Friday, June 11, 2010

All the hype about "Winter's Bone" has me a bit worried . . .

Not to mention the content of three reviews I read or heard today about the film. "Winter's Bone," directed by Debra Granik, won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Granik wrote the screenplay, based on Daniel Woodrell's book by the same name. Woodrell is a native of the Missouri Ozarks, where the book and movie are set.

The film, which will be opening in cinemas across the country in the coming week, enjoyed a very high-powered media blitz today. The first of the three reviews greeted me on nytimes.com this morning; the second I heard on Public Radio's Fresh Air; and the third I heard on NPR's All Things Considered this evening. Reviewers are referring to the film varying as "Ozark Gothic" and "Ozark Noir." Watch the movie's trailer here. Some clips can be accessed here.

What's got me worried is how the film, set in the region where I grew up, will portray the area and its people--to some extent, my people. Is this "Deliverance" redux? Clearly this is a film about a particular stratum of Ozarks society--meth producing ne'er do wells, the type who would draw the "white trash" label. Residents from the Ozarks seem fairly positive about the film, while city folks seem more critical. Interestingly, in particular, it is the non locals who tend to challenge the authenticity of the film's depiction of the Ozarks. Several comments from different readers of the New York Times review are illustrative.

Here's one from a commenter in Harrison, Arkansas, in the Arkansas Ozarks, who defends the film's accuracy and authenticity:
I was born and raised in Taney County Missouri. My family has been there for generations. I saw the film in Springfield, Mo. a few weeks ago, very much afraid that it would be offensive to me. But I know people like those depicted in "Winter's Bone". The accents are accurate,(we are not southerners) the sale barn scene was perfect..everything in the movie has some basis in reality. I probably would not have gone had I read the book and known of one horrifying scene near the end of the movie, but it's for real and not the awful "Deliverance" type dissing of hillbillies I thought it would be. Not all Ozark natives are like the family in the movie----they are definitely the underclass around here---but even in the Ozarks underclass there are noble people, as well as evil people too.

One more point: The scene where the children are taught to dress a squirrel, and to shoot, is very realistic. Although I was fortunate to come from a family with more resources and education , and I am female, I was taught those life skills as a matter of course.
From my perspective, her point about the noble--as well as the evil--can hardly be overstated. Read related posts here and here.

Here's another commenter with a local perspective:
My parents were born and raised in Southwestern Missouri; they got out of there so that my sister and I didn't have to be raised there, but went not so far away as to make it difficult to visit. I grew up in another state, 400 miles away. There are many, many people in that area who are average, salt-of-the-earth, good people, like you'd expect anywhere; I'm probably related to 30% of them and cherish them all. But when I was just out of college, in the late '70's, I moved there to work as a reporter, and was surprised to also find the kind of people described in the movie review. It was, at times, like traveling back in time, 50 to 75 years. I don't say that critically, it's just a fact. My relatives will (currently) speak of rural areas they're afraid to go near, yet only a day's drive away, in the area near my home, the rural areas are populated with people you'd never be afraid of. It's a stark difference that was a real education for me.
One commenter from Toronto, Ontario drew several very interesting responses from Ozarks residents. The writer from Toronto, identified as AE Rose, said:
I couldn't tell that the filmmakers knew what people they was making a film about: impoverished, mountain people, plagued by high unemployment, and drug use, living surround by bush, and steep terrain. And so when the filmmakers introduce references to farms - and thriving farm economy - that we don't see, they lost me. The central character's charges - her younger siblings - play around large hay bales which required large fields of hay, expensive equipment, income and capital; the central character tracks her most powerful relative down at a cattle auction where he is clearly a man of importance, but there are no feed lots or large cattle pastures in this film; no sign that this man buys and sells cattle on any scale that would give him status at that place. There's also no sign that he is peripheral at that auction, a poor man wanting something that's out of reach. Who did the filmmaker thing these people were? What community was she revealing? It bothered me a lot because belonging is the central theme of the film, and yet she didn't know what did and didn't belong.
And the responses:
My family lives on a farm of 22 acres near the ozarks and I am anxiously waiting for the film. It is possible to have "large round hay bales" put up from small amounts of land and from really, really old equipment...I know because we do it every year. And believe me, we don't own any expensive equipment or have capital. People just make do.
And this one:
AE Rose has the reasonable questions that people who don't farm are likely to. It's a different universe, with practices and protocols that can't be intuited from urban corporate perspectives. Attend an ag auction of any scale, and an outsider will have no idea who the heavyweights are. If they're not in the field, land-rich cash-poor farmers spend most of their time keeping their grandfathers' equipment in working order. Woodrell probably has a better handle on this than Granik. If these scenarios seem unbelievable, it points up the gap that stories like this need to bridge.
Both of those comments certainly resonate with my own experience of the Ozarks, subsistence farms, and cattle auctions!

One New Yorker seems indignant on behalf of the locals:
[M]any reviewers comment on the film's "fighting of stereotypes" and "haunting authenticity." I'm left wondering...how? The portrayed impoverished hill people are: dirty, mean, uneducated, violent, misogynistic, strung-out, gun-totin', rabbit-eatin', and dog-infested. Oh, and there's not a yard not littered with defunct old cars.
Another New Yorker responds:
A woman who sings in the film was born and raised in the Ozarks and was present at the MoMA screening. She was not offended by the portrayal of people in the Ozark region, because she said that there ARE people who live there who are impoverished, uneducated, violent, drug-addicted, etc. But they represent only a fraction of people living in the Ozarks. (Remember, many "actors" in the film are not actors at all, but people who live locally and play themselves!). Just because ONE film portrays this fairly SMALL segment of Ozark life does not make it inaccurate or insensitive.
Perhaps this commentator has the right idea:
This is a brillant [sic] work of fiction, and should be enjoyed for artistic merit, not acclaimed for gritty reality.
Granik notes that the response at a recent screening in the Ozarks was mostly positive.

"People were so curious to see what the fruits of the labor were," she says. "People also have a proprietary feeling when they see their own property, their donkey, their dogs, the props, their garments and of course to see themselves or to see their friends and neighbors onscreen."

Maybe this reflects a very basic human need or desire just to be seen, something most rural people don't experience much in our very metrocentric culture.

I'll check in again once I've seen the film. I'll be keeping an eye out for at least a glimpse of the noble ...

1 comment:

e-head said...

I just saw the movie and thought it was very atmospheric and great at sustaining tension.

As for the "realism" issue, I can't help but think there is a little bit of truth to all sides. This film was crafted to convey atmosphere, and a part of conveying atmosphere is to be selective. I'm sure the film maker considered everything from the music, to the time of day for the shoots, to the wardrobes, and everything else for the purpose of creating the tone and atmosphere she was aiming for.

So, it's probably not "realistic" in the sense that it does not adequately convey all the nuance and texture of life in the Ozarks. At least I hope not. I imagine even meth dealers have occasional moments of light-heartedness and humor, e.g., or at least their relatives do.

Sometimes these kinds of movies can overdo the "grit" a bit. I think they fear ruining the emotional tone of the movie if they throw in a scene of kids playing paper, rock, scissors or something.