Southern Oscars

Sunday night is Hollywood’s annual tribute to narcissism, hedonism and voyeurism known as the Academy Awards.

Oscar statuette
Southern trophies typically have antlers. This one ain’t from around here.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have only watched the Oscars a couple of times in my whole life, and I don’t think I’ve ever watched a complete broadcast. I have no plans to watch it this year. Depending on what time the Daytona 500 finishes, you may or may not switch over and catch a little of it.

But because three of the nine films nominated for best picture are either set in the South or have Southern themes, I began contemplating Southern movies.

What makes a movie “Southern?” Is it as simple as a being set in the South or does it revolve around Southern characters regardless of geographic location? Are there a set of themes that make a film Southern? What is the difference between Southern movies and New South movies? What milestone movie marked the change? Why are Southern accents always so bad in movies?

So while the Oscars have little to interest me, these questions intrigue me. Let’s take them in order.

Pure chick flick, this non-Southern, Southern movie didn't win an Oscar.
Pure chick flick, this non-Southern, Southern movie didn’t win an Oscar.

First, what makes a movie Southern? I don’t think it is a function of geography or character or theme. I believe it can be any of the three, but those films we most strongly identify as Southern have at least two of three. A movie can be set in the South and not be Southern. Just look at all of the movies being filmed in Georgia these days thanks to the gracious tax breaks and active recruitment of production studios.

A few years ago, Carla and I rented “Life as We Know It” staring Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel. It was set in Atlanta, but there was nothing particularly Southern about the characters. It did have a strong theme of family woven throughout. I would consider it a Southern movie, but not as much as, say, “The Blind Side,” which had all three, complete with bad Southern accents.

Next, what constitutes a Southern theme? Here, I think you have to look to Southern literature. Some universally-agreed upon Southern literary themes include, but aren’t limited to, the aforementioned family, history, tradition, community, justice, faith, race, agriculture and the land, social class and hardship.

If you ain't first, you're last. This one wasn't exactly Academy material.
“If you ain’t first, you’re last.” This one wasn’t exactly Academy material either.

There are plenty of films that have these themes that aren’t Southern in any way, but it’s hard to find the reverse – a Southern movie that doesn’t employ these themes. Even something as ridiculous as, say, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” has multiple themes of family, faith, class and hardship, not to mention the whole dialect thing.

That brings us to the question of whether Southern movies are any different in the New South. I think so. Historical epics aside, I think New South films portray race in very different ways. Gone are the days when archetypes veer into stereotypes. One example is the 2012 remake of “Steel Magnolias” with an all African-American cast.

New South movies take traditional Southern themes and either approach them in an unorthodox format or reverse the perspective and look at a narrative from other angles.

Had to rent this one for my wife last year. I couldn't believe she had never seen it.
Had to rent this one for my wife last year. I couldn’t believe she had never seen it.

For me, this began with 1991’s “Fried Green Tomatoes.” By moving back and forth between the past and present and making the societal underdogs triumphant along the way, what may have been a maudlin and superficial Southern film brings a thoughtful edge that ultimately endorses radically different worldviews from the Old South.

As for the bad Southern accents? Well, I’m afraid it’s just part of the territory. There is no overarching Southern dialect, and too many movies seem to ignore the subtle differences within the South. Those of us with well-trained ears will wince when a character set in a movie in Virginia breaks out in an Alabama drawl. Occasionally, the actors themselves hail from Southern locales and grew up immersed in the dialect bringing an authentic sound. Think Conyers, Ga.,-native Holly Hunter in just about anything she’s done.

Cannibalism is just one of the surprise "isms" in this New South movie.
Cannibalism is just one of the surprise “isms” in this New South movie.

So whether or not Lincoln, Beasts of the Southern Wild or Django Unchained win best picture, it has been a high-profile year for Southern films. Given the rise of the New South in all forms of media, I don’t think it will be the last.

What’s your favorite Southern movie? Check out this list on Wikipedia for help, and a leave a comment with your vote. We’ll call it “The Southern Oscars.”

More than a day

Barron with birthday presents
Celebration Part One: Barron’s 12th birthday celebration began with cake, ice cream and presents with his grandparents in Sandersville.

It wasn’t that long ago that a birthday was just that – a day.

In the New South, however, we celebrate a person’s birthday for many, many days. I have a theory about why this is: It takes us longer to celebrate birthdays now because of geographic dispersion of family, over-stuffed schedules and the vicious cycle of birthday one-upmanship.

My oldest son, Barron, recently turned 12. Our commemoration of this blessed event began with a Saturday trip to Sandersville to celebrate with Carla’s parents. There was cake, ice cream and presents. My folks live 8-10 hours away. Although they have sacrificially made the drive to be with us on some of the milestone birthdays, we don’t see them on most birthdays.

Grandparents are an important part of birthdays for us, and we have to make the time to go to them. When we lived in Macon, it was no big deal. We might even be able to scoot over to Sandersville for an afternoon. But now that we are in the Atlanta area, it’s a bit more of a commitment and takes some scheduling. When families lived closer together, it wasn’t as much of a challenge getting everyone together for a birthday, but covering the miles takes planning. With our schedule, making a trip to see family causes the birthday season to become elongated.

Barron with birthday card mustache.
Celebration Part Two: Barron’s other grandparents from Florida sent a cool card with a mustache disguise in case all of the birthday mushyness caused him to need a disguise.

This leads me to my second point: birthday celebrations take more than a day now because of our overflowing schedules. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find time to celebrate a birthday, particularly if it happens to fall in the middle of a work/school week.

Barron’s big day occurred on a Wednesday. We acknowledged his actual birthday by opening gifts on that day, but our mid-week church activities took precedence over any celebration. The sad truth is, most of our weeks are a sprint that may have only one or two small openings at night or on a weekend afternoon. And our kids aren’t even involved in sports. That ups the ante even higher.

We ended up celebrating with Barron by going out for pizza and bowling on a Friday. It was fun, and we all enjoyed it, but it was several days removed from Barron’s actual 12th birthday. This brings me to my final point: birthday celebrations have become a season because we feel the need to make each year better than the previous year.

If we started at the first birthday with a candle, a song and a cupcake, this wouldn’t be so bad. But we make the first birthday such a production that by the time kids are old enough to actually remember their birthdays we have to rent bounce houses or invite 30 friends to the gymnastics center or go bowling or play mini-golf or ride ponies or rent a limo or go to Disney World or on and on and on.

Barron at the bowling alley.
Celebration Part Three: Barron celebrates a strike as he dominates the family, including dear old dad, in a game of bowling.

Growing up in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the birthday destination of choice was Crystal’s Pizza Palace in Irving. As a kid the place seemed massive, and it was the only place to play such arcade game classics as Sea Hunt, Galaxian, Joust and Pacman. I didn’t feel that my parents were under pressure to deliver a bigger and better birthday experience each year. I just wanted to go to Crystal’s.

But these days, it’s a hard pressure to resist. We want desperately to give our kids memorable birthdays. To do this, we sometimes have to schedule the event in increments, like Barron’s this year. It makes for a season of birthday celebration rather than a single day.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m talking about a societal phenomenon that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not like we take enough time to appreciate our loved ones anyway, and I don’t hear anyone complaining about getting too much attention for their birthday.

I just hope we can finish celebrating Barron’s 12th birthday before his 13th rolls around.

Do your birthday celebrations extend past the actual day? How do you handle it? What was your most memorable birthday celebration? Leave a comment and extend this blog beyond a single day.

An encounter with the irascible Dr. Sams

Dr. Ferrol Sams with his characteristic grin.
Dr. Ferrol Sams with his characteristic grin.

Dr. Ferrol Sams died this week at the age of 90. If you don’t know who he is, then shame on you.

He might have said something to the effect of “You ain’t got a lick-a-sense if you’ve never read my books.”

The author of “Run With the Horsemen,” “The Whisper of the River” and “When All the World Was Young,” is one of Georgia’s best-known and best-loved writers. His passing this week reminded me of my discovery of his work and my dealings with the mischievous and sometimes profane Southern literary luminary.

It was January of 1993, six months into my stint as a features writer for The Macon Telegraph. I was given the assignment of researching and revealing Macon’s “secret places” – those rumored and legendary haunts around town that many had heard of but few had ever seen. It was a great story that took several weeks of interviewing and reading to pull together. It was in the reporting for this story that I first learned of Ferrol Sams and his work.

One of the secret places I was including in the piece was a room at the base of the spire of Mercer University’s administration building where Porter Osborne Jr., Sams’ main character from the “The Whisper of the River,” lost his virginity. Incoming Mercer freshmen are required to read “The Whisper of the River,” but since I had not matriculated at that fine institution at the time of my story assignment, I hadn’t even heard of Ferrol Sams.

I devoured the book – a thinly veiled autobiographical novel of Sams’ time at Mercer. In the book, Osborne, a country boy, goes off to Willingham College in the fictional version of Macon, and mad-cap and bawdy adventures ensued, including, of course, the chapter when Osborne has his fledgling sexual encounters in the secret room in the bell tower.

It was just such chapters that led my friend and fellow church member, the late Dr. William Shirley, to tell me one day after church “Lance, that’s a dirty book.” Dr. Shirley was a classmate of Dr. Sams at Mercer, and although I went back and re-read “The Whisper of the River” looking for him, I couldn’t figure out which character represented Dr. Shirley.

At Mercer University's 175th Anniversary in 2008, Ferrol Sams signs the Mercer tower.
At Mercer University’s 175th Anniversary in 2008, Ferrol Sams signs the Mercer tower.

It was somewhat awkward the day I went with Telegraph photographer Maryann Bates to Mercer to do interviews about the room. A young, rather attractive woman from the University Relations Office escorted us up to the room where she told us all about the space and how it achieved notoriety.

I remember blushing and stuttering the question “So, is this the room where… you know… IT happened?”

Maryann couldn’t suppress a laugh at my poor attempt at euphemism.

When the story appeared, I received a letter from retired – and now deceased – Macon attorney Hendley Napier. Mr. Napier insisted my story had incorrectly identified the location of the secret room as the Kappa Alpha fraternity’s chapter room, and he was most offended.

My editor, James Palmer, and I went back and forth over how best to respond to Mr. Napier. It was this experience that taught me there is no one more tenacious than a retired attorney with time on his hands. James determined that Mr. Napier reached his conclusion about my story erroneously. I had not said the KA chapter room was the secret room, but some imprecise language, specifically the antecedent of the impersonal pronoun “it,” was the source of the confusion. We did not run a correction or even a clarification.

This didn’t sit well with Mr. Napier who proceeded to carry out a one-man campaign against me and The Telegraph until justice was done and the KA chapter room exonerated. In one of the letters, Mr. Napier threatened to contact Dr. Sams himself to set the record straight.

About a month later, as I struggled with writing original prose about the 1993 Macon Cherry Blossom Festival, the phone at my desk rang. (The following is a loose transcript based on my memory, not the actual notes.)

“Macon Telegraph, this is Lance Wallace,” I recited.

“Is this Lance Wallace?” came the agitated response.

“Uh, yes… yes, it is. How may I help you?”

“You the one who did that story about the secret room at Mercer?”

“Yes… yes sir, I’m the one.”

“Well, I don’t know what you did, but you sure got Hendley Napier all stirred up.”

“Oh, I see. I’m sorry.”

“This is Dr. Sams up in Fayette County. It seems you have written something about my book and have Hendley Napier all out of sorts. He asked me to give you a call to clear this up. You got a pen?”

“Uh… yes, yes sir, right here.”

The cover of the copy of "Whisper of the River" I read back in 1993.
The cover of the copy of “Whisper of the River” I read back in 1993.

“Good. You take this down: The Kappa Alpha Chapter Room at Mercer University is a hallowed and sacred place. Many significant rites and solemn vows were made in that room where the bonds of brotherhood were firmly established with the utmost fervor and conviction. No male human could possibly attain an erection much less consummate the act of sexual intercourse in so grave and somber an environment. Furthermore, any rumor contradicting the widely-known and indisputable fact that Hendley Napier graduated Mercer University anything other than a virgin is an egregious and bald-faced lie.”

“Uh… Dr. Sams… uh… I can’t…”

“Son, you ain’t got no hair on your ass if you don’t put that in the newspaper.”

“Well… I don’t  think…”

“If that Hendley Napier calls you again, please tell him I called. Have a good day.”

Stunned, I slowly returned the handset to the base and stared down at the scribbling in my reporter’s notebook. When I relayed the conversation to my editor, James laughed so hard he nearly had tears. Shaking his head he said to me, “Yep, that sounds like Ferrol Sams. You be sure to keep those notes.”

Well, I’m sure I have those notes somewhere in my basement, but the memory is so vivid they are unnecessary.

I’m sorry to learn of his passing, but at 90, it can be said that Ferrol Sams lived a full life. I’m glad he shared it with us through his books.

Have you read any of Ferrol Sams’ work? If so, which is your favorite? Leave a comment with your assessment of his writing. You don’t have any hair… well, you get the idea… if you don’t leave a comment!