Making the Connection

Recently, when I found out a friend of mine had grown up in a socio-geographic context similar to my own, I joked that people who don’t know that you’re supposed to cut an X into your bologna when you’re frying it have no idea what it’s like to be “West Virginia poor.”

I was raised in an isolated area of Appalachia that resembles the rolling, shadowed Ozark landscape found in Winter’s Bone.  Like Ree’s sprawling and broken backwoods community, the area in which I grew up was one of distinct poverty.  The entire region was mapped by deep-rooted holler roads stretching under the canvas of thick foliage and out of the reach of America’s most affluent historical moments. Trailers and one story houses, their residents speaking in a challenging mixture of the Southern drawl and a stripped down version of Scottish dialect. With the region so removed from dense population centers, self-supporting economies have always manifested when and where they were needed, both historically and in the present, the stubbornly proud coal mining tradition, the pillaging lumber industry,  moonshine stills, and meth labs.  In every pocket culture, the capital and currency manifest and redefine as necessary.

Watching Winter’s Bone afforded me an opportunity to enjoy one reactionary pleasure of film that had previously, for me, been in rare supply:  Nostalgia. The warm realization that part of my own identity was being projected onto the screen.   I may be speaking out of turn, but I imagine the feeling is akin to what New Yorkers might feel watching the New York centric films of Woody Allen or when sitting in a coffee shop talking about Friends.  Or, what generationally rooted Texans might recognize when watching countless classic Westerns.  My favorite artistic medium was nodding in my direction, winking as it informed others that real human drama occurs here, also.

Even better, the movie was damn good!

Winter’s Bone seemed to have kicked down a door, opening both a stream of production on and my exposure to films of similar tone and texture.  Predictably, there began to manifest a cautious critical backlash, one which adopted what I think is a well-meaning but misguided and counter-productive perspective.

Winter’s Bone

Winter's Bone

“The main reason for Winter’s Bone to exist is that it delivers a little voyeuristic thrill — a bit of poverty porno — for the critics who awarded it their highest honors at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.” – Kyle Smith, The New York Post

There are cutesy terms for it now.  One can be seen in the excerpt above.  “Poverty porn.” A phrase so cleverly colored in shock signification and alliteration that its ultimate purpose is veiled.   In discussing the tragic passing of Gary Poulter, supporting star of the recent film Joe, Rich Juzwiak of Gawker likens David  Gorden Green’s rough character drama to Winter’s Bone as an example of “modern poorsploitation cinema.”  “Pornography” and “exploitation” are both loaded terms meant to signify a manipulative, harsh, or perverted treatment of the subject.  Neither Green’s nor Debra Granik’s film, as I witnessed them, seem compelled to do more than observe a classically familiar storyline against the backdrop of a setting primarily specified by structure, language, and fashion.  Yet, I don’t have as many readily available examples of critics calling the work of Wes Anderson “Tweesploitation” or the referring to the work of Lena Dunham as “Naval Gazing Porn.”  Both of these artists also work with a predictable pattern of the same three elements (fashion, setting, and language).  Yes, Anderson and Dunham’s works are often referred to respectively as “twee” or “naval gazing,” but the framing of the criticism in such recognizably specific context as that signified by “pornographic” or “exploitative” adds a significantly harsher judgment toward the filmmaker’s intent and a recognizably objectifying classification of the subject material.

Again, if these films have anything in common, its markers of fashion (distinctly poor clothes), setting (broken windows, dirty walls, harsh nature, abandoned buildings), and language (colloquial-colored dialect which immediately signifies certain economic and educational status). The stories contained within are typically of varied classic narrative struggle. The applied film techniques offer no traceable pattern, soundtracks and scores are customized to intent and geography. There are no other connective distinctions. So, making the effort to sweep these movies  all into a singular designation based only on these three elements (fashion, setting, language) limits the total body of work to a singular reading, and in turn, limits their characters to a singular measurement of value: poor.  Through the application of these terms, all that the characters of these movies are permitted to be is poor, all they can speak toward and struggle against is poverty.

Out of the Furnace

Out of the Furnace

“…it never achieves its goal of being a compelling meditation about how the economic erosion of a community influences the lives of those trapped within it.” – James Berardenelli, Reelviews

“Yes, the working class is bearing the brunt of an inequitable economic system, and yes, the treatment of our returning soldiers from the last decade of war has been disgraceful, but the film has nothing of substance say about any of this.” – Andrew Duralde,The Wrap

More recent extensions of the same perspective that informs the single-word criticisms have evolved/devolved into specific and unabashed instruction.  Above, I have provided excerpts of reviews which measure Out of the Furnace against two critics’ expectations of Out of the Furnace, reviews that measure the movie hoped for or expected by the critic, a cardinal sin in film criticism, but one apparently allowed in what they intuit to be the best interest of inferior classes.  Certainly, Out of the Furnace paints with the same three designators and then runs a highlighter over them, but the story is constructed so that the impoverished Pennsylvania mill town simply informs the characterization.  Since the beginning of theater, a character’s place in land and history has worked to shape his or her characterization.  No one has ever criticized Hamlet for not investigating the feuding unrest between the citizens of Denmark and Norway.  Apocalypse Now has little to say about  the political reasoning behind America’s misguided involvement in the Vietnam conflict.   I can’t think of any moment in the evolution chart of the theatrical art form in which the historical and geographic placement of a story was required to function as the conflict.  Until now.  According to these critics, if a film displays markers of poverty, it is required to answer the concerns and questions they have about poverty (which, dare I suggest, might speak more toward their individual insecurities with the concept of poverty than the movie’s relationship with poverty).

At its center, Out of the Furnace aims to tell the story of a hero who seeks redemption  after his family is brought to ruin by destiny (fate in the form of a single beer and another driver’s poor decision).  A narrative arc so traceable from the Bible onward that Dostoevsky could diagram it with a pencil held by his toes.  And yet, by the critical measure currently under investigation, Out of the Furnace isn’t permitted that same story until it addresses the poverty in its background.  For that matter, Winter’s Bone offers a stellar supportive message to the hyper-progressive agenda– in an economic playing field made level by the ruin of absolute poverty, an unsexualized teenage girl brings down a long standing patriarchal structure in protection of children forced upon her by social expectation.  But nope, none of that until we can clean up these smudged faces and get these kids into middle-class living spaces.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild

” …call me cynical, but watching po’ black characters deliberately misuse words and grammar in folksy phrases written by white people (“cavemens,” for example) feels hokey at best and offensive at worst… It’s a pleasant fantasy to believe that people who sleep in the dirt and gut their own dinners are possessed of a spiritual richness that you’ve always felt deep down you’re somehow lacking.”  Vince Mancini, FilmDrunk

As would be the ultimate logical conclusion of exclusionary logic, here the criticism and instruction give way to complete dismissiveness.  I should note that I am an inspired fan of Mr. Mancini’s (I’ve even linked to his wildly entertaining blog on our Friends of the Site page long before the idea of writing this particular Feature), but his review of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the naturalistic mystical fantasy set against the backdrop of a Katrina-ruined landscape, has always stuck with me as a personal insult.

First, his dismissal on the grounds of the black actors using Caucasian-written “folksy phrases.”  Again another standard exclusively applied when the three specific markers are at play (poor people fashion, impoverished setting, and colloquial language).  Directors with subjects outside of their own backgrounds and ethnicities have often botched organic and believable dialogue, accents, and culturally specific terms.  Can we discredit The Silence of the Lambs due to Anthony Hopkins’ not being bourgeois enough to properly pronounce Chianti?  What about every single spoken line in Juno, which is a perversion of teenage conversation unlike anything in teen film history?  Later in the same review, Mr. Mancini laments the “phoniness” of a scene in which Hush Puppy’s father teachers her how to fish barehanded and catches a catfish in shallow water in one try.  What might pass in other films as narrative coincidence is filed as being “phony” (What’s the highest number of page turns you’ve seen a character need to find what he/she is looking for in a book?),  What is it about the current context– a white filmmaker from affluence looking to celebrate a poor culture for what it already has instead of what it’s lacking– that makes these criticisms suddenly so readily exaggerated?

To Mr. Mancini’s second point, his diagnosis of the “pleasant fantasy”… well, I can just say that it’s not a fantasy.  There is a spiritual richness to po’folk sometimes, as “spiritual,” by any rational definition, has little to no correlative tie to living conditions.  Po’ people can be spiritually affluent, and the nice thing about that is that they borrow their richness of spirit from an unlimited pool, which means they’re not really taking anything from any of the higher classes.  The rules of the currency with which the “concerned” progressive, middle class critic chooses to measure the characters’ value (money) do not apply to the rules of the currency with which Ben Zehtlin wishes to measure his characters’ value (spirit).

 Personal Reflection

In regards to that initial anecdote about knowing how to fry bologna:  I didn’t know that fried bologna sandwiches were a culinary delight predominantly enjoyed by poor folk until I was in my teens.  I was seventeen before I realized tins of mustard sardines weren’t a fitting snack for road trips and I had no idea that some people think Vienna sausages are gross.   I was well past my 18th birthday before I scrubbed the hardened black from the bottoms of my feet because for years  I thought shoes were things you had to put on to go to school and the store.

When you exist within poverty, poverty isn’t the constant immediate concern that some might think it to be (think of the beginning of David Foster’s Wallace’s “This is Water” commencement address, only without  the thematic marriage to the ambition of middle class white noise).  I was, for the most part, detached from my own economic status, dealing with pretty standard childhood and teen fare—imaginary friends, collecting blisters and scrapes, and later on, love interests.  Further along, I’d deal with standard life, non-economic hardship – failed relationships, betrayal, dying loved ones – all of it influenced but not defined by my family’s occasional lack of means and money.

It’s hard to compare stages of life.  Memory collects, the mind shifts, and there’s no way to say if I was more or less happy then, but I can say that I was happy then more often than I wasn’t.

I didn’t punch dance to montage music in the woods to vent my determination to someday rise above my current place.  I didn’t stare dramatically at black-framed motivational posters of men sitting bored in cubicles, and I didn’t say to myself with assurance “Someday, I’ll get out of here and worry stupidly about phone operating systems and car warranties.”

I wasn’t completely unaware of my economic status.  I recognized it sometimes.  I can remember, during my family’s really rough stretches, the nervous oscillating glance in the grocery checkout line when I realized we were paying with food stamps.  I can remember squirming in my chair when the lunch bills were handed out, my anxiety high over a classroom bully deciding to point out that I didn’t get one.  I remember these small doses of shame in retrospect.  Retrospect, because years later, I’ve done okay for myself.  A supportive family of loving saints, a small bit of hard work, and a healthy does of fortunate circumstance have permitted my mobility to a place where I can look back (but not down).  I’ve often cognitively struggled to diagnose the source of those episodes of shame.  If I was living so freely unaware of my poverty most of the time (and I was), why did the public revelation of it bring me to shame?  I can say for certain it wasn’t direct judgment; I knew early on that direct judgment came from a place of meanness and hate, and meanness and hate are easy to protect yourself against.  It was more the quiet or implied condescension, those little messages sent that informed me that I was seen by some as less worthy because of poverty, that I had less value.  The same sort of subliminal message that’s sent when a critic declares that “po’ folk” aren’t permitted to use the same narrative tools, the same age old stories and storytelling techniques afforded to every other culture and subculture, until the poverty is addressed first.

I write all of this with the understanding that I’m addressing a nominal minority of opinion (most of these aforementioned films have been universally met with positive or even celebratory praise), but I do want to make every effort to preserve something that I hold very sacred.  Someday, this class war that’s being hurried along by the zealous, detached hyper-progressive might unfold.  When it does happen, you might find yourself sitting at a table with one of these once-poor folk.  If you do, look at them eye-to-eye, talk to them straight.  They’re not any different than you or anyone else, except that they can tell some pretty exceptional stories.