Like many others in America who recently found themselves on the losing side of the Bush-Kerry divide, I've spent some time contemplating the real and perceived cultural divisions in this country. Are we really a bunch of latte-sipping elitists who are out of touch with authentic Americans? And even if we are, why should our opinions count for less? It's a complicated question, but it's also a discussion that Republicans are goading us into with their letters to newspaper editors that sneer at the coastal elites. But North Carolina progressives can't get too indignant about Ohioans, because the good people of that state came a hell of a lot closer to voting for Kerry than the North Carolinians who preferred Bush by a 56-43 margin. It was that margin that was most mystifying: Who do we even know--we wonder while gazing over the Whole Foods parking lot--that voted for Bush?
The diversity of life and outlook that's possible in the so-called red states became even clearer with a recent viewing of two movies from that most iconic of American states: Texas. Friday Night Lights is a football film that's been out for a while now, but I finally caught up with it a week after the election. It's a fascinating, well-made drama about one season in the life of a powerful high school football team in Odessa, Texas. Based on a non-fiction book of the same title by H.G. Bissinger, this film explores the use of football as a metaphor for life and politics, and it's distinctly unflattering to a state that's famous for the quality of its high school and college football, notorious for its enthusiasm for the death penalty, and for being the mythologized home of George W. Bush.
But anyone walking away from Friday Night Lights thinking that it's the definitive assessment of Texas culture should seek out Snake Tales, a feature film by UNC film professor Francesca Talenti that she made with a student crew in 1998 while she was teaching at UT-Austin. Talenti, who is currently exhibiting her paintings and shorter film work at Design Box, a Raleigh gallery, describes Snake Tales as "commedia dell'arte in Texas."
Taking inspiration from Arabian Nights, Talenti's film is a light, mostly cheerful shaggy dog tale that celebrates storytelling and also provides a distinctly more optimistic view of Texans, with the exception of a subplot involving a corrupt governor (Talenti notes that Dubya was, at the time of the film's production, occupying the statehouse). The film's version of Scheherazade finds herself in a Roy Bean-like court, defending herself from the charge of running over an endangered indigo snake (yes, that's a blue snake). Her self-defense becomes a stem-winding tale that incorporates many other townspeople, shifts perspective, delves into stories within stories, and finally brings two lovers together in an ending reminiscent of Shakespeare's pastoral comedies. But what's most fascinating is the film's utterly matter-of-fact representation of Texas as a place where gay men two-step at honky-tonks and swinger orgies take place behind badly hung blinds in the broad daylight of newly built subdivisions. (Go to www.FrancescaTalenti.com for the Snake Tales trailer.)
Watching Friday Night Lights and Snake Tales together, it becomes clear that negative stereotyping of red America is no solution at all, however good such invective may feel (see, for example, www.fuckthesouth.com ). Maintaining a vibrant cultural exchange is an important place to start crossing the cultural divide. Another is rejecting the divisive and misleading taxonomy of "red" and "blue" America.
Among the paintings, drawings and short films Talenti is showing in Raleigh is the recently completed, gorgeously concocted Dream of Liquid Memories. Composed of sublime images of jellyfish, stock footage of acrobats and outtakes from The Planets, her 2003 Sundance honoree, it achieves a goal of non-narrative cinema: Its effects defy description.
Francesca Talenti's work will remain on view through Dec. 1 at Design Box, located at 315 Bloodworth in Raleigh (www.designbox.us ). Talenti will give a gallery talk this Thursday, Nov. 18 at 7 p.m.
When I describe Durham to friends and family across the country, I sometimes call it a Southern version of New Haven, Conn., and most people understand my point: a tough, impoverished industrial town with a prestigious university and related cultural industries in its center. And furthermore, in both communities it's possible for townies and gownies to exist in close proximity without often crossing paths.
I am reminded of this Durham reality once again by a new short documentary called Choices and Change: Keeping Durham's Kids Safe in School. Produced by Durham filmmaker Kenny Dalsheimer and his Groove Productions, this film is first and foremost an advocacy film for the heroic and fearfully underfunded work done by A New Day, an alternative school for at-risk teenagers.
Dalsheimer, whose other credits include Go Fast, Turn Left, a portrait of the Orange County Speedway, compiled footage he gathered from three years of teaching video production at A New Day. Although the film is professionally edited, Dalsheimer includes a healthy amount of footage shot by his own students, including some disturbing shots of their blighted neighborhoods east of downtown.
The film doesn't stint on the statistics about juvenile crime and the relative costs of locking them up versus placing them in specially structured schools such as A New Day. We meet a number of teachers and students in this 40-minute film, but the surely reluctant star is Amy Elliott, manager of the school. It's a little disheartening to learn about the degree of individual effort required to keep this school, and others like it, running. Elliott, we're told, spends an ungodly amount of her time on the road, hitting up state and federal agencies and private foundations for contributions. We also meet her small but committed staff, a sympathetic local juvenile court judge and representatives from Gov. Easley's office.
We have a tendency in our society to lionize heroic, self-sacrificing teachers, as in movies like Stand and Deliver, without asking ourselves if our government is doing its part to support their efforts. Movies like Stand and Deliver reinforce our American tendency to see failure as an individual shortcoming, rather than a societal one. Still, there's a French movie of this genre, Bertrand Tavernier's It All Starts Today, that shows America has no monopoly on leaving social workers to their own devices.
Choices and Change will be shown this Sunday, Nov. 21 at 4 p.m. in Durham's Fletcher Hall, located in the Carolina Theater. Admission is free and a panel discussion will follow.