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The Deeper South

'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' unravels the regional cliches that Hollywood holds so dear. And while 'The Gift' falls into them, it avoids playing the usual race and religion cards.

February 20, 2001|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Hollywood's myopic eyes, the American South is usually depicted in one of two ways. It's either a gothic swamp of racist brutality and towheaded ignorance or a placidly picturesque "Mayberry RFD" full of feisty-genteel females and Red Man-chawin' good ol' boys.

Yee-haw. It's a strangely reductive vision of America's most heavily mythologized region, a complex, loamy, deeply conflicted place.

But despite the bicoastal establishment's often dismissive views, the South retains a powerful hold on the national dream life. Like the city-states of New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., the South simultaneously intrigues and repels outsiders; it seems to be in America but not entirely of it. At a time when so much of our culture has been flattened into brand-name homogeneity, the South clings to a certain backward-looking detachment, a tenacious Otherness, in imagination if not necessarily in reality.

That much is evident from two recently opened feature films: Sam Raimi's honeysuckle-noir thriller "The Gift," set in contemporary small-town Georgia, and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," Joel and Ethan Coen's whimsical re-imagining of Homer's "The Odyssey," a whacked-out version of Depression-era rural Mississippi.

Radically different in style, tone and subject matter, both films, to varying degrees, offer new spins on the Old and New South. But though "The Gift" tends to recycle moonlight-and-magnolia cliches, "O Brother"--in the Coens' sly, hyper-literate manner--tugs apart some defining myths of Southern culture and reweaves them into the broader tapestry of 20th century Americana.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 23, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Southern references--In a Feb. 20 Calendar story about Hollywood's depictions of the South, the home state of Lynyrd Skynyrd was mistakenly reported. The band is from Florida. The story also erroneously referred to the state involved in a recent debate over its flag. The state is Georgia.

It's small wonder that Hollywood is rediscovering the South. Culturally speaking, the states below the Mason-Dixon line share a track record few parts of America can touch. Pick virtually any field--music, literature, spirituality, the culinary arts, architecture (think of Jefferson's Monticello or New Orleans' French Quarter)--and the impact of Southerners, black and white, is as pervasive as the scent of lemon verbena on a warm May night in Montgomery.

Yet you'd hardly guess it from the majority of Hollywood's Dixie-fried fare. Whether well-meaning liberal parables ("Driving Miss Daisy"), bittersweet distaff comedies ("Steel Magnolias") or moralistic fever dreams ("Deliverance"), the South of postwar Hollywood movies is usually portrayed as an exotic backwater in which hypocrisy, racist hysteria and sexual repression seethe just below the polite surface.

Recent History Perpetuates the Image

The region frequently hasn't fared much better in popular music. For every Hoagy Carmichael gently crooning "Georgia on My Mind" there's Billie Holiday beautifully lamenting Jim Crow's bitter legacy of "Strange Fruit" (a song about lynching) and Neil Young caustically evoking the sound of "bullwhips cracking" in "Southern Man" (which drew an equally caustic response from Alabama rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd).

Recent events like the Florida vote-counting debacle, the heated debate over South Carolina's Confederate-inspired state flag (which was modified a few weeks ago) and a controversial interview given by U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft to a magazine sympathetic to the Confederacy perpetuate the image of the South as the Land That Time Forgot, a place where, no matter how many new NFL franchises and Disney World attractions you add, nothing fundamental really changes.

That's partly the landscape we encounter in "The Gift," which stars Cate Blanchett as Annie Wilson, a widowed mother of three who uses her natural empathy and fortune-telling skills to keep food on the table. Many familiar signposts of the Southern mise en scene dot the movie's background: Confederate license plates, a steamy bayou, trees draped in Spanish moss. We see Piggly Wiggly shopping bags and the inevitable Bell South phone booths, along with the inevitable pouty Southern belle.

The plot is built around classic Southern gothic motifs: adultery, murder, incest, corruption in high places. But perhaps most noteworthy about "The Gift" is the way it frames the South's two most historically determining features: race relations and religion.

Beginning in the late 1950s, and coinciding with the start of the civil rights movement, it became nearly impossible to set a movie in the South without addressing race, however superficially. In the '60s and '70s, films like "To Kill a Mockingbird," "In the Heat of the Night," "Sounder" and the TV miniseries "Roots" opened the pop-culture door to Southern racial attitudes. The late '80s and early '90s took an even dimmer view of the region's racial politics in such films as "Mississippi Burning," "The Long Walk Home" and "Ghosts of Mississippi."

But as the Arkansas-born and bred "Bubba" Clinton entered the White House, a more benign and wistful view of the South gained favor in movies like "Rambling Rose," "Fried Green Tomatoes," "Daughters of the Dust," "Ruby in Paradise" and "Forrest Gump."

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