For the past few weeks John Ur has been heading on a course due south through the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. This week he takes a sharp left turn and heads into Arkansas before turning another ninety degrees and heading back north through the remainder of the Midwestern states.
Let me be frank: The film industry in Arkansas is not exactly booming. The state’s largest city and capital, Little Rock, does not hold many famous landmarks except its capitol building. However, because of its resemblance to the U.S. Capitol building in Washington DC, the Arkansas capitol has served as the stunt double for its more famous counterpart in several films, most notably in the television movie Under Siege (1986), when a group of suicide bombers attacked. John Grisham, one of Arkansas' most famous sons, has had several of his stories converted into movies, and his first hit book, The Firm, was directed by Sydney Pollack with scenes shot in West Memphis, Arkansas (as well as Memphis, Tennessee and Washington DC).
But the state also has a few stars-of-screen natives, including Joey Lauren Adams, Wes Bentley, Mary Steenburgen and Billy Bob Thornton. Early in his career, Thornton was able to pull off an Orson Welles trifecta – to write, direct and star in a film (see Welles in Citizen Kane) using Arkansas as his setting. Thornton wrote Sling Blade, a story of a mentally handicapped man who was released from a psychiatric hospital after serving 25 years for the murder of his mother and her lover at the age of 12. This man, Karl Childers (played by Thornton), became an iconic character in popular culture – his gruff bass voice and rudimentary language oft-repeated in satire for comedic effect: Mmhmm, I reckon. Alright then. I used a Kaiser blade. Some folks call it a sling blade, I call it a Kaiser blade.
Thornton set his movie in Benton, Arkansas, a suburb southwest of Little Rock. The exterior scenes of the movie depict the small, poorly maintained buildings of the area. The natural settings include many shots of the state tree of Arkansas, the pine tree. I would not claim to be an expert on trees (or vegetation of any sort for that matter), but the pine trees provide a distinct feeling to the film. In one scene, where Karl goes to visit the grave of his brother (born prematurely, buried by Karl in his childhood backyard), the pine trees stand over him like lonely, aged centurions guarding the gates to this precious personal landmark. Their trunks – rough, with irregularly shaped bark - stretch high off the ground before their branches reach out like swords. The needles they drop on the ground create a distinct orange-brown carpet. They feel old and in disrepair, much the same as some of the poorer quarters of the state.
You can also see this rustic, abandoned aesthetic at points in the
movie when Karl takes walks across the Old River Bridge in Benton.
Rusty red and overgrown with weeds, this bridge has long been out of
use and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. It reminded me of the Rock Island Bridge
in Little Rock that crosses the Arkansas River mere steps from the
Clinton Presidential Library. The bridge is closed off from traffic, put out to pasture from its original duties as a rail line. I guess with recent primary results, it might not be the only (former) resident of Little Rock to be put out to pasture. Zing! Mmhmm, I reckon.
Also recommended: Biloxi Blues, The Firm
Read More: Check out this list of other films shot in Arkansas. Previously on CRT: Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, The Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.
Photos: John Ur