Although I've been writing for the Flyer since August 2000, I've been to Memphis twice, I've been to the Flyer offices once, and I've never had a face-to-face or over-the-phone conversation with any current staff member. It's strange to write for a community and a readership that's so far away; sometimes it feels like the only thing connecting Minneapolis (where I live and work and write) to Memphis (where my writing gets published) is the Mississippi River.
Such is the life of the carpetbagging freelancer, I guess. But oddly enough, I've never felt like an outsider. And I have a hunch that Flyer readers and Southern cinephiles can identify with me whenever I think about my own strong, mixed feelings when it comes to the way the movies depict my part of the country. I'm a lifelong Midwesterner, and for better or worse, there isn't much mythology about flyover country. (That's why it's called "flyover country.") Most people are satisfied by Don Rickles' take of Midwestern living: "Honey, let's shoot that cow and turn in early."
At least Rickles' wisecrack was funny. Most of the movies I've seen set in the Midwest use a shot of rudeness like that. Far too often, though, they either go too far or not far enough. I may dislike and distrust Fargo, but one Coen Brothers misfire and a lifetime of answering stupid questions about it is nothing compared to all those times I've seen Southerners, or the South in general, trotted out as a cheap punch line in movies for the past quarter-century. At best, this is unfortunate. At worst, it's divisive and harmful.
In today's placeless, CGI-enhanced movie landscape, films with an eye for local color matter more than ever before. But what makes a movie "Southern," anyway? Is it the way certain scenes seem to absorb and reflect those ineffable, geographically specific qualities of light, heat, and atmosphere? Is it the characters' propensity for florid colloquialisms? Is it the accents themselves? Is it something as simple as the shots of the Holly Springs, Mississippi, water tower in Cookie's Fortune? Or is the whole cinematic idea of the South a bunch of hogwash these days — an act of pure imagination invented by writers and actors and artists in the same way that Turner invented London fog.
I don't know for sure. My notions of the South come from lived and vicarious experience: two visits to Memphis; a fine steak dinner at Doe's Eat Place in Greenville, Mississippi; a peep through the window at William Faulkner's Oxford home; a couple of stops in Austin, Texas; a raft of books (Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Barry Hannah, Sanford Levinson's Written in Stone, and the film criticism of Alabama native Jonathan Rosenbaum); a whole lot of pop music; and a bunch of movies, the best of which respect their location and the people who might live in it.
So here, in order of their release date, are 25 movies that inform this Yankee's sense of the South as a place and a state of mind. Just so you know, I limited myself to fiction films, and I included movies from Texas. Also, the exclusion of certain films does not necessarily entail a critical judgment. (I mean, sometimes it does, but you get the picture.)
1. Mystery Train (1989): The intersection of South Main and Calhoun/G.E. Patterson is one of the first images I see whenever I think about Jim Jarmusch or Memphis.
2. One False Move (1992): My most fervent hope is that the ghosts of now-closed video store clerks chant the name of this film while haunting the nightmares of anyone who's ever used a Redbox.
3. Dazed and Confused (1993): "Okay, guys, one more thing. This summer, you're being inundated with all this American bicentennial Fourth of July brouhaha, don't forget what you're celebrating, and that's the fact that a bunch of slave-owning, aristocratic white males didn't want to pay their taxes. Have a good summer!"
4. Ruby in Paradise (1993): Look at the beautiful alternate-universe Ashley Judd in this movie in wonder.
5. The Neon Bible (1995): English filmmaker and memory maestro Terence Davies takes John Kennedy Toole's perfectly average first novel and transforms it into an aching, factless visual autobiography of a place he's never known.
6. Ghosts of Mississippi (1996): Unlike Mississippi Burning, this is legitimate filmmking as historical inquiry.
7. Nightjohn (1996): For those who feel like 12 Years A Slave is missing something.
8. Lone Star (1996): For Elizabeth Peña and Chris Cooper in love.
9. Sling Blade (1996): For autumn leaves and John Ritter's performance.
10. The Apostle (1997): Nobody moves that book. Nobody moves that book. Nobody moves that book. Nobody moves that book.
11. Cookie's Fortune (1999): "Because I fished with him" — As Leon Rooke might say, "they's truth there."
12/13. George Washington (2000) and All The Real Girls (2003): from the mixed-up files Eastbound and Down co-creator David Gordon Green.
14. Hustle & Flow (2005): Craig Brewer knew that the perfect time to cue up "Jesus is Waiting" is when a kindly pimp and aspiring hip-hop star (Terrence Howard) is at the crossroads.
15. The Devil's Rejects (2005): Released the same weekend as Hustle & Flow, Rob Zombie's masterpiece also has the best use of "Free Bird" in the movies.
16. Junebug (2005): Church basements and a winning star turn by Amy Adams.
17. Elizabethtown (2005): It's all over the place, but it's very good at showing how going home is a form of time travel, and it features the second-best use of "Free Bird" in the movies.
18. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2006): T for Tommy Lee Jones.
19. Black Snake Moan (2006): Whoa.
20. Shotgun Stories (2007): My favorite Jeff Nichols movie.
21. Goodbye Solo (2008): Yes.
22. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009): In which Nicolas Cage tries to pour all of the Southern Gothic tradition into the body of a limping, crazy crackhead detective.
23. Winter's Bone (2010): That Jennifer Lawrence might grow up to be something.
24. Bernie (2011): Mainly for Sonny's explanation of the five states of Texas (minus the panhandle, of course).
25. Django Unchained (2012): Crazy, angry, ridiculous.