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The Experimental High Notes of “Hale County This Morning, This Evening”

(Source: www.newyorker.com)

I dislike the term “experimental film.” All films are experimental; no filmmaker really knows how a film is going to turn out. Movies that don’t have narratives shouldn’t be pigeonholed as “experimental”—i.e., works of science that merely study images and sounds—but rather understood as artistic experiences that arouse emotions by other means than performed drama.

RaMell Ross’s first feature, “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” is experimental in the best way: he’s doing something that isn’t usually done, he’s doing it in his own way, and he undertook the project without a sense that it would even end up as a film. It’s a lyrical documentary in which dramas are embedded, elicited, extrapolated, and in which tone and mood—and the visual and sonic moments and associations that they conjure—are inseparable from the observation and evocation of character and personal experience. Though made modestly and intimately, the film embodies a vast conceptual and aesthetic ambition. At the same time, the film displays an unusual, and revealing, internal conflict between its style and its substance.

Ross, as title cards state, moved to Hale County, in western Alabama, in 2009, to work as a basketball coach and photography teacher. While there, he began filming the people he met and the surrounding landscape. His main subjects are a small group of residents—a young woman named Boosie, who’s expecting twins; her partner, a young man named Quincy; their toddler son, Kyrie; a college student named Daniel; and Daniel’s mother, Mary. Quincy and Mary both work at a local catfish-processing plant (the area’s main employer). Mary, who’s been on the job for twenty years, is reconciled to the routine. Quincy, who seems to be about twenty, hasn’t been doing the job for long and doesn’t see much future in it (he says, “I’m making enough money just to go back to work”). Daniel is attending a small local college, Selma University, a historically black school; he’s on the basketball team and aspires to make the N.B.A.

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Like Ross, the film’s participants are black, and Ross is explicit about his artistic intentions in a scene where he talks with an older black man who’s burning used tires. While filming the patterns of smoke through sunlight and trees, Ross explains, “We need more black folks making photos in the area and taking pictures and stuff.” He depicts the participants as everyday people who do what many people do—go to work, go to school, raise children. They visit with family and friends, seek pleasures, face responsibilities, experience joys and sorrows. He gives them the chance to speak about their experiences, ideas, interests, and dreams—briefly and intermittently. Each of them has a moment or two. Mary speaks about letting Daniel be raised by her grandmother until he was twelve while she was with a man who “had an attitude problem.” Daniel expresses his hopes for his athletic career. Boosie speaks wistfully in the wake of an overwhelming family tragedy. Quincy explains that he wants to give Kyrie a better life, to encourage him to pursue the education that he himself didn’t.

What the participants say is memorable, significant, fascinating—and sparse. When the subjects speak, they do so expansively and briefly. Ross’s photographic ambitions—to embrace the landscape, the tone, and the texture of daily life—dominate the particular experiences of the people whom he films. The movie’s participants are edited down, their discourse trimmed to an aria or two, with few audible requests for elaboration by Ross. Ross’s curiosity and empathy are certainly not lacking; his devotion to and esteem for the participants is manifest. He films with tenderness, care, and admiration. “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” is a film of love, but it’s often dominated by Ross’s photographic ideal. His depiction of neighbors going about their business, children playing in a park, the rendering of the landscape, storm clouds and rain, gas flames and thick foliage, fields and roads, gravelly lots and apartment-house courtyards, sunlight, insects, and flowers plays nearly as significant a role in the movie’s composition as the active participation of the residents. Refining and reifying the depiction of the film’s subjects to an exemplary grandeur, the film also filters out many of their personal particularities and converts their presences into abstractions.

The strategy places exceptional pressure on Ross’s cinematographic vision, which varies greatly depending on the circumstances of filming. Much of the landscape photography is just that—it’s of relatively little cinematic inspiration, falling between plain recording and familiarly picturesque compositions. The more classical documentary depictions of the film’s participants are only occasionally distinctive. (The image of Mary speaking, in a shadow-filled room, of Daniel’s childhood has a tremulous, shuddering depth of experience.) When Ross films sports—in which, of course, he has professional expertise—his pictorial imagination rises to an exceptional, mnemonic originality that transfigures experience. Several sequences of Daniel on the basketball court have a perceptive compositional and dynamic originality that should serve as an anthology piece and a lesson in invention.

Filming a discussion in a classroom, Ross presents a middle-aged man who, calling himself a “city kid,” questions assumptions about “what is poor and impoverished,” relating his “joy” at the daily pleasures of country life, including hunting, picking pecans, walking barefoot on the red clay, and being healed as a child by his grandmother’s traditional herbal cures. Ross himself seemingly responds to the man in a telling edit—the scene cuts to the modern, high-tech, well-equipped delivery room in a local hospital where Boosie is giving birth to twins. In effect, the cut poses the question of the film: how to live a life that is sustained by the benefits of technology without sacrificing the knowledge, experience, and heritage of a life lived close to the land.

Without making politics explicit, the ambient menace of cavalierly imposed power is made clear in scenes of police stops of young black male drivers. No overt cruelty is shown, and no abuses are depicted, but the tension and the fear aroused by these enforced encounters is palpable—and it’s reëmphasized in a sequence of poignant comedy, in which one young man playfully fantasizes about a movie that would be called “A World Without Guns.” As he elaborates the fantasy, it’s all too plain that it would be very similar to today’s world with guns: in his vision, police officers would instead be armed with spears and would throw them with deadly effect at people who flee.

The sequence of Ross’s observation of smoke through the trees is a brief construction of extraordinary complexity. It begins with a view through a car windshield of a luxurious neighborhood; the car turns onto a dirt road, and Ross inserts a clip from a 1913 silent film, “Lime Kiln Club Field Day,” the first feature to star a black actor, the great vaudeville star Bert Williams. (The film was left unedited and was completed and premièred in 2014.) Williams—a black man who plays the role in blackface—peeps through foliage to gaze at something with furtive curiosity. Ross approaches a large white house with pillars and a porch, and then shows a black man hefting a tire and piling it onto the fire.

As Ross and the man speak (Ross explains that he’s captivated by the patterns of smoke, and the man says he was wondering “what the hell you’re out there doing” and then tells Ross that his grandson has just won a scholarship), we see another image of Williams performing, and then Williams looking into the camera after the slate is presented. This juxtaposition suggests other ambiguities, of black men performing, even in daily life, a conspicuous role for public consumption. It’s the moment in the film in which Ross is most conspicuously engaged in discussion with participants. It’s a particularly powerful and revealing sequence, but it’s also one that remains at the level of suggestion, its energy dissipated in the abstractions of smoke overhead.

Filming scenes surrounding one family’s grievous loss, Ross bears witness in images that mark his very presence as profoundly respectful and profoundly shaken. In other sequences—such as one in which two guitarists play together outdoors at night (one calls the duo “the blues brothers”) and another, a long scene of a church service at which a woman sings with an ecstatic devotional fervor—Ross’s experience stretches the boundaries both of recording and of composition and breaks through to rapture. In these scenes, his observations and experiences have a vast resonance; the emotional and symbolic power of what’s filmed seems to intensify Ross’s cinematographic sensibility. These scenes reach into the loam of living history to extract, in a moment, the immensity of collective experience—of horrors and of beauties that often go unspoken. “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” reaches these extremes of cinematic experience only occasionally, yet few filmmakers seek to do so at all, and few movies ever reach them.

More Info: www.newyorker.com

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