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A cliche of convenience: W.Va. stereotypes

November 24, 2008
By Tony Rutherford
When watching a film or series at the megaplex or on television, residents of West Virginia fall victim to numerous cliches, most of which have negative implications.


For instance, independent film actress and producer Dani Englander, who hails from Rainelle, has traveled the country visiting film festivals, brokering film financing deals, and, of course, appearing in featured roles in such films as “Southern Gothic” and as a hostess on the Discovery network.


Englander has heard the comments “generally in jest,” such as “Wow, you’ve got all your teeth,” “did you have indoor plumbing,” and, of course, those in-breeding jokes.


“I don’t take it personally. It’s just ridiculous though. Every single state in our nation has residents who are uneducated, lacking in hygiene or social skills ... that most people somehow attribute exclusively to West Virginians,” Englander explained.


The sister of the McCall Brothers, whose family started the Marquee Cinemas chain, has notable West Virginia political officials complaining too.


Most recently, Gov. Joe Manchin complained about a scene in “The Express,” the film concerning the first African-American Heisman Trophy winner, which contained one scene set at a 1959 West Virginia University home game in which Morgantown fans were depicted as highly racist and nearly uncontrollable.


After Manchin’s complaint made the news, the screenwriter contacted the governor with an apology and an explanation.


He wrote the scene as occurring in Virginia, which would place it deeper in the South during that pre integration period. Someone else in the filmmaking process had switched the scene to West Virginia.


The state has been the recipient of poverty, hillbilly and inbred depictions in cinema and television often. In fact, a casting director actually called the state asking for some inbred types as extras for a horror film. The casting director was fired.


The Associated Press also recently reported that the DVD version of the sports movie will tell viewers that it contains fictionalized scenes, including the one depicting West Virginia University.


Universal Pictures has now told Gov. Joe Manchin that the DVD will include a statement to that effect.





CLICHES EASY TO SHOOT, CONTROL


Why do so many hackneyed stereotypes of West Virginians roll out in film? I asked a former major studio executive and now producer for his input.


“I think Hollywood, as it were, goes for the most simple or direct characterization of any state or resident of a place, i.e. the brash, heavily accented New Yorker, California surfer dudes, Texas dumbbells, etc. The goal, apparently, is to convey time and place quickly and easily. Hence, the cliches. The best writers, of course, do not do this.


From the insight of the former film studio executive, it’s easy for filmmakers to utilize the stereotype, rather than a more realistic outlook. After all, the business of show business has concerns about a movie’s running time and the executives often screen a work in progress of the production to California audiences to gauge marketability.


However, the former executive paused and thought carefully when I countered, “Is it all about saving budget money?” His response: “Yes, but definitely NOT always the case.”


Huntington filmmaker M. T. Fitzgerald (“Meth Man”) acknowledged that filmmakers in the state have to work on the state’s image. “To outsider filmmakers, it’s a locale with the history and stereotypes attached to it. We have to give them a reason to use West Virginia in a new context.”





SHOOT MODERN FILMS IN STATE


Fitzgerald continued, “The more we shoot in West Virginia, either horror (though not using stereotypical settings like “The Wrong Turn”), but modern horror, action (for example, martial arts action), and drama (non-coal ) we present the state as any other with the same problems and trappings.” He suggested specific scenic locations and unique geographic features. “A blend of those will open the eyes of filmmakers from outside the area to what the state is all about.”


Speaking on behalf of Gov. Manchin, press secretary Matt Turner stated the governor believes that often “ the writers and producers responsible for the portrayal not only are not familiar with the state, [but] in many cases they have never been here. It’s easy to pass judgment on a place or people you don’t know and to base that on an existing stereotype.”


 Thus, like the former Hollywood studio executive, Gov. Manchin concluded “it’s not right but it’s easy.”  





INCENTIVES TO SHOOT IN STATE


Gov. Manchin agreed that “We Are Marshall” enthusiastically “portrayed West Virginia/Huntington/Marshall in a positive light.”  In fact, he supported legislation that provided tax incentives to bring more filmmaking to the state.


Delegate Kelli Sobonya voted for the legislation that she hopes encourages more film about or shot in West Virginia, like the aforementioned “We Are Marshall” and “Gods and Generals.”  


“Our West Virginia Film Office needs to work with film producers to express our interest in changing our image for the positive,” the 16th district Republican delegate said. “We need to be more proactive bringing producers here to film. When people see the beauty of our state and its people in a positive manner, our image will become positive.”





 ALL STATES HAVE STEREOTYPES


Yet, not all transplanted and/or adopted West Virginians encounter the stereotypes. For instance, Joe Johns, former NBC Congressional correspondent and now one of CNN’s Washington reporters, told us that “every state has something unique,” their share of “eccentricities” and a “reputation.” However, Johns who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and graduated from Marshall University, does not encounter such stereotypes working amongst the nation’s governmental leaders.


Thoughtfully explaining that “people don’t reveal stereotypes to me,” Johns knows they exist and specifically refuted that we might be a little too sensitive about them.


“Every now and then you hear or see something out of line,” Johns said. “It may well be a sportscaster.


“But I’m very forgiving of stuff like that because I know how easy it is to misspeak.”


Of course, long time state filmmaker Danny Boyd has often taken a cliche to absurdity, such as in his “Paradise Park,” where trailer inhabitants lazily await the Second Coming.


“My work reflects these,” Boyd said, admitting that he has been on “both sides” of the controversy. Boyd, a professor at West Virginia State University, inwardly believes that his life in the Mountain State is the “best thing that happened to me.”





STATE FILMMAKER ON AMERICAN ISSUE


Ironically, writer/director Shayne Barker’s independent, “Comic Book Lady,” shot in Huntington addresses germane interpersonal topics ignored by other films. Barker admittedly calls Appalachia dysfunctional, but the movie has gained recognition for reflecting life in America.


“I got to thinking about a woman trying to run a business in a place like Appalachia ... [where] everything gets swept under the rug. She’s trying to survive in a place where dishonesty puts on the guise of religion or everything’s OK social norms,” Barker stated.


His comic book lady balances job and marriage to a demanding, selfish, non-appreciative man. After dealing with the fantasy irrationalities in the comic shop, she faces a husband who demands that she cook and then [he] hates the taste of the food.


But, the writer believes “it’s more of an American film” than reflecting a regional environment. “Malaise is a national problem, but West Virginia is a pretty good section of the microcosm. People [still] in some places believe that we all have outhouses, but living here, you know we are not like that. I feel we are the mainstream; we are Hollywood movies, Wal Mart and all the other garbage that makes people sick. It’s [about] trying to navigate life in the 21st Century in a place like America.”


Barker has strived for a certain amount of social commentary — the psychological damage, the quiet style and the hanging on to an unfulfilling relationship portrays the essence of a battered woman.


“I did have that in mind, but I was not trying to get preachy or political. It contains things people don’t like to talk about ... that stay hidden in the closet for years and years.


Still, for every step forward, there comes unwelcome new conclusions that reinforce those hills and hollers roots. The newest AP story characterizes the metro or micro portion of Huntington/Ashland with 48.1 percent of those 65 and older “having all natural teeth extracted” where the national average is 7.1 percent and lists Huntington as the most obese city in the nation.


Does that mean Hollywood will invent a creepy crawler villain who’s extremely obese and lacking teeth? The cinema world might, but the Mountain State has the company of other regions too. Where did the chainsaw massacre take place? Where did (based on a so-called true story) African American players in a bowl game sleep in the back room of a plush hotel? What about Ozark dudes and rude New Yorkers?


As our ex-major studio executive pointed out, the “Wrong Turn’s” likely continue as they make money, but well written and well researched films, such as “A Beautiful Mind,” “October Sky,” “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton,” and “WAM” are going against the cinematic grain to reveal the beauty, compassion, friendliness and creativity of West Virginians.





‘KEEP DOING WHAT YOUR DOING’


 Johns urged the state to “keep doing what it’s doing. West Virginia has a reputation around the country that I see as a place with a pretty good business climate, a place where industries, government and others like to move. I think that’s [a] healthy [image]; it’s a move in the right direction.”


Delegate Sobonya reinforced Johns view from the perspective of a Huntington resident: “It is evident that positive films such as “We are Marshall” has brought people from all over the country and world to visit our city and in particular, the Marshall University campus. The same can be said of “October Sky” which has put Coalwood, W.Va., and McDowell County on the map worldwide. As West Virginians, we are in charge of our own destiny and it is up to us to show the world who we are and what we want them to see about our people and our state.”





Contact Tony at trutherford@graffitiwv.com
 
 

 

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