Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 23, 2018 2:43 am 
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Vivid snapshots, kinetic energy

RaMell Ross has made a revealing and intimate short documentary feature about people he lived with and observed in Hale County, Alabama, where Walker Evans and James Agee made their book about white dust bowl poverty at the end of the Thirties, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. This is a vastly different world, first of all because those Ross observes in his film are African American and well fed. He came to teach photography and coach basketball, a title tells us. He observed with his video camera for five years. He identifies half a dozen people, teens or young adults. They work in a catfish factory, raise a family, play basketball or football, learn to walk, die of infant sudden death syndrome, worship and sing, go to college. There is a world here, and Ross' camera is nimble, his editing rapid and surprising. Is this a "new cinematic language" as Bilge Eberi wrote in the Voice? I don't think so. It's just a new personality, a new camera eye.

Certainly the intimacy, the confidence acquired, impress us, and the kinetic and frenetic events, such as Daniel, a young college basketball player practicing his outside shot over and over with the camera so tight up on him we see only arms and shoulders. Also memorable and troubling, a tiny girl walking back and forth for minutes rapidly in a small room like a caged animal, or a hyperactive child. A remarkable sustained shot with the camera still shows a whole basketball team in uniform in a staging area moving, working off each other, flopping around, their long young bodies partly like one body, yet each an individual.

As with many new films presented as documentaries, this one poses the problem of limits. Ross tells both too little and too much. His "fractured" editing, as Eberi calls it, despite identifying of some people, blocks narrative expectations, echoes a contemporary world of short attention spans and constant interruptions. It finally made sense to me as the work of a still photographer turning to the motion picture. While often the motion is the point, observed with fascination, it is also beside the point. Because if you freeze the frames, the connected subjects, without narrative logic, make pictures at an exhibition by a keen observer who loves and knows his subjects. His editing follows shock logic or poetic logic. But he does not chronicle and inform us as a documentary filmmaker does, closely following lives, providing extensive details. As intimate as Hale County This Morning is, it tells only so much, and the larger story of these lives and their place in the fraught world of African Americans today is left untold.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening, 76 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2018. It was screened for this review as part of the MoMA-Film Society of Lincoln Center 2018 New Directors/New Films, where it was the New York Premiere and Closing Night film.

ND/NF showtimes
Saturday, April 7, 8:30pm [FSLC]
Sunday, April 8, 2:00pm [MoMA]

Photo by Walker Evans from James Agee's Let US Now Praise Famous Men

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