The gospel of Southerners in cinema, according to Joe Bob Briggs
Growing up in Little Rock, Ark., John Bloom knew lots of people who figured they’d never leave.
“At least once in your life, you need to go see New York, or Europe,” he’d tell them. “It’ll change your perspective.”
Bloom, 64 — better known by his tongue-in-cheek nom de plume, Joe Bob Briggs — has lived in New York City for the past 25 years. Today, he says, it’s the supposed cosmopolitans who are wearing the blinders.
Now he encourages friends living on the Upper West Side to visit Little Rock, or Mississippi: “Spend a weekend in Jackson. Go to a Baptist church. Your view is getting kind of narrow. I’d say with the politics of right now, the demonization of both sides, there needs to be some cultural exchange.”
To that end, he’ll bring his midnight clip show, “A History of the Redneck in Film,” to the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 4. Though he’s presented the show periodically over the past 10 years or so, this is the first time he’s brought it north of the Mason-Dixon line. It’s a public service, he says, half-joking.
Hollywood may be partly to blame for the stereotypification of the “other,” Briggs says, in the form of the close-minded, slow-drawling hillbilly with a mean streak as wide as the flyover states.
“Used to be, when you talked about redneck films, it was very lighthearted,” he says — all those Burt Reynolds movies of the ’70s, with affable good ol’ boys doing time, running moonshine, and driving souped-up cars.
But the Southern accent gradually came to represent something more sinister, says Briggs, who made a name for his alter-ego as the country’s premiere movie critic for the below-grade cult films he calls “drive-in movies.”
“At a certain point, it turned dark — you got the Quentin Tarantino-type rednecks,” he says. “Deliverance” (1972), to name one legendary culprit, went a long way toward establishing the idea of the backwoods hick with evil intent. Briggs sums it up: “Don’t go into that small town in the South and run out of gas, or they’ll get ya!”
This evolution, he argues, has been “a godsend for Hollywood, because they’re running out of villains. You can’t do the Russians anymore. They’ve long since stopped doing Indians. They’re trying to penetrate the international market,” so Asians are off limits.
That leaves just two basic villain groups, Briggs claims: space aliens, and rednecks. (He’s forgetting the occasional terrorist and that perennial punchable, the garden-variety Nazi, but who’s counting?)
When the Coolidge approached him about doing an event, he was surprised how quickly they agreed when he proposed his redneck lecture.
“The happy rednecks of the ‘Li’l Abner’ musical, ‘Petticoat Junction’ and ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’ that’s all gone,” he says. ‘We live in the era of the Angry White Man, and the media is full of diatribes. I said, ‘Is this really the right time?’ And then I thought, well, of course it’s the right time!”
It was Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974) that first convinced Briggs, then a student at Vanderbilt University, that there was a whole genre of movies that weren’t getting their due from the critical establishment. Within five minutes of the opening credits the first time he saw it, several fellow patrons walked out, disgusted.
“I thought it was a ‘wow!’ experience,” he says. “People went to ‘Jaws’ and were shaken by it. I thought it was as powerful an experience as that.”
Working after graduation as a film critic, first for Texas Monthly and then the Dallas Times Herald, he adopted the Joe Bob persona and began reviewing movies that were otherwise ignored, except by the underground.
“It was not just a service but a cause,” he says. “I was a crusader for these movies. That wasn’t to say every exploitation movie is great, just to say, ‘Let’s judge ’em on their merits.’ ”
His relationship with the Dallas paper ended after he wrote a questionable column that parodied the “We Are the World” benefit project. Briggs went on to a long-term gig with The Movie Channel, hosting “Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater.” (He also had a brief stint doing segments on early seasons of “The Daily Show,” using his given name.)
Briggs’s literary heroes, he says, are Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and H.L. Mencken — dyspeptics all. The body of his work as Joe Bob Briggs is one big spoof on his own Southern heritage.
“We weren’t white trash — my mother would have been horrified,” he says. “But we certainly had a lot of friends who were.”
His own Southern accent, tempered by his years in the big city, is faint and unimposing — “soft,” he says, like Bill Clinton’s. Still, it’s undeniably there.
“Lenny Bruce said nobody would ever believe anything the pope said if he had a Southern accent,” Briggs says. But he’s got himself a subject he can preach with authority.