LANDMARKS FROM THE MOVIE "SLING BLADE"

BENTON

Back in 1995 Billy Bob Thornton filmed the iconic movie "Sling Blade" in Benton. Many of the locations are no longer there. For instance the lawnmower repair shop where Karl works been replaced by a bank. However, fans of the film can take a driving tour of the town and view some landmarks that they might recognize.

A memorable scene between Vaughan (John Ritter) and Karl was filmed here at Gary's Whopper Burger. As you can see, recent road construction came pretty close to bulldozing the place, but as of this writing it looks like Gary's is going to survive the progress. Gary no longer owns Gary's. The new owners kept Gary's name on the place. I'm ambivalent about that kind of thing. On the one hand it creates a kind of body snatcher vibe. Somebody writes a check and assumes a local identity, a generation of goodwill, without having actually having built it up themselves. On the other hand, the new owner doesn't have to buy new advertising and signage; and keeping the former owner's name on the establishment does preserve the culture, especially in a case like this. People all over the world have seen this diner. It's the site of a memorable scene from cinema history.

Here's a frame from that memorable scene showing the interior. There are three booths in the place, and the center one is where the actors sat. There are pictures of Ritter and Thornton taped to the window next to the booth, so you'll know for sure when you've found the right place.

Here's the interior today, some fifteen years after the release of the movie. In the scene, Vaughan tells Karl that Doyle, the boyfriend of the kid's mother, is a dangerous monster and he fears for the safety of his little misfit family.

I watched the movie twice while researching the story and was struck with the realization that I misunderstood significant aspects of it when it first came out, particularly the character of Doyle, the abusive boyfriend. In their turns, Linda, Vaughan and the kid each take Karl aside and privately tell him how rotten and dangerous Doyle is. It's like a whispering campaign, and it's done in a patient and organized way.

After all, how dangerous is Doyle really? What did he actually do? What do we actually SEE him do? He yells and talks trash. He breaks a window, maybe flips over a table. He can't keep his guitar in tune. He's bossy. He drinks a good bit and he props his feet up on the furniture. But how violent is he? After I saw the film the first time many years ago I would have described him as a wife-beater, but in the movie he doesn't hit anybody. Even at the end when Karl attacks him with a lawnmower blade, Doyle doesn't raise a hand to stop him. On one occasion he shoves Linda, but only after she shoves him first; and immediately after that a twelve year old kid pelts him with beer bottles and cans for thirty seconds while he lies there on the floor totally passive. Doyle is the abused party, not Linda and the kid.

Here's another frame from the movie, the famous football scene in which Karl and the kid take on the neighborhood and bond as an ersatz father/son unit. It was filmed at C. W. Lewis Stadium on Market Street (home field of Benton High School), just a block from the Gann House and the Gann Museum, the only building in America constructed of bauxite.

The field has gone through some additions and renovations. The scoreboard has been enlarged and moved to the opposite end zone, and you might argue that football fields are pretty much identical. Still, this one can be identified by the small white building behind the end zone in the picture and the red brick building on the left in the background.

The household consisting of Linda, Vaughan and the kid is feminized and fearful. When we first meet the kid, he's doing laundry, customarily a feminine task. He mentions early on that he's constantly afraid, fearful of everything that crosses his path. Vaughan expresses his anxiety constantly. Doyle makes a point of telling everybody that he's not afraid of anything or anyone. When he moves into the household, masculinity is one of the things he tries to promote. He says the man is head of the household. He insists that the boy stop being so squirrelly and introspective. He's taken it on as his mission to form the household to a more conventioal social mold.

There's a famous scene that illustrates the way Doyle holds to certain mainstream core values and tries to instill them in others. This week I saw it with fresh eyes. One evening he assembles his tribe of cronies (The other misfit family he's adopted.) to drink liquor and rehearse their garage band. The number kicks off well enough, but then Doyle joins in with his guitar sorely out of tune. The number breaks down. Everybody stops playing. Doyle says, "Play through it. You've got to play through it."

Doyle knew what he was doing. This was an object lesson for his band. You don't bail out when the least little thing goes wrong. That's a core American value, one of those family values people talk about, and it's represented by Doyle.

On the left is another frame from the movie, this one showing the house where the family lives. Find it on the corner of Main and Vine, number 522, just five blocks from the town square. It's been spruced up some. Has a new roof and siding on it now. Here it is today pictured on the right. From the director's commentary on the DVD I got the sense that the interiors of the home scenes were shot in two or three different houses by arrangement with realtors who had properties in between owners.

Speaking of Doyle's band, if Doyle is such a dangerous monster, how come the members of the band aren't afraid of him? There aren't but a couple of them who could beat Doyle in a fistfight. Heck, one of them is even in a wheelchair and he doesn't much hop when Doyle says hop. When he tries to get this bunch of freeloaders to leave his house in the wee hours of the morning it takes him five minutes of yelling and screaming, and even when he breaks a window those guys don't look like they expect the tantrum to lead to much.

The danger posed by Doyle comes fabricated from the mouths of the three members of the little group that adopted Karl. Karl's perception of Doyle, and the audience's perception as well, is defined by the fearful propaganda coming from a group of habitual victims, not by much of anything that Doyle actually does. Karl is especially vulnerable to this kind of thing. He's not equipped for critical thinking in the first place. On top of that, all his life he's been in an institution where he's been told what to think by the people who fed and housed him, so his present situation is just an extension of that. The big moment comes when a drunken Doyle threatens to kill Linda if she leaves him. That's really the only incriminating thing he does, that one drunken threat. And Vaughan jumps on it like a court recorder saying that he is a witness, that he heard the threat. By that point in the film, the audience has probably forgotten that the kid made the same threat against Doyle early in the movie. Of course when the kid said he wanted to kill Doyle, he said it to Karl in his secret place in the woods, not in front of witnesses.

The movie mentions that the kid's father committed suicide. I wonder if there isn't a potential Sling Blade prequel about a group of small town passive aggressives who drive the man of the house to self-destruction. That's what happens when you watch Sling Blade while Heathers is still in your memory. Themes from one movie creep into your interpretation of the other.

The movie begins and ends here, in the state mental hospital. These scenes were filmed at the Arkansas Health Center, which appears in the credits under its old name, the Benton Services Center. I asked the people at the information desk about the movie and was told that they knew the scenes were filmed here, but they didn't know which building in particular was used.

It's probably just as well. They don't want to encourage sightseers to go cruising through the place. Most of the buildings are abandoned. A couple are used as nursing home facilities. I was told a couple of buildings to avoid for my own safety's sake. If Murphy's Law applies to bloggers, one of those is probably the building I was looking for. These old structures were built in the days of asbestos and lead paint, so remediation expenses make renovations too costly. Judging from the structure of the windows this isn't the building, but most of them look something like this. And if you look at the detail of the windows, you'll see there are drapes in this building knotted in that same idiosyncratic way you see in the movie still.

So those are the high points of the Sling Blade tour, the major extant locations that you can see just driving on public thoroughfares. If you want to check with the Benton Chamber of Commerce, they've got a document compiled by Larry Haskins that identifies just about every location in the movie. Without the help of those two sources, this story could have taken a very long time to put together.

The town of Benton is 24 miles south of Little Rock on Interstate 30.


RTJ--7/20/2009



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