By Leah Churner
Dir. Deborah Kampmeier, U.S., Empire Film Group
If we could only harness the righteous indignation in and around Hounddog, we could heat our homes for free this winter. "Writer-director Deborah Kampmeier, 42, suffered the thousand indignities shoestring independent features are heir to—and then some," reported Premiere. Can't a woman work on a rape movie in peace? She struggled to secure funding, then distribution. Conservative groups responded to Kampmeier's inflammatory screenplay with incendiary blogs. Men stood up trembling in the name of Dakota; after the Sundance premiere in 2007, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights demanded a federal investigation into Hounddog on the grounds of child abuse. "Next year, look for Sundance to introduce a movie about same-sex incest!" cried Bill Donohue, president of the League.
Meanwhile, Paul Petersen, who founded A Minor Consideration, an advocacy organization for child stars, published “The Rape of Dakota Fanning,” a screed that censured Hollywood for its addiction to child pornography, and tossed Wilmington, North Carolina, the shooting location, under the bus as well. Petersen has some memorable one-liners ("Does paying a child make rape okay?" and the italicized “Does the name Leni Riefenstahl ring a bell?") but the eloquence award goes to Dr. Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission for his piece “Fanning the Flames of Perversion.” Dakota resented the denigration of her talent and professionalism. “It’s called acting,” she quipped.
In fact Kampmeier's handiwork has more in common with Lifetime movies for television than with child pornography. It's hard to envision seeing Hounddog in a theater, but one can easily picture it sharing a Tuesday afternoon lineup with Lifetime's Fifteen and Pregnant, She Fought Alone, and Terror at the Mall: Lewellen (Fanning), a barefoot child from a broken home, entertains family and friends with an impression of Elvis Presley, with particular emphasis on "Hound Dog." When Abigail Breslin did a hoochy-koochy stage show at the climax of Little Miss Sunshine, it was meant to be funny. Dakota Fanning's "Elvis dance” is supposed to be tragic; as they say, it's all fun and games until somebody gets raped—in this case by a teenage milkman. Some misunderstanding causes the milkman to believe Lewellen will sleep with him in exchange for tickets to an Elvis concert, and one grisly thing leads to another. She never does get the tickets.
Sensing something has gone horribly wrong, Charles, the elderly black groundskeeper at the neighboring mansion, advises Lewellen to "Keep feelin' the spirit." One evening Charles invites her to come to his barn and hear Willie Mae Thornton's version of "Hound Dog" (no, not on record, Thornton herself has dropped in for a jam session). Transfixed by the power of the blues, Lewellen learns that Elvis is just a minstrel “doin' black people's music,” and she vows never to do her Elvis dance again. Instead, she learns to cope with the pain of rape, abandonment, poverty, and disillusionment by impersonating Big Mama Thornton, and works up a blues rendition of "Hound Dog" based on Thornton's original.
It's every bit as disingenuous as Tyra Banks going undercover in a fat suit, or, better yet, as John Lennon crooning that “woman is the nigger of the world.” This best-forgotten Plastic Ono ditty encapsulates the mopey mood and reductive racial and sexual politics of Hounddog better than anything Elvis Presley ever touched. Kampmeier sloppily connects the dots from the rape of her protagonist to the desecration of black music by Elvis.
Come on. Elvis didn't abscond with the Blues, and by most accounts he was neither a racist nor a rapist. Furthermore (as historians like Nick Tosches have exhaustively proven), Hillbilly music and race records were bedfellows since the dawn of the recording industry. From Jimmie Davis' recording of “She's a Hum Dum Dinger (From Dingersville)” to Wynonie Harris's “Bloodshot Eyes”, the annals of musical miscegenation in the South are mind-bendingly complex; suffice it to say that it didn't begin with Elvis. A particular burr in the saddle is the pervasive assumption that "Hound Dog," like other Elvis hits, was a cover and hence, a rip-off. There was no such thing as a "cover," in the modern sense, in 1955. At that time, in every facet of the music industry (black and white, rural and urban) the professions of "singer" and "songwriter" were distinct and equally reputable. Songs were rarely the creative property of their initial recording artist; ultimately, record-label owners haggled with music publishers to decide who should record what. “Hound Dog” was written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stroller, (along with “Jailhouse Rock,” “Love Potion No. 9,” “Yakety Yak,” and “Is That All There Is?”). In the year of Thornton's release alone, half a dozen renditions were pressed on record, including a country-blues hybrid by Tommy Duncan, former lead vocals for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. (I bring this up because Tommy Duncan's voice shows up on the soundtrack of Hounddog, when a Bob Wills song is used to connote the staid musical tastes of white grownups.) In 1955, Bernie Lowe of Teen Records rewrote the lyrics to “Hound Dog” and arranged a rock-and-roll version for Freddie Bell and the Bellboys to record. The Bellboys' rendering is what Elvis "covered" on Milton Berle's TV show in 1956.
Perhaps the original edit of Hounddog was rich in historical detail (this is, after all, the audience-friendly recut), but the remaining preponderance of Southern Gothic clichés make this highly unlikely. "Stop playin’ that devil music,” shouts Lewellen's on-the-sauce grandma, played by Piper Laurie. Robin Wright Penn, also one of the executive producers, plays Lewellen's aunt, who’s shacking up with the child's father. Her father, by the way, is an abusive widower who gets struck by lightning.
Enough frames are missing from the reedit to cause confusion. (Why is Fanning covered head to toe in snakes? She's asleep—surely this is a dream. No, wait, here comes somebody to pull her out of bed and dust her off. The incident is not mentioned again.) One hates to bring up continuity problems but in this case it seems the reediting is suspiciously bad, shuffled with a vengeance, as if to say, "look what you've done!" to the world who wouldn't let Hounddog breathe. Plenty of darkly meaningful flourishes remain, though, including a parallel edit of a dog killing a chicken while a man has canine-style intercourse with a woman.
This is Kampmeier's second foray into rape moviemaking. Her debut, Virgin (2003), was about a teenage girl who is drugged, date raped, impregnated, and led to believe the conception was immaculate. Kampmeier altered the formula slightly for Hounddog, nixing the pregnancy, setting the clock back and shaving a few years off the heroine’s age. The scene isn’t graphic, but it is gratuitous. Kampmeier tries to prop up this flimsy effort with no-nos galore—child rape, incest, the N word—and fails. All she has to offer is the novelty of a well-known actress in a compromising situation. “Hound Dog,” of course, is a song about crocodile tears. Surely even Dakota Fanning can see the irony in that.