Forty-six states prohibit catching fish by hand, but one place where it’s legal is Oklahoma. The process is crude; the fish catcher (or noodler) reaches into nooks and crannies along creek and river banks and hopes a flathead takes the bait — his hand. It’s bloody and dangerous — especially when the groper finds a beaver or snake instead of a catfish. It’s also cutthroat: Noodlers don’t cotton to intruders on their fishing holes.
Ex-noodlers may be more numerous than practicing ones because the men who do it seem to outgrow the sport while sneering at their former colleagues. As one ex-noodler says in Bradley Beesley’s documentary Okie Noodling, “I can afford a fishin’ pole.”
The Indy Film Showcase of the KC Filmmakers’ Jubilee will screen Beesley’s movie — which won the Audience Award for documentaries at this year’s South by Southwest festival — and two earlier films, Flaming Lips Have Landed and Hill Stomp Hollar, on Thursday, August 23, at Union Station’s City Stage. Damon Cook, producer of two of the films, will be present.
The thirty-year-old Beesley, who still lives in Norman, Oklahoma, where he grew up, says the film got off to a rocky start when he began inquiring about noodlers’ identities. “I’d find guys who did it, but when I said, ‘Can I come out with you and film it?’ they’d say, ‘No.'”
Eventually he earned their trust enough to find himself and his camera nose deep in the backwaters of such towns as Paul’s Valley. As his camera captured different individuals or groups noodling in their respective territories, issues of class and gender came to the surface. “We’re the lowest on the totem pole,” says one noodler who has initiated his freckled son into the sport. “We’re the scum suckers.”
“We totally fabricated the tournament,” Beesley says of the competitive event that closes the film and has taken on a life of its own. “Once I started the film, I realized I needed to bring guys together in some way. Otherwise, it’s just boring. And the tournament has snowballed. This year, there was another one that drew over sixty noodlers.”
Beesley’s first movie, Hill Stomp Hollar, explores the world of Fat Possum Records, a Mississippi-based indie label that specializes in the particular style of blues found in the northern nether regions of that state — “not the same ole blues crap,” says one participant. It’s heavy on slide and is filled with artists whose “scars are on their ankles and in their music.”
Featured in the film full of juke joints and house parties are R.L. Burnside (who has opened for the Beastie Boys and will appear at the Ozark Blues Festival September 8 in Springfield, Missouri); T-Model, whose limited career has left him basically homeless; and Cedell Davis, who has adapted his musical technique to his polio affliction by manipulating the neck of his guitar with a butter knife. The men tell their experiences in prisons, chain gangs and liquor stores. And though their following is fervent, it’s extremely limited. Says Matthew Johnson, who started the label, “We have 800 dedicated fans. When one dies, it’s felt.”
Johnson, however, was less than pleased with the movie, Beesley says. “They hated it so much, the label has bought the film back from me. They tried to stop its showing at the 1999 South by Southwest festival, but the organizers showed it anyway. Wherever I show it now, it has to be at a not-for-profit affair.”
Nevertheless, the film is adept at capturing an unappreciated sect of songwriters and musicians who regale fans with stories of homicide, “ass-pocket whiskey” and the “fat women of Pine Bluff, Arkansas.” “Once I turned on the camera,” Beesley recalls, “they really didn’t understand the consequences of what they were saying.”
The last film in the showcase, Flaming Lips Have Landed, a documentary about the Oklahoma City cult band from its 1983 inception, is the shortest. Raw footage of the band in its garage and low-budget videos can’t dull the film’s sharpest thorn, though: How much does anyone want to hear from a band that admits it has no talent?