The Little Rock Film Festival starts here soon. In many years, this would not be a big deal. This year is somewhat of an apex of what has been a burgeoning period for Arkansas filmmaking. Even though many people would attribute this to the fact that Billy Bob Thornton made a couple of movies around here which got a lot of attention. First, Sling Blade (1996) and then"Crystal" (2004) - starring both Billy Bob and Lisa Blount, I personally attribute it to the fact that Ray McKinnon (born 11/15/57 in Georgia) married Lisa Blount (born 7/1/1957 here in Little Rock). They moved back here in 1998. She wanted to come back home to live. He agreed and they began acting as an active pair of promoters for local filmography.
Let me begin with Ray and try to tie this in with one of the best films I've seen in a while, Mud, written and produced by Jeff Nichols (born 12/7/1978 also here in Little Rock);a film getting more and more acclaim with each new viewing. In between I will toss in some vague bitching about Regionalism, race, and other items that will piss off liberals who hate their country, hate their history, hate their race, hate their ancestors and probably hate themselves as well. I will do this in spite of the fact that Ray McKinnon himself as well as Lisa Blount and their friends are/were probably all limousine liberals. The house Ray and Lisa bought is in a gentrified area of town referred to as The Heights where you can't swing a dead cat without hitting an Obama supporter. It's the kind of area where houses which would sell for $100,000 anywhere else go for around $400,000. And if you want to do any remodeling work on them you have to meet with some sort of board of advisors to make sure that you're not violating any "historical architecture rules and regulations."
You might know Ray as the crazy preacher from Deadwood. I think that might have been the first time I saw him, except from passing him on the street in downtown Little Rock's River Market District (our small version of Seattle's Waterfront).
I knew he was good, but it wasn't until I got a copy of "The Accountant" (with Lisa Blount and Walter Goggins--Boyd Crowder on" Justified-- a marvelous TV show running on the FX Network) that I understood what a gifted actor Ray was. This short film, "The Accountant," is a must-see. It won the 2002 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film, and was both written and directed by Ray.
I'm not sure how much of my opinion is swayed by my pride in "Southern Redneck makes good," but I would like to think that it is but a minor ingredient. I do have to tell you non-Southerners that we are sick of the stereotypes. Do I need to list famous Southern writers in order to make a point? I think the time for some pushback is damn well overdue. The Jewish Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the major Arkansas paper does something every year that causes an uproar. Robert E. Lee's birthday is almost the same as MLK Day and he runs a story commemerating General Lee while letting another writer pen some homage to MLK. This pleases me mightily. I also get sick of stories about how flying the Confederate flag or wearing it on a t-shirt is somehow racist. If you feel comfortable wearing a t-shirt with Mao or Che on it and you feel this way, you should shut the fuck up. Did you see Lincoln? I wonder how many kids were shocked in 2013 to learn that the Democrats were the pro-slavery party? I've lived here all my life and I vividly remember Bull Conner and Lester Maddox and George Wallace. Right now, 22 of the 25 most dangerous districts in America are represented in Congress by Democrats. Most are in Detroit, Chicago, and Indianapolis. It is obvious to me that this monumental societal change began with LBJ's Great Society when we started paying women to have babies IF there was no father in the home. In the early 1900s, the illegitimate birth rate for Blacks in America was 25%. Now it is 75%. You couldn't destroy a culture quicker if it was your sole aim.
So I'm a little aggrieved here, but back to Ray. He moved here with Lisa and things were going well until one week when he was in Atlanta on film business... She suffered from a condition called idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), in which low levels of platelets keep blood from clotting and lead to bleeding and bruising. "I think that might have been part of the problem when she passed away because when I found her she had a purple look on her neck that looked like blood on the surface",her mom said.... Her mom had been unable to reach her on the phone and went to the house to find her dead. I am sure Ray blamed himself for not being there; it's the kind of guy he seems to be.
Ray plays the father of one of the two kids in "Mud." The leading role is played by Matthew McConaughey. In the female lead is Reese Witherspoon. It's a fairly small role for Witherspoon and I feel pretty sure that she wouldn't have taken such a bit part had she not been personal friends with Lisa and Ray. I don't know this for a fact. I'm just betting that it is true. It might seem, as with many Southern stories, that Place takes lead over Plot as the Central Character, much as with Beasts of the Southern Wild. Eudora Welty called it "a sense of place" and if you lived down here you might understand how strong it pulls at you.
Sam Shepard shows up as another complicated father figure, and he gives the part his full attention.
In any case, Jeff Nichols has now made three memorable films: this one plus Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter. He is very, very good at what he does. And I, for one, am glad to be his neighbor.
I'm also quite proud that Ray has the best new TV show so far in 2013. He wrote, produced and directs Rectify on the Sundance network and it has just been renewed for a second season. It's loosely based on the story of Damien Echols, the one of the West Memphis Three who was sentenced to death in one of the worst miscarriages of justice I've ever seen in my life. This is a story that has been begging to be told, and Ray is doing a spot-on job with it so far. Highly recommended.