Originally posted: September 2002
All films, it seems, have an agenda. Even the most mindless popcorn movies are in the business of promoting an idea — regardless of how brain-dead it might be — even if that “idea” is something as relatively benign as the ideal form of masculinity or the meaning of courage. Some agendas we can take, shrug off, and move on with our day. Because we recognize that we are being bullied, we might resent the attempt for a time, but such feelings soon fade away. However, I am not nearly so forgiving when it comes to the big-screen portrayal of White Trash. Check that — the big screen endorsement of their lifestyle, habits, and inherent worth. Hell, even their humanity. Most of us have worked tirelessly to marginalize these folks; defining them as either inhuman or vile, all with the attempt of keeping their status as America’s Freaks alive and well. With political correctness as an accepted reality, it feels good to have at least one group of people as the target of unending ridicule. From their bankrupt “culture” (if bowling and bingo can be considered such) to their repugnant grammar (although I am waiting for the day when “ain’t got no” becomes an unofficial national motto), these rejects from the carnival world are the last, best hope for those of us who need an object of scorn; a people by whom we measure all madness, idiocy, and self-destructive behavior.
Still, there are cries in the darkness; attempts to reverse the tide of hatred most of us carry for these trailer-inhabiting savages. One such effort, the film Where the Heart Is might seem obscure and harmless, but in its blatant disregard for the truth of the White Trash world, it acts as the worst, and most effective, form of propaganda. Consider the characters: Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman), Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd), and Sister Husband (Stockard Channing). The first objection here would be that the filmmakers forgot one of the first rules of their craft: “funny” names are never as humorous as they sound in story conference. See Dana Carvey’s shit-fest Master of Disguise, for example, where he stars as “Pistachio Disguisey.” Moreover, if these names are meant to be colorful and unique, it signals a bankruptcy at the basic screenplay level. And if any of you hint that Dr. Strangelove also had wacky names, yet worked, I will remind you that Kubrick’s film was pure genius, while Where the Heart Is will always remain stinking, white-hot bullshit. Got me? My point is this: The film is trying desperately to create warm, loveable, and hopelessly eccentric characters, all the while forgetting that they are vile, insipid morons without brains, talent, or respectability.
As with all stories about gutter-inhabiting cretins, it all comes back to Wal-Mart and Tornado Alley. When we meet the whorish Novalee, she is young, pregnant, and involved with a brutish lout (hold on, Crystal, it sounds like, but is NOT, your autobiography). The boyfriend leaves her to rot at a Sequoia, Okla., Wal-Mart, where she lives until she gives birth to her demon spawn. A local librarian (looking strangely like the bastard child of C. Thomas Howell during his Soul Man phase) bursts in the window and brings her into town where she can meet other less educated folks. Novalee, of course, names the snot-nosed little shit Americus. And did I mention that Lexie’s children are named after snack foods? It’s all one big happy family until romantic entanglements, more domestic violence, and the inevitable tornado strike.
Novalee falls in love with the Brillo-head who rescued her from Wal-Mart, becomes an amateur photographer (do I need to mention that she wins a prize for a photo that looks eerily similar to one of Raymond Babbitt’s at the end of Rain Man?) Lexie sleeps around, gets knocked up at least two more times, yet finally meets a “good man” (George W. Bush-speak for “an imbecile with heart”) in the end. Sister Woman is killed by a tornado, and in a pointless subplot, Novalee’s ex-boyfriend becomes a country singer, only to lose his legs after sprawling out on some train tracks. Yes, it sounds fucked beyond belief, but my point is that despite the hints of tragedy, these events are part of a diabolical cinematic plot. Things turn out pretty well for these bumpkins; love is found, tragedy is overcome, and life goes on. Wrong! Having dozens of genetically inferior mutants out of wedlock might sound like the apex of civilization to those who consider Sizzler the epitome of fine cuisine, but it crushes all hope for those of us less inclined to do whatever the fuck we want, society be damned.
Without sounding too Pollyannaish, I want a chorus of judgment to rain down on people who stink up the world with their poor hygiene, glassy-eyed children, endless boozing, violent relationships, and total lack of sophistication. People who do not (or cannot, as is too often the case) read, wipe grease on their moth-eaten wifebeaters, possess more bingo daubers than books, and buy their entire wardrobe at the same place they shop for tuna fish, do not deserve our respect or love. While the sheeplike Oprah audiences who made this book an undeserved best seller might put down their Dr. Phil tapes for the two hours it takes to bathe in the urine-colored glow of this claptrap, you can avoid a similar fate. Stinking poverty (even self-imposed and perpetuated) is not cute, nor is an aversion to bathing a mere “quirk.” These people are the bane of civilization; a tragic reminder that the 21st century (hell, even the 20th) has not reached every corner of this fine nation.
So let the Novalee Nations of the world have their creationism, their monogrammed bowling balls, their kitsch, and their eight-tracks. Let them guzzle their Pabst, mouth-read their stained pages of Soldier of Fortune, and waste away in the pounding boredom of their scratch tickets, gun collections, and Motel 6 assignations. But please, do not offer them a hand in kindness or compassion. Where the Heart Is might believe that deep down, such folks are the heart and soul of “real” America, but I choose instead, flag waving high, to keep hate — and big-city elitism — alive.