Friday, July 28, 2006
AROUND THE BEND
AROUND THE BEND (2004, USA, Jordan Roberts)
Did you go on digs with him? I wanted him to leave it all in the ground. The pottery, the bones. Didn't belong up here. But... My father loved digging up old shit.
Did you ever think past the end of the parable? Now that the Prodigal is back, how are he and the Older Brother ever going to get along? I'm guessing the younger brother – we'll call him Turner – is going to want to be pals again, but he won't push it too hard because he's good and aware that he's no longer worthy to be called "brother" or "son" or anything else that's all that friendly. I'm guessing the real problems will like with old Firstborn over there – Jason, for the purposes of our story – who's spent his life (invested his life, to be more precise, instead of blowing through it like a sixteen-year-old with his first paycheck) being decent and loyal to their father – who we'll call Henry – and pretty much spending his days making up for the other brother's heartbreaking prodigality.
Don't worry, AROUND THE BEND is no modern retelling of a too-familiar parable. It goes its own way, tearing down the road in a more-than-decripit VW microbus, laughing and swearing and eating Kentucky Fried. And sometimes at night, pulled off the road to rest up a bit, dancing in the headlights.
But you get the sense that writer-director Jordan Roberts... And hey, I'm telling you, keep your eyes open for small movies like this where the guy that wrote the script also directed. Your STATION AGENTS, your PIECES OF APRIL, that's my kind of auteur – where the director is truly the filmmaker, not only the finisher but also the author. Because we're usually talking personal vision projects where story and character and heart are pretty much the whole deal, we're usually talking scripts that have been burning a hole in somebody's pocket for years and finally just have to get themselves made. Tight budgets, tight shooting schedules, open hearts. Now it happens that after a decade of rewrites and a pervasive film industry buzz that this was a fabulous little screenplay one rewrite away from amazing, Roberts decided to heck with waiting for somebody else to make the darn thing, he'd shoot it himself on digital, just get it done and out there for people to see. So he came up with one last rewrite, only wouldn't you know, that was the rewrite that did it. The light went on for somebody at Warner Independent, and the light was green, and all of a sudden there was money enough for Michael Caine and Christopher Walken and even a couple pretty nifty crane shots. Not a dime extra, not a single extra shooting day if things went wrong – like, say, if it started snowing in New Mexico – but enough money that the guy wasn't shooting the damn thing on his Mastercard.
So where was I? Right, you get the sense that writer-director Jordan Roberts has that Prodigal Son story pretty much by heart, if only in the scene where his son returns from a far country – the movie even sets us up to wonder if maybe he's come from that undiscovered country "from whose bourne no man returns," a literal not just a metaphorical resurrection – and the father runs to greet him. "God damn, boy. You came back. Get me dressed! My family's going out! To a fancy place." For a meal together, even a little dancing. Only Henry prefers chicken to fatted calf, and has a particular fondness for Colonel Sanders, but still we hear the echoes of those sacred words of reconciliation, "Get my best robe! Kill the fatted calf! For this my son, though he was dead, yet lives!"
Here, though, that's the story's point of departure, not its destination – and it is most definitely a road movie, the story of a journey. Henry was an archeologist, kind of a leftover hippy with "DIG" written on the side of his van, and he sends his boys off on sort of an interstate treasure hunt to a series of digs and Sites Of Interest from their own personal history and pre-history. Only they're putting something back into the ground, not digging it up, and any riches they uncover aren't going to be worth much to a museum. Old Henry's a savvy character: I love the way the various Route 66 stops disguise the eventual destination until it's close enough Turner might just be able to follow the trajectory of healing, get caught up in the momentum of restoration, and be in Albuquerque before he knows what's coming.
One of this film's interesting angles is that sometimes the prodigal is your father, and that's even harder to come to terms with than a brother who buggers off. I mean, that's what little brothers do, right? Head out on the road, seeking their fame and fortune? But when it's your dad who leaves, and your mom's already dead, and when he doesn't show up again until thirty-some years of thieving and drugs and prison have gone by, and you've been raised by your grandfather, and had your own little son to raise, also on your own (because who knows what lessons about marriage and relationships you didn't get the chance to learn in his absence)... There's a hell of a lot of forgiving to do. Maybe too much.
Watch for the subtleties, some real deftness in the writing. The nice reversal that follows up "Henry never asked me to do a thing in his entire life, and he asked me to do this, and I'M DOING IT! Not your way or my way, but his way." The way the musician thing is touched so lightly in the follow-up scene, then paid off in the gorgeously understated piano scene – not the last stairway we'll see, and how about that obligatory "I remember" monologue we don't get? Gorgeous.
Best of all, Turner's efforts to shape up aren't overplayed, and he's no more willing to deal with things than the next guy: he's still a man with too many decades of addiction and selfishness behind him to suddenly become the perfect son – or father. (Though he turns out to be not a bad Granddad, in a Dennis Hopper kind of way...) I love the subtlety with which his AA background is not so much brought out as woven in: after hauling Turner back to a jewelry store like a father taking a kid back to a corner store to pay for the candy bar he swiped, Jason remarks "You did have a history at places like this." But Turner won't accept the easy out offered him in that past tense, replying "I do, yes." Just like he doesn't stand up in meetings and say "My name is Turner, I was an alcoholic." It's about owning up, taking responsibility now for what you've done, or left undone, in the past.
The fact is, both prodigals and firstborns have their traps. Don't you love where the book of Ecclesiastes comes down? After this guy Solomon spent his twenties and thirties writing self-righteous and too-wise-for-his-own years Proverbs about avoiding women and doing everything in moderation and building for the future and living cautiously and responsibly, he blew off another couple decades with wine, women and song – especially women, by the dozens, but plenty of wine and feasting and every whim that ever twitched a synapse as well – he's a kind of a burnt-out prodigal himself. An "all is emptiness," mouth like an ashtray, self-loathing, morning-after kind of prodigal, no longer worthy to be called anybody's son. But you know where he finally comes down? You know where his book ends up? Not running back into the arms of self-righteousness, but here; "In this meaninless life of mine I have seen both of these; a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness. Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise— why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool-- why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other."
Truly, there is a time to mourn, and a time to dance. And sometimes it's time to do both at the same time. You can do both, you can have both: you can head out on the road, but not leave anybody behind. That's wisdom, and that's this movie's wisdom.
And you know what? This movie ain't perfect. I don't want to send you running off to the video store expecting CITIZEN KANE. Yeah this movie's got flaws, and yeah I could spell them out for you. Fine: read the critics, or do your own fault-finding, I'm not in the mood. This human-scaled story is perfectly human in its imperfections, and you know what? You want to have any friends, sometimes you gotta look past those things. Perfectionism's a fine trait in bankers, not so much when you're looking to feed your soul. Fact is, I like hanging out with this movie, with these characters. I like the kid in the back seat and the sunsets and the music they play on their 8-track. You want to criticize, you don't have to ride with us. Now let's get us some KFC!
PIECES OF APRIL, THE STATION AGENT, HAROLD & MAUDE
Available at Videomatica