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Friday, October 10, 2014

October 10, 2014: AmericanStudying Appalachia: The Fire and the Furnace

[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 the surprising truths found in a couple of macho, mediocre action flicks.
Obviously Hollywood action films have a great deal to tell us (often unintentionally, ironically, or otherwise implicitly, to be sure) about social issues like gender and race. But reading such cultural texts for what they reveal about social issues is different from arguing that the texts intend to make social or political points, and I’d never pretend that the Bruckheimers and Bays of the world generally set out with those kinds of goals. Yet at the same time, there are unquestionably examples of action films that do intend such social and political engagements—Matt Damon’s trilogy of Bourne films comes to mind immediately—and so it’d be important to approach any individual film with an open mind toward that possibility. Yes, even a Steven Seagal film.
Online film critic Vern, one of our best contemporary reviewers, actually made the case, in his first book Seagalogy (2008), that Seagal’s films, especially the ones over which he had the most control, consistently reflect such social engagement. I haven’t seen enough of them to assess that theory, but it’s definitely true of both On Deadly Ground (1994, directed by Seagal) and the Appalachian-set Fire Down Below (1997). Seagal plays an EPA agent in both films, so much of the social and political commentary relates to environmental issues. But in Fire both those issues and numerous other plot threads are deeply tied to the history and community of its Appalachian setting: from villain Kris Kristofferson’s destruction of mountains and use of abandoned mines to dispose of toxic waste to the portrayal of a small Kentucky town striving to maintain its identity and heritage in the face of a changing world. It’s not a great movie by any means, but it’s got a lot to say about Appalachia.
Despite boasting an incredibly impressive cast—Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, and Sam freakin’ Shepard—last year’s Out of the Furnace (2013) is to my mind a much more uneven and so even less successful film than Seagal’s. But it does do something very interesting and important: connecting the changing realities of its specific setting, a northern Appalachian steel mill town (Braddock, Pennsylvania—that article provided filmmaker Scott Cooper with his movie’s title), to early 21st century national and international issues, including returning Iraq War veterans and the post-2008 recession. As I hope this entire series has illustrated, Appalachia—like every American setting and region—demands analyses of both its specific histories and stories and its ongoing and evolving relationship to the nation and world beyond its mountains, and Out of the Furnace, like all my week’s texts, can help us develop those analyses.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. My colleague Irene Martyniuk shares the song "Fire in the Hole" by Cleveland legends the Michael Stanley Band, which starts with the line, "In a mining town in West Virginia, in the year of 1910":