sexuality of it. There was this intensely masculine drive throughout the book. Starting with the ad agency where the protagonist deconstructs and then recreates a model to be sexually perfect for selling nylons, to the weird and awkward as hell sex scene with his wife the night before leaving and concluding with the acknowledgment that our protagonist was aware of an erection in his friend after the horrific accident. The overt sexually is only a cloak for the secondary sexuality of the landscape. The men refer to the river and wilderness in female terms throughout the film often time in admiration and other times with malicious narration. I loved what Dickey did with this as it was the ultimate middle finger to all of those "man goes into the wild and comes out a man" nonsense bullshit stories I had to slurge through in high school and how I had to lie and say "yes, for a male character to develop he has to shed off society which is a female construct to become a truly masculine voice...blah blah blah." Suck Mr. Walsh... worst ELA teacher ever! IDK, but I liked it. Also kind of a nice "dear men, stop being stupid warning tale." Later.

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  4. Interesting thoughts, thanks AnneMarie. I think both the book and the film employ as well as challenge some of those images and stereotypes, but also agree that the book does so a bit more thoughtfully or with more complexity than the film (which devolves into action cliches a bit too often).

    Thanks,
    Ben

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