Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Burning in the Sun starts off

I arrive in Memphis (from Vermont of all places, where Burning In the Sun has just shown in Burlington), and the contrast between regions is laughably stark. I dart across the Mississippi border and make my way quickly - the speed limit is 70 mph – to Tupelo, MS. At my hotel I quickly find out that Tupelo is the birthplace of Elvis Presley, and that he is their number one native son. But more on that later. The film is screening at the Link Centre, a community arts center in downtown Tupelo. The crowd was a bit slim, according to charming and gracious Pat Rasberry, the Tupelo Film Commissioner and my host in town, because of so many other local events going on that night. I see this as only being a good thing for Tupelo residents – too many good things to do is never a bad thing. After a short Q & A I got to chat with some of the audience members, including the Coens of Brooklyn (long time Tupelo residents!) as well as Melanie Deas, the Executive Director of the Link Centre, who had some really interesting insights to offer on the Tupelo community.

The next day I got to spend seeing the Tupelo sights. Or eating them, at least. At a local downtown store, The Main Attraction, I ate something called a pear macaroon that was amazingly good and then 10 minutes later found myself sharing a slice of buttermilk pie (grandma’s recipe) with Pat, even better, at the coffee shop next door (owned by the same woman). It was like all the best parts of pecan pie, crème brulee, pumpkin pie and bread pudding had been distilled into the world’s most perfect piece of pie ever. It will be the dish to beat on the tour, I’m sure. Local folk artist William Heard had his paintings up on the wall, which I quite liked. We jumped across the street to the GumTree Museum of Art, housed in what was once a bank building, where a local artist was putting the final touches on an exhibit of intricate, Latin American inspired pieces. I had never seen anything like these anywhere in the States. Made from family photos, heirloom jewelry, seashells, religious iconography, and other found materials, the work reminded me of the virgins and saints commonly found stacked in Mexican cemeteries, but with a distinctly personal, intimate twist. I was fascinated by these intricate pieces! Pat introduced me to Spencer, who worked at the museum. Upstairs in his office space I found a bust of Elvis, along with the following proclamation:

Spencer also showed us a secret underground passageway under the museum that he had recently discovered, which Pat wanted to see because a Mississippi filmmaker was looking for a location to shoot a torture scene in a horror movie. That's dedication!

We headed over to Elvis’ birthplace compound in East Tupelo and met up with Melanie Deas. What a blast! Elvis’ family’s original humble Pentecostal church and 2-room home were on sight, as well as a museum, lovingly curated, often featuring items donated by oldtime Presley family friends, whom Melanie and Pat knew! So I was 3 degrees of separation from Elvis.

Melanie took me to dinner at Vanelli’s, a Greek/Italian restaurant that seemed a local legend in its own right. The owner knew everyone dining and I particularly admired the art on the walls, a hodge podge of southern folk art and Elvis portraits. Did I mention I love southern folk art, AND Elvis? I really loved Tupelo. Pat and Melanie want to show Burning In the Sun again there to give it a chance to be more widely seen by the community, and I have a feeling I’ll be back before too long.

The next day took me to Hapeville, GA, a very small town of 6,000 right on the perimeter of Atlanta. Charlotte Rentz, director of the Hapeville Historical Society, had planned a terrific little reception for the film in the lobby of the Historical Society, which happened to be housed inside an old Train Depot! A ton of history was housed in there, which I regret I didn’t get to investigate more thoroughly. However I did get to meet the mayor of Hapeville, who had stopped by to meet me, even though he wouldn’t be able to stay for the screening due to his 30th high school reunion scheduled for that same night. Apparently lots of local film enthusiasts would also be attending that same event – a shame! Nevertheless, a small but very enthusiastic and supportive crowd gathered at the train depot, many of whom I met. Shlomiel was a 21-year old who rode his bicycle 30 minutes from Atlanta to get there, having seen an ad for the film and wanting to learn everything he could about creating his own sources of renewable energy. I also met Dianise, a woman who worked with the local homeless population who had taken it upon themselves to start constructing solar panels out of scrap pieces they found, wanting a source of free energy to make their lives a little better. These stories blew me away, and I feel really honored to have the film seen by these individuals. A sizable crowd came together and the film was shown in a church sanctuary across the street from the train depot. Even the pastor attended. I really enjoyed this Q&A, which benefitted from the diverse crowd, imploring questions, and the warm energy from the audience. Hapeville was exactly the kind of small, energetic American town that could be really inpsired by the film, and I was very pleased to see how well it resonated with people from this community. Thanks to Charlotte, and also Allie and David from the Hapeville Main Street Association for making the evening such a success, and making me feel so welcome.

The next day I spent on my own in Atlanta, where I had never been before. I started off in the Virginia Highland district, which reminded me of a southern kind of Carroll Gardens, the neighborhood I used to live in Brooklyn. It was a beautful autumn day, and after a couple days of unusually cold weather, I welcomed the warmth of the sun! I moved on to the Sweet Auburn Historic District, home to the King Center, Martin Luther King’s birthhome, gravesite and memorial, the Ebeneezer Baptist Church where both King and his father served as pastors, and other markers of the civil rights movement. Rarely in my life have I been so profoundly touched and moved by a place of historical significance. On what became a cool gray November afternoon, I was surprised to find myself alone, with no one else in sight, at the grave of Martin Luther King Jr. Kind of mind boggling to be alone with Dr. King. Despite the memorial, the reflection pool, and the burning eternal flame nearby, I was struck by the humble brick surroundings of his grave and the general lack of fanfare. Though the humility seemed appropriate to his character, I couldn’t help but feel that he deserved more attention. Needless to say, I got to thinking about the current situation of our country, our leadership, our communities, and our character. Maybe it wasn’t that Dr. King’s gravesite needed more fancy frills, but the essence of who he was and what he stood for needed to be paid more attention, by leaders and individuals alike. He went to jail 14 times as a consequence of his convictions. And I was bowled over to re-learn that the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a success because 50,000 people in a single community stood together for a solid year, unwavering, and were then supported by the judgment of the legal system. For me that is a true lesson in nonviolent solidarity and absolute moral conviction. In the wake of the recent midterm elections, all the name-calling, all the blame-placing, and all the fear-mongering, it seems the country could use a strong dose of MLK’s spirit and conviction, which seem so hard to locate amidst all of the distractions. I highly recommend a visit to all things King if you’re in town.

Note the image of Gandhi up top above the King family.

To wrap up my day in Atlanta, I visited Shlomiel, from the screening the evening prior in Hapeville, at the Soul Vegetarian restaurant on Abernathy Blvd. where he worked. He had a lot more questions about the film and about what his next steps could be, and I was happy to talk with him and find out more about his bold visions and his experiments in creating homemade solar energy devices, like the solar water heater he had concocted out of black-painted aluminum cans! Again, his knowledge, sense of curiosity, and out-of-the box thinking really impressed me. I was so excited and grateful to have connected with him through the screening of the film. He’s going to be a great leader one day, and I’ll say I knew him back when….

Some tidbits and observations: 1) Church. Visiting Martin Luther King Jr.’s church and Elvis’ church (I know, a bizarre duo for comparison), I was struck by the strong, positive role the institution had played in shaping each of their lives. What’s changed about church these days, where it’s clearly become a dividing institution, and no longer one that unites? 2). Southern people are crazy friendly. A waitress in Atlanta shook my hand and introduced herself after taking my lunch order, with no alterior motive whatsoever. A shuttle driver in Memphis hugged me as I deboarded a bus. I know it’s a cliché, but wow! 3) Driving in the car I heard poet Elizabeth Alexander – who was commissioned to write a poem for Barack Obama’s inauguration – speaking on the radio. She mentioned her strong dislike of the Obama-era term ‘post-racial.’ She felt it encouraged a forgetting of history and erasing of individual identity. She instead preferred the term ‘post-racism.’ Words to meditate on….