Thursday, June 22, 2006

Junebug: A (Southern) poetics of space

"I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic." --Flannery O'Connor, "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction"
I am going to try to get some things right about Junebug (2005), a film that gets very little wrong--especially about the South. In the course of trying, I hope to convey my sense of this film as being about space--more particularly, Southern space.

The plot could not be simpler or, for that matter, more familiar: a gallery owner specializing in folk art, a cosmopolitan outsider recently married to a Southern boy, travels with him to his home in North Carolina to negotiate a deal with a so-called Outsider artist and, secondarily, to meet her new husband's family. Misunderstandings of various sorts arise. A tragedy occurs. The cosmopolitan woman and her husband return home. You get the sense that everyone has learned something, but the end is, on the surface, at least, very much in the no-hugging-no-learning mode. But from the film's very opening, Junebug reveals its intention to be a very different film: a film as much about a space, a place, as about its characters. Maybe more so.

A LONG post ensues.

The film opens with short clips of people competing in the National Hollerin' Contest, held annually in Spivey's Corner, North Carolina. The initial impulse is to laugh, but there was something about the sound the hollerers made that seemed to me as I watched to hearken back to something old, something not campy or comedic at all but something emanating from the very bedrock of what remains of older, rural Southern culture. And indeed, if you go here to read about the origins of hollering, that's exactly what you learn. In its own way, then, Junebug's opening is a secular summoning to the hearing of a story that, even though set in the contemporary world, will be misunderstood unless one takes seriously the idea that Southern culture is something more, and more substantive, than a mass of clichés.

The Outsider artist, who gets introduced in the next scene, is an extension of this idea. Like the hollerers, the artist depicts through his art what makes the South different from the rest of the U.S.: invasion and conquest at the hands of its fellow Americans. He is a visionary who literally prophesies, through his art and in speeches, that the South Will Rise Again. His accent is so thick as to be, at points, almost unintelligible, thus evoking the fundamentalist and charismatic practice of speaking in tongues. We may laugh at what he says, but we know he's not, at his core, a buffoon.

The same is true of all the other characters Madeleine (the cosmopolitan art-dealer--more about her name later) will meet. Junebug is full of humor, but the actors aren't playing for laughs. And, the same is true of the very setting for this film: a contemporary suburban neighborhood outside Winston-Salem that, aside from clouds of insects and humidity that you get the feeling you can actually see, looks just like suburban neighborhoods do anywhere these days (more's the pity, but let that alone for now). Not a trailer park or a hound dog asleep on or under a porch or a Larry the Cable Guy in sight.

And that leads me to something unusual and striking about this film that made me want to post about it in the first place. At a few intriguing points in the film, characters will be in a room conversing with each other and then leave that room together, carrying on their conversations, but the camera won't follow them. Instead, we are shown various rooms in the house empty of people--the dining room, the living room, spare bedrooms--as, offstage, we can hear the continuation of the conversation. It is as though the house is listening, too--not in a sinister way, but exactly as one would expect of a region with such a strong sense of place as the South has.

Home is a powerfully resonant theme in this film: George (Madeleine's husband, the Southern boy) feels it powerfully; Madeleine, the daughter of British diplomats who, we learn, really has had no place to call home and thus is more or less uncomfortable throughout the film. Her name, perhaps unintentionally, ironically evokes Proust's Remembrance of Things Past in that she has no comparable memory of a place. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, we learn that one of her favorite novels is Huckleberry Finn, which she correctly identifies as a picaresque novel and one of whose themes she correctly identifies as "escape."

Madeleine is an Outsider as well, and she knows it. Thinking she had known her husband, she is introduced to a part of him that resides in, as Yeats might put it, his deep heart's core. She could live there, or at least visit often, but she'll never feel comfortable there--not because George's family is unfriendly toward her but because at a fundamental level she just won't "get" this place. And that is something else Junebug gets absolutely right about the South, too: hospitable though the people certainly are, those not from the region tend to feel politely kept at arm's length by those who are from there. It's just different, is all.

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