dir: Tim Sutton, 2013
Being the postgrad, east coast schooled, generally liberal person I am, I love me some NPR. I was raised on KQED, WCPN, and The Prairie Home Companion (“Guy Noir” is still my favorite skit). It was during one of my romps through their various editorials that I was first exposed to Willis Earl Beale. If I remember correctly, they were having a discussion about his early career and extolled his lo-fi, experimental approach to traditional blues and soul.
Now, that was at least a couple years ago. So, as I’m sitting down to watch this cat drift through Memphis I found myself asking “I know this cat don’t I?” That sense of familiarity, nostalgia, and general mysticism, is something that Memphis does very well.
In the course of doing some research, I’ve laughed every time I’ve read a summary for this film. This is mainly because, they’re all increasingly verbose for a film that almost extolls a lack of set dialogue. But, for the curious: Willis plays a talented musician who is struggling to find reasons to continue making music, losing himself in the mystical landscape of Memphis, Tennessee. That is (one of) the most solid summaries you can get.
Much like Willis himself, Memphis is not your typical film. Rather, it mixes elements of cinéma vèrité with Southern Gothic influences, all of which is filtered through a wandering narrator (the camera) that explores spaces and characters in those spaces. From beautiful shots of characters in deep space, to listless tracking shots of Willis tramping about, the film plays like a semi-coherent sequence of dreams.
But back to those previous elements.
This may seem like a reach, but Willis and director Tim Sutton’s experiment of “man + film + Memphis” screams Minnie and Moskowitz to me (if you haven’t gotten into Cassavetes, do so now). Like Moskowitz, Memphis follows very fluid rules for dialogue, allowing seemingly genuine moments to happen in both speech and expression. In fact, nearly all of the dialogue feels ad-libbed as the characters organically experience each other and their surroundings. This scheme works well enough that half the time the film feels like a documentary.
This in of itself is plausible considering Willis is playing a (not so) fictionalized version of himself, and the various other players don’t seem to be acting at all.The most charming conceits of this stylistic choice occur when the Boy With The Bike either looks into camera or directs his fellow child actors to “look at the camera!” It’s a beautifully honest moment because it reveals the artifice of film. Even in its deepest moments and most cogent epiphanies, film as an art and presentation, is still a fabrication. Willis himself waxes poetic on this idea and applies it to life, claiming it’s “all artifice.”And yet even in Willis’ own deconstruction of this Oz we are invited to be enchanted, seduced.
Much of that seduction is due to the cyclical nature of Memphis. Nearly each act is broken into repeated setups and a series of vignette-like sequences. At times, we’re spending time with Willis, highlighted by his confessionals to some off-camera companion (i.e. the viewer). Other times, our wandering observation hangs with a bevy of secondary characters. From long sequences to brief intimate moments, they all stand on their own merit. One of the most rapturous involves Willis’ one-legged companion. After an unfortunate moment of vandalism, Sutton sets up an intensely inflective moment. Sitting in the backseat of his Cadillac in an overgrown back alley, The One Legged Man sits inert as he stares into the depths of a lighter’s flame. I don’t know if it’s because of the build up, the patience of the sequence, or the beauty of the framing, but there’s a haunting aspect to this scene that’s unshakeable.
That haunting, of space and mind, exudes from Memphis and gives it its mythical quality.
Given this, the film is, again, atypical. If you walk into it with an expectation of tight narratives and loquacious writing, you will be disappointed. And for all the wrong reasons. Memphis is much more than can be said. The film is at once eternal and ephemeral, like the lyrics that flirt with Willis’ soul as he sojourns in the depths of a forest.
All of these things summed up put me in a place where the idea of the Southern Gothic came to mind. Although it lacks the high prose of the written word, Memphis speaks volumes by power of visual and thematic suggestion. This, added with an interesting near complete lack of whiteness in the film, brought me to the understanding that Memphis is a couple things.
First, it is an ode to the sublime. It moves throughout its namesake observing, presenting, and revealing the city’s crags and crannies. All without truly explaining anything. This hands off approach, and lack of coddling the viewer, is akin to throwing your child into the ocean to learn to swim. For, it is only then, being alone within the film’s world, that you can experience “glory.” This is so unlike most cinematic experiences that many will be off put by it. But, once you understand that the film isn’t trying to make things easy for you, there is much to uncover. This is specifically important because much of the film is based off of the suggestion of experience, emotion, and familiarity. Like having a conversation with an old friend, the references complete the story. Said references however, can only be unlocked in certain ways. Above all of which is a familiarity with Memphis and blackness.
This brings me to my second point.
Due to it being a film, Memphis is not Literature in the strictest sense. But it does exist in a unique realm that I would argue stands adjacent to it’s written cousin in genre, the Southern Gothic. In fact, I would argue that the film specifically inhabits a realm of a Black Southern Gothic. Willis’ eccentricity is posited in the midst of a rich, but deteriorating landscape, both physical and spiritual. Memphis is dripping with culture and history. Yet, it seems to be fighting a losing battle with the nature around it, as though the universe itself has come to reclaim land given on loan.
In like fashion, Willis finds himself nearly consumed by vice in his fall from grace, running from the “debt he owes God.” It is only when he is delivered to isolation that he truly finds that which makes him whole. The blackness of the experience is one that cannot be understated nor forgotten. In turn, the blackness of the experience informs how you interpret and understand the film. Memphis is undeniably black. And the film forces you to deal with this reality.
In fact, the specific lack of persistent white faces in the film underpin the surreal nature of Memphis. As absurd as that sounds, I behoove you to think about how the film is explicitly and implicitly a black experience. To experience the city, and it’s people, and then ask yourself “wait…where are the white folks?” is both unique and interesting. If anything, the film manipulates our conditioned expectations of present whiteness to it’s own advantage, carrying us into a world nearly bereft of white influence, and thus white expectations and constraints. Obviously this exists in the real world. But, within the world of the film, it signifies the machination of a very specific experience, and a very specific realm.
So risking cliche, Memphis is off the beaten path. More importantly, it’s a path worth following, if only to experience it.
Memphis is crooning in the woods on Netflix.
The original Homeboy With A Keyboard ™, dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things. Find his rants and retweetery @dapisdope