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Bresson on the Bayou

Ballast, Dir: Lance Hammer, Now Playing

Back in the day, Firesign Theatre had a film promo parody that went: "the lives of honest working people as told by rich Hollywood stars." And that’s the problem with the most well-meaning and even well-executed examples of the phenomenon (Valley of Elah, A Civil Action, North Country); all that damn sincerity. The earnestness of the films supposedly fuels the virtue one is supposed to feel from participating by watching. That’s galling, but nowhere near as galling as the super-apparent glee stars take in their character’s suffering, which so often leads to big shiny Oscars (Erin Brockovitch, Norma Rae). Living out the story becomes the star’s cause and almost nothing makes me run screaming from a theater faster.

The lives of honest working people as told by honest working people. Photo courtesy Alluvial Films.
The lives of honest working people as told by honest working people. Photo courtesy Alluvial Films.

On the other end of the budget continuum are the even more achingly sincere indie depictions of the lives of honest working people. Many of these, too, suffer from an inherent, sometimes unintentional, self-righteousness and demand to be honored for their subject matter and budget constraints. I feel pressured to admire the film, even if it isn’t any good. That pressure shortens my attention span to the breaking point.

Put another way, an abundance of sincerity makes me suspicious, yet an abundance of cynicism soothes and comforts. I suspect that in this, at least, I am not alone. And so, with reviews everywhere touting the worthy goodness of Ballast, I fear those similarly inclined might stay away. Please don’t.

Ballast presents a deceptively simple story (which means, not simple at all, but easy to summarize), that takes place in a deceptively sleepy part of Mississippi (which means you might have to live there to understand how complex life in the country can be), told in deceptively simple frames (shot in gorgeous Super 35 after months of pre-production and rehearsal shooting). Director Lance Hammer could, at first glance, be said to be the heir to George Washington and director David Gordon Green’s rural Neorealism. But then Green directed Pineapple Express and he gave up realism entirely for melodrama in his last three pictures, anyway.

A more likely forbearer is Charles Burnett’s masterpiece of home-made cinema, Killer of Sheep (which was re-released last year and is available on DVD at last). As Burnett did in Killer, Hammer explains little. His story of rural suicide, torn families and the steady rolling momentum of tragedy and rebirth unfolds as the characters discover it. We learn what goes on as they do, and at times a character’s actions make no sense until we’ve learned more.

The context for all events is desperate rural poverty. The grinding pressure of never having enough wears the characters down, informs every interaction but is never directly addressed. That pressure eradicates humanity, replaces thought with worry, and eliminates words as conveyors of emotion. Action, action against the constant frustration, is all that remains: a big fat man sits catatonic in a bare living room; a junior-high boy sticks a gun in his uncle’s face; a grieving woman reacts with violence at the first tender touch she’s received in years—the story evolves emotionally, and the emotions are never driven by outside narrative concerns.

Hammer found his amateur cast in their northern Mississippi homes. He rehearsed them for months using improvisational techniques. Hammer changed the story to reflect his actors’ lives. And, like his clear influence Robert Bresson, he repeatedly directed them to give less, to say less, to stop acting and simply be. Accustomed as we are to the constant indicating of rich Hollywood stars (and desperate for fame indie one-offs), the quietude of the performances takes a moment of getting used to.

The story is told in long periods of silence and short bursts of violence. The actors seem so raw, so prepared to live out their most intimate emotions, and that speaks volumes about Hammer as a director: he’s white and his entire cast is African-American. Their mutual trust fuels the intimacy of the film. I never thought about that dynamic until the picture was over.

George Washington offered a similar dynamic, but seems now more about its director’s visual style, and the attention he drew to it. There are wonderful performances in that film, but the directorial consciousness overwhelms the tale. Hammer stays well in the background. Like Bresson, he relentlessly understates, meditates really, and lets us observe. He’s after what Bresson sought—the soul of each moment, the poetry of the mundane, the godliness of the bleakest countryside. Hammer’s discipline keeps him from deadly earnestness or sentimentality. Ballast is a whole work, that elusive merging of style and content wherein each fuels the other and neither calls more attention to itself. Like Bresson, so many of the most affecting moments are rendered in pure cinema—no literary work could capture the tiny but profound moments that Hammer and his cast achieve. And those are almost always achieved through the acting and mise-en-scene; Hammer edits with restraint and never makes his points through montage.

Of course an ending would be nice. And more Bressonian. Even at his most opaque, Bresson always closed with a transcendent moment, not a climax necessarily, but a coda. That coda might be one shot, one glimpse, or it might be ten minutes more of what we didn’t know was the last shot. Bresson always told us when our connection to the tale had ended (somehow with Bresson you feel his stories continuing forever after The End).

Hammer just stops, and that is the first undisciplined, incomplete moment in the picture. It lessens the impact, and denies a sense of either completion or continuation. Despite that, I’ve found Hammer’s characters in my head often. I worry about them, and try to figure out possible solutions for their problems. They’re inside me as the best characters in literature are, and that sure as hell never happened with Erin Brockovitch.


David N. Meyer

David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2008

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