Monday, August 09, 2004
Descent Of The Elvii

You'd think by now, after roughly a dozen years of association with Memphis, I'd have gotten used to Elvis Week. In truth, my horror/fascination has only increased as time has passed. If anything, I'm in much closer contact with The Fans now that I'm in Mississippi than I was when I lived in Memphis proper; down here across the state line, we're actually geographically closer to Graceland than most Memphians. For example, in order to get to our bank, we have to venture into Elvis territory. We don't generally attempt the journey during Elvis Week -- it's just too frustrating; you feel as if you're drowning in a sea of Elvises.

Diana, who's into Elvis, tells me that I really should do the candlelight vigil some year, just for kicks; perhaps she's right. I've actually come to appreciate the inclusive warmth of Elvis a lot more lately; especially in a city with such a history of bitter racial problems and ongoing separation, it's kinda inspiring to see Elvises of all colors and genders congregating in what is generally considered to be a pretty rough, poverty-stricken part of the city. The sheer number of Elvises is the most impressive part of Elvis Week: there are male Elvises and female Elvises (doubtless a few transsexual Elvises, too); young Elvises and elderly Elvises; PoMo hipster Elvises and old-school Elvises; straight and gay Elvises; white, black, Asian, and latino Elvises (and one gay latino punk-rock Elvis, still my favorite... besides Andy Kaufman, obviously.)

People literally descend on Graceland from all over the world, which can only be a good thing. Of course, we also get the road whales and the best of Bovine America...

Anyway, I braved the crowds and drove past Graceland today to see what was going on; given that it was a Monday, things were relatively subdued. Lots and lots of people on line for the Graceland tour, but with the pleasant addition of a huge LED monitor screening Elvis movies for entertainment. (The selection when I drove by was Blue Hawaii.)

It's sometimes frustrating to realize that for the vast majority of the world's population, Memphis = Elvis, period. (There's also a common misconception that if you come to Memphis you can visit the Grand Old Opry... and you can, but it's a bit of a drive.) Beale Street, as tarted-up as it has become in recent years, is still more culturally interesting than Graceland, but most visitors seem to consider it an afterthought. And if you head south down 51 into Mississippi and look closely, the Delta is one big museum for blues fans. The Jungle Room is amusing and all (and not quite as hideous as it looks in the pictures), but it's a pretty superficial representation of Memphis' primary cultural contribution to the world.

I, however, am not really a musical person as such; my interest in Memphis is a visual one. It has long struck me that music is a far kinder medium to the city than film. There is a seemingly infinite number of songs that are about or which mention Memphis, and generally speaking the attitude seems to be pretty positive. I can't think off-hand of any songs about people having a really shitty time in Memphis (and please, if anybody knows of one, let me know; I'd be curious.) Film, however, is only ambivalent about the place. In the movies, Memphis is generally a gritty, rather oppressive city; the closest I think I've ever seen to Memphis glamour was The Firm. The same is true of local film: people are much more interested in dirty, grimy, down-at-heel Memphis. In truth, that's how I see the city, too.

My favorite film about Memphis -- probably everybody's -- is still Jarmusch's Mystery Train. The city doesn't much look like it did in the film anymore; watching it, I always have the disorienting feeling of recognizing the locations but not being able to figure out exactly where they are; the film was made near the tail-end of Memphis' desperately-poor phase, so it looks a lot rougher in the film than it looks now. I do remember those days, though. (And for non-locals, I do not recommend walking from Sun Studio to Graceland. Unless walking for two days through an endless bad neighborhood appeals to you, in which case, hell, go for it.)

Anyway... music Memphis vs. film Memphis: there's a thesis in there somewhere.
10:44 PM ::
Amy :: permalink