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Thursday, December 11, 2014

December 11, 2014: Cold Culture: Winter’s Bone

[To complement last week’s series on winter histories, I wanted to focus this week on cultural representations of the cold, wintry and otherwise. Add your cultural connections for the cold, in all media and genres and with all meanings, for a frrrrrrrigid weekend post, please!]
On the gritty realism, and something more, found in a compelling recent indie film.
It’s set in the Ozarks, not the Appalachians, but in many other ways writer-director Debra Granik’s award-winning film Winter’s Bone (2010; I haven’t read Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel, so I’ll be focusing on the film alone here) would have made a perfect addition to my early-October series on AmericanStudying Appalachia. The film feels very much like a 21st century version of local color, one that utilizes the same sorts of regional and cultural stereotypes yet also, like the best such regionalist fiction, finds the complex and compelling humanity within the locally grounded communities and stories it traces. That Winter’s Bone’s communities and stories includes a heavy dose of methamphetamine production represents, unfortunately, precisely such a realistic (if certainly controversial) engagement with early 21st century life in the Ozarks.
In its protagonist and heroine Ree, however—acted to understated perfection by a very young Jennifer LawrenceWinter’s Bone adds an important layer on top of that bleak realism. I used the term “heroine” very purposefully to describe Ree: despite its overall depiction of a gritty, dark world, one defined not only by the centrality of meth but by threats (and realities) of violence at every turn, Winter’s Bone focuses on an idealized central character, a young woman consistently willing to do everything possible (up to and including risking her own life) to take care of her disabled mother and two younger siblings. And while the film impressively balances those two sides, the darkness and the ideals, for most of its running time, there’s little doubt by the conclusion that goodness has triumphed: Ree has survived her ordeal, achieved her objectives, and remains firmly in control of her family; she has even made a positive dent in the perspective of the film’s other most important and complex character, her bitter and cynical uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes).
These two elements to Winter’s Bone, its local color realism and idealized heroine, could be read as contrasting or even contradictory. But there’s another possibility, one related to what I highlighted in this series on New England women’s writing: a recognition that a central theme of much late 19th century local color writing was precisely the under-narrated struggles, strengths, and heroisms of American women. Much of that fiction, indeed, made an implicit or even explicit argument that such a focus on local communities allows for an awareness of and engagement with those women’s experiences and stories that might otherwise be impossible within our dominant or traditional narratives of American life and identity. Similarly, a young woman like Ree is far from a traditional 21st century film heroine or protagonist—but her home and region are likewise outside of the norm when it comes to our collective stories, and in drawing our attention to that setting and world, Granik’s film concurrently makes it possible for us to engage with the singular, striking, and very American story of young Ree Dolly.
Last cold cultural connection tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Other cold connections you’d highlight?

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