Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pure Yokelese

I'm watching, for the first time, the Sling Blade bonus features. In an older interview which apparently was made soon after Sling Blade and broadcast on the Bravo channel, Billy Bob Thornton is talking about his pre-fame hard times when he couldn't get work. He complains that he couldn't even get cast as a redneck. Then:

The next thing I know, some guy from New York is playing a guy from Georgia. And they always use that accent that doesn't exist. I mean how many actors have you heard who aren't from the South who've done movies that [imitates fake accent] "Now boyah, ovah heah"... I haven't heard that in my life.

Wow. I'm surprised that someone so obviously gifted at truthfully writing his own native Arkansan accent (and cadence, and -- especially -- vocabulary) could be so deaf. The accent he thinks fake is actually of the Deep South; just because it was caricatured by that genius Mel Blanc doesn't mean that it's fictional. I dunno where the boundary might be, but I do know my Alabama-raised great-grandmother spoke exactly that way, as did my African-American fifth grade teacher in Memphis, Mrs. Jones, a grand and awesome lady whose family's geographical origins I never knew or have forgotten. ("Vacuum," for instance, is a word they spoke exactly alike: it was spit out, whatever the context, in a tone between a snarl and a shout, as if in frustration, as "VAAAHHHHL-cyum.") Moreover, all rural and most urban folk I've met in Mississippi, a state I've spent quite a bit of time in, have this accent.

On the other hand, I entirely sympathize with his gripe with New York jackasses trying to "do" Southern. In my experience, admittedly slight, most (not all) white creative types -- as opposed to "normal" people from the lower-middle and working classes -- from the Northeast have a horror of and contempt for the Southern cracker[1] (and blacks from the same area mirror this in their attitude to their rural Southern counterparts). No sympathy = no empathy = bad acting.

I'm sure the scientist-specialists have a proper name for an Arkansas accent, but I think I'm pretty accurate in saying it's half Texan, half Appalachian or "Highland." The hillbilly aspect makes "Arkansan" sound somewhat nasal no matter the timbre of the speaker's voice; Deep Southern, in contrast, is breathy, throaty, and emphatic if often very slurred (incidentally, the degree of slur is the giveaway to the speaker's class not race). "High class" Deep Southern is the grand accent, the one with the most dignity to the ear, but also the one most loaded with historical baggage. "High class" Arkansan, meanwhile, is not so noticeably different from its "low class" counterpart; the former is, if anything, tinged with more Western and Mid-Western attributes and less Appalachian[2] -- or, if you like, more German and less Scots-Irish. But there's still a twang and the vowels are still drawled (to riot in understatement).

Anyway, Sling Blade. The plot, the characters and their mannerisms, expressions, posture, choices, morality -- all perfect-as-in-truthful, and that's that. But what affected me -- and still affects me -- is the movie's absolute authenticity with regard to special, demotic, and dying Arkansan vocabulary. The movie came out in '96; I think I first saw it in '97. Some of the expressions and words the characters -- especially Karl -- use I hadn't heard, at least with any regularity, since my grandfather was living (he left this vale of tears in '92): "sommers" for "somewhere," "directly" (pronounced "dreckly") for "soon," "studyin'" for "considering" or "thinking," "reckon" for "believe,"[3] "nervous hospital" for "mental institution" or "nuthouse," "twyst" for "twice," "I'll be dog" for "I'll be dog-gone," "kindly" for "kind of"... I am sure there are more I'm forgetting right now. Also, more common words, indeed stereotypical (therefore frequently if, ultimately, wrongly striking a false note for the listener) for Southern or Western characters, are still accurate here: "ain't," "yonder," "feller."

Even the inflections are spot-on. Lucas Black ("Frank", the boy), is Alabaman but, I believe, had traveled/lived throughout the South before taking the role. He and Thornton both totally accurately say "ain'tchee?", a somewhat rare corruption of "ain't ya?". Dwight Yoakam, who if I remember right has Kentucky roots, has his "Doyle" character appropriately over-emphasize and drawl the initial syllable of "retards;" he is also dead-on in calling a funeral vehicle a "hurst."

[1] Obviously, I reciprocate.
[2] Also a small difference in vocabulary: Gratitude is expressed by "thank you" or "thank ya" or "thanks" except for in the truly back country, where one will still sometimes hear "thankee." Similarly almost everyone uses the quintessential Southern and Western word, "y'all," but occasionally one is jarred by its alternative, "you'ins," a deeply embarrassing word even to other Southerners (good old narcissism of minor differences, again), a word so "Hatfield vs. McCoy" in its vibe that I'm almost certain it must be a remnant from Appalachia, even though I've never seen the word's origins discussed -- indeed, I've never seen it referenced, not that this is a subject I've spent any time researching -- and have only heard the word used by deep-country, flatland-swampland (by which I do not mean "Delta," which is a whole different can of worms) people and not by Ozark-hillbilly types who would make more sense to the "Appalachian origin" thesis.
[3] I was stunned to learn my Chinese-Australian then-girlfriend used the word in the Arkansan sense, both in meaning and in frequency; apparently it's a normal part of Oz-speak.