We went to the opening reception for the Old State House’s current exhibit, “Lights, Camera,Arkansas,” when it opened in June and - as is usually the case at openings - I didn’t really see much of the exhibit. Instead, I stood around with a glass of wine and talked to a lot of people before milling through the overcrowded rooms as a courtesy. I meant to go back, but I didn’t make it until last week.
Maybe that’s all right. There’s still plenty of time to see the free exhibit - it will be up until March 1, 2015 - and if you’re the least bit interested in the movies and their history and you haven’t seen it, it’s probably worth a lunch hour or two.
I believe the highest and best use for a museum is not as a mausoleum for the past but as a spur to the imagination. In a place like Arkansas, which is almost as easily caricatured as it is dismissed by our nation’s coastal cultural centers, the revelation of a surprising past can stoke aspiration as much as pride. The value of “Lights, Camera, Arkansas” lies not so much inthe old dreams it documents as the fresh ones it will inspire.
It might seem ludicrous to address the place of Arkansas in the history of American cinema; it might seem like something a disinterested academic would handle in a footnote. Maybe something should be said about the films -or at least the marketing tactics - of Charles B. Pierce, the independent producer-director-writer whose drive-in bill-fillers (The Legend of Boggy Creek, The Town That Dreaded Sundown) returned hundreds of times their production costs in profits in the 1970s. Maybe people have heard of Dick Powell. An Arkansan (Charles Portis) wrote the novel True Grit and another Arkansan (Glen Campbell) starred in the original film (but it was shot mainly in Colorado, which accounts for the view of the Rocky Mountains available from Mattie Ross’ Yell County homestead).
As the exhibit convincingly explains quite a bit, Arkansas has a long and fruitful association with the movies. One of the state’s more successful native creatives is producer and director Harry Thomason (best known for TV’s Designing Women). A protege of Pierce’s, as a teenager Thomason was charged with collecting the cash receipts from theaters and delivering them to Pierce’s home near Texarkana, where money bags were unceremoniously emptied onto the floor. When Pierce was walking ankle deep in dollars, Thomason says, he knew he had a hit. “Lights, Camera, Arkansas” occasionally posits that the state was one of the flashpoints of the American movie industry.
Thomason builds his case on the story of Broncho Billy Anderson, born Max Aronson in Little Rock in 1880, and who played three roles in Edwin S. Porter’s seminal western The Great Train Robbery (1903). Aronson left Arkansas for New York around the turn of the 20th century and, as an actor, director and producer, participated in the making of more than 600 pictures (most of them silent one-reelers) before retiring in 1922. He is widely credited as Hollywood’s first movie cowboy; he made 148 Broncho Billy shorts.
Anderson’s sometime collaborator, Freeman Harrison Owens, was another Arkansan who made vital contributions to the nascent film industry. Owens was a tinkerer who left high school to run a projector at a Pine Bluff theater. By 16, he’d built his own 35 millimeter camera. He was one of the most prominent newsreel cameramen of his day. Among the more than 200 patents he held was an early method of synchronizing sound to film. He also created the A.C. Nielsen Rating System and invented a plastic camera lens that is still in use today.
Through tangible artifacts, including some beautiful commissioned portraits of notables from Louis Jordan to Lisa Blount (a fine actor and an Oscar-winning producer) and a concise but thorough 17-minute film, “Lights, Camera, Arkansas” tells the story of the state’s engagement with movie culture in a colorful, accessible and remarkably nuanced way. Guest curator Bob Cochran, the chairman of the American Studies program and director of the Center for Arkansas and Regional Studies at the University of Arkansas is to be commended.
The artifacts on display are well-chosen and handsomely displayed in a context that invites conversation not only between exhibit goers but seemingly between the pieces themselves. For instance, the suit Tom Cruise wore in The Firm sits in a glass case next to Mary Steenburgen’s dresses from Goin’ South, the North Little Rock native’s first film role.
Much of what is here is unsurprising - movie posters, lobby cards, paraphernalia belonging to stars and character actors. But the overall effect of “Lights, Camera, Arkansas” is to illuminate the unexpectedly rich place the state has had in what is still our most potent cultural medium. Not a small portion of the exhibit is forward-looking, as it showcases the work of current stars with a connection to the state, such as Billy Bob Thornton and Joey Lauren Adams; the future is given considerable space - and a rusty dirt bike - representing the work of rising writer-director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud).
In the past decade, with the rise of the Ozark Foothills and Little Rock film festivals, the resurgence of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the digitization of the industry which has made film making less expensive, Arkansas has seen a surge in the number of working and aspiring filmmakers. Supplying this cohort with encouragement and inspiration is not the least important accomplishment of “Lights, Camera, Arkansas.”
This exhibit tells a story they - and the rest of Arkansas - need to hear.
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 03/07/2014
Print Headline: Exhibit encourages future filmmakers