balladeer of moons

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Critical Essay by Joseph Paris

This is more of a documentary than a movie as such. “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia” is a glorification of violence and the cult of individuality and reckless rebellion that grew out of the West and South in American outlawry, going back to Jesse James and Archie Clement.
Similar strains of  abandon emerged from the highly provocative rural centers of West Virginia, the homelands of the White family.

Brutalization and drug abuse in this famed dancing and robbing family came mainly from violent subjugations by authority figures and the romanticizing of violent behavior through storytelling and vignette. It represents the rejection of the cultural norms of civil behavior and the advancing of the idea that one must hurt others to gain respect. A quote from the documentary, “When you can no longer cut the mustard, lick the jar” exemplifies this sentiment and value. A sense of helplessness and fear of poverty helped the Whites, male and female, to push past psychological constraints and repression to establish their own singular brand of effective violence.

 It is the setting up of a counterpoint to the rule of law: the forming of family law, observed only by the family and enforced by the family. This documentary reminded me of the feuding families from West Virginia, popularly known as the Hatfields and McCoys, and how they achieved social status through a quest for revenge.

The movie is fast-paced, engaging and entertaining for we have always conducted a love affair with our outlaws and desperadoes. We use them for a sense of emotional validity, living through them and their exploits and then discard them in our fragile minds when we foresee their self-destruction.

The Whites are unique in that their notoriety rests not exclusively on daring and illegal exploits but on their talent in the arts, in particular, the dance and on their unique reinterpretation of social values. Curiously, we do not have contempt for them but actually like them for their blunt honesty and homespun charisma. But the admiration we extend is short-lived and transient for the rational calling of our more civilized and socialized natures tells us that choices such as theirs come with too many undesirable consequences.