March 26, 2008

ND/NF dispatch. 1.

This week's entry for New Directors / New Films is still being updated, and in the meantime, David D'Arcy will be sending in a few dispatches as well. The series opens tonight and runs through April 6.

Frozen River New Directors / New Films is a mixed bag, as all such selections of new work by relatively little-known directors tend to be. One thing is sure. It starts out well.

Frozen River [site], writer-director Courtney Hunt's debut feature, which I reviewed for Screen, is the prototype for ND/NF, a small-budget drama shot entirely on location, with a lean, unsentimental script and actors who can make the story believable. It's set in the dead of winter on the shores of the St Lawrence River, and its plot involves two women who bond in utter desperation to make a buck ferrying illegal immigrants (who are even more desperate than they are) across the ice, protected by the fact that each side of the river is "sovereign" Mohawk territory.

Both Ray (Melissa Leo) and Lila (Misty Upham) have children. They share Ray's tiny trailer with her (Ray's husband took off with the down-payment on a new "double-wide" to gamble it away) and Lila's baby was taken away by her Mohawk in-laws after her husband died when he went through the ice on a smuggling trip. The two women also share a dark sense of practicality that teeters on the edge of fatalism, which is all over the grey skies of the North Country, shot in a grim magnificence by cinematographer Reed Morano.

There's a taut intrigue in this story of bonding and crime on the cheap, and acting that balances stoic understatement with unsettling explosions of emotion. The soundtrack also balances solo guitar, the obligatory instrument of Sundance-bound, low-budget filmmakers, with the ominous unsettling crunch of the river ice under tires. The drama's details also add up to an anthropology of lives that hover at or below minimum wage, and the climate doesn't make life any easier. Then there's the seemingly preposterous twist: into this society where men gamble and women scrape by, working hand-to-mouth to raise children, immigrants from poor countries like China and Pakistan are risking their lives and all their resources to have a part of it. Yes, people are dying to come in. Frozen River has a tender, humane ending that flows unexpectedly yet smoothly out of the story Hunt has led us through. You'll see more from her. (And we'll have an interview with Courtney Hunt within the next few days.)

Winter films don't do well at the box office unless they are about Christmas, although Ray and Lila make a fateful run across the river so that Ray can buy presents for her two sons. Remember Affliction, Paul Schrader's powerful drama about a man who loses control in a New Hampshire winter as he senses that he is losing contact with his young daughter? Even with a dream team cast, that film barely reached beyond the art house audience, although it certainly deserved a larger one.

Ballast Ballast, which has gotten plenty of attention on GreenCine, has some clear similarities to Frozen River, starting with its grey palette. Grey is the word in Ballast. Its cast of characters is struggling after a suicide in the middle of endless fields in the Mississippi Delta. A storekeeper, anguishing after the death of his brother, is left with his brother's wife and her son of 12, the prototypical child at risk.

Ballast is also a first feature, Lance Hammer's, and its script, unlike the tight scenario of Frozen River, is more like an outline of events and relationships. There are long silences during which the camera meditates on austere messy interiors or on the furrowed fields that make you think of drawings by Vincent Van Gogh or Jean-Francois Millet. To call the film open-ended assumes too positive a judgment, yet its lack of any resolution gives it a different realism than that of the hardheaded Frozen River.

Moving Midway Moving Midway [site] is another look at the South today, a documentary shot inexpensively and directed by the film critic Godfrey Cheshire about the literal moving of his family's ancestral plantation from its ancestral site outside Raleigh, North Carolina, to another location that was less threatened by highways, malls and rapid (if not rapacious) housing construction.

Cheshire makes his directorial debut with the story of his family, genealogy being an activity in which Southerners have often taken the lead, and he takes us from the early 18th century to the present on land that his family has lived on for all that time. His family owned slaves, and some family members had intimate relations with them. In the course of this journey, Cheshire sees a letter from a black man in the New York Times who has the same name as his mother, Hinton, and the family story expands to include black relatives that Cheshire never knew that he had. In fact, a slaves' graveyard is on the property that the house is about to vacate. All the while we watch the understandable mourning among the white relatives for the moving of a home that holds almost two centuries of memories.

Filled with archival imagery, Moving Midway grows poignant as it tracks the fate an icon threatened by the kind of sprawl that is turning much of the South into a strip mall, or into something terrifyingly larger and uglier. Cheshire's family is genuine and genteel in its willingness to accept the kind of dark truths that most families have tried to suppress. They are so disarmingly kind, however, that you can't imagine that they're typical. Occasionally, the memories of a less harmonious time seep out. Cheshire's distant cousin, Robert Hinton, who leads the Africana Studies Department at NYU, watches a costumed re-enactment of a Civil War battle, the kind of ritual that you can see all over the South. The re-enactments are popular with whites, and a lot less popular with blacks, as Hinton takes pains to explain. Asked if it bothers him to watch, Hinton says it doesn't - "just as long as you keep losing."

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Posted by dwhudson at March 26, 2008 1:41 PM