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.”

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!

An Afternoon with Clyde

You’re dressed up,” Carla said from her chair in the playroom.

She’s mocking me, but I don’t care.

“If I get to meet the man, I don’t want to look like a hobo.”

Clyde Edgerton
Clyde Edgerton

At a time when good, churchgoing people are sleeping off Sunday lunch, I head to the Decatur Book Festival to hear and hopefully meet my favorite writer, Clyde Edgerton.

Heavy clouds finally threaten rain after a two-week absence. The traffic is light, but Jim and Don tell me the Braves are losing to the Dodgers 3-0. I look up at Stone Mountain on my left as I accelerate onto Highway 78. I’m always amazed by that piece of granite.

“Why am I nervous?” I think as I find a seat on the fourth row of the right center section in the First Baptist Church of Decatur sanctuary. It’s half an hour before it’s supposed to start, but there are already a good number of folks finding their seats.

I decide I’m more excited than nervous. I wish I had brought something to read. It would have been nice if I had brought a copy of the book for Clyde to sign, but, alas, in this digital age I have it downloaded on my Kindle. Don’t want him autographing that.

I pull out my Moleskine and start jotting notes, impressions really, of the scene. Old journalist’s habits die hard.

I wonder if I might see my buddy, Keith, a North Carolinian book editor who let me borrow Edgerton’s books on tape when I was commuting from Macon to Atlanta. I developed an appreciation for Edgerton’s humor and ability to create three-dimensional characters back in 1994 when I read “Walking Across Egypt” and “Killer Diller.” My fondness grew into adoration when I got to hear Edgerton performing more than reading “Raney” and “Where Trouble Sleeps” on the cassettes Keith loaned me. His dialogue was so authentic and the dialect so real.

The auditorium is a little more than half full when in walks Edgerton, wiry and energetic, a backpack slung over one shoulder like the students he teaches at UNC Wilmington. Round gold wire-rim glasses, a white button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, khaki dress pants and some type of hiking sandal make up his wardrobe. He’s taller than I thought he’d be, but he carries himself with a hint of mischief, just like I had imagined.

He talks graciously with a few of the event organizers before setting his notes on the podium. He goes to the piano and picks out a tune, gaging the sound. He confers with the sound guy.

Who I later learn are long-lost former neighbors and an Air Force buddy find him in a flurry of hugs and laughter. I’m secretly jealous.

The church’s lower level is full, and four women fill in the rest of my pew, trapping me in the middle. The view is great, but I begin to doubt I’ll have a chance to meet him.

Then, a guy in cargo shorts in front of me gets up and walks over to him. I can’t believe it. He just got up and walked right over there and talked to Clyde Edgerton. And he was wearing shorts!

A woman from the Decatur Book Festival takes the microphone and encourages us to Tweet and tells us there will be time for questions before Edgerton will go to a tent
outside to meet people and sign copies of books. Dang Kindle.

Atlanta author Charles McNair provides a magnificent introduction, retelling how he suggested to Edgerton in an e-mail that his remarks might go something like this: “Someday  William Shakespeare will be called the ‘Clyde Edgerton’ of his day.” McNair tells us Edgerton responded “Sounds about right.”

Full of nervous energy and overly conscious of his 45-minute time limit, Edgerton dives in with two relatively recent stories, one on his 29-year-old daughter in a hardware store and the other about taking his three younger kids to the open casket funeral of his aunt who “got kicked out of hospice because she wouldn’t die.”

The Night TrainHe gets to the main event in short order telling us his new novel “The Night Train” is about “music and friendship.” Edgerton, who himself played in a rock-and-roll band in the early 1960s, translates his experience into the story of a white kid trying to recreate James Brown’s “Live at the Apollo” album note-for-note. The boy forms a forbidden friendship with an African American teen named Larry Lime looking to escape the South by becoming the next Thelonious Monk.

Edgerton reads the opening pages of the story, and although the words were familiar, Edgerton brings them to life, infused with his energy, passion and perfect pitch dialects.

The 45 minutes fly by. He plays and sings a tune he calls “Fat from Shame” and shares samples of “The Jam Part 1” and “I Need Your Lovin’ Every Day” by holding his Apple laptop next to the podium microphone.

“If I had an hour I’d play all of these,” he says with a grin.

Too soon we’re into the question and answer session, and like a rookie just called up to the majors, I am frozen. My mind is blank. I have so many questions. People are firing off their questions left and right, almost as if they had rehearsed them. Why didn’t I rehearse?

He tells them he’s listening to Randy Newman and a jazz pianist named Monty Alexander on his iPod these days and that his next book is going to be about fatherhood. He even gives us a sneak peak at the first two sentences: “Before the baby comes, install the car
seat and put together the crib. It will take four to seven days.”

He whets our appetite for his next novel, a book about a rag-tag group of guys who are paid to perform 21-gun salutes at military funerals.

“There’s going to be lots of tension and suspense in this book. You’ve got to have tension and suspense in a novel.”

Clyde Edgerton
Edgerton plays his favorite tunes from the early '60s on his laptop.

He closes with another tune from his laptop. He says he wanted this musical concoction to be the real title of “The Night Train,” but his editors would have nothing to do with it.

He smiles broadly as the song integrates Stravinsky with James Brown.

The room swells with applause, and before I can escape my pew, Edgerton is escorted to the book-signing tent on the lawn. When I do make it out of the church, the line is already a hundred deep and a sprinkle is picking up steam.

I decide I’ll meet one of my heroes another day. Instead, I revel in the enjoyment of the written and spoken word, so ably crafted by one of the South’s most gifted storytellers.

I get in my car to hear Prado single to left, driving home Constanza. Braves win in the bottom of the ninth.

It was an afternoon well-spent.