Friday, December 31, 2010

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia

What we have in The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (dir. Julian Nitzberg, 2009) is exploitative cultural voyeurism. This documentary about a family of self-avowed hillbillies and outlaws in the mountains of West Virginia is a follow-up to a movie of about two decades ago called The Dancing Outlaw (1991) in which Jessco White talks about himself and his life. In the tradition of his father he dances to mountain music. His personality alternates from that of a jokester to an Elvis imitator to a vicious and violent and dangerous person. He’s a self-conceived outlaw and rebel. This new film takes up where the other left off and moves forward about 20 years.

While The Dancing Outlaw focused primarily on Jessco and his immediate family, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia focuses on the extended family, starting with the two grandparents and moving on down the lineage of three White generations of alcohol and drug abuse, violence, crime, and murder. In one scene Jessco walks through the town graveyard pointing out the tombstones of various family members including his sisters, both of whom died violently, one murdered by a former boyfriend, the other dead in an automobile accident. His father D. Ray was shot to death in a family squabble. The family tree is pockmarked with violent deaths. The film moves systematically through the family tree as sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews, sons and daughters tell about their lives, their sins and crimes, and personal problems. For the most part the film allows the various members of the White family to tell their own stories and they talk without apparent self-consciousness about what kinds of drugs they like, the trouble they’ve been in, the prison sentences they've served, their attitudes towards the law, towards each other, towards the people they dislike, towards the people they want to kill.

What's the point? The film never pauses to consider why the White family is like it is. We hear speculation from a couple of lawyers in town that the White family has been isolated in the hills of West Virginia for generations, that their isolation and ignorance have made them who they are. But that's the only kind of explanation we hear. The film doesn’t ask us to think about why. It just offers the spectacle of the Whites droning on about their sins, their misery, their addictions, their self-abuse, their despair and their indifference to their condition. This film is a form of voyeurism. It's cultural voyeurism. From a superior standpoint the audience of this film is invited to gape at the ` family and to laugh.

Producers Johnny Knoxville and Johnny Tremaine are part of the team responsible for the Jackass television series, and the Jackass films. They play the Whites for laughs. They rejoice in the scenes they portray—for example, of a young mother who has just given birth snorting pills with another family member in her hospital room. Only occasionally, through the words of the White family members themselves, do we feel empathy, pity, sorrow for them—the woman who enters rehab when she loses her infant child to the county protection agency, the young man sentenced to 25 years in jail, the hopelessness and helplessness and indifference they all seem to feel. The woman in rehab, and the brother of Jessco who moves to Wisconsin to try to escape the White legacy, are among the few in the film who even try to break away from the family and its self-propelled momentum towards doom and defeat.

Throughout the film when the Whites talk and act out they know they are being filmed. The film itself is a self-fulfilling prophecy—intended to show the misbehaving antics of the White family, it encourages the Whites to make good on the image.


Anonymous said...

Who is the Smith family?

Hugh Ruppersburg said...

Thanks--I corrected that error.