Surely anyone looking at film with an eye to understanding American pop culture or, for that matter, American serious culture, lately, would have to be intrigued by the recent spate of “whitetrash flicks.” Every season over the past three years seems to have produced its brace of movies set in either the South or a trailer park (often synonyms, to filmmakers), each with mush-mouthed characters more desperately degenerate than the last, as though directed to act out Tom Lehrer’s parody, “Be it ever so decadent, / There’s no place like home.”

Category films, of course, have existed as long as film itself: even silent movies depicted love stories. Westerns, and dog dramas; gangsters, spies, and war stories were film staples from the 1930’s; and by the 1970’s, further categories had developed—Road movies. Buddy movies. Caper movies, etc., as named by critic James Monaco. But now, within view of the millennium, Hollywood has refined two new categories, each bearing its own deadly virus of social fear: the Fear-of-Getting-Stuck-in-the-South movie and the Trailer-Park movie.

Generally, movies present the South—like trailer parks—as some asymptomatic realm antithetical to money, gentility, and status. It is a kind of Lower Slobbovia, a giant, wobbling ooze of swamp/belly/id that threatens to suck you down to its level, too, if you’re not careful. This premise undedies both the Fear-of-Getting-Stuck-in-the-South genre, which demonstrates what might happen to someone passing through the region, and the Trailer-Park flick, which demonstrates the obverse fear of what might happen when They get loose. These may be termed, respectively, the Iliad and the Odyssey of South-movie archetypes.

In ascending order of humor and descending order of violence, Easy Rider, Deliverance, My Cousin Vinny, Undercover Blues, and even Doc Hollywood (which tried feebly to reverse the pattern) had as their premise the fear of getting stuck in the South. Of course, the granddaddies of the pattern were Easy Rider (1969) and Deliverance (1972), unparalleled to this day in colonialist nativism represented through Killer Rubes; if whitetrash film characters embody the suppressed fears of a white-collar audience, these two films unleashed the prototypical nightmares. And opening with the Boom of the Sunbelt—remember that?—both movies also constructed a clear, and stellar, slogan for Interstate strip development: NEXT TIME, STAY IN A HOWARD JOHNSON’S.

The message of recent South movies has further crystallized: DON’T STOP. One lightweight example was My Cousin Vinny (1991), which should be viewed as a kind of catalog or mother lode of South formulas. Driving through Alabama, the movie’s two inoffensive young New Yorkers are arrested for murder over a missing can of tuna (just what would happen); the arresting cop pops up unprovoked from the landscape, gun out, along with a lady cop who wears a hair clip through her spit curl—much like the “Indians” in old B westerns. Typical: “The laws are medieval” here; “the minimum age for execution is ten” (South = jail); “You know how corrupt it is down here. They all know each other” (South = incest, political or otherwise); “Sometimes there’s a big guy named Bubba no one wants to tangle with, and he’ll protect you” (South = anal assault); Joe Pesci’s car gets mired to the hubcaps (South = mud); and the trial hinges on Marisa Tomei’s identifying a getaway car through service-station arcana (South = cars). The only formulae missing are trains and Mama.

Of course, pitchforking a dislocated character into an incongruous setting is formula anyway, and either character or setting must be predictable, to foreground the action—to highlight the incongruity. So, movie white-trashery can belong to either the setting or the main character.

Another lightweight example of the white-trash setting was Undercover Blues (1993), in which two yuppie spies—Kathleen Turner and Dennis Quaid—vacation in the consumer heaven of New Orleans but must evade both international espionage and local mean streets. It’s a carnival of ethnic stereotypes, including Southern white bumbling cops, an African-American bumbling cop, and a Mexican-American bad guy called Muerte/Mortie, with the running joke that every time he gets beaten up, he spits out another tooth. Resentful locals here are local cops with impenetrable Southern accents—the gruff superior, and the jovial, appealing inferior with a lisp on top of his accent; grits meets gravy.

Classical mystery typically pits local police officials against the classier amateur detective (à la Murder, She Wrote and Diagnosis Murder). Likewise, Cold War and post-Cold War movies often pit small-time police against the classier James Bond-league secret agent (as in that film oddity titled You Only Live Twice, also set in New Orleans). Turning this upper-crusty tradition to baguettes. Undercover Blues is good suburban fantasy—that two years of undergraduate French, a tan, a martial-arts course, and no regional accent make for an international agent—which for all we know may be true and would explain a lot about the CIA. Anyway, there is no dues-paying with years on the police beat or walking up the steps of crackhouses.

Avoiding dues, in fact, may be key here. The fantasy of avoiding dues-paying characterizes movie Southernness in general; the screen South becomes a never-never-land where anything goes. This fantasy can also be found offscreen. The September 1995 Harper‘s quoted an English professor at UMass/Amherst (in a ghastly roundtable about sexual harassment on campus), fondly asserting that in a redneck bar, patting a woman on her butt is perfectly okay. But the flip side of the fantasy is a guilt-ridden fear of paying dues with a vengeance—as in Deliverance, or even My Cousin Vinny—of figures jumping out of the landscape, sometimes to do what has been done to the landscape itself.

The silver screen’s overlap of region (South) and class (low) is stunningly overt in the recent spate of white-trash films (trailer parks). Examples run a short gamut from Kalifornia to True Romance, partly including Gun Crazy, Short Cuts, Flesh and Bone, A Perfect World, Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Benefit of a Doubt, Love and a .45, among others. If one newspaper headline never seen is “Tornado Skips Trailer Park,” a Variety headline not seen is “Hollywood Skips Trailer Park.”

Obviously, poor-white movies are not new; two examples (1957 and 1975) were named White Trash straight out. Nor is the South new as movie setting; the Video Retriever lists over 150 examples, most in either the Baby Doll tradition of snag-toothed Neanderthals or the Gone With the Wind tradition of decaying magnolias. And not all white-trash movies are set in trailer parks; and sometimes characters in trailers retain some human dignity, as in The Client, whose main characters are represented as having to live in a trailer because they can’t afford the house they wish for.

The difference with more recent uses of some of these old film formulas is in the new virulence of the representations. Vintage “Southern gothic” had its formulaic aspects of dysfunction. But the recent movies get into terrain so graphically violent, it’s as though somebody really means this stuff, or at least means for it to get into the national psyche. There is a linkup of formula characters with graphic carnage that is dangerously suggestive—although at times humorous, in its composite of trailer parks as basically breeding grounds for serial killers, liable at any given moment to swarm loose like mosquitoes for their next crime spree toward the Southwest.

But the sometimes humorous parochialism does not conceal its underlying phobias; trailer-park movies play to two main insecurities, economic and sexual. The first is obvious. In a worsening labor market and general “fear of falling,” with jobs threatened and professional status tenuous—especially in white-collar jobs less essential than either brain surgery on one hand or garbage collecting on the other—where the marks of status and even of merit are often intangible, some target audience evidently responds like Pavlov’s dogs to the mere image of trailer parks, a sign of what threatens them most: the possibility of winding up in one. Ridiculing trailer parks distances the fear.

The second insecurity gets even more lurid. While I do not want to hurt anyone’s feelings, this obsessive fantasizing about life inside trailers does not speak well for the opinion-making sector. (Sex instead of working! Without consequences! A special gene that wards off STD’s? Or do they care?—Lord knows they don’t mind pregnancy.) The movies speak xenophobically of things slipping, of borders falling, in a glutted thirty-something and forty-something job market teeming like Claes Oldenburg’s cigarette butts with advertising sales representatives, programmers, marketing analysts, assignment editors, production assistants, and the rest, all writhing in a collective promotional mantra, CONDOMS SI, TRAILER PARKS NO! This xenophobia is then often attributed to Southerners.

Two obvious examples were True Romance and Kalifornia. Take “Alabama,” in True Romance: blooming like a flower among black drug dealers and Sicilian crimemasters, she’s the Southern whitetrash love interest: from Tallahassee, and a short-term prostitute, since you ask, but with a heart of gold—”100 percent monogamous.” The hero’s father is killed (by Sicilians) in a trailer; the young-outcast lovers go on the lam; the rather appealing Patricia Arquette character is brutally beaten in a motel room.

Kalifornia also breaks loose from a trailer park, where the male lead (Brad Pitt) murders the landlord and the pair (Pitt with Juliette Lewis) set out for California. Interestingly, they ride with another young couple, from Soho, on a sociological pilgrimage through serial killer sites in Tennessee, Arkansas (“wherever the hell Arkansas is,” says the college-educated youth), and Texas. “Earlie” has a Confederate flag on his visor, a plastic Jesus on the dashboard, and a passive girlfriend who—like Alabama—takes a beating well.

The trip threatens to downgrade the upscalers (“A week ago you never would have picked up that gun”), partly because the rednecks get to define masculinity, while the Northerners do mostly haircutting and photography. But the pecking order of upper-class boy, upperclass girl, lower-class boy, and lower-class girl ordains that the lower-class girl will be killed first. And next? Will the trailer-park bogeyman be exorcised? Will there be a gory shootout won by Soho, in the final class-edged grudge match? Is the Pope Polish?

Not only main characters carry the burden of stereotype, however. Incidentals can be telling, too—especially with regard to those Southern women. One tantalizing cameo is the li’l trollop character and friend-of-murder-victim who, with syrupy accent and provocative gestures, teases Wesley Snipes in Rising Sun. In Crichton’s novel, the perverse “gasper”/murder-victim-who-asks-for-it is herself a Texas beauty: “Cheryl Lynn Austin; born Midland, Texas; graduate of Texas State.” (Texas State?) The movie wisely changes the obligatory Southern slut character from central to incidental, one who provides needed exposition and also that warded-off threat of miscegenation so beloved of cheesy filmmakers.

Traditional Southern characters tend to be either brutal or snaky; lurking danger seems to add to the women’s appeal especially. Take No Mercy (1986; Kim Basinger and Richard Gere), set in Louisiana swamps. The heroine here was a white-cracker/blond-Cajun(?) love slave, sold by her parents in her childhood, to a ponytailed Creole gangster. Sure: just what parents in modest circumstances, in places like Louisiana, are doing every day. Somewhere, some film-concept person dreams of poling his pirogue down those steam-eh, steam-eh bayous teeming with malleable women, trawling for Basinger. Ms. Basinger herself has been more generous toward her native terrain.

An effective parody-South movie, following West Virginian Daniel Boyd’s Strangest Dreams of 1990, could be written today, with women named “Comf’table” and “‘Vailable.” This is what characterizes Southern women in movies—a sexual relationship without complexity or consequences (throw ’em a good sweet potato every once in a while and they’re happy), their bodies handed over at scant inconvenience to them or anyone else. Their fecklessness about beatings is a case in point; they must not feel pain the way we do.

Screen representation of the sexuality of Southern women parallels screen representation of the martiality of Southern men: good ol’ boys are likewise available—eager to go fight bush wars, their bodies also handed over at scant inconvenience to themselves or anyone else (Molly Ivins has noted the stock character of the Southern slopeheaded ridgerunner-recruit in war movies). Unfortunately, writing physical and moral courage into such an alien character can make courage itself seem alien; stamina, loyalty, and courage in Southern movie characters sometimes suggest they’re too dumb to know any better. Enter Forrest Gump.

Forrest Gump has abundant similarities with another recent white-trash movie not often compared to it: Natural Born Killers. In both, boy and girl lost souls befriend each other; the Southern/cracker girls are abused by their fathers—in Natural Born Killers, this is so blatantly a motif that Rodney Dangerfield doesn’t even bother with a Southern accent to match his daughter’s—and both girls escape in a flight westward. In both movies, of course, the girl also gets beaten up.

Both movies feature the drug culture and Vietnam; both include a scenic race westward to the coast; and in both, the Southern good ol’ boy becomes a hero erratically, by default. Both movies also use cutting-edge cinematography with soundtracks of great oldies, and both splice in actual-history footage. And (just to be ticky), each movie includes one scene from a vertiginous height; each includes one cheap scene—the shot of Tonya Harding in Natural Born Killers (speaking of trailer parks) and Gump’s blocked-out speech on Vietnam—and each ends with a brief “family” sentimentalism. In other words. Baby Boomers have hit the big screen, with their generally Jeffersonian dreams, admiration of hard work, glutted-job-market ambivalence toward creativity, and fear of success.

Reviewers were mixed about both films—criticizing Oliver Stone for exploitation and Gump for sentimentality—overlooking the genuine pathos in both, such as the character of Jenny, eager to escape the stigmas represented by Forrest’s I.Q. and his accent and passionately grasping at the upscale superficials represented interchangeably by college, California, and the drug culture. That Gump becomes a gazillionaire because a hurricane misses his shrimp boat (another seldom-seen headline) is a red herring.

Flaws aside, both movies were relatively successful, surely because—like Schindler’s List—they included something approximating actual history and assumed, correctly, that the audience would tolerate its inclusion. With the Cold War over, giant divots of public attention span dug up by the Berlin Wall are being gradually replanted; history is allowed in entertainment again.

On another note: to retire the chainsaw trophy once and for all, Pulp Fiction has now brought an anal rape by two white hayseeds against a black crime lord, released by Miramax (owned by family-minded Disney, speaking of overturning stereotypes). This comic Deliverance knockoff is a tidy little political allegory—probably unintended—with the white rube countryside and the black inner city, equally demonized in news and entertainment media, screwing each other to profit a basically suburban perspective. Thus Gump and Pulp Fiction were superficially pitted as Oscar contenders, in the new opinion-making-sector-sponsored civil war of White Trash Nation versus Hip Nation.

Maybe Gump and Natural Born Killers, between them, represent the culmination of a trend. Two recent movies, after all, do separate the terrain of the South from that of trailer parks, between The War and The Beans of Egypt, Maine. Or, on the other hand, maybe not. A viewing of Judge Dredd reveals that even in the futuristic third millennium, there are still weapons-toting, religion-spouting crazies in the hills, gunning for the hero. Filmmakers seem to need those hillbillies. And more recently, the flop The Tie That Binds links the white-trash component with birth parents, against upscale adoptive parents . . . a new low.

The most recent South-set movie, of course, is the mainly estimable A Time to Kill. Like John Grisham’s other works, it is relatively humane, nuanced, and sociologically balanced—not all black and white or cartoonish stereotypes; even the Klan character (Kiefer Sutherland) is humanly motivated by his brother’s death and is shown in the murder scene pulling his mother out of gunshot. That said, the movie is still an indirect tribute to the importance of detail in filmmaking. Slight changes—captioning at the beginning to set the movie 15 years ago (even) in Mississippi, for example—would have strengthened the film by making it more believable. And the role of the vestigial Klan should have been reduced, some of it mapped more believably onto separate personal and social conflicts.

While white-trash characters can embody white-collar nightmares, they can also act out white-collar resentments, and they broaden the range of permissible representation. But this is a two-edged sword. If speaking truth to power is a desideratum, perhaps it should be performed by more characters than those who say things like, “Don’t he have a purty mouth on him?” (Actual human beings who live where Deliverance was set have referred to James Dickey as “Marse Jim”). Nor should an understandable aim of representing racism as somehow low-class be allowed to indulge the fiction that race privilege is found only in some regions and not others.

One can tap into a rich vein of semiotics, through representations of region in American film. As has been pointed out before, these representations manifest a felt need for authenticity—projected onto Southern latitudes as a place of special latitude—with results not always as reductive as the examples discussed above. That movie “Southernness” releases commentary and attitude otherwise repressed has some positive potential, and even flawed examples with agrarian roles played against type by actors like Tony Curtis and Michael Caine—ridiculed in their time, but gutsy in their way—made earnest efforts toward some kind of social texture.

The tapestry of backwardness (real or imagined), like the historical past, has its uses for creating social texture, and can be ironic or transforming. John Sayles’ Matewan was a powerful use of the terrain both of country and of history; Gallic Khouri’s use of the dual second-class citizenry of two Southern women in Thelma and Louise created a 20th-century version of Aristotelian causality; and before both, the never-yet-equaled Nothing But a Man will always rebut the suggestion of thin though well-meant movies like Mississippi Burning, that social change is caused almost entirely by white agentry. These films do more than just commodify the dispossessed.

Meanwhile, alongside the bogus history of caricature, some real history is seeping back into popular movies. Both Natural Born Killers and Gump were relatively successful, in spite of their flaws, partly because they tracked with actual history connected to their audience—like, in different ways, Schindler’s List, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and even Casino. If this is a trend, the best example may be Independence Day, full of references to recent history and current events/issues. It is too bad the charming Harry Connick, Jr., character had to die to save the planet—as the loyal Texas sidekick died in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, helping humanity against the undead (this tradition goes back a long way). I for one am tired of happy endings transacted over the bodies of dead hayseeds, but you cannot make an omelette without breaking aigs.