Wild and Wonderful
June 6, 2010 3:35 PM   Subscribe

Y’all know Jesco White, right? Maybe you’ve seen one of the two documentaries about the Dancing Outlaw, following in the footsteps of his tap-dancindad and trying to keep away from the influences of his no good, rabble-rousin' family. Well, now they’ve got a documentary too.
posted by jadayne (28 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I got to see the Dancin' Outlaw on VHS back in the '90s and have never forgotten it.

Nice Pete reminds me a lot of Jesco.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:40 PM on June 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

O hell yeah. I loved it when he shaved off his beard halfway through the movie. At first I thought it was yet another brother. I also never forgot about it.
posted by ouke at 4:07 PM on June 6, 2010

Man, this just about kills me. It's documentaries like these that give an entire state a bad name and dehumanize very real tragedies like the recent coal mining disaster near Charleston. I hate how this family stands in for an entire state and is obviously a sensationalist 'hey, look at these freaks!' type production. There's a lot of other places that have problems with prescription drug abuse and people shooting things with guns, but usually we associate those things with poverty and not a particular place. Boone County is one of many counties in West Virginia heavily impacted by mountain-top removal, and it's easier for corporations to get away with abuse in those areas because people there are depicted as dumb, stupid, and poor white trash. Industrial development is then seen as 'improving' the lives of people who weren't doing anything important, anyway, and the more important discussion about how corporations are able to destroy the towns where people live without suffering consequences is swept under the table and replaced with sensationalist portrayals of people with addiction problems.
posted by ajarbaday at 4:12 PM on June 6, 2010 [8 favorites]

ajarbaday, I understand. I felt a little guilty after posting a first comment, because the college-educated bits of me say "L-O-L RURAL POVERTY aren't you ashamed of yourself?" But I, for one, can swear I do not think of Jesco when I think of West Virginia as a whole. The tape got passed around in my circles in the '90s because we were Southerners, and many of us had Appalachian roots. We recognized this guy. And the Whites aren't the Kallikaks; they're their own sons of bitches. Even considering the disparity of economic power between these producers and the Whites as members of the labor pool in Boone County, I would hesitate to deny them any agency in choosing to be portrayed this way.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:32 PM on June 6, 2010

Hey! One of my best friends is going to see him perform in Memphis tonight! I'm intrigued to find out what a Jessco White "show" consists of.
posted by sourwookie at 4:49 PM on June 6, 2010

From the trailer, it looks like they have people from West Virginia talking about the Whites, like the tattoo artist saying, "They're the most hated family around here, but maybe also the most free." It's certainly made so people can point and laugh, but it looks like the filmmakers are also giving locals the chance to say "we're not all like that."
posted by stavrogin at 5:07 PM on June 6, 2010

I hadn't heard of Jesco White 'til I moved to Morgantown, WV, and he's kind of a hero there, just like Hasil Adkins, who was Jesco's neighbor. I like Adkins' music quite a bit - it's crazy and noisy and fun to listen to on occasion. Both of them are pretty interesting personalities.

I'm certain that the White family was enthusiastic enough about shooting this movie, but that's not really my point. It's that this movie (and the tags on this post) are pretty closely associated with West Virginia. This 'documentary' isn't a surprise to people who think that people that live in Appalachia are hillbillies who live in mountains and do stupid, self-destructive things that are funny to watch. This stereotype has been around for a long, long time and it's not that cute. John Alexander Williams' "Appalachia: A History" talks a lot about how media has depicted states in the Appalachian region as being full of feuding, violent families (think Hatfields and McCoys) when the reality of the situation is much more difficult to categorize, if you're interested. Anyway, like I said earlier, movies like this do a really good job of hiding the causes of poverty in a place like Appalachia and make it easier for people to say, "Oh, they're just like that", when the reality is that a lot of problems are caused by extractive industries that help to provide electricity to the rest of the United States while at the same time continually lowering the quality of life for people who actually live in the affected areas.

And yeah, like I said, my friends in West Virginia related to Jesco White and Hasil Adkins. I think their appreciation of those guys is pretty different than how the rest of the world sees it, though.
posted by ajarbaday at 5:10 PM on June 6, 2010 [4 favorites]

This was also a cult film for my circle of friends in the early 90's. I am also a southerner, and grew up in rural Appalachia. I have mixed feelings about the Jesco documentaries, but actually feel that these about the White family are less exploitative and/or polarizing than something like American Hollow by Rory Kennedy.

Despite Jesco's "fame", he and his family continued to struggle, and in 2006 friends held Jescofest to celebrate his 50th birthday, and to help raise funds to help him lay in firewood and coal for the winter. I believe at the time, his wife had moved to an assisted living facility. When the organizers approached him to have another Jescofest the next year, he declined saying that he was doing okay financially, and didn't need the help.

While these folks may seem like a horrible stereotype to many, they are who they are... and they are proud of their history and roots. They don't want your pity, and they are as entitled to have their story told as anyone else.
posted by kimdog at 5:40 PM on June 6, 2010

West Virginia is an amazingly beautiful state that by rights should be America's vacationland, considering that it is only a short drive from the major population centers of the east coast. But it's treated like a third world country, stripped of its resources, run by corrupt politicians, and left out of the national discussion of poverty and education because it's people are not a politically favored ethnic group. The media is always happy to portray West Virginians as sub-human retards, just is it does with any third world people whose lives are considered expendable by the privileged classes, and like exploited people everywhere, some West Virginians are willing to play along. West Virginia's unique culture and people are among its most valuable resources -- and these also have been strip mined by the patronizing or contemptuous vultures from either coast. The people of West Virginia themselves need to rise up and kick the asses of hillbilly Uncle Toms like Jesco White and Hasil Adkins (for heaven's sake, that guy sucked. One cool picture from 1957 does not make you a rockabilly great), and take control of their state's image and resources.
posted by Faze at 6:15 PM on June 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

Ajarbaday, if you haven't, you should really check out the Dancing Outlaw documentaries. Or at least the first one. It was done for a PBS affiliate and is really quite good. Jesco's eccentricities are, of course, allowed to shine through, but in a fairly gentle and accepting way. More than that, though, you get a real sense of the desperation and hopelessness of the people living in the region...again, not in an exploitative way. There's a classic tragedy at the core of the documentary, and it's heartbreaking to watch. I've cried a number of times watching it. Jesco's a man literally trying to fill his father's shoes.

Now, The Wild and Wonderful Whites, that looks like a piece of exploitative garbage. No surprise - Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame produced it. It was a pet project of his and it's got Jackass written all over it. I can't bring myself to watch it because of how much I like the original Dancing Outlaw. Though I'm sure it would make for a fascinating study in the differences between a locally-produced indie documentary and a big-budget Hollywood doc. And of contemporary rural stereotypes.

(For the record, I'm from Appalachia, too...which is partially why I love the original doc so much.)
posted by signalandnoise at 6:22 PM on June 6, 2010

kimdog -

like i said, i don't have a problem with their whites and everyone deserves a chance for their story to be told. but this documentary is not about roots or heritage. it's by the makers of jackass, who are less known for their nuanced storytelling than for hitting themselves in the balls with blunt objects. that's fine for them, but then here they are marketing a story which starts with a shot of the west virginia state welcome sign and cuts to people getting arrested and taking prescription drugs.
in fayette county, wv, i met a guy called fisheye who worked for the coal mining company for thirty years. he had black lung. his two kids were working for the coal company, and they had late night shifts that would start around 4 am in the morning and go until around 9 pm. they said they would get drunk and stoned to make their shift bearable and because it was fun and made them feel dangerous. fisheye had got out of the coal mining business to start a general store that made a lot of business out of selling beer to tourists that would go rafting in the new river gorge, but he was thinking of going back to doing reclamation for the mining business because it paid better. he smoked a ton, drank moonshine, and made his own biodiesel. now, he came pretty darn close to fulfilling a lot of the stereotypes about west virginia and so did the rest of his family. i didn't pity him - he was just a guy that i met and drank a beer with, and his story was very different that what you might find in say, pendleton or pocahontas county where it's mostly timber industry and not coal. but his life has been hugely influenced by the coal industry, as well as by the tourist industry that cropped up in the area (which made a lot of local businesses abandon main street because they didn't sell what people wanted, with a couple notable exceptions). you could tell his story without mentioning the coal industry, but it'd be only half the truth.

now, i'm looking at the website for this movie and the blip mentions, "West Virginia's environmentally and culturally devastating coal mining culture that helped shape the White family, a dying breed of outlaws preserving a dying form of dance". but i sure didn't see that in the trailer, and again what i'm saying is that this movie exists and people will go see it because this is what people think an entire region of several mountainous states is like. and there are very real people who don't want to be thought of this way, who are from west virginia and are nothing like this family, and many many other stories that won't be told because people have just decided to move out of the state, sell their land to oil or natural gas or timber companies, and try to get a living in a place that will give them more opportunities and where they won't be marginalized as dumb hicks. this is a problem for the people that do want to stay, who like the huge tracts of forest on the eastern portion of the state, who have family connections, or who are trying to get by in any number of ways and find that they have to fight a number of stereotypes before they can even get people to listen to them - or find that people don't want to talk with them because they don't fit their conception of what a west virginian 'should' be like.

a good place to start, if you want to hear some other stories that do a much better job of getting at some of the nuances of the history (and are produced by people from the state) is with appalshop's body of work.

again, not to be repetitive, but my problem with this documentary is that it feeds off of the stereotypes about appalachian culture and represents this family as emblematic of the state. this is a problem, because it doesn't look like their behavior in this documentary is a particularly good representation of a really really complicated history with a lot of current environmental issues and threats and it blatantly obscures the subtleties of a huge problem created, in large part, by the nonchalant standards of corporate entities and in-state middlemen who are looking to get rich and who can afford to treat the state so badly because people think it's some kind of backwater hillbilly holdout.
posted by ajarbaday at 6:49 PM on June 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure -- Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame, is the executive producer of this flick. I've been tempted to watch it from Amazon on Demand, but I'm afraid it'll be wasted on me, and I'll turn it off after only a few minutes.
posted by crunchland at 6:50 PM on June 6, 2010

Signalandnoise, i suggest you watch this film as well. We saw it earlier today and it doesn't come off (to me) as exploitative at all, though i may have implied it a bit in the text of my post (and the trailer doesn't help). It was actually made by the people who produced the original Dancing Outlaw films with funding from Knoxville's production company, and stands as an interesting portrait of a fascinating family.

Also, check out the interview mentioned above by Pirate-Zombie-Bartender-Monkey as it gives a pretty fair picture of the context and filmmaker's intent.
posted by jadayne at 6:54 PM on June 6, 2010

You can also read this documentary as a fantastic study on the heritability of psychopathy.
posted by aquafortis at 7:34 PM on June 6, 2010

I was hoping this was going to be about Jesse White...
posted by gjc at 7:34 PM on June 6, 2010

it does look like the director, julien nitzger, had somewhat different intentions (maybe?) and was affiliated with dancing outlaw and appalshop previous to this movie, which raises his credentials considerably above those of knoxvillle's. still, it definitely requires more of a back story to make this movie look like it's worth watching and it's really too bad that they chose to market the movie this way and use the state's motto in the title because there's a ton of misrepresentation about this state and the region from outside interests and it'd be a way better if they were like - here's a story about this family if they wanted to do that, without bringing in years and years of misrepresentation about a particular region. and still, i mean, there are, i'm sure a number of other external social and cultural reasons why this family does exist in this particular region - it's not just that they all have some crazy inbred west virginia gene.
and this isn't new, of course - i mean, there are places in california, colorado, etc. that have been treated like wastelands by companies who simply write over the stories of the people that live there, but in west virginia it's a particular common problem. i mean, it's a big state with a lot of history and this is what the media shows over and over again.
posted by ajarbaday at 7:40 PM on June 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Vanishin' Outlaw.
posted by clarknova at 8:28 PM on June 6, 2010

I watched Dancing' Outlaw the same night I watched the GG Allin documentary Hated and they blurred together so now every time I think of West Virginia hillbillies I hear in my head "I Kill Everything I Fuck".

Which is kinda neat, really.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:31 PM on June 6, 2010

Say, what you want about the Whites, Johnny Knoxville, strip mining, or what have you; but I just watched that video of Jesco tap dancing on that bridge and boy has got some moves.
posted by Demogorgon at 8:46 PM on June 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Vanishin' Outlaw

posted by nola at 8:52 PM on June 6, 2010

It's a typical media portrayal of West Virginia. It's one family, that is not representative of the state as a whole. As a native West Virginian, I am so accustomed to the stereotypes that I expect them. Doesn't mean I like it. You stated the case very well, ajarbaday, and I thank you for that. The part of West Virginia I'm from, Monroe County, doesn't have a coal mine in sight, but we are all still painted with the broad brush of the stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood. The vast majority of us wear shoes, have indoor plumbing, and buy our "likker" at the Liquor Store. I hate this shit.
posted by wv kay in ga at 9:27 PM on June 6, 2010

^From the trailer, it looks like they have people from West Virginia talking about the Whites, like the tattoo artist saying, "They're the most hated family around here, but maybe also the most free."

That's Hank Williams III.
posted by Demogorgon at 10:35 PM on June 6, 2010

Regarding all comments so far, has anyone here actually seen the film or are they simply re-acting to the fact that the trailer seems to portray W. Virginia badly and it's produced by J. Knoxville?

Like i said, we saw the film this weekend and most, if not all, of the concerns addressed are covered in the film. The film maker went out of his way to show that this is a unique family -from West Virginia but by no means typical of West Virginia -or anywhere in particular. Though, as a setting, their home state definitely contributed somewhat (among many other factors) to how they got to be who they are.

The entire family simply has a lethal/fascinating combination of charisma, fatalism, and poverty which we, as Americans, always seem to find so interesting and which has led to us, as a culture, making heroes out of outlaws. I find the fears that we're putting W. Virginia in a bad light are missing the mark. I've never heard this type of complaint here when discussing a topic about gang members or junkies as demonizing the place where they live. Why do we get so upset when the topic is West Virginia?

Anyway, i'd love to hear from someone who has seen the film whether or not it still comes off as exploitative or sensationalist.
posted by jadayne at 1:09 AM on June 7, 2010

I'm intrigued to find out what a Jessco White "show" consists of.

"My name's Jesse and this here's Wattie, pull out a twenty and we'll rock for your party!"

*furiously shuffles feet*
posted by Challahtronix at 8:08 AM on June 7, 2010

Hey, Jadayne, I'll watch the movie and get back with you. It sounds like you saw more nuance in it than in the trailer. Still, it'd be cool if you went back and read what I said up thread, and what a few other people also mentioned. The Whites aren't responsible for the stereotypes about West Virginia in the media, but the trailer and the title of the movie deliberately play off an existing stereotype about West Virginia and the larger region of the Appalachians. This is a painful subject to a lot of residents, or even people who have visited or liked it there because this stereotype causes a lot of problems. Businesses avoid the area. Extractive industries get away with flagrant abuses and people die because of poor working conditions. Entire towns are torn apart or abandoned or covered in coal dust. Graduating college students leave the state to find better jobs elsewhere and escape the stereotypes that haunt their lives. Visiting tourists ridicule the culture and intentions of people. People sell the mineral rights to their land because there's no other way to get money. Streams are polluted by illegal dumping because no one will notice. Look, I'm not saying all of these things happen because of this movie, or that some college student laughing at the dumb hillbillies are the cause of these deeply rooted, historical problems which are the result of so many factors. But, well, it certainly doesn't help any that the only choice seems to be to adopt an identity created by outside interests to explain your culture, to move away and get out, or to struggle to fight those stereotypes and not gain much ground because the media continues to come out with portrayals like this.
That is why people from West Virginia are offended by it. That is also why people are quick to say, "oh yeah, I know what you mean, West Virginia is a wasteland, I grew up there but I got out, let me say something funny about pepperoni rolls now" in other threads on this movie. Because this type of stereotype diminishes and mocks the people who live in an entire state, and sometimes the easiest thing to do is just to start wielding that stereotype yourself so that people don't think you're "one of them". This movie is called the Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. It wouldn't work if it was called "The White Family of Colorado, or the Whites of Iowa". Heck, it wouldn't even work if it was called the Wild and Wonderful Whites of Wisconsin and stuck with alliteration, because people would be expecting to see, I don't know, a movie about cheese (sorry, Wisconsin).
Seriously, this director had a better idea of this issue than I thought he would judging from the trailer, but he still kind of seemed like a Jerry Springer type to me - happy to talk about the exploits of the White family, willing to give a quick explanation of the problems to show that he cares, than diving right back into not very sympathetic commentary of their exploits. Anyway, I will watch the movie, but I think it's a good idea to consider the historical background of this picture and also look at the way that people are reacting to it on other forums. The title of the movie is not at all secondary to its reception.
posted by ajarbaday at 9:01 AM on June 7, 2010

Now, The Wild and Wonderful Whites, that looks like a piece of exploitative garbage. No surprise - Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame produced it. It was a pet project of his and it's got Jackass written all over it. I can't bring myself to watch it because of how much I like the original Dancing Outlaw. Though I'm sure it would make for a fascinating study in the differences between a locally-produced indie documentary and a big-budget Hollywood doc. And of contemporary rural stereotypes.

I just saw the documentary last night via Amazon On-demand. The trailer is very deceptive in that the viewer is lead to believe that he will see something in the vein of Jackass. The actual film is very respectful, heartbreaking and thought-provoking. At the end I gained a insight into what makes the Whites different from you or me. I'm one generation away from a rural life, and in the case of my father's family, a poor rural life. Amongst my parent's generation it was not unusual to leave school at 13 or to be functionally illiterate. Decades later, things are vastly different. College degrees and corporate careers are the norm, not the exception, amongst my cousins and their children. The big, glaring difference in how things have turned out for my family is that my parents and their siblings had hope and had options; both of which are in scarce supply in the lives of the Whites.
posted by echolalia67 at 9:32 AM on June 8, 2010

I had this thread on my mind last Friday when I was at the Giant's County Fair and came across the Hilbilly Town funhouse.

I was talking with Lexi about it, and we agreed that we couldn't imagine a county fair funhouse with images of guns, poverty, alcohol, and poor people sitting around in their underwear if it were with darker skinned people, and named "Downtown Dee-troit" or "El Barrio Loco".
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:13 AM on June 14, 2010

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