Magazine article The New Yorker

Gothic

Magazine article The New Yorker

Gothic

Article excerpt

"All Southern literature," the mother of the writer Pat Conroy once told him, "can be summed up in these words: 'On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.' " This week, the writer-director Dustin Lance Black brings that world view to a movie theatre near you (as long as you're near an art house pretty far from the actual South). "Virginia," set in a dreamy Virginia beach town, features a teen-age boy named Emmett, who, disguised as a woman, robs an amusement park; a sheriff who wears his Mormon undergarments as he gravely enacts S & M scenarios; and Emmett's mother, Virginia (who is also the sheriff's mistress), a schizophrenic who prefers believing that she's pregnant to accepting that she's dying of cancerand who herself tries to rob a bank, in a gorilla mask.

"I was exorcising some of my Southern-gothic demons, that's for sure," Black, an ingenuous thirty-seven-year-old who won an Oscar for his screenplay of "Milk," said recently over a pulled-pork lunch at a Manhattan barbecue joint. He explained, "I grew up on church assistance in Live Oak, Texas, with two brothers and a mother who'd had polio. My father took off when I was sixhe was exactly the kind of guy you'd think would abandon three little children with a paralyzed woman."

He went on, "Some female relatives from Louisiana helped raise us, and one had the same kind of delusions that Virginia does, the same optimistic schizophrenia. She believed shoplifting was totally fine, for instance. My older brother, Marcus, realized that we needed more of a rationale, and he came up with the rule: 'If you read something, it's yours.' So if you read the writing on a toy's package in the store, it belonged to you. We all chose to believe that, so we took these objects very boldly." He nodded toward a nearby "Pig Out" poster and said, "I bet you if I took that down and walked out of here right now, nobody would think to stop me. I once 'read' a huge Optimus Prime Transformer"he spread his hands two feet apart"and walked it right out of the mall."

The film likens Virginia's fancies to the Mormon beliefs held by her lover, Sheriff Tipton. …

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