Sunday, December 13, 2015

Coat of Many Colors

Coat of Many Colors is Dolly Parton's 2015 Christmas Special.  The show is intended as heart-warming family-friendly material although it quickly veers into strange and unexpected territory.  I don't know that the show is any good -- it is quite tedious and repetitive, but, at least, it's got the courage of its cornball conventions.  In effect, the show is about a theological problem -- how can God allow suffering in His perfect creation?  The movie is serious about this philosophical dilemma and single minded in its exposition of this theme.  You don't exactly walk away from watching this show uplifted -- in fact, the program had the opposite effect on me.  It's more or less depressing and leaves its viewers, I think, with some legitimate dilemmas.

Coat of Many Colors is resolutely Caucasian, although it's simple mountain folk are what might be characterized as White Trash.  In  1955 in a remote valley in the Great Smoky Mountains, a farmer lives with his eight children.  The farmer's wife is the daughter of a local preacher and the film begins with a daring image:  a congregation is celebrating worship within a simple white frame church while Dolly Parton's father is standing outside, defiantly smoking a cigarette and refusing to enter the church.  The TV special uses a prayer to introduce the various members of the big family but none of them have any significance except for little seven-year-old Dolly.  Dolly is played by an alarmingly precocious and annoying blonde-haired moppet, cute as a bug, who strums the guitar and entertains the churchgoing folk with hymns that she sings during the altar call.  Dolly knows that she will be famous one day and is confident that her talent will be recognized and bring her riches and adulation -- she dreams of singing at the Grand Ole Opry.  Dolly's mother, a simple pious woman, is pregnant and the child-heroine looks forward to the birth of the new baby.  But the baby is born premature, dies and is buried without a grave-marker in the back pasture, and, then, everyone spirals into a terminal funk.  Dolly's mother can't get out of bed and she refuses to sleep with her husband, who has, after all, put her in the family way nine times when the family, poor tobacco-farmers, really can't afford that many mouths to feed.  Picturesquely named "hornworms" assault their tobacco and there is even a drought that threatens the carcinogenic crop.  Things collapse and the small, if clean, cabin that the family occupies becomes a place of mourning.  Then, one day, Dolly's mother takes scraps of worn-out quilts and makes a coat of many colors for her favorite daughter.  This activity restores Dolly's mother to a modicum of mental health although Dolly's father still remains griefstricken over the lost child.  (There is something a bit mendacious and odd about this vast and debilitating grief -- I assume that large families in the Appalachian mountains routinely lost children to disease and inanition and, therefore, the fact that Dolly's folks are thrown into a tailspin of despair, more suitable for a yuppie couple from San Jose with one or two perfect children than these mountain folk seems somewhat implausible.)   Unfortunately, when Dolly goes to school wearing her crazy quilt coat she is mocked by the local bullies who shred the garment and she returns home angry at her mother for exposing her to this kind of ridicule.  At this point, the film has nowhere to go but to repeat itself -- Dolly's mother becomes disabled with depression again, marital strife ensues once more, and there is unhappiness all around until Daddy accepts Jesus, understands that God's will is not to be questioned, and with tears in his eyes joins the family at the altar call in the House of God while little Dolly warbles a hymn as she plays the guitar.  The family join in the back pasture and erect a simple cross to the dead child and the skies over the valley are resplendent with stars.  At dawn, a butterfly flutters away, presumably, the dead child's soul now seeking heaven.  This story takes place in a timeless period -- although it's the fifties people drive pre-Depression era cars and there are no Black people anywhere around.  There's a strange Lesbian undertow to a subplot involving a little girl who seems to be in love with Dolly, but that story is undeveloped, scarcely written, and, more or less, vanishes before the final commercial break.  The show is well-meaning and, rather, solemn, explicating in a literal way the lyrics of Dolly Parton's hit song "Coat of Many Colors."  There's no violence -- a brawl between Dolly's brothers and the local bullies is averted by Dolly's kindness and understanding, and, of course, no one swears.  The gist of the marital difficulties involves Dolly's mother refusing to have sex with her husband and this is candidly acknowledged, a theme that fits a little uneasily with the film's other pieties.  Of course, the truly interesting subject implicit in this material is the enormous, inexplicable gap between the little girl with the bright blue eyes and blonde hair and the monstrous Medusa-like figure that we see strumming a guitar at the beginning and the end of the movie.  There seems no way to bridge the gap between the Dolly Parton famous for her enormous breast implants, her tiny hips and porcelain complexion and the child in the film.  And, now, that plastic surgery has immobilized the singer's face and made her almost unrecognizable, the mysterious gulf between the child and horribly disfigured pop star is all the more ghastly and inexplicable. 

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