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Austin Chronicle Scanlines

By Jay Hardwig

JULY 20, 1998: 

D. John Sayles (1987) with Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones

Harlan County USA D. Barbara Kopple (1976)

Coal Miner's Daughter
D. Michael Apted (1980) with Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Beverly D'Angelo

Back in my oh-so-ardent college days, I spent the better part of a Connecticut year researching religion and resistance in Appalachia. When I would tell my classmates this, very few would hear the word "religion," and still fewer would hear "resistance." Most of them did hear "Appalachia," however, and when they did, half would respond with this question: "Have you seen Deliverance?" No, I had not. Their next words were gnawingly predictable: "Squeal like a pig!"

That those four words stood for Appalachia in the collective consciousness was distressing enough -- never mind that they were followed by the husky coda, "You got a real pretty mouth" -- but not particularly surprising. In the small and somewhat defiant field of Appalachian Studies, there is something of a cottage industry in cataloguing regional stereotypes, from the shinerunner to the inbred sociopath to the pinch-mouthed mountain woman trying to stretch her biscuit flour. Hollywood has done more than its part to reinforce these stereotypes -- from Deliverance's lawless savagery (I've seen it now) to the dimwitted villains of the latest Steven Segal vehicle Fire Down Below -- but every now and then a film comes along that takes a somewhat more enlightened view of life and loss in the Appalachian mountains. I come today to sing their praises.

Chris Cooper in Matewan

The most obvious film in this slim cannon is John Sayles' classic Matewan, the searing tale of the violence surrounding the United Mine Workers of America's (UMWA) efforts to unionize West Virginia's "bloody Mingo" County in 1920. Among some stirring performances -- Chris Cooper's square-jawed union man Joe Kenehan, Mary McDonnell's fiesty Elma Radnor, James Earl Jones' restrained Few Clothes -- emerges a distinctly human drama of folks fighting hard for the scraps of a square deal, for the chance to live with dignity out from underneath the thumb of Big Coal. "You know there ain't but two sides to this world," Kenehan tells the assembled miners when racial tension threatens to break the union: "them that work, and them that don't. And that's all you got to know." Sayles is clearly of the opinion that the coal company was one evil fuckin' behemoth and their gun thugs the most nefarious bunch of greasy, guileless, duplicitous bastards you ever saw, and I'd be hard put to dispute him. Matewan won't soothe you with a happy ending -- there weren't many happy endings in the coalfields, after all -- but it does bring back a time when socialists openly roamed the land, and union was something to die for. Add the music of Hazel Dickens to the mix, and you've got a movie that doubtless shows up in every Appalachian Studies course from Boone to Morgantown.

Of course, bloody Mingo wasn't the end of coalfield violence -- far from it -- and the continuing union wars were also the basis for Barbara Kopple's Academy Award-winning documentary Harlan County USA. Harlan is centered around a 1973-74 UMWA strike in Brookside, Kentucky, a 13-month affair that wasn't about pay and benefits so much as about health and safety -- about increasing the chances of coming out of the mines each day alive rather than dead. Kopple's film is unapologetically political -- which side are you on, which side are you on? -- and makes no pretension towards evenhandedness, giving wind to a lot of loose rhetoric and painful union wrangling. But what it lacks in poise and polish it makes up for in plain grit: It is the grim reality of these folksĒ testimonies, and the ruin wrought in their lives by a lifetime of mining, that makes Harlan so compelling. Even as it drags, it is a moving film, another stark chapter from the coalfields and an instructive bit of American history.

"You born in the mountains," says the (somewhat hackneyed) shinerunner in Coal Miner's Daughter, "you got three choices: coal mine, moonshine, or movin' on down the line." Loretta Lynn, famously, chose to move on down the line, if for no other reason but to see what the ride offered. And what a ride it was for ol' Loretta -- from 14-year-old mother to Opry star and Patsy Cline confidante in a remarkably short time -- an improbable rise that is captured with a rollicking, giddy excess in Coal Miner's Daughter. The film is anchored by two stellar performances: Sissy Spacek won an Oscar for her part as the vulnerable, willful, shy, brash, wilting, headstrong Loretta (not a bad set of pipes on that gal, either) and Tommy Lee Jones does a stand-up job as the stand-up Doolittle "Mooney" Lynn, a man who always seems to do the right thing, except when he does the wrong thing. While much of the action takes place after the Lynns leave Kentucky, the first third of the film remains an affectionate and honest slice of mountain life, an accurate portrait that refrains, for the most part, from stereotypes.

Perhaps no thread ties these three films together more cleanly than the fact that each of them open with the same image: a grime-faced

miner hollering "Fire in the hole!" before blowing a dynamite charge in some dank and dusty pit. In each film the scene sets the table, and in each it is no mistake: Life in the mountains has long been defined by the hard and dirty work in the mines. None of the films offer much in the way of hope for the miners, but then hope has always been in short supply in the coalfields. What they do offer is a glimpse of real mountain lives -- ordinary, honest folks trying to take control of an uncertain future -- rather than the savage predators and hillbilly dimwits of common Hollywood currency. For that reason alone, they're worth a look; lucky for us pedagogues, they're good movies to boot.

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