Friday 17 April 2020

Article: The Dirty South

A favourite podcast of mine that I often have filling my earholes when I am preparing the Sunday roast is the highly informative, often funny podcast Behind the Bastards. Hosted by former Cracked Writer Robert Evans; each episode documents an infamous grifter, villain or dictator from the world’s rogues gallery. A recent episode dealt with the recent phenomenon of Tiger King. If you’ve not got Netflix and have been living under a rock, The Netflix show depicts the beyond the bizarre tale of a polyamorous, gay wild cat owner, whose increasingly insane antics ended up with the aforementioned Joe, banged up in Federal Jail for violating the endangered species act and the attempted murder of another Big Cat owner Carole Baskin. The limited series delves into the outrageous lives of a variety of eccentric characters. Joe’s nonconformist lifestyle is as much of the documentaries focus as his grifting and obsession with Baskin. Everything seems to hold itself in a twisted sense of balance. 

Much has been said about the show and the background of the people for whom it is about. But the thing that really picked my brain about the show came from comedian Billy Wayne Davis who guested on the Behind the Bastards Podcast. With his origins based in a more rural, part of southern American, Davis’ reaction was one of near passivity. To him, he had met so many people like the cast of colourful characters on the show, that while he found the show funny, he was non-plussed by their behaviour. Remarking in a near throwaway comment that folks like Joe Exotic only shock city folk due to the little knowledge they hold of locations that the likes of Joe inhabit. Such criminality is common. Crooked lawmen. Hired hitmen. Dubious means of obtaining sums of cash. And always wrapped up within a lifestyle which goes beyond the fringes. Davis also stated on the podcast; The Daily Zeitgeist, that the likes of Jodie Hill and Danny McBride nailed the rural, southern way of life way before the hit Netflix show in their films The Foot Fist Way (2006) and the sitcom Eastbound and Down (2009). Personally, a part of me thinks that we should have been primed for the likes of Joe Exotic in films such as the 1998 Florida noir, Wild Things.

There is plenty of southern fried features with questionable escapades that could easily make an enjoyable overnight binge along with Tiger King. But for me, it’s Wild Things that sticks out as the crown jewel. True Crime has made a splash in the podcast and streaming world with its lurid elements and forensic details. However, a film like Wild Things was indulging itself in the same type of sociopathic chicanery way before Joe Exotic hit the zeitgeist. There is a clear love of the sensationalised indulgences that true crime shows, and podcasts enjoy playing into. But while a show such as Making a Murderer (2015) still can claim an element of moral justice. Tiger King leans into the outlandish mechanisms that also lie within John McNaughton’s humid cult hit. A backcountry playground removed from a so-called civilised world far to up its backside. Non-conformist sexual behaviour, crooked cohorts and the feeling that everyone not only for personal gain but are also a law into themselves. Likable characters are not what you watch either Tiger King or Wild Things for, but the needling desire to see thorn filled rabbit hole leads for these creatures is a strong pull.

In an article for The Ringer released around Wild Things’ 20th anniversary, bestselling author Shea Serrano recounts the amounts of double-crosses that occur in Wild Things’ 108-minute running. Shea notes the number of deceptive shenanigans with glee, yet it’s not noted at how well the film manages to do this. Wild Things comes out in an era where plot-twists and post-modern monkeyshines are well noted. Let’s not take into account Neve Campbell popping up in Scream (1996) or the question of Who is Keyser Soze. Wild Things still comes out a year before The 6th Sense (1999) a film in which that film's major plot twist leaves the audience shook for years to come. Wild Things has TWELVE double crosses within its running time, with Shea averaging that at a double-cross every 9 minutes. Doing for plot twists what Airplane! (1980) did for sight gags. This is, however, a showcase to how drum-tight the movie’s narrative is and how well-oiled the mechanics play out. John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) is not a directorial name that features often in circles of social media, those who know the name, know that he is no slouch. Watching Wild Things again, it is fascinating to watch how characters are blocked in scenes to foreshadow hidden agendas and to keep the audience guessing. The positioning of characters, as well as cutting and story shaping from editor Elena Maganini, are a great example of “the seen unseen”. A character placed behind a gated fence, but only after certain aspects play out first. A coupling of characters suggesting an unfortunate outcome for one, but almost signaling out another character who is running out of view. It’s also worth noting aspects such as casting Theresa Russell as the rich bitch Sandra Van Ryan. Russell who had a notable role in crime drama Black Widow (1987) in which she plays a murderous sociopath who murders for money. The film’s sheer audacity to cast Robert Wagner in a film that obtains mysterious boating incidents as set pieces is a clear note of the film’s gallows humour.

Poor Taste? Of course. But Wild Things is a film that knows what it is playing at. Salacious is the order of the day. Both Tiger King and Wild Things embrace taboo and scandal with loving arms. They ride on the idea of the guilty pleasure. Itching at spots that many would like to claim they do not have. The infamous threesome is a moment with a decent amount of sleazy steaminess yet is sneaky enough with the ages of the female students that no one appears to care that they are sleeping with their former teacher that should know better. However, as the camera gleefully glides slowly over the wet body of Denise Richards midway through the film, you see that the film is playing you like a flute. Roger Ebert in his review of the film asks people to refrain from telling him the film is in bad taste. It is quite clear. It makes no excuses. Ebert also remarks that the film is designed for “connoisseurs of melodramatic comic vulgarity”. How do you feel when you see Richards’ washing a dirty jeep in short shorts? Do you note that she is a school student in the film? Your answers will guide you on whether you would want to watch the film. It may also dictate your feelings towards something like Tiger King. The only difference (thankfully) Wild Things is fiction. 

Listen to the Fatal Attractions Podcast episode of Wild Things here