In the 13 years since it opened its doors, the Smith Rafael Film Center has seen many shades of cool: Sean Penn, Robert Duvall, Terence Stamp, and James Franco are just a few of the artists who have brought their own unique mystery to the theater’s screens and stage.
At Sunday night’s Spotlight event for the 35th Mill Valley Film Festival, a brand new, Southern shade of quirky cool came in the form of honoree Billy Bob Thornton, presenting his latest directorial effort, Jayne Mansfield’s Car.
Stepping onto the red carpet with his snakeskin cowboy boots, Thornton talked to us about making films set in his native South.
“The air’s kind of heavier down there, you know?” he sais.
Influenced by the great storytellers in the Southern tradition, like William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Erskine Caldwell, Thornton said that although he’s lived in California for 32 years now, “An artist’s work will always be about what he knows, and that’s where I spent my formative years”
Jayne Mansfield’s Car, Thornton’s first directing gig since 2001, brings a Southern gothic atmosphere to the Vietnam era. Set during the humid summer of 1969, the film’s action unfolds on a sprawling Alabama estate, where the appropriately dysfunctional Caldwell clan share secrets, argue about the war, and drink lots and lots of Scotch in the scorching heat.
The plot is set in motion by a phone call informing crusty patriarch Robert Duvall that his former wife – who abandoned the family after falling in love with another man 20 years earlier on a jaunt to London – has died, and her British family is bringing her body back to be buried among “her people.”
The culture clash between the Americans and the Brits, in particular between Duvall and John Hurt (who plays his British rival), provides plenty of laughs, but at its heart this is a film about war and how it affects generations of families. Duvall and Hurt’s characters, of course, fought in “The Great War” as they call it repeatedly, and all three Caldwell boys fought in WWII.
But to his eternal embarrassment, oldest brother Jimbo never saw action, while middle brother Skip (played by Thornton) suffered serious injuries along with a heavily implied case of PTSD, and youngest brother Carroll – now a long-haired hippy – protests loudly against the Vietnam war and pushes his own son to avoid the draft.
The title of the film comes from one of Duvall’s morbid obsessions in the film: trawling the police airwaves for car crashes, and then showing up at the scene to inspect the aftermath. At one point he drags John Hurt’s character to town, where the banged up carcass of Jayne Mansfield’s car is on display for 50 cents a pop.
Thornton admitted the film has many autobiographical elements, and revealed that this particular detail was inspired by his own father, who also felt drawn to the aftermath of accidents. “I think it was his way of trying to figure out death, and life, and why this person dies and not that person,” he said.
Indeed, the specter of death hangs over nearly every character in the film, but Thornton reveals this slowly, and through multiple storylines that wander like the South's infamous crawling ivy.
Audience members embraced both the film and his approach, with one calling it “fable-like” and another declaring it “a beautiful anti-war film.” A lively question-and-answer session after the film touched on everything from Billy Wilder's valuable early advice ("Be an original. Tell your own stories.") to Thornton's iconic role in Bad Santa and his close relationship with mentor Robert Duvall, with plenty of fascinating behind-the-scenes dish on his filmmaking experiences over the years.
Presented with the Mill Valley Film Festival Award at the end of the evening’s presentation, Thornton promised to put it “next to the big ones,” at home (he won an Academy Award for writing Sling Blade). Looking at the smooth, abstract sculpture of an armless, headless human torso - designed by renowned Mill Valley artist Alice Corning - in his hands, Thornton joked, “But if I find out that Dustin Hoffman got one with arms and a head I’ll be really mad!”