I kept thinking about Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Southeast in 1991 during Rory Kennedy's "American Hollow," a documentary about poh' folks with noblesse oblige written all over it. In its malingering 90 minutes (HBO tonight at 8), Kennedy follows a year in the lives of one of the most backward backwoods families in the great state of Kentucky.
Kennedy's initial intent, at least her press materials say, was to show how new welfare laws have negatively affected rural communities. But she lost track of her mission somewhere along the way, and what results is the same old simplistic view of a region that's as diverse as any other in the country.
Naturally, her documentary focuses on ignorant, wife-beating, beer-sucking orthodontic nightmares from somewhere 'round about Hazard. That's in the eastern part of the state, where there are no thoroughbreds nibbling bluegrass behind whitewashed fences; it's Snuffy Smith territory. It's right pretty country, though, with rolling hills dipping into ravines the locals call "hollers."
The Bowling clan, some 50 or so, dwell in Mudlick Hollow and have for seven generations. Iree Bowling, the stoic, 68-year-old matriarch, has lived all her days in this impoverished, isolated corner of Appalachia. Of all her 13 children, only David (the one with the most brains and cleanest teeth) has had the sense to move on.
Kennedy, who wrote and directed this unfocused family portrait, doesn't clue viewers in to what she thinks of the Bowlings. Does she admire them for their clannishness, a quality they share with her kin (she's the daughter of Robert and Ethel Kennedy)? Or does she condemn them for their simplistic lifestyle? Or does she think she's doing a National Geographic special on Dogpatch? There is no discernible message here.
As for the effects of welfare changes, it's unclear whether they have helped or harmed. Most of the Bowlings get gov'mint checks, which they supplement by harvesting bloodroot, ginseng and moss. Iree and her husband, Bass, also grow extra produce in their garden, and when times are tough they "catch ground squirrels, fry 'em up and eat 'em," says Iree. (Sutton Gourmet, take note.)
One of Iree's daughters still uses a wringer and dries the wash on the line, but she and her relations are far better off than the Appalachian people who were subjects of noble but voyeuristic documentaries in the '60s and '70s. They have indoor plumbing, wall-to-wall carpeting, VCRs and TV sets, and not a one of the Bowlings keeps his refrigerator on the front porch. And dang if Iree's boy, Clint, isn't on Prozac.
In the press materials from HBO, Kennedy applauds the Bowlings because they have hung steadfastly to their traditions, land and family. Iree does a little quilting, which she is passing on to one of her daughters-in-law; the Bowlings do have regular reunions and holiday get-togethers, but other traditions got past me in the documentary--unless it's the menfolk sitting 'round the kitchen table shirtless.
Spousal abuse, to hear the women tell it, is an ongoing problem and has been for four generations. Iree recalls: "Daddy wud beat Mommy, kick her till I thought she was gonna die." A sister who suffers from brain damage endured the same from her husband, as does Iree's granddaughter, Samantha. Some traditions.
A natural story line emerges, although Kennedy didn't seem to recognize its potential as an organizing principle. Clint, Iree's 17-year-old grandson, is trying to escape his fate. He wants to find work and marry his high school sweetheart.
There are, of course, no jobs to be found here, so Clint finally accepts his Uncle David's offer to visit him and look for work in Cincinnati. Clint actually makes it to Ohio, but Bass assures him he'll be back. "A bad check always returns," he says. In a month, he's back with his tail between his legs. And why not, given his lack of skills and self-esteem.
The Bowlings aren't a bright, attractive lot by any means, but they don't appear to suffer from inbreeding either--at least that's one stereotype the documentary avoids.
"American Hollow" was undoubtedly well intentioned. What it does, however, is reinforce the one-dimensional portraits commemorated in outhouse souvenirs. The only thing missing is a moonshine still. "We're proud to be hillbillies," say the Bowlings. Of course, they hadn't seen themselves on film at that point.
Kennedy is clearly interested in this clan, but does she truly believe that Iree's way of life should be preserved? Probably. Isn't that always the way with tourists?