Friday, March 11, 2011

Rasslin' with my inner hillbilly

Sunday, July 25, 2010 at 5:10pm
We went to the historic Warner Theater in downtown Morgantown last night to see "The Wild & Wonderful Whites of West Virginia." It is a documentary about the family of clogger Jesco White, the "Dancing Outlaw" (the title of a 1991 documentary that made him semi-famous). Jesco is just a year or so older than I am, but I like to think he looks older. This new film has not been widely distributed, but has been popular at fancy film festivals and art house theaters in metropolitan areas. MTV and Johnny Knox produced it, so it will likely show up on cable TV soon.

I'm proud to be a West Virginian, and was worried about how this drug-crazed hillbilly (using the term hillbilly in the worst way) would make our state appear to the many big city folks who were viewing this film. It is definitely not a positive movie for West Virginia, but in some respects, it was not a total trashing of our state. The producers include interviews with local attorneys and law enforcement, many of whom offer background on the environment that helps to spawn such drug and violence prone folks like the Whites. There is a discussion about the coal company stores and the unfairness of wages paid in script. One even pointed out that West Virginia has been exploited by out-of-state big companies just like some sort of third world colony had been.

The producers also did us another favor. When Jesco was getting a new tattoo on his back--a double picture of his two favorite people, Elvis and Charles Manson--they missed the opportunity to point out that Manson lived in West Virginia (I'm guessing they didn't know this fact or they would have thrown it in).

It was fun looking for locations that I knew from our state. Unfortunately, I have spent very little time in Boone County, and so I only recognized the scenes in Charleston and around Pt. Pleasant (when they went to get his niece out of the Lakin prison). But I did see flying WV logos and familiar road signs, as well as other references I knew, and it is always interesting to see a big-screen movie filmed in our state.

The White family is a source of embarrassment and yet a bit of a morbid curiosity to me. They could not be further from my philosophy on life. Most of them appear to be scamming Social Security for disability checks, and then using whatever horse-trader entrepreneurship they can muster to resell drugs or other schemes. They have little sense (perhaps I should insert the period and end the sentence after just four words) of responsibility to others—except for their own family (and even then, they sometimes shoot each other, as covered in the film). Indeed, much of their existence seems like a modern version of the Hatfields and McCoys. To them, life is mostly about trying to feel good, which appears to come primarily from chemicals (as in drugs, pot, or even huffing gasoline). I just don't get it!

Yet on the other hand, all of us have a little bit of redneck in us if we are from West Virginia. Had I chosen to do so, I could have become a white trash bum, because that “career path” is not that hard to find here. I don't admire the Whites at all, but I can feel a bit sorry for them. I doubt that many of them will decide to “straighten up and fly right” (although the girl who went to rehab and the brother who moved to Minnesota might make it), but one can always hope they will eventually see the light. In the meantime, if out-of-town film producers are going to exploit them for others to both laugh at and to marvel at, then they should also contribute to fixing the problems of rural West Virginia. It is easy to point out the problems—it is much tougher to try and solve them.

In the meantime, we can all revel in our state motto: montani semper liberi.

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