- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2005

For most of us city slickers, roadkill ain’t gourmet dining. The meat looks rotten and mushy. Besides, it’s often got tire tracks on it. But if you want to spoof “trailer trash,” gourmet roadkill will rank right up there along with Skoal rings, “wife-beater” T-shirts and dysfunctional-family jokes (“You know you’re trailer when you let your 12-year-old daughter smoke at the dinner table … in front of her children.”)

For musicians in search of macho cornpone authenticity, there’s the monikered grease-monkey uniform or the Caterpillar cap. The supply of ironic merchandising is endless. On “The Jerry Springer Show’s” daily trailer parade, the boyfriends are foul-mouthed and scrawny from their all-beer diet; the girlfriends are foul-mouthed and junk-food plump from too much daytime TV. There, it’s a freak show of couch-potatodom and sordid cheating, people doing stupid things to one another — mainly out of dead-end boredom — all milked for comic release.

Yet even as we laugh knowingly at all the visual codes of trailer (Hamburger Helper and big hair, Cool Whip and halter tops, etc.), there’s an underlying reality there that the entertainment industry routinely sweeps under the rug. It’s the reality of the rural white ghetto — strip malls, strip mines, boarded-up main streets, Friday family dinners at the Taco Bell, and, yes, trailer parks, so provisional-looking that an alien could rightly wonder why all these people “vacation” near weedy sandlots.

With the release of “The Dukes of Hazzard” (opening nationally today), Hollywood offers us its latest update on that iconic, yet troubled, slice of the American dream, trailer, or the rural white poor. Based on the late-1970s/early ‘80s hit TV show of the same name, “The Dukes of Hazzard” is set in backwoods Georgia, where two underachieving layabouts run moonshine for their Uncle Jesse. Of course, it’s August, and no one expects any kind of serious message from “The Dukes of Hazzard.” But in 2005, amidst all the adult issues troubling this part of the world (from recreational drugs to the wars overseas), what we get are an anachronized Beavis and Butthead in a cool orange Dodge Charger, the General Lee, a car running the byways of a rose-tinted fantasy of small town life, and an equally dyspeptic view of city living.

In its treatment of rural whites, Hollywood has always fluctuated between utopia and dystopia, between Mayberry and “Deliverance,” between friendly front-porch banter and rotgut rednecks yelling “soooey” at the moon. It’s either Andy Griffith’s friendly whistle or that blind albino guy’s ominous banjo lick. And between these poles, you also have everything from John Ford framing the hardscrabble nobility of the Okie migration (“The Grapes of Wrath”) to less-mainstream directors such as David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers mining a seam of eccentricity, at times dignified at times grotesque, behind the small town’s facade.

But while Hollywood has many faces, when it comes to wide-release summer schlock, the powers that be know the bottom line: Don’t mess with the myths. Rascally mavericks, small-town values. Sugarcoat and rose-tint it. Make it all feel good.

Unfortunately, the original “Dukes” TV series does not offer much to work with. Poorly acted, formulaic sitcom kitsch, it’s a series of car chases held together by the flimsiest of plots and uptempo country music.

Like the series, the movie could have just contented itself with an appealing message of raw libertarian machismo. Every man has his castle, even if it sits on cinderblocks with old cars and appliances out front. The ragweeded property is protected by a .22. And freedom is pushing 90 with a beer buzz when the state troopers aren’t looking.

But in “Dukes” the movie, it’s Mayberry 2005 taken to cartoonish extremes. Shotguns are just boys’ toys. No one gets hurt. Trailer parks? It’s hard to find even aluminum siding or a modest split-level ranch style. It’s all generous wooden-frame houses with wraparound porches, babbling brooks and quaint town squares.

As for the town folk, there’s not even a pimple or stretch mark, or a Mexican, in sight. All the reality is airbrushed away. Even the Confederate flag prominently displayed on the roof of the General Lee is just an affectionate symbol of Southern pride. And if that doesn’t suspend enough disbelief, the Duke boys, in a region not known for its environmentalism, also turn out to be green activists. They spend most of the movie trying to foil an attempt to set up strip mining on the family farm.

Then take this pastoral vision and contrast it with the film’s take on urbanity, in this case, Atlanta. The filmmakers made an inspired choice in bringing the boys into the big city, if for nothing else just to milk the fish-out-water setups. But apparently Atlanta is all about neurotic soccer moms stuck in traffic. The university campus the boys visit is a pubescent fantasy of sorority pajama parties. And the speed limit is really darned low. So the city’s all a pretty feminine place. (Even the ghetto hoods are dressed up in casually elegant Air Jordan gear.) It’s really just a place for the Duke boys to pick up chicks and then head back to a real man’s world, Hazzard County, for the final showdown.

From a buddy movie starring a car, you can’t expect insight on Wal-Mart-ization or trailer dysfunction. But even by the standards of dumbed-down summer fare, “Dukes” plays a cynical mind game with its heartland demographic. It’s not that it offends small-town values, as recently charged by former Georgia congressman Ben Jones (the mechanic Cooter on the original series). Quite the opposite. It bathes rural living in a warm, golden glow, but in a most selective — and patronizing — sense. The movie celebrates not the rural poor’s struggles and dreams but a rube’s vision of the afterlife: a place where speeding’s a birthright, any college degree is suspect and there’s not a blight in site.

Still, for those who like their roadkill humor, there is a good running gag about an armadillo.

Stefan Sullivan, author of two books, spent his formative years in rural southern Illinois.

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