The Next Hollywood: An Oscar-Night Companion to Knoxville's Latest Claims

It was getting dark last Monday, and I was short-cutting across Krutch Park to grab a snack on the way to an evening meeting when I blundered into a movie shoot. I don't think it was a major studio effort, but an earnest-looking crew of six or seven was focused on a young couple on a bench, and didn't necessarily need a middle-aged guy loping through the shot.

It wasn't the first, or second time I've inadvertently caused problems for cinematographers downtown by going about my business. In the '90s, I stepped out of a Gay Street pub one evening, innocently heading for the bus stop, blinking into the bright lights and wondering about all the old cars and a teenage kid I didn't recognize as Jake Gyllenhaal who was supposed to be the center of attention—except that, for an awkward moment I did not enjoy much, I was.

They were shooting a movie I saw later, one called October Sky. It's a good movie, and I was told Knoxville's variety of settings was a big help.

There's more video shooting all the time. Is Knoxville the fourth biggest video-production city in America? We've been saying that, and I don't hear rivals for that title complaining. Nest Features, our first local feature-film studio, is at work every day in Bearden, due to be released soon. (Sundance-laureate director Paul Harrill is one of the principals.) Something, Anything is said to be an unconventional love story. Nest has the financing, the talent, and the facilities to make several smart low-budget movies, whether they catch the attention of the big theater chains or not. (The biggest one in the world is a Knoxville company, but that's not necessarily a major advantage for local cinema auteurs.)

Nearly every American city, sometime in the last century, has entertained dreams of being the next Hollywood, or a little Hollywood, or the Hollywood of its region. Knoxville tried to market itself that way very openly about 50 years ago, after the coincidence of a couple of semi-big releases with Knoxville connections, and a couple of "world premieres" at the Tennessee Theatre. For the most part, the Knoxville area has settled for Dollywood.

My arteries are getting too hard to get very exercised about the prospect that, once again, we're at the beginning of something big. But Knoxvillians do keep bubbling up in show biz, in dependably surprising ways.

David Denby, the well-known film critic for The New Yorker, has an interesting new book called Do the Movies Have a Future? In it, he devotes a good deal of space to discussing one of his early idols, James Agee. Agee's autobiographical novel inspired the Knoxville-shot movie All the Way Home, the biggest source of Little Hollywood hubbub here half a century ago. But in his lifetime Agee was best known as the guy who wrote memorably about current movies for Time and The Nation across one of cinema's most interesting decades, the 1940s.

I keep thinking Agee, who was born on Clinch Avenue in 1909, and who died almost 58 years ago, has finally peaked. His fatal heart attack came before he ever heard of, say, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorcese, or Woody Allen. He died long before the era of the Coen brothers, Ang Lee, David O. Russell, Stevens Spielberg and Soderbergh. He died before his fellow Knoxville native Quentin Tarantino was even born, and before all the classic B movies that Tarantino awes critics by referencing. Agee probably never saw a spaghetti western, or a martial-arts movie, or a blaxploitation movie, or a head blown apart onscreen.

Still, here he is, discussed at length in a new book ostensibly about the future of film, as if he's relevant to the subject. Denby describes Agee as his personal inspiration. "For Agee," Denby writes, "the heroism of the writer's role consisted in harnessing an aggressive critical faculty, very modern in its temper, to an earnest, almost religious desire for celebration.... His writing itself was an example of merry, high-principled, relentlessly muscular humanist aestheticism."

Perhaps too much to get into here. But it's worth a read. Denby thinks a few, but only a very few, modern directors—he mentions Scorcese—would have interested Agee.

Three of Cormac McCarthy's novels have already been turned into major motion pictures, and one, No Country for Old Men, won the Best Picture Oscar in 2008. But the year the former Knoxvillian turns 80 may be his biggest year in pictures yet. The novelist takes his first turn as a screenwriter and as a producer when The Counselor is released in November. Shot in London and starring Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, and others, it concerns big-city drug trafficking.

It's probably not one of the McCarthy plots that references his hometown in some way. So far, Hollywood has shied away from his East Tennessee stories, unless you consider the elliptical suggestions of the region in The Road. Which is a pretty good movie I don't need to see again.

However, the first of his explicitly East-Tennessee-based novels to be made into a movie should be released this year, directed by actor James Franco, who also plays a role in it. Child of God is a low-budget portrayal of McCarthy's most harrowing novel, the 1973 odyssey of a serial killer/necrophiliac named Lester Ballard.

It's set mostly in Sevier County, but includes brief allusions to Knoxville, including the now-embattled mental institution later known as Lakeshore, which has a startling literary pedigree. Franco didn't shoot his interpretation here.

When October Sky, an inspiring true story about a kid growing up to achieve great things, based in West Virginia, was filmed, they shot it in East Tennessee.

When Child of God, one of the most horrific stories ever written, and set in East Tennessee, was filmed, they shot it in West Virginia.

The Chamber of Commerce will consider it more than fair, in balance.