Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Bone To Pick

Winter's Bone is a book written by Daniel Woodrell in a style he calls country noir. It was made into an independent film back in 2010 starring Jennifer Lawrence. As usual, I'd suggest reading the book after watching the movie, but the movie was a much better telling of the story than a typical Hollywood effort (for example what they did to Starship Troopers, or Percy Jackson, or how they distorted LotR and Harry Potter). It's about a poor family in the Ozarks and their struggle to survive a crisis caused by the meth trade. Woodrell writes decent prose and tells a good story. I was impressed by Lawrence and the other actors, as well as the way the movie transferred the story to film (minus one semi random polarized shot of squirelliness, which I'll give a pass on since it was an independent film going for an award). so I do recommend reading the book and watching the movie. In fact, here's the trailer:

Now, what I wanted to chat about was a review of the movie, which I think not only highlights the anti-Southern prejudice prevalent in so many places, but provides another glimpse into the culture war we've been fighting for a few millennia now. Oh, and there'll likely be spoilers.

The review is by someone name of Turfseer and was posted on Amazon. I'll give it a fisking, because it deserves it.

"When we're first introduced to the film's protagonist, Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), she's taking care of her almost catatonic mother and two much younger siblings. The family is so destitute that at one point they shoot squirrels and eat them."

Oh, the inhumanity! A family is forced to hunt by cruel poverty, undoubtedly a result of income inequality and perhaps a covert effort to subdue the country by corporations using gum disease and voodoo charms!

While the family, and indeed most folks in the movie are portrayed as po' (which is like being poor but not able to afford the extra O and the R) having squirrel and dumplings ain't proof of that. Many folks I knew in the South from all economic walks of life went squirrel hunting. The implication that it's a sign of poverty gives one the impression that Turfseer is not going to be waking up early to hit a deer stand this September. It also gives a reference, that Turfseer is from a very different culture than the one in the film.

"One wonders why no social services agency becomes involved with this family. After all, the local sheriff is quite familiar with the family's situation--that Ree, a 17 year old minor, is caring for the younger siblings and the mother is a virtual basket case. Wouldn't the sheriff have been obligated to report the family situation to social services so they could be placed in foster care? After all, if something happens to those kids and law enforcement was found to know about it, they could be held liable along with the county for not calling in various helpful authorities."

Ayup. if there was any doubt before it's been eliminated - Turfseer is not a card carrying Libertarian. Likely not even a Republican. In fact I suspect Turfseer may have - may - pulled the lever for Obama.

Over at munuvia, I penned a couple of pieces describing the very sorry state of affairs of the Social Services programs of most states. Describing them as "helpful authorities" is akin to calling a porn star celibate. I think most people genuinely view them as some sort of benignly intended group of folks, but sicking them on a family just because they're poor or that a 17 year old is in temporary charge of things ain't a reaction you'd see from most folks within my culture.

A statist though would see that as not only a viable option, but the preferred method of "helping". "One" does wonder why the government wasn't informed of this family's situation - if "one" is a proponent of an all knowing omnipresent government.

Given the culture and values that the family in the movie was immersed in I can think of one very simple reason that no one tried to get Social Services to intervene; they'd have gotten shot. That's the typical and appropriate reaction when someone tries to kidnap children, and a bunch of strangers, even strangers with badges who come to remove children because they don't approve of the financial state the family is in, would be seen as malevolent actors by the immediate and extended family.

The reviewer claims the local government could be held liable for not informing any of the "various helpful authorities". Government usually has immunity from liability when it acts, and it almost always has immunity when it does not act. And given that no harm or immediate danger was present I can only surmise that the rationale for getting someone else involved would be because they were poor. Economic discrimination in other words.

Not long ago it wasn't uncommon for a 17 year old to not only look after young children, but to be a wife and a mother. Not that it's ideal, but the economic state of the Dolly family depicted in the movie is not as bad as many people around the globe have it. The kids weren't eating as much as they'd have liked, but they were eating. The father was absent, but that was seen as temporary for a good bit of the movie. If those things were the criteria for the state to come take children away then a good chunk of the South as well as rural America would be wards of the state. That is, if the state won the shooting war that'd ensue if they tried such an intervention.

"It's established early on that people in town are scared of Uncle Teardrop due to his deep-seated anger management problem (Teardrop likes to smash car windows and refuses to get out of his own vehicle when ordered by the police)."

I'd not say it was his temper, but his willingness to use violence to further his ends. As for being "ordered by police" that refers to a rather tense scene where the sheriff is backed down by Teardrop. The sheriff at that point is not only acting with questionable legality, but is accused of causing the death of Teardrop's brother by running his mouth. Under those circumstances (on a dark country road facing a sheriff who may be acting illegally) it wasn't a "deep-seated anger management issue" but rather a very basic danger management issue. I wouldn't have gotten out of the car either.

But disobeying an "order" is almost unthinkable to folks from the proto-Eloi culture. Their view of society hinges on having an 'authority" to direct people if the need arises. Going against that is alien to them.

"Ree eventually contacts other members of the community who she is supposedly distantly related to. One of these men is Thump who heads a group of meth-dealing bad guys. He gets the word out that Ree should not be snooping around but she won't listen. Because of the hillbilly code, he ends up sending the womenfolk to beat Ree up. Finally Teardrop levels with Ree, explaining that her father was killed because he was an informer. I had a hard time believing that Thump and his men didn't kill Ree outright as she was doing all that snooping around. You would think that meth dealers wouldn't give a hoot about some old hillbilly code about not hurting a woman."

Note that there is a questioning of familial ties with the "other members of the community". In a rural area such as the Ozarks it's not uncommon to have a bunch of distant relatives living close by. In a big city it's a foreign notion, which is why I think skepticism is expressed.

But of more importance is the disbelief of the morals of those involved. Men not harming women is just some "hillbilly code" that criminals wouldn't really follow because they're criminals after all. That the bad guys had some code of conduct - not using men to hurt Ree, not killing her even though they killed her father, etc. - seems incomprehensible. Now, the criminals were in fact criminals, but just because you break one law or a whole series of laws doesn't mean there's a total and complete absence of values. Not that these folks were all saints, but the mores and traditions of a culture can persist even if lawbreaking becomes a way of life. The laws, for the most part were set by outsiders, or foreigners. Those values that the reviewer ignorantly dismisses as some sort of "hillbilly code" were instituted by themselves.

Which brings another point - by derisively calling the ages old prohibition against hitting women "the hillbilly code" does that mean that smacking your woman around is acceptable in the reviewers' culture? After all, if I mocked some societal disdain at stealing change from donation boxes wouldn't it be fair to assume that I was at least neutral if not in favor of such thievery?

 "And then despite the fact that they outnumber Teardrop, Thump and his men somehow accept his word that Ree won't snitch. Unlikely. And then they capitulate and send the womenfolk to cut off Ree's father's hand, as proof that he's dead. And here his daughter accepts that? The point I guess is that people are so intimidated by meth dealers, that their spirit is completely crushed. So Ree makes a 'deal with the devil' in order to save the family." 

Accepting someone's word is not as unlikely as the reviewer opines. The notion of personal honor is very strong in my culture and I see little reason why it would be so unfathomable. Actually I do think I see why the reviewer would not believe it - that proto-Eloi culture, that statist culture the reviewer likely lives in is authoritarian in nature. Abandoning reverence for the law would equate to abandoning anything associated with what they think the concept of law should be. To them, someone who illegally kept gold in 1935 would be as untrustworthy as a pathological liar, because they didn't submit to authority.  (Again, the antagonists aren't cool people, but they're not automatically devoid of humanity either). In this case, Teardrop has their respect and has shown himself to be trustworthy in their eyes before, so taking his word on a matter isn't unbelievable.

"You've got to assume that law enforcement is so totally corrupt that they look the other way in every case. Here, Ree assumes the police know about what's happening and will take no action. So there's not one good person in law enforcement who might try to do something? So they're all completely intimidated and ineffectual? No higher authorities become involved in cases like these?"

It's not quite right to say that Ree assumes the cops are corrupt. That may or may not be true, but it's more a case of her concluding that the cops are incompetent. and more-so, it's her concluding that it's her responsibility, not some government agents. The constant appeal for government intervention is telling. There are times when you want government to intervene on your behalf, but those are times when you cannot handle a situation yourself. Tracking down your dad to make sure he shows up for court isn't one of them. Repelling a foreign invasion is. There's a subtle difference twixt those two situations.  

"Sure there are cases where people are intimidated and refuse to cooperate with law enforcement. But if everyone did that, the vast majority of criminals would get away with their crimes. So you have to buy this whole scenario and I have trouble doing that."

The reviewer has a hard time believing the events of the movie are plausible because of a deeply ingrained belief that government is a force for good. The folks in the movie view government as a foreign entity and therefore not trustworthy.

I'm not a fan of drug dealers in general, but it has been my experience that mostly they don't bother folks that aren't directly involved with them. So why would people in an area risk the wrath of drug dealers to inform on them when those drug dealers hadn't caused them any direct harm? You see the same thing play out in big cities where there isn't a code of honor at work like there is in some rural areas of the country. and criminals often do get away with their crimes; if it didn't pay (in the short term) folks wouldn't do it.

"The problem with 'Winter's Bone' is that most of the hillbillies are creepy, malevolent figures, reminiscent of some of the unpleasant characters in the film 'Deliverance'. Ree comes off as hardly heroic, refusing to rat out her father's killers in a desperate bid to save her family. It's understandable but nothing to cheer about. Similarly, we're asked to sympathize with Teardrop too as he's saved his niece from the clutches of murderers--but he too is complicit in his brother's murder."

Trying to find answers when asking questions pisses mean people off may not be the same as charging a machine gun nest, but I wouldn't dismiss calling it courageous. Although I do note that the reviewer has firmly reduced the people in the movie to a comfortable label - "hillbillies" - that doesn't seem like a term used with endearment. That most of the folks seem "creepy" or "malevolent" might have a little bit to do with the fact that it's a crime story. I am scratching my head to figure out how Teardrop is complicit in his brother's death though, especially considering his adamancy about going after whoever it is that killed him. Unless this is some expression of the collective responsibility concept - he was in that circle and holds some of the same values so therefore he's as responsible as whomever pulled the trigger.

"'Winter's Bone' was directed by Debra Granik, a Columbia film professor. She is to be admired for using some local talent during the filming and does a fine job in getting good work out of her director of photography and editors. Nonetheless, her big mistake was deciding to adapt the source material, a novel which apparently promotes the idea that there is a community in the Ozarks who are completely unlikeable and have little or no redeeming qualities, due to their association with the methamphetamine trade. Even if we accept the idea that there is an underclass of such people, how about humanizing those characters by giving them some kind of personality, instead of depicting them as suffering from a terminal case of uncontrollable hostility?"

Le sigh. I'm not quite sure what the reviewer was expecting, but a crime movie based on a novel from the country noir genre isn't going to be a Disney flick. I suspect there are communities in the Ozarks, and in Appalachia, and in the South Carolina Lowcountry, and in the Mississippi delta, and in Kentucky, and in many places in this country that the reviewer would find unlikable with no redeeming qualities. It's not because they're part of the drug trade, but because they're rednecks. Or hillbillies. Or Southern. The reviewer fails to see the redeeming qualities in these characters because the reviewers' culture places little to no value in those qualities. family ties, personal honor, personal responsibility - those are foreign concepts, replaced by statism, group entitlement, collective responsibility. Thus it's easy to dismiss the characters as unpleasant with no apparent purpose.

From my perspective the characters were humanized - they weren't static or one dimensional. They had some complexity and some depth (though it'd take another few movies to really flesh them out properly). But I did not grow up in the culture that the reviewer did, nor do I embrace that culture's values or mores.

Now this was a review written on Amazon. I suspect that there's a circle of folks that take pride in writing reviews of such things and it still all comes down to a subjective opinion of a movie (or book or whatever). But I fisked an almost 5 year old review from an amateur on Amazon not because of the quality of the review, but that such blatant prejudice was apparent. There is an acceptance of this sort of bigotry when directed against rednecks (or hillbillies or Scots-Irish or Southerners - whichever name is used) and I know I can learn a little something about those that view us as enemies when I glimpse things like this.

The movie is worth seeing (in my subjective opinion) and the book is worth reading. The characters aren't all likable, but they're not supposed to be. But even in the unlikable antagonists I still see glimpses of the traits that my culture possesses. This doesn't pardon all or any of their sins, but it does explain the unfavorable analysis of the movie by Turfseer. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it but I also think I see a little more of why Turfseer's culture - the Progressive (or proto-eloi) culture - despises us so.

Why this may be relevant to those of you who aren't from the South or don't consider yourself Scots-Irish is that the Gun Culture is in large part derived and likely an extension or iteration of the Scots-Irish culture.  Given the rest of the review I was legitimately surprised that no mention was made of how wrong it was to teach kids to shoot. Or that that constituted a reason to call Social Services to take the kids away.

This is merely a snippet of the culture war that we're caught up in. If I have time I'll write more later on the subject, but I think that Turfseer's review and what could be gleamed from it are worth noting.

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