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,
PS. What do you think?