Stinking Heaven Dir. Nathan Silver

[Factory 25; 2015]

Styles: drama, cinema vérité, black comedy
Others: Soft in the Head (2013), Asylum (1972), Warrendale (1967), That Cass McCombs videoclip for County Line with the junkies directed by Aaron Brown

The opening scene in Nathan Silver’s new film, Stinking Heaven, presents us with an idyllic surrounding in which two girls hug, embrace, hold hands, and go skinny dipping in a lake. We presume they are lovers and that they are happy. These initial moments are the only times when the spectator will witness anything close to peacefulness or happiness throughout the rest of the film. It’s no wonder therefore that Silver waits until the end of these first scenes to present us with a title credit and an intertitle warning us that we are now in Passaic, New Jersey. The year is 1990 and we are witnessing a marriage between one of the aforementioned women and an older man. Some time has passed. Things don’t seem to be that happy anymore.

We soon learn more about the environment, a house owned by a young man named Jim (Keith Poulson), who runs and manages a commune of sorts (a sober living home as the residents call it) for those attempting to stay clean of drug and alcohol abuse. During one scene Jim establishes the ground rules for those wishing to spend time in the residence. Along with the obvious no drugs or alcohol allowed, participants are also required to attend group meetings and reenactment therapy sessions, which lead to some of the film’s most disconcerting and distressing scenes (and trust me, there are plenty of distressing scenes to go around here).

Allow me a momentary digression. In 1972, a man called Peter Robinson directed a little-known documentary during the heyday of direct cinema. Asylum chronicled, in cinema vérité format, a house in London administered by a couple of psychiatrists influenced by the theories of R.D. Laing. This meant treating psychiatric disorders through unconventional methods (at the time) by means of a communal living experience. It still remains one of the most powerful and brutal documentaries I have seen on the hardships faced by people with little place in this world. While it has been a few years since I last watched it, I still vividly recall the chaotic and disturbing grainy imagery as a few resident physicians struggle to experimentally aid those at the margins of society.

The reason I mention this rare documentary is because of its uncanny resemblance to Silver’s depiction of former addicts and their uneasy communal living. Mumblecore would be an unfair label for Stinking Heaven (or for Silver’s cinema in general), which seems to draw more heavily from the tradition of 1970s direct cinema. The peculiar choice of filming through the use of a vintage Betacam and the 4:3 aspect ratio further enhances this viewer experience. Silver’s naturalism and dry narrative are constantly contrasted and beautifully clash with the eerie outdated imagery resulting from this aesthetic choice. He presents us with such a different world, so unpleasant, barren and foul, and yet uncomfortably similar to our own.

Silver seems to have an interest in outsiders recovering from a life of hardships, attempting to find solace in their similar peers. He has an atypical talent for creating oddball unlikeable characters, with whom we sometimes empathize, sometimes feel sorry for, and who often disgust us or leaves us apprehensive. Stinking Heaven, as well as some of the director’s previous films (Soft in the Head, Exit Elena), have been masterful in treading the difficult balance between forced glamorization and void shock value when representing outsiders and misfits on screen. Ann (Hannah Gross), an outsider amongst outsiders, further disrupts an already fragile and on-the-edge environment when she arrives at the sober-living commune. She becomes responsible for catalyzing tensions, which ultimately results in a misfortune for the group, and while tragedy does befall over them, these people’s lives are so on the edge, their remaining hopes so brittle, that tragedy seems to be just yet another daily struggle.

Pace and rhythm are not the film’s strong points, and while there is a plot and a “challenge” for some of the central characters ‐ and even a narrative climax — the gripping appeal of Stinking Heaven lies in its episodic confrontations, its formal experimentation, the everyday challenges endured by its characters, and the demons to which they are losing their battle. While arguably not the easiest of places to start with Nathan Silver, Stinking Heaven further solidifies the director’s career as a fresh voice in the world of experimental narrative cinema.

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