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A Holler Against Generational Poverty

I saw the film Holler with my friend Laura recently as part of the From the Hills and Hollers film series. It’s an incredible movie. We were so floored that we sat there as the audience drifted out of the theater, credits rolling, lights still dim, talking about it, processing it. I think we were the last two people to get up and leave our seats. I asked, “Why is it called Holler? It’s not about some backwoods Appalachian place where coal miners retreat each night to lick their wounds, drink moonshine and get ready to do it again tomorrow. It felt more urban.”

The setting, Jackson, Ohio, reminded me of the decaying steel towns I roamed in Pittsburgh’s Mon Valley as a teen. Urban Blight seems more appropriate than Holler. But I started thinking about Holler as a metaphor. These people in Jackson are every bit as trapped in a dark , subterranean place as those miners. They’re not descending into the ground to extract coal and contract black lung for some mining company; they’re working in abandoned buildings, stealing scrap metal in the dark of night. It’s the same, really. And the camera work is phenomenal, showing the dark, claustrophobic work that Ruth (Jessica Barden) and her brother Blaze (Gus Halper) are engaged in, the injuries they suffer, the soul-sucking fact that there is no viable alternative to the holler they’re mired in. This is caving. This is unrelenting earth-bound gravity holding them in place. Truly a “dark hollow where the sun don’t ever shine.” Just substitute concrete and brick and mortar for trees and stones and mine-tainted streams.

Before the film, writer/director Nicole Riegel spoke to the audience, awkward at first, noting she is an introvert and prefers to be behind the camera, but warming to the task, explaining how her film came to be. Her love of the final product was infectious. Riegel scrapped her initial version of the film as the money and people around her pushed for something more like Deliverance (another upcoming film in the series) or Coal Miner’s Daughter. She doesn’t question the validity of those films. But they weren’t her experience of Appalachia. Her Appalachia was Jackson and that sorta urban blight, those decaying factories and smokestacks. Appalachia is a diversity of experiences, she told us. That’s why it’s important to have a diversity of voices telling its stories.

Riegel returned to Holler after setting it aside, blowing it up, rewriting it, and creating something so moving and visceral that it left Laura and me unable to exit the Athena  until we’d made some rudimentary attempt to process it.

Holler is a shout against crushing, generational poverty. It doesn’t judge. Even Ruth’s jailed mom (Pamela Adlon), whom Ruth judges harshly, is trapped. Her addiction isn’t as simple as a preference for partying over raising her daughter and son. The mother’s former co-worker, who visits her in prison and gives Ruth safe harbor when things go from bad to worse, tells the young woman her mother’s addiction is rooted in a work injury and a doctor who liberally prescribed opioids. The mother is using a stint in county jail as a sort of rehab, though Ruth doesn’t seem convinced it’s going to last any longer than the jail sentence. Ruth’s brother, Blaze, steps in to serve as her parent and best friend in their mother’s absence, sacrificing everything for his sister, hoping to give her the inertia she needs to be propelled out of this dark, brooding holler. Blaze suffers a vicious beating at the hands of the guy who runs the illegal scrapping operation, and that proves a christlike sacrifice, allowing the film a glimmer of hope as it concludes.

My subconscious continued mulling the film after I arrived back at Innisfree, my cabin-in-the-woods hermitage, to an ecstatic Althea bouncing around to greet me after spending the evening in the complete darkness of a power outage spawned by vicious winds that swept through after an afternoon kiss of spring. As I walked Althea earlier , before heading out to meet Laura for dinner and the movie, I caught myself looking for ramps pushing up through the leaf litter. I lingered as I passed my morel mushroom spots, hoping to spy a wrinkled head pushing up into the warm air. But “Morels Come Up In April,” as a good friend/former boss used to say repeatedly. And definitely not in January.  My drive home from the movie was a study in dodging downed tree limbs before I arrived at the dark cabin, where I indulged Althea, had a scotch in the candlelight and went to bed, where I dreamed of turbulent waters and maelstroms determined to drag everything into the depths. Still processing. Still sifting  through Holler’s wake.

You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive



Books Movie Bob Uncategorized

Do not go gentle into that good night …

I’ve watched the entire Deadwood series at least 5 times. I’ve also rewatched John from Cincinnati multiple times. And I’m still astounded by David Milch’s writing. Who else could put a chunk of dialogue like this in a character’s mouth:

 “I may have fucked up my life flatter ’n hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker, and workin’ a payin’ fuckin’ gold claim, and not the U.S. government sayin’ I’m trespassin’, or the savage fuckin’ red man himself or any of these other limber-dick cocksuckers passin’ themselves off as prospectors had better try and stop me.”

In a recent New Yorker interview with Milch, Mark Singer calls out that quote from Deadwood as an example of how “Milch’s dialogue transformed the frontier demotic into something baroquely profane.”

Wild Bill HIckok’s grave in Deadwood. Just over the fence is Calamity Jane …

I stopped in Deadwood last summer during a jaunt to Montana just to check it out. I was worried I was walking into a tourist trap, and to some degree, I definitely was, but it still was a worthwhile side trip. I couldn’t help but hear Milch’s versions of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane ricocheting around in my head as I visited their graves at the cemetery.

A restaurant in Deadwood included several menu items that clearly were influenced by David Milch’s show. I passed on Woo’s pork ribs …

The New Yorker interview offers insights into his writing process and approach to storytelling, but what resonated most with my is his battle with Alzheimer’s. It’s heartbreaking to see this type of intellect slowly slipping away, but Milch isn’t surrendering without a fight:

While writing the screenplay for “Deadwood: The Movie,” I was in the last part of the privacy of my faculties, and that’s gone now. I was able to believe that— You know, we all make deals, I suppose, in terms of how we think about the process of our aging. It’s a series of givings away, a making peace with givings away. I had thought, as many or most people do, that I was in an earlier stage of givings away than it turns out I am. It’s kind of a relentless series of adjustments to what you can do, in particular the way you can’t think any longer. Your inability to sustain a continuity of focus. And those are accumulated deletions of ability. And you adjust—you’d better adjust, or you adjust whether you want to or not.

The interview reminded me of a marvelous New York Times story about a woman’s struggle with early onset Alzheimer’s. I used this story in a feature writing class I taught at Ohio University a few years ago, fearing the college-age students wouldn’t be able to relate to a tale about aging. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. They could relate. They have witnessed the devastation that dementia wreaks in their own families. Writer N.R. Kleinfield detailed emotions that the article subject was feeling as she realized she had dementia and things were only going to get worse. That period fascinates and terrifies me. That span where you know you’re slipping away, trying to hang on to a thread of who you were, grappling with a world that grows increasingly less familiar.

Meanwhile, the Deadwood movie launches May 31 on HBO. I’ll definitely be watching. Probably repeatedly. But as I watch, I’ll be thinking about Milch as we continues writing, working, resisting the inevitable march of Alzheimer’s.

Detail of Calamity Jane’s grave.
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