Vital Signs

Southern White Trash

Surely anyone looking at film with an eye to understanding American pop culture or, for that matter, American serious culture, lately, would have to be intrigued by the recent spate of "whitetrash flicks." Every season over the past three years seems to have produced its brace of movies set in either the South or a trailer park (often synonyms, to filmmakers), each with mush-mouthed characters more desperately degenerate than the last, as though directed to act out Tom Lehrer's parody, "Be it ever so decadent, / There's no place like home."

Category films, of course, have existed as long as film itself: even silent movies depicted love stories. Westerns, and dog dramas; gangsters, spies, and war stories were film staples from the 1930's; and by the 1970's, further categories had developed—Road movies. Buddy movies. Caper movies, etc., as named by critic James Monaco. But now, within view of the millennium, Hollywood has refined two new categories, each bearing its own deadly virus of social fear: the Fear-of-Getting-Stuck-in-the-South movie and the Trailer-Park movie.

Generally, movies present the South—like trailer parks—as some asymptomatic realm antithetical to money, gentility, and status. It is a kind of Lower Slobbovia, a giant, wobbling ooze of swamp/belly/id that threatens to suck you down to its level, too, if you're not careful. This premise undedies both...

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