Things I Learned Watching Black Snake Moan

snakes.jpgNot on a plane

Black Snake Moan isn't really a movie about music, but it might want to be. The movie is Craig Brewer's follow-up to Hustle & Flow, which was definitely about music, and it stars a couple of musicians who haven't done a lot of acting. More important, the movie pretty much drips with blues signifiers. Samuel L. Jackson apparently had to spend like 86 hours a day learning blues guitar for his part, and the movie comes bookended with old black-and-white clips of Son House mumbling incoherently about how the blues is love between a man and a woman or something. I've got this theory that blues influence almost always works as a poison in music, that no new good music can be made with a blues influence. That theory is total bullshit, of course; blues music is ingrained in the American psyche deeply enough that people like the White Stripes and Juvenile are always going to find ways to do something powerful with it. More often, though, that influence is a dead weight, and it leads to travesties like John Mayer's power-trio or that last Primal Scream album. When a few friends of mine were learning to play guitar in high school, they all of a sudden started playing Buddy Guy tapes in their cars nonstop and using the word blues in conversations that weren't even about music. There's a whole lot of that going on in Black Snake Moan, a movie that uses this music as a grand signifier for everything that's pure and right and authentic in the world, to the point where the music takes on magic powers to keep thunderstorms away and calm excessively horny white chicks. In Crossroads, this music was just a way to fight the devil. Fetishization has come a long way. Let's do this.

• These pre-movie ads are just getting out of control. That V-Cast commercial where the weightlifter guy makes you listen to Fall Out Boy on his phone is bad enough when it's just on TV; on a twenty-foot-high screen, it's excruciating.

• Those Son House clips are supposed to tie the movie in with this sort of deep-South Americana vibe, but they don't have anything to do with the rest of the movie; they mostly just serve to make a too-long movie five minutes longer.

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• The movie takes place in a sort of mythical American South that I'm pretty sure doesn't exist anymore. Nobody carries a cell phone or gets drunk in a 7-11 parking lot or works at Wal-Mart. I can appreciate Brewer's attempt to make the movie resonate as this sort of timeless Faulknerian swamp-legend, but I actually think all the magic-realist hokum would hit a bit harder if it took place in a world that has some relation to our own.

• Considering that virtually everyone else in the movie is missing teeth or sporting enormous facial warts, Justin Timberlake stays distractingly clean and pretty throughout the whole thing, and I think that's intentional. The movie works in broad archetypes, and Justin is the white man paralyzed and maybe emasculated by his own sensitivity. In any case, Justin's Southern accent is convincing; I sort of think it's actually his real voice, and he's talking in a fake regionless accent the rest of the time. I haven't seen Alpha Dog yet, but I can say with complete confidence that Justin's performance here is better than his performance in the "What Comes Around..." video, even if his character is just as thinly written.

• The other big musician role here goes to David Banner, who actually only turns up in two scenes and who plays a crack dealer who also serves as Christina Ricci's emergency dick-in-the-glass. Banner already basically played this same character on about three quarters of Mississippi: The Album. The big difference: Banner made sure to humanize his character there, and here he's just a demonic force, one of many in the movie. I'm pretty sure I would've liked this movie better if Banner had written it himself.

• You can tell a character is bad here because he spits on the ground between sentences when he's talking. That's the backwoods Southern version of twirling your mustache, I guess.

• This may be the first movie where 58-year-old Samuel L. Jackson allows himself to look old. Progress! He's also required to say stuff like "I remember my first time was out behind my uncle barn with my second cousin," which is pretty funny.

• As anyone who's so much as looked at the poster for this movie knows full-well, there's a ton of weird tangled up race-and-sex shit going on. I'm not sure I've seen a movie loaded down with this level of phallic imagery since Commando; guitars and guns and chains and cars and I don't even know what else all get to act as surrogate dicks. (No snakes, though.) There's also a film-theory book or two to be written about the levels of fetishization going on. (Spoilers be here.) The selfless black man overcomes the temptation to take advantage of a young, vulnerable white woman while nursing her back to health, the white woman finds freedom in submission, Christina Ricci writhes around on the ground like Linda Blair because she needs sex so bad. I'll leave all that stuff to the film people; for me, it was just mostly off-putting and sort of boring. I can, however, say that there's something truly misguided about the film's treatment of music, which plays into a deep authenticity fetish. Whenever we see Jackson making music, it's an instinctive thing, done from the gut with no hint of technique or craft, like primal-scream therapy or some shit. When he tries to teach Ricci how to play guitar, he doesn't tell her about scales or tuning; he says, "Close your eyes and think on what you love." Hustle & Flow played into the same sort of dark-and-smoky juke-joint cliches, but it also treated the craft of its musicians with a certain respect and fascination. If we're to believe Black Snake Moan, people never write music; it just flows out of them. Maybe I'm being needlessly cynical here, but I don't think music ever happens that way. I didn't have a lot of nice things to say about Music and Lyrics, but at least that movie showed Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore struggling to write a song; they weren't forces of nature or anything.

• We do get, however, a really nice scene in a bar where Samuel L. Jackson plays guitar to a riotous crowd of dancers. I don't know whether any bars like this actually exist, but the scene is a lot of fun on a purely tactile Flashdance sort of level.

• I don't know how much of the actual guitar-playing in the movie comes from Jackson, since it rarely shows his fingers and his face at the same time, but the stuff that's in there works well enough in a Fat Possum sort of way.

• Justin Timblerake and David Banner, the actual musicians in the movie, obviously don't get to sing or rap or anything; that would make too much sense.

• From Craig Brewer's Wikipedia entry: "Brewer has been compared to William Faulkner by Kevin Smith." That about says it all.

Voice review: Rob Nelson on Black Snake Moan

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