Greetings from Appalachia
A boozy excursion through an Ohio boyhood
By Nick Pinkerton
Reading time 39 Minutes
– Part One –
Shot in the sticky summer of 1965 and seemingly lost to history after a desultory initial release two years later that misidentified it as an exploitation quickie, J.L. Anderson’s rural southeastern Ohio Gothic film Spring Night, Summer Night has found a second life since a revival at 2005’s edition of the touring Rural Route festival. Ross Lipman, a preservationist at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, responsible for a new restoration of Anderson’s movie, wrote about it in Sight & Sound magazine, identifying it as part of “an unknown and completely accidental — but surprisingly coherent—body of American neorealism.”
The chronology drawn up by Lipman includes Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles (1961), Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1979) — all fair analogs to Spring Night, Summer Night, though I might throw in Lionel Rogosin’s docufiction On the Bowery (1956) for good measure, and of course no discussion of American realism in the 1960s is complete without a perfunctory mention of John Cassavetes. The unifying features of the above are location shoots, an interest in contemporary American life outside of the middle-class mainstream, and an absence of star performers — often, in these cases, ceding the screen to non-professionals playing versions of themselves.
“Neorealism,” American or otherwise, is a tricky proposition. There’s a rediscovery implied by that “neo” which suggests the return to a lost documentary impulse that was once part and parcel to narrative films — think of D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) or Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration (1915), with their unquestionably authentic views of New York’s Lower East Side a century ago. As the picture business grew up, however, it became increasingly studio-bound, even as a discreet plein air tradition persisted.
The 1930s films of Jean Renoir and Marcel Pagnol, for example, have been cited as precursors to the bonanza of Italian neorealism which appeared at the end and in the immediate aftermath of World War Two. “Italian neorealism,” a term which rapidly acquired international recognition, was a brand that could be applied to such diverse works as a wilfully rough-edged vehicle for superstar Anna Magnani (Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 Rome, Open City), an extravagantly-emotional melodrama directed by a former matinee star (Vittorio De Sica’s 1946 Shoeshine), or a seamy, heaving-bosom-centric crime picture with a backdrop of back-breaking agricultural labour (Giuseppe De Santis’s 1949 Bitter Rice.)
De Santis’s movie — like Ossessione (1943), Luchino Visconti’s debut feature, adapted from a novel by James M. Cain — helps confirm the analog that exists between Italian postwar neorealism and the simultaneously emerging American postwar crime thriller, later labelled film noir, which shared with neorealism a preoccupation with marginal lives, and also exhibited a new interest in leaving the studio to soak up location atmospherics. (The Western, of course, had for the most part stayed outdoors this entire time, but by virtue of its period trappings remained outside of any discussion of “realism,” which stresses a confrontation with contemporary man-made environments.) Through the late 1940s and '50s the American movie made repeated forays into the street: in the prestige productions of Elia Kazan, Loden’s husband-to-be; in slightly more downmarket studio fare, like Andre DeToth’s vicious, gutty Crime Wave (1954); and in the independent exploitation films, which did without studios because they couldn’t afford them.
David Holzman’s Diary (1967), in which performer Lorenzo Mans gives a withering dissertation on the observer’s paradox, or the improvisation-based films of Norman Mailer, which grapple with the precise nature of realism in a world defined by performed social roles, feminine and masculine. (“There is hardly a guy alive,” Mailer said, “who is not an actor to the hilt”)
It’s smack in the middle of all this that J.L. Anderson, a new employee of the Ohio University in Athens, set out to make his first feature film with local talent including his students — among them his film’s three credited cinematographers, David Prince, Brian Blauser, and Art Stifel. Like most movies in the neorealist vein, which by their nature eschew labyrinthine plot machinations, the resulting Spring Night, Summer Night doesn’t require much work to synopsise. The central characters are Jessie and Carl, played by community theatre actors Larue Hall and Ted Heimerdinger (nee Heimdinger). They live under the same roof with their ineffectual, sad-sack father, Virgil (John Crawford), and his slatternly wife, Mae (Marj Johnson). Jessie and Carl were raised as half-brother and half-sister, but after a wet night at the bars they wind up together taking a lusty roll in the fields. Panicked, Carl splits town, returning from a stint in the state capital at Columbus some months later to find his sister visibly pregnant. While Virgil tools around the area trying to ferret out the culprit who got Jessie in trouble, Jessie and Carl try to determine the truth of their parentage, and as to if the child in her womb is in fact a product of incest.
Spring Night, Summer Night was shot in Canaan Township, near Athens proper — as of 2010, home to 1,666 souls. Travelling due west on U.S. Route 50, Canaan Township is about a three and-a-half hour drive from my hometown, Cincinnati, in the southwest of the state, and the biggest city that the characters of Spring Night, Summer Night are likely to have ever seen — the B & O railway used to run trains right through Athens out of Parkersburg, West Virginia for Cincinnati Reds gamedays at the old Crosley Field. Recollecting the fat and happy wartime years, Mae remembers the days when “We’d start drinkin’ here Friday afternoon n’ wake up in Columbus or Cincy Monday.”
I do not deceive myself to believe that the fact of my having spent most of the first twenty-two years of my life (and a sizable chunk of the rest) in the Buckeye State gives me a privileged insight into the world of Spring Night, Summer Night, for in this case state lines are of much less importance than the nation-within-a-nation in which the movie takes place. The country is Appalachia, whose borders are determined by those of the Appalachian mountain chain. Poverty levels are unusually high here, and life expectancy is unusually short, though violent crime statistics are significantly below the national average — a fact belied by the fact that much art and literature depicting the region tends to focus on sensational and salacious activity among the hot-headed hillbillies. Appalachia stretches from New York State to Mississippi, encompassing parts of 420 counties spread across a total of twelve eastern states, including Ohio.
In taking Appalachia for its setting, Spring Night, Summer Night has a special affinity to Wanda, shot in the coal country around Scranton, Pennsylvania. Director Loden was herself a native Appalachian, having grown up during the Depression years in the precincts of Asheville, North Carolina, and the personal nature of her film, about an inconsolable female drifter who abandons her family, is cemented by the fact that she plays the title role. “I've been like that myself,” Loden told a New York Times profiler in 1971. “I came from a rural region, where people have a hard time. They don't have time for wittily observing the things around them. They’re not concerned about anything more than existing from day to day. They’re not stupid. They're ignorant. Everything is ugly around them — the architecture, the town, the clothing they wear. Everything they see is ugly.” Here at least Loden expresses an overwhelmingly negative opinion of the land of her birth, though she can’t be said not to have come across it honestly. Nathalie Léger, in her monograph Suite for Barbara Loden, refers to a character widely regarded to have been based on Loden in Kazan’s 1967 novel The Arrangement, renamed “Gwen”: “When Gwen talks about her unhappy childhood, her violent father and passive mother, the incestuous rape by an uncle who would slip into her bed at night, how she ran away as soon as she could and joined a little troupe doing sales events in local malls, these were the stories that Kazan and other people used to tell about Barbara, and some were things that Barbara herself used to talk about.”
Treated with an unusual absence of sensationalism in Spring Night, Summer Night, incest and inbreeding are staples of Appalachian literature and lore. Any discussion of the region is also duty-bound to mention that the locals are disproportionately of Scots-Irish stock, those same belligerent back country borderlanders who had been used to pacify a colonised Ireland, whose reputation is that of a private, hard-drinking, stubbornly self-reliant people. This myth, which like most myths contains a measure of truth, is among the talking points which have been repeated ad nauseum in the period following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when citified Americans en masse developed a morbid fascination with Appalachia, believed to have been somehow crucial in handing victory to Donald J. Trump, who campaigned as a friend of the coal mining industry — an industry that employs 50,000 people in a nation of 320 million. This atmosphere of curiosity created a new market hungry for any plausible-sounding explicators of the mysterious, fog-shrouded land of Appalachia, which in turn engendered the rise to prominence of James Donald Bowman, who under the name J.D. Vance hit the jackpot with his memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, a book which enjoyed the fortune of a timely publication in June of 2016.
As Elizabeth Catte notes in a recent Boston Review piece discussing Vance’s work and subsequent career as chief explainer of Appalachia, this was not the first time that the spotlight had shone bright on Appalachia. “This impulse to create imaginary Appalachias snowballed during Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, for instance, when images of lurid white poverty were intended to shock middle-class audiences. For white people uncomfortable with images of the civil rights struggles and the realities of black life, these images offered a more recognisable world of suffering, and their creators often claimed they were a necessary catalyst for social change and a long tradition of casting Appalachia as a monolithic ‘other America.’”
Johnson’s War on Poverty legislation, which channeled federal aid into a number of programs intended to roll back the national poverty rate, was introduced in January of 1964, slightly more than a year before Spring Night, Summer Night began shooting, though images from Appalachia had already been proliferating in the years before TIME magazine’s Walter Bennett photographed Johnson popping a squat with local Tom Fletcher and his sons on the front porch of their Inez, Kentucky home.
This proceeded Johnson’s Rose Garden announcement of an Appalachia Bill on March 9, 1965, a manoeuvre in keeping with the previous administration’s interest in the region. For Adventures on the New Frontier, a cinema verite document of the inauguration and early days of the Kennedy presidency, director Robert Drew travelled to Mingo County, West Virginia, to capture images of destitution from a community hard hit by recession and a depressed coal industry. In the finished film, these precede a scene of JFK in the Oval Office, found in conference with Council of Economic Advisors chairman Walter Heller discussing the likelihood of a turnaround.
Peter Adair’s documentary, Holy Ghost People (1967), observes the rites and rituals in a Pentecostal church in Scrabble Creek, West Virginia, which include speaking in tongues and snake handling. If Appalachia is often perceived as a repository of American gothic grotesquerie, then West Virginia, the only state which lies entirely within the region, is treated as Appalachia squared. When I was a teenager Jacob Young’s Dancing Outlaw (1991) was a hotly traded cult object, the first of several profiles of Jesco White, an Elvis impersonator and practitioner of the dying art of “mountain dancing” whose personal life and history are marked by colourful domestic squabbling and horrifying violence. I am sure that West Virginia has many solid citizens, but no-one seems to be clamouring to shoot film about youth ministers in Clarksburg or insurance claims functionaries in Huntington when there are juicier subjects afoot. “If I die with this snakebite it’s still God’s word” announces the preacher from the pulpit in Adair’s film, seeming to confirm a certain strain of thinking about Appalachia — that the wounds it suffers are mostly of the self-inflicted kind.
Incidentally, Vance’s home turf isn’t in the Appalachia whose mores he writes about, but Middletown, Ohio, a city located halfway between Cincinnati and Dayton whose 50,000 souls have always relied heavily on the local presence of AK Steel, previously known as Armco. I’ve occasionally met my brother at an Italian restaurant there for dinner. They’ve got a nice wine list.
– PART 2 –
None of Ohio’s major cities lie within the boundaries of Appalachia — unless you count Youngstown, and let’s get serious — though little pockets of Appalachia can be found in all of the major cities. In the years of my youth there was no such thing as a Chinatown to be found in Ohio’s metropolises, but they had their Appalachian ghettos, filled up with folks who’d come out of the hills and hollers for jobs in the cities in a Great Migration of their own whose years roughly corresponded to that of African-Americans in the south, between the 1940s and ‘60s. Dwight Yoakam’s parents were a typical case study, uprooting the family from Pike Floyd Hollow, Kentucky to Columbus, a move that Yoakam would lament in interviews (“Within a generation, the accent’s gone. With that goes the rural Appalachian colloquial expressions and hillbilly art forms. That’s tragic.”) and songs (“South of Cincinnati”). When I was an undergraduate I lived for a time on the fringe of one of these neighbourhoods in Dayton, Ohio, on the east side of the city, the “Twin Towers” neighbourhood, named for the spires of St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Xenia Ave. My roommates were also students, and we never really entered into the life of the Appalachian community, though my friend Adam and myself had a tendency to half-seriously mythologize our neighbours, and to regard them with a bit of wholly serious awe. I remember having to swerve my car around two teenage boys who were having the most vicious fistfight I have ever seen in my life smack in the middle of Xenia Ave., going toe-to-toe and exchanging haymakers, one after the another, any one of which would normally be a surefire KO. I was reading Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland-set American Splendor comics around the same time, and I remember one panel which depicts Pekar and the young R. Crumb wandering through “a part ‘a town [Crumb] wasn’t familiar with,” in which Crumb, self-illustrated, observes: “Well whaddya know — a white slum…”
During this time in the white slums I also first watched a 1971 movie by Robert Kaylor called Derby on a bootleg VHS that I’d ordered from an online vendor in Atlanta, a formally-audacious documentary about professional roller derby competitors and the aspirations of a 23-year-old named Mike Snell to join their ranks, and realised with astonishment that it was shot not at all far from where I was then living, depicting the milieu of the urban Appalachian. When not chasing tail or working on his skating, Snell barely keeps a day job working on the line at Dayton Tire & Rubber, Co. — while down significantly from its wartime peak, there were still plenty of high-paying manufactory jobs in Dayton c. 1970, especially in the industrialised West Side, where there was a high concentration of plants (Dayton Tire, Inland, Delco) clustered around the Great Miami railroad bridge and its attached rail lines.
By the time I was in Dayton in the 1990s, the manufacturing base had been in decline for decades. Dayton Tire & Rubber closed in 1981; in its place is a field designated as the “Dayton Tire Natural Area.” Whatever prosperity had once existed in the Twin Towers area or those like it had dried up a long time ago. The doors of the houses were almost invariably patched up from where the glass next to the doorknob had been punched out — domestic squabbles or just forgotten keys — and on the first of every month there were mattresses on the curbs. I hope they made it back to the hills and hollers.
With its combination of direct-address interview sequences and fly-on-the-wall material, Derby nestles somewhere between Direct Cinema and Lipman’s “American neorealism,” a local varietal on an international phenomenon. The wave of neorealism that swept through world cinema in the 1960s was revolutionary. It was also, it should be said, a bit of a con-job — for the idea of realism relies on a universally-accepted and immediately recognisable version of reality, something which does not exist. When we talk about realism in the cinema, we are essentially talking about a set of aesthetic decisions by the filmmakers that connote a closer relationship to the known physical world — but they are aesthetic decisions all the same. Such aesthetic decisions are the basis of the neorealist film just as much as they are the “artificial” film, and the success or failure of the finished product depends on whether or not they are the right ones. The movie that is shot on location will always have an additional documentary value, but this gives it no inborn advantage in the pursuit of integrity of construction or emotional truth. Can we honestly say, for example, that Josef Von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters (1925) is a truer expression of its author’s ethos than his The Docks of New York (1928), just by virtue of the fact that the first was filmed on the San Pedro waterfront and the second on a Paramount soundstage?
In constructing an American neorealist canon, the existence of the exploitation or B-grade genre picture, which spearheaded the move towards location shooting well in advance of the respectable independent cinema, presents a particular problem. Though far more thudding in its effects and sensationalist in its treatment of taboo sex than Spring Night, Summer Night, there are nevertheless moments of undeniable documentary veracity that crop up in something like Jose Prieto’s Shanty Tramp (1967), produced by South Florida impresario K Gordon Murray and shot in the revival tents and honky-tonks of South Florida in shimmering black-and-white. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Spring Night, Summer Night was eventually peddled as exploitation, acquired off its undistinguished festival run by Joseph Brenner, a Brooklyn-born distributor who specialised in keeping the fleapits and drive-ins stocked.
Joseph Brenner Associates, founded in 1954, maintained an equal interest in exploitation and imported art fare. Brenner made revival hits of Tod Browning’s Freaks and Victor Hugo Halperin’s White Zombie (both 1932), and made hay through the 1970s on disreputable Italian fare by the likes of Umberto Lenzi and Sergio Martino. He also oversaw the release of Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) after its young director, Martin Scorsese, agreed to add a sex scene to the existing movie. Scorsese, more than any single figure of his generation, would reconcile and synthesise neorealist and expressionistic impulses in his cinematic output, but at this point he was happy with any paying gig. Brenner invited the young filmmaker to give feedback on Spring Night, Summer Night, but finally went with his own proven formula, asking Anderson to shoehorn some nudity into the finished film, then rolled it out under the purportedly more alluring title Miss Jessica is Pregnant.
Even granting that, by any name, Spring Night, Summer Night is ultimately a more challenging film than Shanty Tramp, and that Rome, Open City is a superior work of art to Kroger Babb’s sex hygiene blockbuster Mom and Dad (both 1945), there is a kinship between black sheep exploitation and high-minded neorealism. Looking beyond learned categories of taste, both were pitched on a similar premise—offering audience front-row access to a strata of experience that was kept out of view in polite and proper fare, accountable to the squeamishness of studio brass and the Catholic Legion of Decency and all of that. The poster advertising Wasted Lives, Murray’s tinkered-with 1960 release version of an Italian tearjerker titled Il momento piu bello (1960) which has been expanded to include a sex education lecture, gives a line of ballyhoo that is the promise of all realism: "Frank! Bold! Daring! Nothing Held Back! Nothing Concealed!"
When realism is the criterion by which we judge films, we soon run up against the limits of our own experience. The only movie that I feel at least partially qualified to judge on this basis is Larry Clark’s Kids, a movie about drunk, feckless teenagers in 1995, which I watched as a drunk feckless teenager in 1995. And looking at the films of the so-called American neorealist movement, it’s striking how central drinking is to them. This is perhaps part and parcel with their pursuit of the unvarnished truth — in vino veritas, and all of that. The bar scenes in Spring Night, Summer Night were picked up in Columbus, and if there were nothing else to identify the film’s setting as southern Ohio, the beers being drunk would give the game away: Stroh’s, Blatz, Hudepohl, Wiedemann’s.
My time in Carthage is 30 and many miles removed from the world of Spring Night, Summer Night, in which Carl’s dearest dream is to migrate to Columbus or another real city, and to set himself up as a working stiff someplace like Ivorydale or Dayton Tire & Rubber. This is, by generational increments, the trajectory described by my father’s side of the family. His father, Kermit, was born in 1914 in Kentucky to one Stella Justice. This was six years previous to Stella’s marriage to a veteran of the Great War named Charles E. Pinkerton, and Kermit is listed as a “Stepson” in the 1930 Federal Census, though this matter was never spoken of, and no clue as to Kermit’s parentage remains. He was born in Buchanan, Greenup Co., Kentucky, right on the West Virginia border, and a short jump across the Ohio River from Ironton, a 19th century capital of pig iron manufactory, home to one of America’s first professional football organisations, and the birthplace of his eventual wife, Rosemary Stanley. Kermit and Rosemary were married in 1942, about a month before he enlisted to join the war effort, spent in the European theatre in the Army Air Corp. They had one son, my father, who was raised in Chillicothe, Ohio, not far at all from Athens, and so notwithstanding the mystery of Kermit’s parentage I suppose that half of my genetic material is drawn from po’ Appalachian stock. (Any hope of preternatural toughness has been mitigated by the other half of my genetic stock, which comes from nebbishy Hoosier tradesmen and shopkeepers.)
Chillicothe is the seat of Ross County, whose most famous native son of recent vintage is the writer Donald Ray Pollock, an approximate contemporary of my father’s who leapt to midlife literary celebrity with a 2009 collection of short stories called Knockemstiff, Ohio, a book which takes its name from the author’s hardscrabble hometown, an unincorporated area to the southwest of Chillicothe, and its subject matter from the gruelling dead-end misery of life in working-class southern Ohio. It should be presumed that Pollock knows of which he writes, as up until the age of fifty he remained an employee of Chillicothe’s Mead paper mill. I remember the plant, now under the operation of Glatfelter, because running into the cloud of raw egg stench that it emitted signaled the fact that one had almost completed the drive from Cincinnati to Chillicothe on family visits. These stopped fairly early in my life, however, as both of my grandparents, longtime employees of the Chillicothe Veterans Affairs Medical Centre, were dead of cancer by 1990, something which of course has nothing to do with the fact that the Glatfelter plant, as of October, 2016, was ranked among the nation’s worst air polluters. (119th out of 15,461 sites, for the record!)
Some other Chillicothe fun facts: Ann-Margret’s character in Viva Las Vegas (1964) identifies herself as a native of the city, as does Judy Garland in The Harvey Girls (1946). John Hawkes’s character in Deadwood was raised there, and the protagonist of Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence (1961) — another possible candidate for the American neorealist canon for its street photography alone — was raised in an orphanage in the city. The country music star and Ross County native Johnny Paycheck performed — but never recorded — a song called “Chillicothe, You Got a Hold on Me” while doing a twenty-two month stint at the Chillicothe Correctional Institute after grazing the scalp of Hillsboro, Ohio resident Larry Wise with a .22 slug in a bizarre dust-up at that city’s since-levelled North High Lounge. (Paycheck apparently took offence at Wise’s offer of a home-cooked meal of turtle soup.)
Gun culture, and the ambient threat that it brings with it, hangs over Spring Night, Summer Night, a movie that opens with the sound of a shotgun blast —Carl taking practice shots on the family farm—and concludes with the narrowly-averted threat of another, as he wrests the gun out of Virgil’s hands. It all seems rough and real enough, but I shared the movie via e-mail with my father, who turned eighteen in southeast Ohio in summer of 1965, and asked him how he rated it for realism. He wrote back: “Chillicothe is surrounded by families with their own versions of Virgil, Mae, Jessie and Carl. You just drive ten miles outside of the city limits and you're immersed in that life. Your grandmother worked with people whose lives were so much like those in the film. She had many stories. A Jessie and Carl scenario wasn't uncommon at all. The movie zeroed in on Carl’s desperate need to escape the miserable life that was to be his if he stayed. My mother told me of young people who were part of her caseload and who she saw as wanting to escape the same kind of miserable life. Those people were not common though. Most just accepted their ugly fate. Oh, I forgot the scene at the beginning where angry, frustrated Carl decides to shoot holes in Virgil's hoopty looking old tractor. I think, if I’d been Virgil, I’d have told Carl to just shoot me and leave the tractor alone.”
The vision of life in Appalachia that Spring Night, Summer Night offers is in final tally a largely negative one, like that in Wanda—but there is an essential difference. The misery of Anderson’s movie is the result of externally-imposed conditions — the mines have shut down and the jobs have dried up and the only way to make a few bucks is cockfighting. In the case of Loden’s film, by contrast, the misery is existential in origin — Wanda has an earner for a husband and the coal mines seem to be running at capacity, it’s just that she can’t stand anything that her present life does or might offer her. Here is Léger: “We will never know the source of the wound that condemns Wanda to this loneliness. We will never know what ancient betrayal or long distant neglect plunged her into this state of constant and absolute distress. We will never know what loss, what absence she cannot get over. We accept her the way we accept ourselves, in blind ignorance, unable to put a name to the grief of existing. Her face, Wanda’s face, inscrutable, sad, obstinate.”
Spring Night, Summer Night works almost in reverse. Anderson and his cohorts begin by describing the various pillars of local life. The family dinner is a sullen affair, with a cylinder of Morton salt liberally applied to evidently flavourless food, and early intimations of incestuous conduct. (“She’s mah daughter, ain’t she?” says Virgil, informed he’s about to walk in on Jessie in the tub.) Granny, a tight-lipped old bird who stays glued to the television set, has Jessie and Carl drop her at her revival meeting, but the younger generation hang back at the stoop, listening to “Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb.” (No telling what goes on inside, and if the sermon has a snake-handling segment.) They head instead to the local bar to drown their sorrows, and cook up some new ones instead, for Carl winds up rolling around on the floor with a hillbilly he catches getting handsy with sis, and not long after they’re rolling around together. The morning after shot is a strange and startlingly beautiful moment in a movie full of them, a leftward pan that follows Jessie as she walks across a meadow in the dewy light of daybreak, stopping as it catches Carl tugging on his jeans.
Spring Night, Summer Night isn’t an accomplishment on par with Wanda — very few films of the 1970s are — but it is a movie of somber, quiet loveliness, making sparing but potent use of handheld camera, for example in the moment when it seems to loom over Jessie in repose, as though driven ahead by Carl’s desire. Once one gets north of the Ohio River Valley that separates the state from Kentucky and West Virginia the topography of the state is fairly dull, but Athens County is near some of the most scenic terrain in the state, the Hocking Hills area, and the movie counterpoises the otherwise oppressive poverty with something of the region’s scenic riches. Rather surprisingly, none of its trio of cinematographers went on to careers as DPs, though another Ohio University student who was pursuing a painting BFA around the time of the film’s completion, Ed Lachman, did all right for himself.
– PART THREE –
Anderson is a somewhat mysterious figure, though it is known that he was a recipient of history degrees from Antioch College and Ohio State University, had served with the Eighth Army in Korea, and from there became Production Manager of the Audio-Visual Center of Tokyo’s International Christian University. Presumably his entrée into an academic position was by way of The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, a pioneering 1959 study in the Japanese cinema co-written with Donald Ritchie, with Anderson credited as “Joseph L.” Ritchie, born in the mid-sized western ‘burg of Lima, was an Ohio boy who got out and stayed wayyyy out, setting up shop in Tokyo and staying on until his death in 2013. According to a 2003 Midnight Eye interview with Ritchie, he and Anderson had met in the mid-1950s when both were expats, at which point Anderson was married to a Japanese woman, and together they did much of the reading research for the book. His second film, 1972’s America First, has yet to receive the revival treatment, though the synopsis provided at IMDb is not-unintriguing, reading in full: “A previously isolated Appalachian region is infiltrated by seven travellers, who seek to create a Utopian community with the residents. A television documentary crew films the fraught interactions.”
I don’t know that Appalachia is significantly more or less Utopian fifty years after Spring Night, Summer Night, but time does funny things, and today even that film of endemic dead-end despair and poverty can be viewed with a twinge of nostalgia — at least the bar scene is lively. If the isolation of much of Appalachia bred the poverty and ignorance so often emphasised in depictions of the region, the hills and mountains also offered a kind of buffer protecting its traditional regional culture from the infringement of a flattening national culture. It was this region that produced the old string bands whose recorded music on 78 RPM discs has been ardently collected by Crumb, among others, and that attracted documentarian Les Blank, that indefatigable chronicler of endangered cultural ecosystems, to the unincorporated community of Toast in North Carolina’s Mount Airy region, not so far from Loden’s old stomping grounds, to make his two films with mountain fiddler Tommy Jarrell: Sprout Wings and Fly (1983) and My Old Fiddle: A Visit with Tommy Jarrell in the Blue Ridge (1994).
The most recent major success story for the 23 strip was Billy Ray Cyrus, a son of my grandfather’s native Greenup Co., performer of 1992 crossover monster hit “Achy Breaky Heart,” and the father of Miley Cyrus, whose “Party in the U.S.A.” is a fairly irresistible paean to the final triumph of coast-to-coast pop monoculture over folk regionalism. The great Appalachian movie of 2017 was Steven Soderbergh’s West Virginia-set Logan Lucky, a countrified caper picture set in motion by the hard times in the wake of a mine closure. The movie’s cast have hillbilly bona fides, including Yoakam and a blink-and-you-miss-him White and Riley Keough, Appalachian royalty by virtue of being Elvis Aron Presley’s granddaughter, but the script toys with the idea of “authenticity” so ingrained in the blue-collar action picture, an endangered species. There is an ongoing bit of business involving star Channing Tatum’s daughter’s upcoming pageant performance. She plans at first to perform Rihanna but finally opts for local favourite John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” — a West Virginia anthem which, as we’re informed in Tatum’s opening monologue, was written by songwriters who’d never set foot in the state.
Logan Lucky is Soderbergh’s second Appalachian picture, following 2005’s Bubble, shot in Parkersburg and across the river in Belpre, Ohio, concerned with the lives of employees at a particularly dismal doll-parts manufactory and, generally, the workings of the factory town ecosystem. Bubble has some small part in film history as an early innovator of the “day-and-date” movie release model, making a film simultaneously available in brick-and-mortar cinemas and through streaming platforms.
Bubble hardly set the world on fire, but it did in its way herald big changes in another industry centre. In Clint Eastwood’s period piece White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), Eastwood’s John Huston-based character refers to Hollywood “a factory town like Detroit or Birmingham or Schaffhausen.” Or, for that matter, Middletown or Chillicothe — churning out picture shows rather than steel or paper. This holds partially true for the c. 1950 setting of Eastwood’s movie, though the local economy was already then quite diversified, and of course has changed considerable since. The movie business, which employs a select few artists and, in the form of below-the-line workers, a great many tradesmen, has followed the trend occurring in the rest of the United States through the last half-century, becoming increasingly decentralised and increasingly white-collar, as veritable armies of pale, concave-chested pixel-pushers are put to work. (At least at the multiplex, neorealism has fallen very, very far from favour.)
Spring Night, Summer Night may in some respects seem less remote or ‘other’ to a young viewer today than it would to the victory culture Boomer babies of 1967. The microbrews, at any rate, are one industry doing a gangbusters business — even Wiedemann’s is back on the market, planning “a new brewery, taproom, beer garden, and sundeck” in the St. Bernard neighborhood, not far from my old stomping grounds in Carthage. I had one for the first time in fifteen or more years a while ago. It wasn’t any better than I remembered.
Nick Pinkerton is a Cincinnati-born, New York City-based critic whose writing covers all manner of moving image-based art. His work appears regularly in Artforum, Film Comment, Sight & Sound, Frieze, and sundry other venues.
Art by Jason Ngai