Movie-show host and tongue-in-cheek scribe Joe Bob Briggs has spent decades reveling in disreputable cinema. His website dubs him “America’s foremost drive-in movie critic,” modestly ignoring the fact that this makes him foremost in the world — nay, the universe, or at least the parts of it that have invented cars and movies and excuses for back-seat misbehavior. Briggs has a respectable alter ego, the journalist John Bloom, but Bloom was nowhere to be found at How Rednecks Saved Hollywood, the latest touring multimedia lecture in which Briggs unearths bits of movie history the Academy would prefer to forget. If his talk had been recorded as voiceover for a doc with more film clips, this is the kind of thing you’d call an “essay film.” Except that essay films are for chin-scratching, sagely nodding cineastes and, well, this extremely entertaining event was not.
Which is not to say it was for dummies. Briggs spent a nice little chunk at the start — after a rather itchy mockery of trigger warnings and an acknowledgement that Fantasia’s Canadian audience might need some help with obscure Americana — explaining what a redneck actually is. He traced the species back to the Cumberland region on Scotland’s border with England, identifying the world’s first redneck as John Knox, a Scottish Presbyterian rebel. He followed the migration of like-minded folk to Ulster in Ireland, where the Catholics hated them, and onward to Pennsylvania and the rest of Appalachia — always in search of places where there was nobody to bother them.
A sharp-witted and occasionally enlightening tour through film history’s neglected hollers.
“Hounded by kings, Catholics, and revenue agents for 400 years,” these pale Scots-Irish had acquired a mystique before the movies were even invented. They supplied the subject for the Biograph Company’s 1904 short The Moonshiner, introducing a theme that would forever be associated with hillbillies. (Note: Per Joe Bob, “all hillbillies are rednecks; not all rednecks are hillbillies.”)
Since the Whiskey Rebellion, rural Americans had clashed with a government that wanted to tax the spirits they made from their own crops, on their own property. But the conflict grew more appealing to the movies once those hicks had cars. “A chase scene is worth a hundred scenes of some guy breakin’ the federal tax laws,” Briggs observes, and the big-screen descendants of Thunder Road prove him right. Eventually rednecks learned to drive big rigs, leading to classics like Convoy and what our guide considers the greatest movie ever, Smokey and the Bandit.
Briggs’ history of this field isn’t all fun and games. While he celebrates the enduring contribution redneck women made to couture — Daisy Duke cutoffs, and whatever you call those knotted, midriff-exposing tops that go with them — he’s less accepting of redneck movies’ general treatment of women, or more precisely, girls. He calls out 1938’s Child Bride for its extended nude scene featuring a 12-year-old — obviously illegal, he notes, but now preserved by the Library of Congress — and groans at Nashville Girl, about an underage singer who sleeps her way to stardom. (Nashville-themed movies “all suck,” Briggs contends; here’s hoping John Bloom is more tolerant than Joe Bob is of the one Robert Altman made.)
And then, of course, there’s race. The Briggs shtick benefits from a certain know-your-audience element: Having played this character for far longer than Stephen Colbert mimicked Bill O’Reilly, Bloom/Briggs can assume his audience understands he doesn’t share his subjects’ reverence for Confederate generals. (Then again, he currently writes for a website whose other columnists are Ann Coulter and Pat Buchanan; Nazi-loving troll Richard Spencer used to edit it.) He derides civil-rights “lectures to the choir” like Mississippi Burning, noting that they arrived a couple of decades late to be called brave, and takes pains to distinguish rednecks from the rich, Gone With the Wind-like Southerners who had something to gain from the Civil War. “Rednecks didn’t own slaves,” he contends; “rednecks wouldn’t have known what to do with a slave.” Well.
Briggs spends most of the lecture on forgotten Hicksploitation, but has smart and/or provocative things to say about redneck cinema’s greatest hits, from Deliverance and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Sling Blade and “Forrest Fucking Gump.” Near the end he gets to his probably insincere thesis — that after American Indians, blacks and Arabs, rednecks gave Hollywood its last target whose dignity nobody would defend. (Not really true: Filmmakers still have Scientologists, pedophiles and hair-metal fans to kick around, among others.) And all the while, the industry earns millions from things it’ll barely acknowledge making: Ma & Pa Kettle films in the ’50s; a dozen or so outings for Jim Varney’s “Ernest” character two generations later; and today, more redneck-themed reality TV series than you’d think there were rednecks to star in. The Scots-Irish may never give show business another Burt Reynolds, but they look to be profit generators for at least a while longer.
Venue: Fantasia Film Festival
Production company: Shudder
Cast: Joe Bob Briggs