Sanity, it seems benefits from the mundane. A happy medium is healthy for ones mental mechanics. But sometimes the mundane isn’t always an option. Dominic Murphy’s new film “White Lightnin” examines the collapsing male mind and uses the rip-roaring, gas-sniffing life of Appalachian trailer dweller, Jesco White, the dancing folk legend and inspiration for many an alt-country song, to do so. It is a re-imagining of his sordid, tragedy ridden existence, with a fictional ending which shows Jesco (played by Edward Hogg in his first lead role) descend into madness and murder, events that could have occurred had his demons got the better of him. A “dark fairy story that considers a mind totally out of control” is what it’s creator calls it, with hillbilly dancing, hells angels, the raucousness of trailer life and Carrie Fisher all thrown in for good measure.
Parts of the American south have always seemed to have a collective screw loose, Jesco “The Dancing Outlaw” White being a case in point. His mind was fractured early by sniffing gas and injecting heroin and worn down by tortured years in jails and asylums. He had numerous shootouts with the police and faced the kidnap of his son and murder of his father ( an event the films Jesco never recovers from). The golden thread running through his life though is Appalachian mountain dancing, a skill passed from father to son. It involves the ability to look cool while generally flailing ones limbs around to hillbilly music. He still performs today, touring sporadically, and sporting his own My Space, which showcases some of his favourite videos from years past, including one of country heroine and songstress Cousin Emmy, who plays “You Are My Sunshine” via the whistles and squeaks of a deflating balloon. Backed by Pete Seeger on guitar of course. Eccentricity at its purest.
Jesco the dancer is a wonderfully original character, who Ed says “ seems to burn brighter than those around him when you meet him in the flesh.” In his calmer moments he is a southern gentleman, God fearing and father to his numerous children. He has alter egos to, that he drifts in and out of. He is Elvis. He dresses up like him and re-records his songs in his “home studio”, a tape recorder hanging from a string in his living room. From time to time he even channels Marilyn Monroe.
When his temper does catch fire it’s not in the same way as Dominic’s film character. His temperament is more sarcastic and gloriously irreverent compared to his doppelgangers violent rage. When the County authorities refused to bury the body of one of his countless Uncles in the local cemetery, he bought a sit-on lawn mower, poured petrol over it, drove the contraption into the morgue and set it ablaze. It caused apparently, quite a stir.
But whereas the real Jesco has held onto the light, the films Jesco walks the same thin line, but falls over the fiery side. He struggles with and fails to contain his anger at his fathers murder by two hicks who lash the old man to the back of their pick-up and then hit the gas. His anger and need for revenge wars with an intense jealousy, that destroys his marriage to comfortable Southern Belle, Cilia (Carrie Fisher.) “We just took Jeso’s temper in real life to its logical extreme” says Dominic, the extreme being the graphic murders of his father’s killers and a policeman who gets in the way of his rage.
Ed Hoggs, Jesco is a cross between Charles Manson and the demon brother of Neil Diamond, resplendent in sparkly black shirt, his manic dancing charms his audiences in red-neck watering holes. But temper and jealousy are two fatal gashes in his unstable character, at one point he jumps from the stage, charges a hillbilly Lothario who is chatting up his wife and almost does the poor fellow in. It is a wonderful performance, full of outrageous effrontery, as he switches from softly spoken southern charmer, to blood curdling psychotic screamer with perfectly timed ease. “I felt some sympathy for Dominic’s Jesco” says Ed “ he’s a guy who just can’t get away from trouble, it dogs him.”
“White Lightnin” is Ed Hogg’s first role in a feature and enters the film world after serving his apprenticeship at the National Theatre. “He’s a highly technical and well trained actor” says Dominic, who had to ease away Ed’s need to know exactly what would happen in a scene that was about to be shot. Of course such knowledge does not lend itself to the kind of spontaneity required for a part that would naturally lend itself to the very un-British “method” school of acting: “ Method acting is training yourself to be able to put the self in an emotional state, whereas British actors tend to represent emotion. I didn’t let him rehearse a scene physically, so this gave him the anxiety which helped arouse the rage in his performance.”
It is a grim landscape that is presented here, probably very colourful to the outsider, but presented by Dominic in a grey rusty tone. A colour that suggests malaise, like when a person realises their in an irretrievable situation and the colour drains from their face. From everything. The film has that kind of feel. That hell is just over the mountains and its embers are dulling your vision.
Amid the grim colours and violence the film offers a religious puzzle, and seems torn between devout belief and dismissive nonchalance . At one point Jesco asks Cilia where she is going as she heads out of the trailer, “to church”, she replies in a voice that suggests she would rather go and watch wood warp than do anything of the sort. But at the same time after the murders, Jesco flees to an old wooden shack in the Appalachian forest to seek, fight for and to punish himself physically in order to gain redemption. The last shot of the film sees him lying in a field in a crucifixion style pose as Amazing Grace plays in the background.
Ed describes the final scenes as “A man trying to put himself on a level playing field with his God” in many ways its self-flagellation, trying to suffer the pain he has inflicted on others. It suggests that sooner or later one has to level with oneself. A person can put themselves through total hell without seeing the inside of a jail cell, that’s punishment in the eyes of the state, not the self. The films harrowing conclusion tries to prove that a warring conscious can be Calgary itself. Jesco see’s this through in a mountain cabin alone as bloody solitude cleanses his mind.
Of course beneath Jesco, Appalachian dancing, religion and the myth of the American south, there is a story of a man on the brink of his own sanity, not angry at his existence but at the constant barrage of unlucky circumstance. The typical male depressive of literature haunted by the need for revenge, jealousy lost love and the unstoppable passage of time, pushed to fall into mania until the Earth becomes as Hamlet said “nothing but a stale promontory, a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.” And if you get to that sorry point you can either pull a Jescoesque bloody vent at the world (not advisable). Or like the real one you can sit down, take a deep breath, throw on your Elvis suit and watch Cousin Emmy play “You Are My Sunshine” on a gradually deflating balloon.