Sunday, 2 December 2012

Week 49: West Virginia

"Almost heaven, West Virginia,
 Blue Ridge Mountains,
 Shenandoah River..."
 - 'Take Me Home, Country Roads',
 John Denver

I had a dream last night. In it I was watching a TV programme in which celebrity chef Gary Rhodes was part of a travelling bluegrass band. He and his band roamed the wild Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia in a beat-up van rescuing lost strangers they happened to come across and seeing them safely to their destination. The name of the programme? Take Me Home, Country Rhodes. I probably should warn you that I am currently running quite a high fever...
But let's make pretend that we are simple guitar-pickin' folk travelling around in Gary's beat-up old van. What sights will we see in wild and wonderful West Virginia? Well, as John Denver says, it has mountains and it has rivers. If we think back to The Howards of Virginia West Virginia is the boisterous and rustic cousin to the snobbish and moneyed Virginia. It may not have the effete pretensions of some of the more cultured parts of America, but it has hard-work, decency and clannish hospitality. And I imagine this hospitality was needed, taming the rugged uplands of the Appalachians. To the lowlanders, the inhabitants are all redneck hillbillies. Maybe - but West Virginia broke away from Virginia precisely because Virginia didn't care about them and they didn't care for slavery. Life may be rougher in the hills but it seems more decent.
This creates a contradiction. Certainly I tend to think of West Virginia as being part of 'the South' in modern America. Yet it broke away from the Confederacy to join the Union; surely then it is part of 'the North'? And we have actually seen films shot in West Virginia purporting to be elsewhere. In two cases the area of West Virginia's odd northern spine (which partially separates Ohio and Pennsylvania) was used for films set in those two Northern industrialised states: the city of Weirton stood in for Ohio in Super 8 and Pennsylvania in The Deer Hunter. West Virginia thus seems to have some of the characteristics of the North and some of the South.
Maybe our films will help us to get a better grip on the mysteries of West Virginia. With my inability to get hold of a copy of 2002's The Mothman Prophecies (it stars Richard Gere; it's probably a good thing) my three films to watch are:
  • The Night of the Hunter (1955)
  • October Sky (1999)
  • Tucker & Dale vs Evil (2010)
So let's get out on those country roads and see if West Virginia truly is "almost heaven".

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