movie: Hillbilly (2019)

Disclosure: I am a degree or two removed, socially, from some of the folks involved with the making of this film.


I just think no matter where anybody’s from, if they’re honest with themselves they’re gonna have a love/hate relationship with where they’re from.

–Jason Howard

I found Hillbilly deeply moving, beautiful, and appreciated the diversity of people it put in front of the camera.

I heard about this film from several sources at once, all of them sympathetic, and some of them personally connected; the above quotation (which you know resonated with me so strongly) comes from Jason Howard, who’s been guest faculty at WVWC during my tenure as a student there. His husband Silas House is an executive producer. So I came in with a positive preconception, and it was rewarded. I was surprised (but perhaps shouldn’t have been) to see the negative reviews on Amazon; the “top reviews” were all critical of its political stance (“this is a liberal agenda documentary be forewarned”). Well, fair. I think the film’s perspective was clear from the start. As I watched, I kept thinking of confirmation bias and where we all start out from when we enter a project like this, either as creator or viewer/consumer. My politics align with those of Ashley York, co-director and narrator/”face” of the film, in many or most ways. I appreciated what she’s done here. Those with different politics are likely to appreciate the film less. As much as I loved watching it, I was left kind of sad, too, that we can’t do more real listening to each other.

Not for lack of trying on Ashley’s part. Within the narrative of the film, she introduces herself as an Appalachian native from Kentucky who now lives in Los Angeles. As the 2016 presidential election draws near, she realizes how far apart her pro-Hillary politics are from those of her pro-Trump relations, chiefly her Granny Shelby. So she travels home to talk to Shelby and others, hear their side. I am so glad somebody’s trying to do that work; little enough of it seems to be happening. Ashley is respectful and listens quietly as her family explains why they support Trump. There was not the dialog here that one might wish for, but maybe Ashley was shooting for some level of journalistic neutrality? A separate issue… Speaking of issues, there wasn’t really any discussion of issues or stances, or the gap between Trump’s talk (coal! jobs! economy!) and his concrete plans for action. In the end, this film is less about politics than it is about culture.

I empathize with Ashley’s experience some, especially when she points out how difficult it is to hear a majority-progressive community throw Trump supporters out in one homogeneous basket, in their thinking. This is especially difficult when you come from a place where you’ve rubbed shoulders with some of the people in that basket, and know them as individuals. “They” are no more homogeneous than “we” are. Her uncle tells the story of serving in the military and being ridiculed and rejected by his fellow service members – it was worst in California, he tells her, “no offense” – and he chokes up, saying that he never found the brotherhood he’d sought. I don’t care if you hate his politics, that’s a sad moment. I don’t think “we” liberals gain anything by making fun of people we don’t agree with.

A good chunk of the movie deals with media portrayals of Appalachians. Deliverance makes an appearance, of course. Ashley visits with Billy Redden, who played Lonnie, the younger, hillbilly half of the “Dueling Banjos” scene. He works at Wal-Mart; he got paid $500 for his part in the movie; he hopes to make it to California one day. That Appalachians or hillbillies have gotten a bum deal with Hollywood, there is no question. The rest of us, somebody in the film suggested (I’m sorry I can’t say who), get to feel better about ourselves by making fun of “them.” There’s also some treatment of the history of the region, including the fact that when big business saw how much money there was to be made by extractive industries (coal, for one), it was convenient to evolve from treating hillbillies with gentle contempt, to viewing them as sinister and depraved: people from whom we should definitely take things away.

As a summing-up of a region, its history, its culture(s), and its current contradictions, Hillbilly does a neat job; it is necessarily incomplete, but what do you want from an 85-minute film? I’m so glad that it put people of color and queer people at center, too (and discussed the strange portrayal of Appalachia as white when in fact it’s quite diverse, skin-tone-wise). Any time we sum up any place, we’re going to resort to generalizations that can range from inadequate to damaging. Considering these truths, I think this movie does as good a job as it could have. If that sounds like faint praise, I don’t mean it that way. I’m just trying to acknowledge the inherent shortcomings of the form, and of any attempt to portray a place with more than, I don’t know, a couple dozen people in it.

Hillbilly gives us Election Night 2016 again, “live,” as it were, and I found it painful all over again. Silas House and Jason Howard speak with some emotion about their feelings – Silas seems to feel betrayed – he has spent his life defending his people (I paraphrase) and (he implies) they have failed to defend him with their votes. He turns to Jason: “You always say you love Appalachia. You don’t feel it loves you.” Jason replies with the line at the top of this review: “I just think no matter where anybody’s from, if they’re honest with themselves they’re gonna have a love/hate relationship with where they’re from.”

I just wanted to repeat that because I find it so true. Thank you, Jason, and everyone involved with this film.


Rating: 8 questions.

movie: The Gleaners and I (2000)

Recommended by the fabulously talented Jessie van Eerden. Writing my thesis with her this semester is a dream.

However, first thoughts on this movie were “wow, this is weird, why am I watching this?” and then I got into the groove. For one thing, it’s an interesting work of narrative nonfiction. Ostensibly, director Agn├Ęs Varda is concerned with an external subject: the longstanding tradition of gleaning, or collecting the leftovers of a harvest. She enters this subject via art – the paintings of Millet and Breton – but among and in between this external material, Varda looks back at herself. The moments that become personal make the whole thing work, for me. Which is not to say that I wish the whole thing had been personal, or I spent the rest of the movie waiting to learn more about our narrator, you understand. I’m just voicing again my preference for a present narrator. I appreciate external material that is commented upon by a personal voice. In fact, I pretty much require it, as a personal preference. Perhaps this is on my mind now because I’m working on my thesis, that book-length project “of publishable quality”… and I am appreciating that Jessie shares my feeling of being an essayist, of commenting on outside material from a personal perspective, rather than simply airing all my own thoughts and feelings. Personal essay, not memoir, if you will.

And that is what I’m getting out of this movie: the narrative stance. As well as the subject matter: not gleaning in particular, but the entry through art into a larger subject (I am writing about the Drive-by Truckers, Jason Isbell, Guy Clark, and Dominique de Menil, among others), as well as its metaphoric possibility. I really lit up when Varda noted the new, metaphoric uses of ‘gleaning’:

On this type of gleaning, of images, impressions, there is no legislation, and gleaning is defined figuratively as a mental activity. To glean facts, acts and deeds, to glean information. And for forgetful me, it’s what I have gleaned that tells where I’ve been. From Japan, I brought back in my case souvenirs I had gleaned.

She does a lot of using one hand to film the other hand, which is an interesting statement about art, right? (All that commentary about the memoir as navel-gazing!)

The Gleaners and I is a piece of art, concerned in part with art – the original paintings as inspiration; the artists Varda meets who create out of the refuse they scavenge – as well as several meanings of gleaning. The people in the French countryside consider gleaning in its old sense, bending down to pick up leftover crops lying on the ground after a harvest. Some see a difference between this act and picking, which is picking fruit or nuts or whatever off of trees, vs. bending to take off the ground. Then there is urban scavenging, dumpster diving and combing through curb leavings. And finally that metaphoric sense, in which I watch this movie and take with me – figuratively – the parts that are of most value to me.

Varda interviews a “painter and retriever” who picks up other people’s discards from the curbs to make art, not unlike a dear friend of mine: he says, “what’s good about these objects is that they have a past, they’ve already had a life, and they’re still very much alive. All you have to do is give them a second chance.” (I also love that he points out that the city council puts out maps of where this not-junk is going to be, and Varda responds that really, aren’t the maps so that the people can put out their junk? And he sort of chuckles and says yes, well, I read the maps in my own way.)

I’m really fascinated though at the assumption throughout – never challenged! – that this food is all “wasted” if people don’t eat it. One guy did say about unharvested grapes that otherwise “the wild boars and the birds will get them.” So… how is that a waste? No human got it, but it didn’t go to waste. Even the fruit that rots on the ground contributes to a system. Even if we’re compelled to make it about us: dirt is necessary for people to live, for everything to live, and rotting grapes help make dirt. I wrote to my artist-scavenger friend about this movie, and he responded: “There is an edict in the Old Testament about leaving behind a percent of crops for the animals. Old wisdom makes sense sometimes.” This seemed like a gaping hole to me. After all, we didn’t invent grapes. They grew on their own, for their own purposes: the purpose of the grape, and the bird and the wild boar. Shades of Amy Leach here…

The film is in French, with subtitles, and it’s dated. (It was released in 2000, but the narrative voice is very much “what is this new millennium nonsense” – filmed in the 90s, of course.) It’s also arty, a little slow-paced and introspective, which could contribute to its being a little less than accessible – it worked that way for me, early on. It had a little bit of the tone of Sherman’s March, but not nearly so off-putting for this viewer!

All in all, I was a touch slow to get involved but Varda’s Gleaners ended up being fascinating, thought-provoking, and memorable. It’s been haunting my thoughts. There’s a lot going on here, and I do recommend it, if you’re at all interested in… trash, food, the end of the world, reuse, art, or narrative perspectives. So, good for all thinking souls.


Rating: 8 cages interesting like boats, like violins.

movie: Milk (2008)

While I recognize it’s risky to learn history from a biopic, I really appreciated all I learned about Harvey Milk and his fine work in this movie, which was visually pleasing and well-done–through heart-wrenching–as well as educational. I do recommend it.

Milk begins with Harvey Milk’s fortieth birthday in New York, then quickly follows him to San Francisco, where he gets involved with politics, and through to his end by assassination. Sean Penn plays a beautiful Milk, and his partners played by James Franco and Diego Luna make striking, attractive characters as well. I found the acting all-around admirable. I loved the characters of Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg; and I appreciated the way Dan White was handled. He comes off not as a straight villain, but as a flawed, a troubled human being. His actions are hard to stomach. But I appreciate the nuance with which he was handled in this film.

San Francisco and the Castro feel real to me (and what do I know about how authentic they are here; but I bought it). The styles felt right for the time (same caveat). In other words, I was convinced and in fact spellbound by the whole thing; and that’s before saying that obviously I find Harvey Milk’s life and work inspirational, and his demise saddening. I would watch this movie again. You should watch it, too.


Rating: 8 votes.

residency readings, part II

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond. (As this post was written pre-residency, I’m using a future tense for seminars that have by now taken place.)


Continuing Wednesday‘s post…

I already reviewed Eric Waggoner’s assigned book, Line by Line. In a word, I didn’t find it a very interesting cover-to-cover read! More of a reference book.

Jeremy Jones‘s packet was, I felt, an ideal example of pre-residency reading. For one thing, I appreciate that it was brief! (I was asked to read some 400+ pages for this residency, including my peers’ work that required in-depth response, and watch three movies and view additional material online.) But also, I felt that the selection of works he assigned were an excellent overview to his topic, and read like an introduction to his seminar. This packet, for a seminar on “writing about other people,” includes essays on the topic from a more academic, instructive point of view as well as personal reports by writers with experience writing about close friends and family, and the fallout. The final piece is Jeremy’s own, and I am looking forward to his promise to “talk through changes [he] made and reactions the ‘subject’ had about drafts and the final product.”

I enjoyed that Richard Schmitt’s package was much like him: pithy and to the point. He assigned three enjoyable short stories by Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, and Ernest Hemingway, respectively. Richard’s seminar is about “the art of leverage,” or power shifts in narrative, and these three stories look like great examples of that. I can’t wait. Also, I love anyone who requires me to reread Hemingway.

Rebecca Gayle Howell is teaching a seminar on “the documentary imaginary,” and I have no idea at time of writing what that means. She assigned three movies, three websites, and several readings. (You’ve already seen the movies reviewed here.) As I moved from Deliverance to The True Meaning of Pictures, I noted my clear preference (not for the first time) for literal and explicated narratives. I’m thinking about the discomfort that poetry brings me, because I can’t understand exactly what the poet meant at all times; where I love a memoir or an essay in which the narrative voice tells me precisely what she’s up to. In the same way, I guess Deliverance as an assigned viewing offered lots of possibilities for what we’d be discussing in class. But The True Meaning said what it was about. It discussed what it wanted to discuss, right there on the page, if you will. I felt much more comfortable with that content. Sherman’s March was a different experience, as I’ve already said.

The readings that Howell assigned were intriguing. Let me repeat, at the time of writing these lines, I remain confused about the topic of her seminar. Some of this confusion has got to come from the fact that I am in the minority in this program (whose tagline is “write in the heart of Appalachia”) as an outsider to the Appalachian region. I read the first three chapters of a novel called Mothering on Perilous (what a title!!), and I enjoyed them enough to wish I had time to read the rest, although I knew no more than when I’d started about Howell’s seminar. And then I read an essay called “McElwee’s Confessions,” which I commented on briefly in the comments section of my review of Sherman’s March. This essay is an appreciation of McElwee’s work, and while it did not convince me, it does help me to acknowledge–somewhat grudgingly–that there is more to it than I found in the one film. The essay’s author is familiar with the whole body of McElwee’s work, which I’m sure helps. And not everything is for everybody.

Finally, Howell assigned three websites for viewing: an audio interview with James Dickey (poet and author of Deliverance the novel); a gallery of Doris Ulmann’s photography; and the project “Looking at Appalachia.” That last captivated me. I highly recommend taking a good chunk of time to look through these photographs. The concept is dear to my heart, something like what I was up to at Defining Place, which has gone dormant. “Looking at Appalachia” is my new favorite thing.

Finally, Vicki Phillips’ assignment of Jane McCafferty’s brief “Thank You for the Music” was a touching read. I’m still trying to decide which of the graduate seminars to attend in that final slot, and this lovely little story made it that much harder.


Obviously it was a full and enriching experience just preparing for all these classes. And nothing here reflects the fact that I also spent time preparing for workshop: I read about 20 pages each of four of my peers’ work, and submitted about 20 pages of my own, and during residency we’ll be doing in-depth small-group discussion of those pieces (and exchanging written responses and marginalia). It is an intense time, in every sense. Thank you for being patient with me. As of now, I’m back home and readjusting to home and work life, getting to know my little dogs again and doing laundry–and, of course, getting to work on assignments for the semester. I look forward to hearing from you and reengaging. Life is ever a whirlwind. Again, thanks for your patience.

movie: The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2009)

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period, beginning today with travel. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


Sorry to follow last week’s negative review with another.

I’ve heard about The Wild and Wonderful Whites for years now, and I know a lot of people who appreciate it. When I started school in West Virginia, folks from other places mention this movie as a way to know the place. As I was watching all those other Appalachia/Southern movies for school, a friend borrowed it for me, as an optional add-on to my education, I guess.

I think it’s a shame that this movie represents the state. This documentary of the apparently legendary White family records their lifestyle: petty crime and violence, drug and alcohol abuse, no great contribution to society–excepting of course the cultural value of the tap dancing. I don’t know. The film itself presents (we assume) reality, with little or no editorializing. But the response to the film feels to me like glorifying or celebrating a lifestyle that includes a certain amount of tragedy. I’m not a prude; I appreciate partying, and I don’t judge making babies out of wedlock, or anything like that. But the matriarch crying at the drug use at her birthday party, and the pillhead whose baby is taken from her in the maternity ward, are sad stories. Why are we laughing and joking about this? Also, West Virginia doesn’t deserve this as its theme song.


Rating: 4 Xan-bars for filmography, I guess.

movie: Sherman’s March (1986)

Sherman’s March is the third movie assigned for that one seminar (see also The True Meaning of Pictures and Deliverance).

I don’t know. Perhaps it will be illuminated for me in seminar; but this movie didn’t hold much value for me. Ross gets a grant to make a documentary about the lasting impact of General Sherman’s march across the South during the Civil War. He sets out with camera in hand to visit his family and meet women, traveling the Carolinas and Georgia. His love life is suffering, and everyone he meets is either a potential partner or a matchmaker. He lolls about, bemoaning his single fate and feeling sorry for himself. He occasionally opines about General Sherman or visits a monument. Look for lines like, “Why aren’t you in love with me?” and “It doesn’t matter if you don’t know her, Ross.” (Two and a half hours of this.)

Woe is Ross. The end.


Rating: 3 hours of my day lost.

movie: The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia (2002)

This movie was assigned viewing for school, for the same seminar on “the documentary imaginary” that assigned Deliverance. It won’t surprise you to know then that I was comparing them as I watched this one.

The True Meaning of Pictures is a documentary, examining the work of photographer Shelby Lee Adams, and examining his portrayal of his home region of Appalachia. In a major departure from Deliverance, then, this movie explicitly questions how Appalachia is seen and viewed artistically, and asks if its portrayal is fair, or stereotypical, or exploitative. This is a nice answer to that other movie, and I’m so glad I watched them in this order.

Shelby Lee Adams is from Appalachia, so he “owns” it, it is his place. But the argument goes that he has chosen to photograph the stereotyped version of that place, a place he’s mostly left behind in his own day-to-day; and he has to some extent staged those images. Can you exploit the place you’re from? Or is what you see what you picture, and that’s that? The people whose lives he photographs (many of whom are close friends, who he stays with and visits for extended periods) generally appear (at least in this film) unbothered by the pictures he makes. The one woman interviewed here who was really offended by his work was the relative of one of his subjects. She had left her roots behind and didn’t like how he’d portrayed then. It makes an interesting juxtaposition, for me.

I enjoyed this documentary. I found it thoughtful, and informative. It offered me a view into a handful of people I found interesting to meet. I’m a little reluctant to make conclusions as to my own opinions about Appalachia and its portrayal; I’m an outsider to that region, which is an intriguing position to be in just now, studying it with a student body (and instructors) who are mostly insiders. I thought this movie was pretty fair in its examinations. But I’ll be interested to hear what my classmates think.

Next up is Sherman’s March, a 1986 documentary offering “A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.” So that sounds… interesting.


Rating: 8 holes in the screen door.
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