Hounddog (2007; dir. Deborah Kampmeier) takes place in a rural Southern landscape from around 1960. The vegetation is lush and green, with forests and overgrown fields. Children swim in a river. We see, often close to each other, ramshackle shacks and shotgun-type houses where blacks and poor whites live, and much larger, decorous white houses with columns. Farmers work the fields. Black men work with horses and socialize among themselves. Early scenes evoke an idyllic Southern past of rural and natural childhood innocence. They define the South in a series of stereotypical images, focused on a young girl named Lewellen. Even as these images are set in place, the film undertakes to undermine and also reinforce them. A boy lets a girl look at his private parts. He indignantly explains about a bruise on his thigh that “My daddy don’t hit me.” The girl shows a bruise on her leg that she says her daddy caused. The opening image of the film is a garter snake crawling up the braches of a tree. In the background, gradually coming into focus, two children are walking. The idyllic natural paradise, the two innocents, the snake in the garden—all the elements needed for a drama about loss of innocence and entry into adulthood.
Lewellen (Dakota Fanning) lives with her grandmother who, though loving, is severe and puritanical and tends to believe the worst of her granddaughter. (Piper Laurie plays the grandmother, reprising almost exactly her role as the mother in Carrie, 1976). The girl’s father is an indifferent and slovenly farmer who is having a relationship with the sister of his departed wife, who is either dead or a runaway--we don’t know which. The girl is friends with a young boy her age named Buddy. They swim in the nearby creek and exchange kisses in an innocent, experimental way. She is also friends with a black man named Charles (Afemo Omilami). He cares for horses, is a folk doctor, and plays in a small band with friends.
Lewellen is an obsessive fan of Elvis Presley. She does a passable imitation of Elvis singing “Hound Dog.” She gyrates and slinks around like Elvis on stage. Her grandmother tells her that Elvis sings Satan’s music but is content to listen to him singing gospel songs.
Is this a coming of age film in which Lewellen learns about the difficult realities of life? Is this a film in which a young girl who idolizes a famous singer gets to meet him? Is it a racial drama? Is it about class differences? Is it about sexual abuse? At one moment or the other it might be any one of these, or all.
Hounddog lacks focus and coherence. Lewellen and her friendship with Buddy and Charles give the film the unity it has. Only late in the film, when something terrible happens, does a plot seem to materialize, and even then it not well prepared for by preceding events.
The flaws in Hounddog, beyond those of incoherence, stem from its reliance on stereotypes and poorly developed characters. Lewellen’s immediate family is poor white, and this means a hodgepodge fusion of religious fundamentalism, freewheeling sex and sexual abuse, drunkenness, and general cussedness. The black man that Lewellen is friends with loves the blues, has a deep knowledge of folk medicine (he treats snake bites with serum he has cooked up on his own), and is possessed of a natural wisdom that enables him to advise her on her life.
Lewellen’s life is a continuing misery. Her grandmother is suspicious of her and wants to control all aspects of her life. Her father comes and goes, abuses the woman he briefly lives with, and after he is struck by lightning becomes simple-minded to an astounding extent (when Lewellen cuts her hair, he cuts his so that they will look alike—when he finds her missing from the house, he wanders out into the town, stark naked, looking for her). Her friendship with Buddy is an important part of her life, but he betrays her in a cruel way. Her aunt—her mother’s sister--abandons her, after promising never to leave.
For the most part the music of Elvis is incidental in the film. The girl’s love of Presley’s music is childlike and obsessive. It does give Charles the chance to explain to her that Elvis in singing “Hound Dog” is really singing a song written by and originally sung by Big Mama Thornton; he implies that it is possible for a white person to sing the blues, but this idea goes nowhere until the last scenes of the film. One night, while she is walking alone down a dirt road, a pink Cadillac driven by Elvis Presley passes her—he waves at her. Does she imagine this moment? Are we supposed to believe it real? It seems gratuitous.
Buddy wants to prove his love to Lewellen and promises to get her a ticket to a concert nearby where Elvis is performing. She holds him to the promise and refuses to talk to him until he finds her a ticket. He finds an older boy who says he will give her a ticket if she will sing “Hound Dog” and dance like Elvis for him. When he insists that she take off her clothes and dance naked, she agrees. He rapes her. A film that seemed to be for its first hour about the difficulties of a poor white girl’s life suddenly darkens and takes a severe turn, and never really catches up with itself.
Snakes and crab apples are important and obvious motifs. They signify loss of innocence. But snakes also signify the danger that is looming unseen in the tall grass that Lewellen’s grandmother warns her about—poisonous snakes lurk in the grass, she says. The thick grass and the snakes hidden there signify the dark and ominous dangers of adult life that Lewellen has encountered. She is so traumatized by the rape that she can barely speak, and lies unconscious on her bed. Snakes crawl through her window, slithering over and around her, until Charles somehow senses what is going on and comes into her house and rescues her. Snakes, he tells her, represent the inner life in her that needs to wake up and come out.
There is much in this film that makes little sense. It’s not impossible that a 12-year old girl would agree to sing and dance naked in front of an older boy she has never met—a boy who lurks menacingly in the dark shadows of a barn and whose face she can’t even see--but it’s certainly unlikely, and the film does not present Lewellen as the kind of imbecile who would agree to do something so stupid just for a concert ticket. Perhaps I overestimate the intelligence of 12-year old girls, or underestimate the strength of Lewellen’s desire to attend an Elvis Presley concert. Maybe the point here is that Lewellen is far more innocent and naïve than she seems. It is unlikely that in the rural South of 1960 a black man could enter the house and bedroom of a young white girl and carry her away unchallenged. Or that Elvis Presley would be driving a pink Cadillac down a dirt road.
When Charles coaxes Lewellen into singing the blues, bringing her inner self out, the song she sings is “Hound Dog.” Not the Elvis Presley version but the Big Mama Thornton version. I suppose this signifies that through hurt and suffering Lewellen truly discovers the source of the blues, which she sings on the basis of lived experience rather than of a commercial recording she might have heard on the radio. This scene in which Lewellen learns to sing the blues is presented almost as a kind of ritual—Charles and the other black men sit and watch, as if they know what is going on, as if they’re party to the cultic knowledge driving the scene. But it’s a poor way of resolving Lewellen’s problems and of bringing the film to some sort of point. Those wise old black men always know how to rescue the white folks. The underlying racism here is clear.
What’s worse, with all its straining for realism, Hounddog inexplicably seems obliged to provide a happy ending. The soror ex machina it resorts to is the unconvincing stuff of fairy tales.
Here we have another film in which black characters rescue white characters. This is the second such film Dakota Fanning has appeared in—The Secret Life of Bees was the other. With all of its problems, that film was more coherent and featured better acting than Hounddog. Fanning pretty much plays the same character she played in Secret Life, with various details and circumstances altered to fit the needs of the plot.
Hounddog recalls works by Erskine Caldwell as well as Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.