citybeat (2006-12)

Local produce gets dumped on by film critics everywhere

A Homeless District?

Volunteer Ministries plans move to the 5th Ave. Motel

Wednesday, March 15

Rotten Tomato, New Vine?

The New York Times declared it “unwatchable.” The New York Post was slightly more forgiving, calling it “watchable…but you’ll probably want to take a shower afterwards.” Suffice it to say, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things has not been favorably received by the bulk of America’s film critics, most of whom seemed sickened rather than impressed by director/lead actress Asia Argento’s 98-minute exercise in cinematic depravity. Even the R-rated trailer, available for download through iTunes, is enough to make one’s skin crawl; filthy imagery escorts viewers into the lives of Sarah (Argento), a slutty train-wreck of a mother, and her physically and emotionally abused son Jeremiah.

It’s not the kind of thing you’d expect to go over well in Knoxville, even though this is where it was filmed. Conveniently, it doesn’t look to be opening here anytime soon, opting instead to stick close to major-city theaters—New York City, Los Angeles, the usual suspects—since its March 10 opening.  

Several Knoxvillians who worked on the film’s crew during its October 2003 production got a sneak preview when it was shown during a Nashville film festival (it was also selected for the Cannes, Toronto and SXSW film festivals). Personal involvement notwithstanding, some from the local contingent argue that the film has redeeming value—although few would delude themselves into believing it has box-office hit potential. “It’s surprisingly good,” says Andrew Witt, a UT film school graduate who worked swing during production. “The subject matter, I don’t think it’s going to catch on as far as mainstream audiences go, and it definitely won’t do well in the Bible Belt. But it’s a nice underground film; it’ll still have a nice cult following.”

A handful of film critics share Witt’s sentiments. The Village Voice applauded Argento’s manic performance, and others condoned the film’s brave content. In a review posted on, Chicago-based journalist Peter Sobcynski gushed that it was “spiked with moments of true brilliance.” Asked to elaborate, he explains, “It’s off the beaten path. It’s one of those movies where you go see it at the theater and half the audience has gotten up and left by the halfway point. But the ones that people walk out of are usually the most interesting—they’re films that aren’t trying to play to everyone.”

Regardless of critical reception, The Heart Is Deceitful did manage to accomplish a fairly rare feat via its Knoxville-based production. Though the film is set in West Virginia, scenes were shot in a variety of local venues: in housing projects and an apartment in the Fort, beneath the interstate overpass in the Old City, in a closed-down Burger King on North Peters Road, at a diner off Watt Road at a West Knoxville truck stop, among others. Aesthetically, it’s not much to be proud of—the film itself bristles with dingy, less-than-wholesome environments—but advocates of the area’s budding film industry insist that it’s a step in the right direction.

Mitchell Galin, spokesperson for Tennessee’s recently-formed Film Production Advisory Committee, says that, historically, films have had a tendency to steer clear of Tennessee, setting up shop instead in states that offer production-cost reducing incentives to filmmakers, either through direct refunds or transferable tax credits. Several surrounding states, including North and South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana, offer such benefits, making Tennessee a tough sell for locale-seeking filmmakers. “What we’re trying to do now is level the playing field,” Galin says.

In addition to pumping money into local economies and providing jobs, Galin notes the educational benefits of having an active film industry. While most colleges offer classes on screenwriting and acting, few provide opportunities for students—such as Witt—to learn the nuts ‘n’ bolts of on-the-job crew work. The benefits of such experience, Galin says, are twofold. “It’s training people for new, high-paying jobs, and it’s filling these crews with locals rather than bringing in people from the outside,” he says.

However, as Galin notes, training indigenous film workers is of little long-term benefit to the state if they can’t find steady work after the film is done. “Basically, you’re training people to leave the state…. Ideally, when one production finishes, it should be replaced by another production.”

In response, the Tennessee Film/TV Coalition is pursuing legislation that would provide support for filmmakers by way of financial incentives. A list of supporters is being collected on the organization’s website,, as a means of demonstrating need to the state government. “All these things are budding, but they need to be watered,” Galin says. “It’s not so much a matter of ‘if you build it, they will come.’ It’s more like, ‘if they come, we’ll build it.’” 

A Homeless District?

Across the country, there has been a push by the national Interagency Council on Homelessness to dig into the problem in an attempt to learn how to resolve it, rather than sustain it. In October of 2005, Knoxville adopted a plan that takes cues from that national movement called “The Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.” There hadn’t been much action on the plan, however, until now, with the city’s announcement of its intention to support Volunteer Ministries’ renovation of the 5th Ave. Motel to provide permanent low-income housing.

Studies done through the Interagency Council on Homelessness have reported that the “chronically homeless,” who have been homeless for at least one year or have been intermittently homeless four times in three years, are draining up most of the funds set aside for emergency services, especially in the form of hospital bills. Because the majority of chronic homeless people are afflicted with mental and physical problems, it is essential to get them off the street and hooked up with support services.

“Housing first” is the catchphrase guiding the plan’s first stages. Volunteer United Ministries Center hopes to break ground at the 5th Ave. Motel site in November, beginning work on turning the derelict building into 57-60 one-bedroom and studio apartments. VUMC’s initial plan was to demolish the old KARM building down the street and build a new facility, but director Ginny Weatherstone says, “We became aware that if we were to use the Fifth Ave. Motel site, we’d be able to increase the number of apartments, take advantage of some low-income tax credits and also to preserve a historic building, so it seemed like a win-win situation.”

Originally called Minvilla, the cluster of 13 rowhouses was built in 1913, when there was a trend afoot to move out of downtown into areas that would still be accessible by a newly installed streetcar line running downtown from Fountain City. Though they are extremely dilapidated now, the buildings’ graceful Neoclassical designs are still evident.

The news of VUMC’s move to 5th Ave. from its downtown location might strike surrounding neighborhoods Fourth and Gill and Old North Knoxville as worrisome. Many residents feel the area already shoulders an inordinate percentage of the homeless burden in Knoxville. However, the 10-year plan may require that residents shrug off the NIMBY attitude in favor of the big picture. Weatherstone assures, “The area has had a bad reputation for the past three years because no one has been in charge of it, so it has become a flophouse. I would say what we’re doing is not a building for the homeless. It’s a building for the newly housed.”

Indeed, the motel had the reputation of being a den of squalor even in its days as a “motel,” where many people lived by the week. And since it closed following a fatal stabbing that prompted officials to seek out various codes violations in 2003, it’s been boarded up but easily infiltrated by vagrants through broken windows and even a busted door.

The city supports the plan and hopes it will help clean up the area’s image. “There are concerns about the loitering of the homeless,” says city spokesperson Amy Nolan. “But this is a housing facility and there will be security guards and case management services, so we see it as a solution to the unsupervised activity in the area.”

“We’re happy that the building will be saved,” says Kim Trent of Knox Heritage. “We had worked on a deal with a private developer [Phillip Welker, who couldn’t be reached for comment], but it was my understanding that he couldn’t come to an agreement on the price.” Funding will come from a couple of sources: about $460,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds to redevelopment from the city and low income tax credits and funds for historic preservation.

The most ardent point Weatherstone wants to make is that this is not another emergency shelter. Though there may have to be some supplemental money, especially at first, tenants will pay rent and be strongly urged to maintain jobs. “The goal is to get people off the streets quickly and then work toward the point where they can be accountable for themselves,” she says.



Wednesday, March 15

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