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September 24, 2008 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | September 24, 2008 |

I hereby forbid all of Hollywood to do movies set in the South. They obviously have no respect for the heritage, culture or atmosphere. They’ve taken the soil that’s given us literary geniuses like Mark Twain and Flannery O’Connor and laid waste to it, seeing fit to put up a Stuckey’s with GIT-R-DONE spray painted on the side. From the inability to capture rural dialect (there is a fucking difference between a drawl and a twang, and you’d do well to research it before spending HBO’s money, Alan Ball), to the liberal whitewash of the entire region as a bunch of corn-fed, Bible-thumping hicks who drink moonshine, shop at Wal-Mart, and lerv them sommat Blue Collar Comedy tour, Hollywood has committed more atrocities than General Sherman playing with a box of matches. People often accuse Elvis Presley of co-opting blues music from the blacks, but at least he didn’t paint on a blackface and make fun of them while he did it. Pack up your carpetbags and get to steppin’ above the Mason Dixon line and west of the Mississippi. We’ll mail you some grits. Now git.

If you’ve even heard of Hounddog, it’s probably because it’s more commonly referred to as “The Dakota Fanning Rape Movie.” Which is really unfair, since there are so many better reasons to dislike this odious attempt at high art. Deborah Kampmeier wrote and directed this snoozefest, which is about as savory as sipping from the dip cup. Her claim to fame coming from being an acting teacher, one of those hideous people who refer to acting as “the craft,” which proves the old adage — “those who teach ought best to stay drunk and porking co-eds.” It’s the kind of navel gazing nothingness one would expect from a graduate film student (from a non-coastal school), packed with overwrought symbolism and too many shots of people walking down tree-lined roads barefoot. It’s the kind of film that prevents funding for grants and typically lauded by people in tight black clothing with tiny little glasses who praise movies by clasping a hand over their chests and gushing about the lush cinematography. Film festivals are full of self-important projects like this, crafted by sots who refer to themselves as artistes and would serve a greater benefit to society packed together like asbestos to plug up holes in the ozone.

If this had gone straight to DVD like it was supposed to, the box would read, “Hounddog is the heart wrenching tale of young Lewellen (Dakota Fanning), growing up in the rural South, where she uses the music of Elvis Presley to help escape her harrowing childhood.” When in reality this is the kind of movie you show to Bible camp girls when you want them not to press charges. Kampmeier manages to lazily stuff the movie with every buzzworthy cliche that keeps Lifetime on the air — racism, child abuse, spousal abandonment, retardation, latchkey childhoods, and rape — yet doesn’t even try to do anything remotely interesting with any of them. She drives through each moment in the film like a stoned high-schooler riding the monorail through Epcot Center. It’s almost as if she’s trying to make a statement by saying, “See! I’m better than you because I don’t need to make statements. It’s just ARTIER that way.”

Basically, the movie is a shoddy attempt to get Dakota Fanning an Oscar nomination. She spends the first half of the movie gyrating her hips and belting out Elvis lyrics in some sort of half-assed attempted at social commentary. You know, how little girls are over-sexualized because they imitate Miley Cyrus and the Pussycat Dolls? You know? Do you know that? If not, I can beat you over the head with metaphors for a half an hour. They would have been better off setting the movie in the modern times rather than in some nebulous Civil Rights Era South, but then the movie really would have been about absolutely nothing. She warbles her way through hip-shaking renditions of the King for anyone who requests it: her father, the little children in the neighborhood, and even the creepy milkboy, who looks like Kirk Cameron with a plague of boils on his face. Then she gets raped in a lamely symbolic scene with a lot of crying with the milkboy demanding she sing while he humps her. After that she doesn’t want to dance and sing no more. The end.

Whenever Kampmeier does actually acknowledge some sort of much maligned touchpoint, she manages to do it in such a hamfisted and offensive way. After Lewellen gets raped, she’s visited in her bed by the noble Negro character, playing the archetypical wise slave. Lewellen’s in a bed, feverish, covered in snakes (oooh, crazy Christian symbolism!), and he picks her up and takes her back to the shed where black musicians play the blues. He tells her she’s gotta heal herself, and she calls him the N-word. Powerful stuff that. Then she hugs him. They go upstairs, where he tries to make Lewellen sing. Lewellen says she can’t shake no more. The wise Negro tells her she gots to stand perfectly still and let the darkness get out her soul. Still she says she can’t sing no more. The wise Negro tells her to find the song in her heart. Finally she sings a really mournfully, embarassingly bad hymn version of Hounddog, which somehow spiritually cleanses her, a ten year old girl, of being raped. The power of the blues was more palpable in Adventures in Babysitting.

When not committing hate crimes in the name of art, Kampmeier is even more impressive with her complete disregard for the talent of her supporting cast. David Morse plays Lewellen’s negligent father, who is prone to leaving her for days on end and shooting her dog. He gets struck by lightning on a tractor and ends up retarded. He’s somewhere on the autistic scale between Cyril O’Reilly from “Oz” (sans the Hulk-tard strength) and Simple Jack. Morse is usually an amazing actor, but he spends the movie shucking and jiving in Tard-face. It’s painful to watch. Piper Laurie is Grammie, and she manages to Steel Magnolia herself to one of the more decent performances. It’s a shame Hollywood can’t make good Southern films because the only older female roles worth a damn seem to be sassy southern grandmas who take their lemonade with a side of shotgun.

Robin Wright Penn executive produced this movie so she could get a role as … well, I’m not quite sure what her role is, truth be told. She’s kind of David Morse’s girlfriend, and maybe an aunt of some kind. Her part seems to have been shot whenever she visited the set, where she’s inexplicably placed in several scenes to do nothing of any accord except get her money’s worth. Poor Jenny took a few too many gumps in the noggin from remaindered copies of All the King’s Men. She would have been better off keeping the cash out of Kampmeier’s hands and instead spending it on the Atticus Finch of Divorce Attorneys to get her piece of that sweet, sweet Harvey Milk money. Then maybe she can buy her own Oscar pandering piece of tripe.

The movie is truly convinced it’s Southern gothic, mostly because it’s set in some backwater country and is unpleasant. That’s not Southern Gothic, that’s Kinkade Shameful. What it’s lacking is retribution. Sure, characters in the Southern Gothic endure hardship, but there’s a point to it, a greater good, or an overarching point. There are several opportunities, which crop up and then are just wasted, like when cars skid in NASCAR but come out unscathed. There’s one scene in particular which galled me. The milkboy and his henchpimples are standing beneath the barn where the black folk play the blues, for no reason other than it’s a convenient place to confess their sins. The wise Negro overhears them talking about the rape, and he picks up a pitchfork. I actually drew in a breath because I was expecting some good ol’ fashion Flannery O’Connor style violence. I thought like some Black Zeus, he would hurl down the pitchfork and impale the vile rapist. Instead, he just shouts and waves his tool like … well, like a tool. Rather than doing something interesting, Kampmeier prefers to let her characters speak in lamely contrived dialogue packed to the brim with lots of Chicken Soup for the Soul basted aphorisms.

Dakota Fanning did her best, but if there is a just and prudent god, he would not allow this movie to garner her the undeserved “rape nom.” I mean, Jodie Foster at least waited until she was of age before she tried to rape her way to a statue. Fanning’s a porcelain doll, so there’ll be plenty of chances down the road for her to get better material. Hell, she basically plays the same role in the forthcoming “The Secret Life of Bees,” only instead of getting raped for singing “Heartbreak Hotel,” she’ll probably sing hymns from Queen Latifah’s lap. But hey, that got Lemonface her first Oscar nom, so who knows?

Brian Prisco is a warrior-poet from the valley of North Hollywood, by way of Philadelphia. He wastes most of his life in desk jobs, biding his time until he finally becomes an actor, a writer, or cannon fodder in the inevitable zombie invasion. He can be found shaking his fist and angrily shouting at clouds on his blog, The Gospel According to Prisco.

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