Thoughts While Watching Sweet Home Alabama
The Unique Rewards, and the Unexpected Sophistication, of a Not-Great Movie
Body rhythms — blood pressure, breath — fall into the swooshing caress and percussive thunk of the windshield wiper. My ears tune out extraneous sounds and tune in the br-bump br-bump of tires over pavement seams. In my seventeen-year-old rice burner, surrounded by complete strangers, I and others jostle urgently as if mobbing the gates of heaven; we are all on the same trajectory, the only one available to any of us: from the past, in the present, toward the future. We are mostly silver these days. White and black and gray. Only ten percent of cars are red. A background conviction floats somewhere in my brain: I am part of some larger pattern weaving together all these characters and their fleeting missions. That something that unites us is as temporary as a ballet pose; it’s as easily snapped as a spider’s strands. The weird conviction that we are united in doing something important must contribute to that wacky cause-of-death, road rage.
An eighteen-wheeler has been on my ass for the past ten miles. Assumptions about his home life and his voting patterns flood my brain; these assumptions are inspired by his speed, the filthiness of his truck, and the baseball cap and beard I glimpse through his windshield. I accelerate; the flimsy strand evaporates. Within five miles, I have forgotten he exists.
In seconds I glance out the windshield, the rear view mirror, the driver’s side view, the passenger’s side, and run all four views through my mind as if I were a geek, slide rule in hand. I draw on my psychic powers to predict what that asshole in the blue Ford is going to pull next. I calculate whether I can gain three inches on him.
“Relax” is the most useless piece of unsolicited advice anyone has ever given me. I was an abused kid; I’ve lived a tough life. I am always on alert. There are pharmaceuticals. I’ve tried them. I feel my muscles go a bit slack and crank up the panic to resist the loosening, and then I puke. Driving — focusing on moving parts that could transport or kill me — takes me out of my body. “Relax” doesn’t begin to describe it. The ever-present tension is gone because I’m gone. Whenever I get behind the wheel of a car, it’s, “I could drive to the grocery store or to California.”
And that’s why I love not-great movies. Watching a not-great movie affords me the same drug as driving. I focus on moving parts and their forward momentum along their past-present-future trajectory. I predict and calculate collisions and shrapnel. I get caught up in the temporary and fragile — but undeniably hypnotic — web of story; for a moment, these pretend people constructed of flickering light and shadow engage my brain as did that bearded trucker.
Great movies are dense and sticky. Everywhere you turn — the script, the actors, the cinematography, the music — there is evidence of genius and investment. Whoa, check out that lighting. Is that Janusz Kaminski? Let me check the DVD box. Indeed it is. A Dutch angle! Perhaps an homage to director Carol Reed? Those three notes, played by an oboe. Is this yet another film score inspired by Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky? Pause the film. I need to google this.
Not-great movies don’t assign homework.
Confession: I hate Shakespeare’s plays. To me, being the audience for a story does not involve having my attention drawn, with every syllable, to the teller’s freakish gift with words. For me, a satisfying narrative experience involves being so moved that the distance between storyteller and audience melts. I forget the very concept of story; I live what I am told. Shakespeare’s purported greatness takes up much room. There is no room left for my reflections on the work. Shakespeare silences me. Great art induces paralysis and crowds out the audience.
Director, producer, co-author and star Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is the quote greatest film of all time unquote. In the opening scene, Charles Foster Kane, a rich, powerful, dying man utters one word: “rosebud.” “Rosebud was something he couldn’t get or something he lost,” guesses an investigative journalist. The final scene shows Kane’s vast warehouse of earthly possessions. Amidst priceless works of art and expensive collectibles, workmen select one item as useless trash, worthy only to be burned. They toss the object into a furnace. It is a sled. On the sled the word “rosebud” is written. That sled appeared in an early scene, but never in close-up, so the viewer doesn’t relate the word “rosebud” to the sled until this final scene.
In the sled scene, young Charles is playing in the snow. He doesn’t realize it yet, but these are his final, innocent moments with his family, before he is taken away from them and shipped East in a move that earns his mother lots of money. He drops the sled; abandoned, the sled is quickly covered over with snow.
Many decide that “rosebud” indicates that Charles Foster Kane had been happiest as a poor child, not as the man of immense wealth and power his drive and ambition eventually made him. “Rosebud” also means that time and mortality erase us all. You can’t return to the past. All the wealth in the world can’t buy happiness.
When I am watching Citizen Kane, my spine never relaxes against the theater seat, and my highlighter pen never leaves my hand. All I see, filling the screen, is Orson Welles’ ego, and the scribbled margin notes of the thousands of film fans who have preceded me and will follow. I am inert when I watch Citizen Kane. I learn nothing and I am not moved.
Emptiness is a value in Japanese aesthetics. The Japanese call this emptiness ma. In a painting, we might call this emptiness “void” or “white space” or “empty space,” as in this Hasegawa Tōhaku sketch of pine trees. Some associate ma with American painter Ad Reinhardt’s quote “Less is more.”
Wikipedia says that “ma is … the thing that takes place in the imagination of the human who experiences” the artwork.
Judaism also focuses much energy on negative space. Kabbalists assign spiritual meaning to the empty, white space around each black letter. This white space is associated with the Creator. Sofers, or Torah scribes, must allow adequate white space around each letter. If even just two letters touch, the entire scroll is invalid.
This in-between space is essential to Jewish spirituality. “It is only in the space in-between that we begin to truly understand what it means to be human,” writes Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer.
I don’t think that the makers of not-great movies — or pop songs or pulp novels or fan fiction posted on the internet or any number of other less revered art forms — purposely add empty space to their art in order to enhance the aesthetic experience. I’m saying that a film made “merely” to entertain for a season and be quickly forgotten can offer an artistic experience as profound as that offered by a classic, exactly because of its lack of ambition. The ma in this case, the white space, is the space where the filmmaker’s high ambition might have been, and is not.
Sometimes I watch not-great movies because I want to have the experience I have when I’m driving. I want to watch mildly intriguing characters hurtle through space. Sometimes I choose what I think will be a not-great movie and find myself being very moved.
When I am looking for a not-great movie, my genre of choice is romantic comedy. Romantic comedy is the genre most associated with women; thus it is the genre most disdained. Women are frivolous, empty-headed, and lead unimportant lives — plenty of people do think that — so the woman’s genre is worthless. Not one of the AFI’s top ten films of all time is a romantic comedy. The closest one gets is number 31, Annie Hall. It Happened One Night is number 35; it should be in the top ten. Only two of the top ten films have female leads.
Rom-com’s critics like to say that the genre is bad because it is predictable; romantic comedies lack suspense. The viewer always knows that the two actors whose names appear above the title will get together in the end.
The “rom-coms lack suspense” criticism is empty. All genres are predictable — otherwise they wouldn’t be genres. Does anybody go to see Hamlet to see how it will end? If Christoph Waltz and Channing Tatum were the names above the title in an action movie, without knowing anything else, you already know the entire movie. Christoph Waltz is an evil but elegant and articulate genius who tries to blow up the world. Channing Tatum is a rogue cop in a tight t-shirt who, after enduring sadistic torment from the diabolical Waltz, and backstory needling from his boss, goes it alone — except for brief but vital contributions from a black sidekick — and single-handedly saves the world. And then kisses Gemma Arterton or Sophie Turner who rocks those stiletto heels even though she is standing in the wreckage of some big architectural / cultural icon that Waltz, before dying, has exploded.
It’s not the “what next” or even the “what” that makes movies worth watching. It’s the “how.” Frank Capra’s romantic comedy It Happened One Night deserved and won all big five Academy Awards in 1934: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Only two other films have won the big five — One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Silence of the Lambs.
It Happened One Night was an early talkie. The silent era had just ended seven years before and filmmakers were still feeling their way in the new medium. Many early talkies are slow and stiff. It Happened One Night is a fresh, breezy breakthrough that has been influencing films ever since.
Even though it was one of the very first romantic comedies, viewers probably knew that the two leads, Claudette Colbert playing Ellie, a runaway rich girl, and Clark Gable as Peter, a swaggering but penniless newspaper reporter, will end up together. It’s the “how” that makes It Happened One Night worth watching again and again — how Frank Capra manages to bring these two opposites, who have every reason for despising each other, to fall in love.
Ellie is escaping from her oppressive father. She’s riding a night bus north. Peter spies Ellie and wants her story. In exchange, he will help her. She begins by contemptuously attempting to bribe him. He ends by shouting that “What she needs is a guy that’d take a sock at her every day — whether it’s coming to her or not.” And yet their love is utterly convincing.
Early on, Peter and Ellie must evade private detectives who are on her trail. Though Ellie and Peter had been squabbling, the threat they both face — discovery by the private detectives — forces them into a spontaneous conspiracy; they extemporize a broadly comic routine where they pretend to be a feuding married couple. Later, as they sleep under a farmer’s haystack, she complains of hunger and he fetches her dirty carrots he has foraged from a nearby field. The diffuse gray lighting in this scene suggests moonlight and the ambient glow from a nearby farmhouse. Their straw bedding glimmers as if it were gold. The lighting alone makes the scene worth watching. It’s these temporary alliances, dictated by their shared peril and shared mission, that slowly brings them to love each other.
When you are falling in love, everyday life seems special. The bulk of It Happened One Night consists of Capra’s wry observations of Depression-era life. There are the minuscule triumphs of long-distance, overnight bus travel. A character celebrates when finding a comfortable seat. There are the inconveniences — a fat passenger falls asleep on you, or your seatmate is a comically creepy lecher. There is momentary camaraderie — the passengers join in singing “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” There is heartbreak — a homeless, unemployed woman faints and her terrified son cries out in agony. There is broad humor — a woman doesn’t realize that there is a long line for the public shower in a roadside camp, and she walks in on another woman, who screams. In this capturing of Depression-era America, in a way that is deft and not at all preachy, Capra is as good as Dorothea Lange, the documentary photographer.
About three quarters of the way into the film, Ellie tentatively asks Peter if he’s ever been in love. By now we know that Ellie is head-over-heels. She’s asking him this question to find out if her feelings are reciprocated. Peter, who is totally unaware that Ellie loves him, suddenly drops the macho act and shows his naked, vulnerable humanity. He confesses that not only has he thought about love, “I’ve even been sucker enough to make plans.” He opens up about an island he had traveled to once. He wants to take his love there. But, he says, he wants to find “Somebody that’s real. Somebody that’s alive. They don’t come like that anymore.” This brief scene, so casual and intimate it feels discovered rather than written, reveals as much about the human heart as a scene in a work by a Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright.
As someone once said, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to find an audience; any punk can do so by putting a gun to a kitten’s head. In a romantic comedy, the filmmaker has to do something much harder: He has to wield a feather to tickle and to arouse hope, gonads, and laughter, and also to open eyes to magic that people had not seen in their workaday lives. The director of a “great” film can leave his sweat all over the screen. Fanboys want to hear Quentin Tarantino grunt in every shot. In a romantic comedy, the director’s touch must be invisible.
Hollywood’s Golden Age produced romantic comedy masterpieces by the most respected talents of the day, multiple Academy-Award-winning writers and directors like Capra, Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Leo McCarey, George Cukor, Ben Hecht, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, Ruth Gordon, and Garson Kanin.
Censorship was the Golden Age romantic comedy’s best friend. That censorship was a reflection of wider societal norms. Back in the day, extramarital sex was taboo, as was onscreen nudity and overt sexual references.
Filmmakers had to find subtle ways to light fires. In 1936’s My Man Godfrey, Carole Lombard gazes at William Powell, her co-star, as if he were a god. She tilts her head back and bares her soft, white neck. He stares at her. A sapper defusing a bomb would never focus on his target more closely than Powell focuses on Lombard. This completely chaste image is astoundingly erotically potent. One creature baring its neck to another, one creature staring at another, are gestures that reach our lizard brains. If you need proof, try performing either act in a wolf enclosure, and let us know how it turns out.
Here’s the amazing part: Powell and Lombard had certainly had sex. They had experienced romance and its extinction. Powell and Lombard had been married, and divorced, before they struck sparks, and stardust, as the romantic leads in My Man Godfrey. That they are so utterly magical as an onscreen couple discovering the first flush of romance is testimony to the power of virtuosic performance and understatement.
William Powell co-starred with Myrna Loy in the Thin Man movies. Powell and Loy’s cinematic love life never extended much beyond smarty-pants badinage between a small-breasted woman in a calf-length skirt and her slowly balding husband. A weird little factoid that I’ve read about but never seen — there was Nick and Nora Charles porn. That somebody somewhere back in the 1930s and 40s was so aroused by the Thin Man movies that he felt it necessary to produce porn based on them, and that there was a market for such porn, speaks volumes.
Golden Age romantic comedies had a serious core. The lead character had to make a decision, and that decision would matter for the rest of her life. Given an emphasis on chastity and the rarity of divorce, the choice between one suitor and another was a big deal. Women’s earning power was much less than it is today. Not only was she gambling on her own happiness, she was gambling on where she’d live, and what she, and any children she might have, would eat.
In the thirties and forties, the romantic comedy lead’s choice was epitomized by the choice between Cary Grant and Ralph Bellamy. Irene Dunne had to choose between Grant and Bellamy in 1937’s The Awful Truth and Rosalind Russell had to choose between Grant and Bellamy in 1940’s His Girl Friday. Grant played sexy, dynamic, and fun leading men. Bellamy was a potato-faced nice guy. He was the man your mother wanted you to pick. In His Girl Friday Bellamy is often seen in a heavy coat and carrying an umbrella — he was prepared for foul weather, literal and metaphorical.
Even hardcore fans acknowledge that romantic comedy’s glory days are past. Several factors contributed to the decline. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Betty-Friedan-style feminism, the birth control pill, legal abortion, the Sexual Revolution and the de-churching of society all contributed to liberalization of sexual mores. In the past, as reflected by the Hays Code, a man had to work hard to gain sexual access to a woman. In that interval between first attraction and first intercourse, something called “romance” could take place. Romance, many commentators have argued, has died. Americans have sex younger and younger, with more and more partners, and there is no distance that inspires them to pause in wonder before their desiderata. Rather, they begin while still young to look on members of the opposite sex with a jaundiced eye.
The loosening of mores affected comedy as well as romance. Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, comedians like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor turned comedy from something the whole family could experience together into a toilet wall of id-fueled rage that was best appreciated by single adult men. Can anyone think about romance and Louis CK at the same time? Jon Stewart, our era’s emblematic funny man, combines partisan political sanctimony and smugness — more a recipe for pique than a giddy aphrodisiac.
Romantic comedies depend on wit, sophisticated verbal humor that requires an audience skilled in language and double entendre. Movies in today’s market have to earn revenues overseas. Wit does not translate as well as slapstick or action.
In 2012 Vulture asked, “Can the Romantic Comedy Be Saved?” In 2013 The Atlantic Monthly asked “Why are Romantic Comedies So Bad?” National Public Radio asked “Are Romantic Comedies Dead?” and the Hollywood Reporter said, R.I.P. Romantic Comedies: Why Harry Wouldn’t Meet Sally in 2013. The American Conservative insisted that “Social Change Didn’t Kill the Romantic Comedy.” In 2014, The Daily Beast repeated the consensus that “The Romantic Comedy is Dead.” That same year LA Weekly asked, “Who Killed the Romantic Comedy?” And The Atlantic Monthly came back with “The Romantic Comedy is Dying, but Cinematic Romance is Thriving.
Filmmakers attempted various means of resuscitating the romantic comedy genre. One tactic was to try to restore distance between the male and female leads, distance that had been removed by liberalizing social norms. 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle kept its leads apart throughout the entire movie, except for the final minutes. The leads live three-thousand miles apart, and have never met. The Nineties’ most economically successful rom-com, Pretty Woman, removed all barriers, except for a thin wall of latex, between its main character and sex: she was a hooker. But Pretty Woman erects an arbitrary barrier: she won’t kiss on the mouth.
Another tactic to try to revive romantic comedy: Combine the genre with one other genre. 1998’s There’s Something about Mary is categorized as a combination romantic comedy and gross-out film. In it Mary naively uses a man’s ejaculate as hair gel. Another approach is the “bromance,” a rom-com about two heterosexual men who love each other, including 2009’s I Love You Man. 2007’s Lars and the Real Girl is a romantic comedy about a man and his blow-up doll.
None of these methods has offered a foolproof, lasting fix to the romantic comedy genre’s dilemma. If a movie fan wants to watch a contemporary romantic comedy, that movie fan is going to have to watch a not-great movie.
In mid-December, 2015, I checked the DVD of Sweet Home Alabama out of my local library. The film was directed by Andy Tennant. The story was written by Douglas J. Eboch as his master’s thesis at USC film school. C. Jay Cox wrote the screenplay. Both Eboch and Cox are from out-of-the-way places: Alaska and Nevada. An interesting bit of trivia: It was the first feature film permitted to shoot in New York City after 9-11, and the first to shoot scenes inside Tiffany’s since the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
At Rotten Tomatoes, Sweet Home Alabama has a 38% score. It is “certified rotten.” Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer sniffed that the film was an “an unendurable viewing experience.”
Why did I want to watch this not-great film? It was the holiday season. I’d be grading papers and being wounded by those fusillades of sadness that single people can’t dodge during the “most wonderful time of the year.” The poisonous icing on the radioactive cake: My sister had died in April. She and I had spent Christmas, 2014, together. I didn’t want to watch a movie with big themes. I was living big themes.
I ended up watching excerpts of Sweet Home Alabama every night for two weeks. It was one of the most moving film-watching experiences of my life. It was so moving exactly because Sweet Home Alabama doesn’t feature a carved-in-stone script for the ages, camera angles so innovative they made me think, or lighting so beautiful it made me weep. Sweet Home Alabama, unlike Shakespeare, does not crowd me out. It invites me to stretch in its ma, to explore my own life in its in-between spaces.
Watching this “certified rotten” movie, I cried. I dreamt about it. I talked about it over pizza with my friend Robin. That’s the measure of the importance of this aesthetic experience — a friend who looked like she thought I was nuts let me babble.
The plot: two children run along a beach during a thunderstorm. They find a fulgarite, also known as petrified lightning. (Fulgarites are formations of sand fused together by lightning. In real life, fulgarites are not as pretty as they are in the movie.) The boy proposes marriage to the girl. Contrary to the old saying, lightning strikes again in the same spot it had just hit. Melanie Carmichael (Reese Witherspoon) wakes up. She’d been dreaming. Carmichael is a fashion designer in New York City — the Promised Land of the romantic comedy genre. She’s about to stage her first big show. Andrew (Patrick Dempsey), her fiancé, is the prototype of a young Kennedy. He brings her into Tiffany’s. Surrounded by clerks who are obsequious but still as dignified as brain surgeons, Andrew proposes marriage. Andrew’s mother, Kate Hennings (Candice Bergen), is New York City’s mayor. Melanie knows that reporters will be digging into her past.
Melanie is next seen in Alabama. She drives up to a humble lakeside cottage. Jake Perry (Josh Lucas), his face covered with grease, a heavy motor part in his hand, greets her. “Get your stubborn ass down here and give me a divorce,” Mel commands.
It turns out that Melanie Carmichael is really Melanie Smooter Perry, not a Manhattan sophisticate, but a Southern girl who ran away from her husband, family, and home, and never looked back.
Jake won’t sign their divorce papers. He says “The only reason I ain’t signing is cause you’ve turned into some hoity-toity Yankee bitch, and I’d like nothing better right now than to piss you off.”
Melanie pursues Jake through scenes of their shared childhood. She interacts with her parents (Mary Kay Place and Fred Ward) Jake’s mother Stella (Jean Smart), and pals Bobby Ray (Ethan Embry), Lurlynn (Melanie Lynskey) and others. A whole ‘nother essay could be written about how utterly fabulous every one of these actors is, as are the characters they play. I wish this film had been a miniseries, with episodes devoted to each.
At first, the viewer knows exactly what is going to happen. Andrew is as handsome as the men in Heaven. Dempsey is the big star. Jake will be the bad boy who temporarily tempts Melanie to go to the dark side, but in the end she will realize what a great thing she has with Andrew.
The film plays with you, as life does. Right up to the final moments, Melanie could go either way. In fact both men become so appealing that the top discussion on the IMDB board for Sweet Home Alabama asks: “Which would you choose? New York Guy or Alabama Guy?”
Melanie must choose between the South and the North. Movies, like all America, have a love-hate relationship with the South. Hollywood gave us Gone with the Wind, a highly romantic version of the confederacy. But Hollywood has given us innumerable monstrous Southerners in Cape Fear, In the Heat of the Night, Elmer Gantry, Prince of Tides, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Defiant Ones, Twelve Years a Slave, and many others.
In America, anyone, in any venue, professional, ecclesiastical, academic, or political can say vile things about white Southerners that one could not say about any other group. There is no social penalty. The n-word cannot be pronounced, but slurs like white trash, redneck, hillbilly, and trailer trash are used internationally to designate ignorant, hateful, racist scum. All sins, in our Politically Correct era, are reducible to “intolerance.” Intolerance is reducible to white supremacy and white supremacy is reducible to the South. The South is our moral sewage system.
Jake is a Southerner. He drives a pickup truck. He’s dirty and he’s wearing a t-shirt and jeans. There’s a hound dog on his porch. He speaks with an accent and calls women “Darlin.” He uses sexist words like “bitch” and “chick food.” One of his best friends has a mullet haircut. In movie language, Jake is fully qualified to be a lyncher, an anal rapist, and mentally retarded. On the bright side, he probably plays a mean banjo.
Josh Lucas is fascinating as Jake. He’s especially interesting given that Sweet Home Alabama is a low-ambition rom-com. Lucas’ big blue eyes, deep dimples, and repertoire of smiles could be scary, charming, adorable, warm, distant, and so slippery as to be impossible-to-place. Was he a nice guy protecting his bruised heart — was Melanie really the bad guy here? Or was he a bad guy putting on a nice guy act, and was he about to pull out his shotgun and go all Deliverance? Lucas, using many of the exact same facial expressions he uses in Sweet Home Alabama, could have played Robert Mitchum’s supremely scary faux “preacher” from the Southern Gothic film The Night of the Hunter. Unlike Dempsey, Lucas charms in a way that is not one-hundred percent fathomable. This is not Ralph Bellamy.
Even as Jake and Melanie fight, there are moments between them, moments that a casual filmgoer might consciously miss, that show that these two share a significant bond and feel a mutual regard. These moments are as poignant to me as any I might witness in a critically acclaimed film. Jake eventually agrees to sign the divorce papers, and Melanie suddenly snatches them away and asks him why he has so much money in their joint bank account. Why isn’t he investing his money? That’s the kind of thing you say to someone you care about, not someone you want to peel off and shed like a snake sheds its skin. Similarly, a witness to their squabbling asks Melanie if Jake has ever hit her. She says no, he never has. Jake looks at Melanie with a look of real intimacy. It’s a seconds-long shot, but it’s heartbreakingly poignant.
Previous to her encounter with Jake, Manhattan Melanie had been the ideal rom-com princess: perky, admirable, making lots of money in a field — high fashion — that little girls fantasize about. Melanie is deferential, vulnerable, and humble in her interactions with Andrew and his mayor mother. She acknowledges nervousness about her fashion career; she says “yes” to Andrew’s proposal, even as she seems to have second thoughts.
In Alabama, Melanie metamorphosizes. She voices the audience’s contempt for the South. “People need a passport to come here,” she grouses. “Did they run out of soap down at the Piggly Wiggly?” she mocks her grease-stained husband; he’d been working on a motor. “How am I gonna explain you in New York City?” she rudely asks her father Earl, a Civil War re-enactor. “I’ve really made something of myself. I have a career. People actually want to be me,” she boasts to her housewife mother.
“How do you people live like this, anyway?” she screams at her former high-school friends. “Did you know that there’s a great, big world out there? It has absolutely nothing to do with chitlins or children or beer? … I am better than [you]! At least I’m doing something with my life!” Melanie’s vicious contempt for her wide-eyed former friends, and her brassily declared conviction of her own superiority, moves the audience around. The audience was ready to stereotype these folk; when Melanie does so, and they are visibly wounded, the audience allies with the underdog, the poor white Southerners.
For those audience members so intransigent in their Political Correctness that watching a “hoity-toity Yankee bitch” verbally nuke a roomful of Southerners is admirable rather than vicious, the movie has Melanie commit a thought crime. With contempt, she outs one of her former high school friends who is a closeted homosexual.
Eventually Melanie’s potential mother-in-law, Mayor Kate Hennings, arrives. Kate, like Melanie, voices contempt for poor white Southerners. Beautiful Candice Bergen is a very sympathetic actress. Bergen plays the first woman mayor of New York, is a feminist role model. Sweet Home Alabama exposes the all-too-frequent hypocrisy of liberal politicians who flatter “poor white trash” while hiding secret contempt for them. When Kate discovers that Melanie was a poor girl with a past, she urges her son Andrew to reject her.
Andrew asks his mother, “What would you suggest I do, dump her for being poor? You’re supposed to be a Democrat, remember?”
“I get elected by poor people,” is Kate’s Machiavellian reply.
Later, in a face-off with Melanie’s mother Pearl (Mary Kay Place), Kate taunts, “Go back to your double-wide [trailer] and fry something.” Pearl does indeed live in a trailer, and she had hospitably offered Kate “fried pickles hot right out of the grease.”
I love Sweet Home Alabama for being clever enough to manipulate me into feeling warmth for a part of my country that I have been indoctrinated to despise.
Given the film’s title, it’s not surprising that it pulls off this feat. Sweet Home Alabama the movie title is taken from “Sweet Home Alabama” the song title. Back in the 1970s, Canadian-born rock star Neil Young recorded “Southern Man” and “Alabama.” These two songs were criticisms of American racism. Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd responded with the song “Sweet Home Alabama.” The theme of their song: Don’t be so self-righteous. Racism is a universal problem; putting it all on the South shows just as much bigotry as you pretend to protest.
Melanie chases Jake to his mother’s bar. It was their high-school hangout. There Melanie reunites with her mother-in-law, Stella (Jean Smart), and her old high-school chums. They have not seen Melanie in years. She is a New Yorker now; they have spent the intervening years living in the town they grew up in. She is a clothing designer; they are working in the local factory.
Melanie meets with her friend Lurlynn (Melanie Lynskey). Lurlynn is carrying a baby; Melanie had suffered a miscarriage, and is childless. Lurlynn comments on Melanie’s blouse. Melanie says, “It’s mine.” Lurlynn gives Melanie a blank stare — why wouldn’t the blouse be hers? She is wearing it, after all.
Melanie notes Lurlynn’s blank stare. She explains / brags that the luxury goods department store, Bergdoff Goodman, now carries her designs. Lurlynn continues to give Melanie a blank stare. Melanie struggles to explain that she now designs clothing. Lurlynn struggles to find the right thing to say. She’s trying to be polite, but she doesn’t know what to say to a clothing designer. Melanie, too, doesn’t know what to say to a woman who is carrying her baby while standing in a bar. “This one’s still on the tit, so I can cart him anywhere,” Lurlynn says. “Right,” Melanie says.
I watched this bar scene over and over. I laughed I cried.
I’m a writer. Not a famous writer. Every now and then I publish; I sometimes even get paid. The most important thing is this: I have to write to live.
When I was in high school, I really loved a group of girls I thought of as “our lunch table.” We had different academic classes, and we came from different socioeconomic classes, but we all ate lunch together. Through Facebook, I have reconnected with a good percentage of our lunch table. When I first found these ladies, I was thrilled. I really thought we’d have so much to say to each other.
My Facebook posts often consist of links to my latest article. My Facebook friends from “our lunch table” don’t read my writing. They don’t click “like” on my posts. What do they like? Pictures of their own and each other’s kids and grandkids, houses, pets, and meals.
After high school, I left my hometown and went far away: Africa, New York City, Asia, Europe, California, Indiana. When I returned to my hometown, I felt sadness so crushing it felt like one of my county’s black bears was pressing on my chest. The first time I felt it, I was overwhelmed by it, and I could not find words to understand it.
I now relate that sadness to the complete and total silence and isolation that I would experience on my Facebook page if my only Facebook friends were people I had known in high school. I’d never get any likes, any comments, any friend requests. I must have been invisible, and inaudible, the first twenty years of my life. My hometown, site of my most intimate memories, had no use for writer me. Any more than Pigeon Creek has any use for Melanie Carmichael, fashion designer.
At the same time, I recognize that the folks who send me fan mail in response to my writing are responding to my writing, not to me. I note that many who click “like” when I post a political essay evaporate if I say anything about my personal life. In the past two years, I spent a great deal of time with my sister. She had glioblastoma multiforme, a fast-growing, malignant brain tumor. When I posted about days spent with her, the folks who read my political essays, and could not shut up about them, were silent. They had no use for the Danusha who was dealing with terminal illness in a loved one. They would respond, again, when I found the energy to get worked up about something political.
My sister’s funeral was held within a short driving distance of several vocal fans of my political writing, including one fiery activist who insisted, whenever she shared one of my links, “I am proud to call Danusha my friend!” Of course no readers of my writing showed up to the funeral. Deirdre and Joanne grew up on the same street as me. They never read anything I post on Facebook. They couldn’t care less that I am a struggling writer. In fact I am certain that they think that I am just as hopelessly weird as I was when we were kids together and I would drag them into the woods to act out my plays. Their warm bodies hugged me on the day I eulogized my sister.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said that in the dark night of the soul, it’s always three o’clock in the morning. In some part of the self, the soul is always alone. Even the captain of the football team can’t share every aspect of himself with his teammates. Writer me and lunch table me; designer Mel and “Felony Melanie”: One or the other, even as surrounded by friends, is alone.
Here’s a story I’m never supposed to tell. I heard it from a world-class scholar who wrote a highly celebrated book about the tight, warm community in a tiny, out-of-the-way village. His “star” was the village storyteller and musician. That man once confessed to him, “These people are all idiots. I am so alone.” The village’s most celebrated citizen was secretly gay, and incredibly frustrated by the villagers’ inability fully to understand his art.
If you found yourself in the bar you used to hang out in in high school, if you found yourself surrounded by your old high school buddies, would it be a dream or would it be a nightmare? Would you experience heartwarming intimacy or soul-crushing and self-denying alienation? Would parts of you suddenly come alive, or would parts of you suddenly die? Would they be your favorite parts, or your least favorite parts? And what parts of you would slowly atrophy, bit by bit, as you watched them go, as you turned into someone you never planned on being — because you yourself abandoned yourself, or because you became yourself, and no one saw or heard or recognized?
Sweet Home Alabama is, yes, all about how wonderful it is to return home. It’s also about how very necessary it is to leave home. And about how much that can hurt.
Jake seems to be part of the disinterest that Pigeon Creek has for its fashion designer daughter. “You make clothes,” he says to her. “I design clothes,” she retorts. “There’s a big difference.”
For her part, Melanie castigates Jake for retiring from ambition after his high school football career ended and he went to work in the factory — something he had to do to support her, after he’d gotten her pregnant. She ran away after she had a miscarriage.
Jake, in his dismissive comment, reduces Melanie to the status of a sweatshop seamstress. He disrespects her creativity, her entire professional life. He appears to be doing so because he has given up. Detract points from the Jake column. Add points to the Andrew column. Melanie had to leave Pigeon Creek in order that her inner creator could live. Once she marries Andrew, his social position guarantees that her creative career will sky rocket.
Later in the film, Lurlynn lets Melanie in on a secret. After Melanie ran away, Jake went to New York to bring her back, but he was so intimidated by New York City that he returned to Alabama with his tail between his legs. He went to work. He created his own, boutique glass business, inspired by the fulgarite that they had found on the beach as children during that lightning storm that opened the film.
My high school Jake was also tall, blonde, with big blue eyes. He also wore jeans and t-shirts and never dressed up. He also hung out with a gang of other guys, drinking beer and shooting pool. I was crazy about him. One day I showed him my writing. He made an ugly comment. I knew our relationship couldn’t survive that, and it didn’t. We went our separate ways. Truth to tell, when I was in high school, I had no idea how to be a writer. I had no idea how to ask for, or receive, feedback. I stumbled through it. He didn’t know how to be supportive of a girlfriend who writes. Neither of us had a clue.
Thanks to Facebook, we recently reunited. We got along as if no time had passed. I felt an intimacy with him that I don’t feel with anyone else. We laughed at the same places. We could speak the same politically incorrect truths to each other and not shock or offend.
He told me he was proud of my writing. He expressed regret for the unkind thing he said so many years ago. This was unlike anything he could have said in high school. I was further surprised to hear that he writes, too — and well.
I really thought, before we reunited, that he had spent the intervening years in that basement rec room, where I left him, shooting pool and drinking beer. He hadn’t. He had matured into someone for whom I feel admiration. But something in him was the same person I had loved in high school.
If Sweet Home Alabama had not won me over already, it demanded my complete allegiance in the coon-dog cemetery scene. The coon-dog cemetery is a real place. Melanie had had a dog, a dog she loved very much, a dog who loved her — Bear. Melanie ran away, and, while she was gone, Bear died.
I dreamed of running away quite frequently. I never did, though, because I loved my dog so very much, I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving him. Tramp died a natural death, and Artie replaced him. I did leave; I went overseas. Artie died while I was gone. I dream about him to this day. Artie is as alive in my mind and heart as he ever was.
Melanie, whom, at this point, the viewer has been manipulated into hating, squats down to apologize to Bear for not being there when he died. We suddenly see Melanie fully human. A Southern girl who loves her old coon dog, and a driven, Northern career girl who must confess to Bear, “I would have come sooner if I’d known you were sick. Actually, that’s probably not true. I’ve been pretty selfish lately. Dogs don’t know anything about that, do they, though?” Of course Melanie has been selfish. She has had to be selfish. A creative artist must be selfish. In her pursuit of her career, Melanie has been what all artists eventually are — not Southern, not hometown, not Northern, but totally alone. If you want to do something new, and creative people must do something new, you can’t be one of the crowd.
Jake finds Melanie in the coon-dog cemetery. She says to him, “I’m happy in New York. But then I come down here and this fits, too.”
Jake then utters the best line of the movie “You can have roots and wings, Mel.”
Melanie is overwhelmed. Previous to this scene, all she’s done is feud with her husband. Though she is engaged to Mr. Perfect, she kisses Jake — tenderly, passionately. He will have none of it. He pushes her away. He says something very interesting. “Go home.”
Mel does not pause to consider the metaphorical implications of Jake’s two words. She leaves him in the coon-dog cemetery.
While watching, and re-watching, Sweet Home Alabama, I was also reading James Kaplan’s Frank: The Voice. Sinatra is impossible for a mere mortal to understand; when he was just a kid throngs of women treated him as a sex god. But the following facts are undeniable: Frank Sinatra was born in New Jersey to an ethnic, immigrant family, and he married his teenage sweetheart, Nancy Barbato and remained married to her for 11 years. What is also undeniable is that Sinatra, by all accounts, screwed anything that moved, including, when he was 71 years old, the mother of Woody Allen’s purported only biological child, Ronan Farrow. Sinatra divorced Nancy to marry screen siren Ava Gardner. Gardner was an MGM star, bigger than Sinatra, and marketed as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Another undeniable fact: Sinatra was married to Gardner for two years, they fought like cats and dogs, and while he had three kids with Nancy, he attempted suicide three times during his Ava years, and she had three terminated pregnancies: one miscarriage after Frank struck her, one abortion of a child by Frank, and one abortion of a child by someone other than Frank; she wasn’t sure who. During their brief marriage, Sinatra drank, smoked, and partied so much that he temporarily lost his voice.
In photographs, Frank, happy with Nancy, looks really happy. Frank, happy with Ava, often looks crazed. Ava looks like she’s posing. Jersey housewife Nancy Barbato, at her most beautiful, is every bit as beautiful as movie star Ava Gardner. In fact they look a lot alike. Nancy’s beauty is the beauty of a fertile field or a deer, whereas Gardner is obviously a very expensive Hollywood Product. You can practically see the pricing barcode stamped on her rump. In every photo I’ve seen of Nancy, she never looks as if she is promoting herself as a product. She just looks human.
If Frank had not had such towering ambition, and if he had stayed with Jersey Nancy and seen Hollywood Ava only in her movies, would he have been happy?
But of course, if Frank did not have such towering ambition, he would not have been Frank.
Romantic comedies take upon themselves the hard cultural work described by anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Levi-Strauss believed that myths exist to reconcile opposites. People notice opposites. These opposites cause tension. People try to resolve the opposites by telling stories — myths — that bring the opposites together. Levi-Strauss identified one such opposition as the raw versus the cooked. By raw and cooked, Levi-Straus meant the natural and the cultural. Jake is natural. He’s a rough-hewn redneck. Andrew is cultural. He’s the prince of Manhattan.
Folklorist Bengt Holbek said something similar about fairy tales. Fairy tales, he wrote, bring opposites together. Specifically, fairy tales bring together male and female, young and old, rich and poor.
And of course, myth scholar Joseph Campbell offered up a hero pattern that matches Melanie’s trajectory: The hero must leave home and discover new things. The hero must also return home and enrich his — or her — community with the gifts she has discovered in her journey.
Sweet Home Alabama, though a not-great film meant “only” for entertainment, does the hard cultural work described by Levi-Strauss, Holbek, and Campbell. It recognizes opposites: male and female, of course, but also North and South, Manhattan and Pigeon Creek, ambition and relaxation, selfish drive and communal sharing, the dirty and the clean, the flawed and the perfect, intimacy and alienation, staying and going, hate and love.
Sweet Home Alabama‘s final scene is a communal celebration, a wedding. Weddings are traditional endings for comedies going back at least to Shakespeare and the folktales studied by Russian theorist Vladimir Propp. In the DVD commentary, director Andy Tennant mentioned awareness of this convention, and how it influenced his decision to end the film that way.
Sweet Home Alabama, a not-great movie, is not just surprisingly sophisticated in its structure, a structure that does the hard narrative work of the resolution of opposites. Sweet Home Alabama also comes up with its own solution to the dilemma of the contemporary romantic comedy.
Again — the Golden Age of romantic comedy was founded on distance between male and female. As a reflection of societal norms, films kept male and female characters from easy sexual consummation. Nowadays, with sex norms much loser, how to create a romance?
Even the 1960s’ tsunamis of permissions could not budge one thing: the snow falling on the sled. We are all mortal. We have but one life. We cannot bi-locate. Yes, Melanie could and did have sex with both Jake and Andrew, the bad-boy redneck and the Manhattan Young Kennedy. Yes, Melanie could be the wild Southern girl who earned the local nickname “Felony Melanie” and leave it all and move to Manhattan and advance her own art. But she had to make a choice, and choosing one thing meant irrevocably losing another. Jake and Andrew are not Cary Grant and Ralph Bellamy. They are both really nice, attractive guys. They both offer attractive lives. Once Melanie picks one, she can never inhabit the other. You can’t be a relaxed, loving wife sipping beer in Jake’s rustic lakeside cabin and be the driven, self-absorbed, successful artist. This is the genius of the not-great movie Sweet Home Alabama: rosebud.
July 20, 2016