Though less punchy and therefore less accessible than American Movie, Stephen Earnhart’s homespun documentary Mule Skinner Blues has nothing but love for its posse of trailer park denizens. Beanie Andrews, an ex-shrimper and recovering alcoholic, is the self-proclaimed freak of the Buckaneer Trailer Park. Cast as an extra in Earnhart’s low-budget music video for Jim White’s “Book of Angels,” the fast-talking Beanie charmed the video crew with his crazy antics. Thus Mule Skinner Blues was born. Buckaneer becomes an unlikely hotbed for talent waiting to explode on the B-movie screen. With the help of janitor Larry Parrot, Beanie writes a short film about a dead-musician-turned-gorilla searching a swamp for his severed arm. This delightful, cornball featurette is the synthesis of Beanie’s lifelong mania and Parrot’s obsession with underground horror flicks. Away from the big lights of a Hollywood film premiere, the Buckaneer population gathers together to pat their entertainers on the back.
Like any good showman, Beanie “knows what people need to have a good time.” Beanie may be delusional but his passion is undeniable. He spots an abandoned boat in a desolate junkyard and is instantly reminded of The African Queen. Thus he decides to use the location for his Turn About is Fair Play production. At the heart of Mule Skinner Blues is the notion that everyone has a story but that few care to listen. Earnhart, though, pays close attention, celebrating the lives of folk looking to break free form a miasmic economic enslavement. You couldn’t make these lives up and it’s certainly rare for a director to so earnestly stare at such overwhelming sadness and nakedly trace one’s desire to find purpose. Miss Jeanie, a singer who dreams of hitting it big with her song “DUI Blues,” almost died on the operating table because doctors failed to notice her adverse reaction to fresh air. (While Earnhart’s recreation of events may sometimes seem trivial and amateurish, one of his more evocative flourishes playfully toys with Lea’s near-death experience.) Jeanie’s is aversion to the cold is as startling as costume designer Annabelle Lea’s revelation that she keeps the body of her beloved bulldog inside a backyard freezer.
While these moments are certainly uncomfortable, Earnhart delves beneath the surface shock. Consumed by loneliness, Annabelle refuses to see her pet companion cut up and stuffed by a taxidermist. She wants to be creative yet she’s victim to the grunt work that keeps her living hand-to-mouth. Steve Walker, haunted by memories of Vietnam, is a victim to the bottle (it’s so bad he puts beer in his cereal). With Walker’s recollection of a transcendental Vietnam killing, Buckaneer begins to take shape as a secluded retreat from the madness of the outside world. Beanie knows these are his people, that everyone has a hole to fill. Amid the economic wasteland of a Buckaneer/Jacksonville community still nostalgic for the days when Hollywood filmed in their backyards, Beanie produces a film and makes his friends feel like they’re the center of the universe. For a moment, they’re movie stars. For a moment, there is no pain.