Memphis Dir. Tim Sutton

[Kino Lorber; 2014]

Styles: drama
Others: George Washington, Crossroads, Pavilion

Tim Sutton’s Memphis is a film that wanders. Like the mythological rambling bluesmen of Memphis legend, the film drifts and quietly glides through the eponymous city’s grass-speckled pavement, claustrophobic skies, and unmown lawns. The primary focus of this ambling endeavor is renowned “outsider musician” Willis Earl Beal, the lo-fi soul swaggerer who cockily struts around town with a broom gripped at his side like it’s something between a walking stick and a bo staff. But make no mistake: it is not Beal, but the very camera itself that embodies the drifting mythological Americana at Memphis’s heart. With the camera as our eyes, the audience itself becomes this wandering drifter, visually wandering through the southern cityscape — through painfully beautiful urban compositions shorn out of concrete and corner stores, bright-green-leaved trees and dilapidated churches, boarded-up townhouses, black ominous clouds, and outdated Oldsmobiles. At times consisting of tightly composed shots in the style of Yasujiro Ozu, at others hand-held and jerky in the verité tradition, and sometimes edging through long, Steadicam-smoothed pathways that recall the haunting tracking shots of Le Mépris, Memphis is a poem of shaking leaves, adolescent boys on bikes, endless hedges, sweating fences, scarred musicians, and halogen-lit churches housing well-dressed preachers.

As with any such vision, plot is a minimal fixture of this film (as it was in Sutton’s debut film, Pavilion). Beal portrays a nameless singer who, after achieving local success, finds himself uninspired and pathless. The film follows his local wandering and various interactions with people around town, all of whom are, like Beal’s character, nameless. Instead, anonymous characters flow in and out of Memphis, often for no more than a scene or a single line of dialogue. The dialogue itself is also minimal and somewhat improvised, forged in what Sutton has called a “structured improvisational style.” Much of the film’s moody atmosphere comes from a blend of ethereal gentleness mixed with a deliberate choppiness — shots are suddenly cut, sentences are left hanging, and even sometimes songs from the soundtrack are suddenly violently ended. A conversation between Beal and his girlfriend jumps between seconds-long snippets of dialogue and sentiment, letting the ebb and flow of a lover’s talk create a cinematic stand-in for an interaction in place of an actual one. In such a way, the Memphis’s hazy, otherworldly quality guides a film that, as its title suggests, is more of a place than a story.

Of course, beyond its natural aesthetic beauty, much of one’s opinion of the film hinges on whether you buy into Beal’s act or not. Just as many in the critical community are divided between seeing Beal as a true mythological outsider artist and seeing him as a mere performance-art poseur, Beal’s egotistical-creative-genius act will be divisive for viewers. “I consider myself to be a wizard,” he says in he film’s opening moments, and he indeed casts himself as a prophet, constantly speaking as though he were transmitting a God-sent revelation, though the actual words themselves are rarely so interesting. At the center of Memphis’s marketing, Beal is simultaneously the reason that most people will see the film and actually the least interesting thing to see in it. His Memphis bluesman leather-jacket-and-tilted-fedora look comes across as forced in contrast to the grittier and more realistic look, dress, and talk of the non-actors surrounding him. So it is that a film of great aesthetic beauty lacks an equally-fascinating nucleus.

Memphis’s mythological underpinnings — the city’s evocatively ancient name, the great tradition of wandering bluesmen, the tale of a Bix-Beiderbecke-style tortured genius, the broken-down Americana of the city’s tired streets — are never directly addressed, but instead underlie and creep through the film like the grass poking out of so many of Memphis’s paved sidewalks. Instead, Tim Sutton’s film has the drunken, ambling inactivity that Beal himself personifies. Like any good drifter, the film wanders through town, soaks up the sights and greets a few old friends. And then, as any good drifter must, the camera leaves town and meanders on, its temporary peers and dwelling-places remaining behind, still stuck in their mythological motions.

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