18 April 2011

Tennis Ball Humanist Cinema

If we lived in a just world, Billy Woodberry, as much a single-film martyr as Barbara Loden, would be one of the patron saints of the American independent cinema and Bless Their Little Hearts would be recognized far and wide as the greatest American film of its decade, and the greatest document of life in the lower depths of our country since The Salvation Hunters. We don’t, of course (his film, written and shot by Charles Burnett, screened recently as part of the Burnett retrospective at MoMA but didn’t even warrant a mention in the write-ups from the Village Voice or Alt Screen). What’s disgusting isn’t that Woodberry hasn’t received his personal due – the history of the cinema remains the history of undervalued directors – it’s that its attention to the social-economic-racial truths of urban life should have been the model for the last thirty years of independent filmmaking in this country. The suppression of Bless Their Little Hearts sets the American cinema back more and more with every day it’s not viewed by future filmmakers.
If Killer of Sheep alternately saunters and stalks and My Brother’s Wedding sprints, Bless Their Little Hearts sits around, breathing hard, tired not from labor itself, but from the act of trying to find it in the first place. This stasis accounts for fifty or so of its eighty minutes, the exceptions being the opening, set in an employment office, where the lead, Charlie Banks (Nate Hardman), wanders around looking for anything to do (it echoes Welfare in its ability to render a civic office a space of nearly complete opacity), Hardman’s work clearing an abandoned field and a fight between Banks and his wife (Kaycee Moore) where they yell, cry and sweat at each other in their kitchen in an unbroken take that runs the length of a 16mm reel.
This latter instance introduces a genuinely new approach to filming a scene. Shot handheld, in stark contrast to the tripod-languid zooms and pans that make up the rest of the movie, it uses its added mobility not to dart around looking for the best angle into the expression of a scene (Cassavetes) or to maintain a precisely calibrated emotional proximity (Allan King), but rather to absorb and reflect the truth of the interaction between Hardman and Moore. That is, Woodberry and Burnett treat the camera like a tennis ball, as it spins and dips and swerves in response to a shout or a cry or a turned down head or an embarrassed whisper or the moment when Nate Hardman actually appears to be drowning in his own perspiration, and because of these spins and swerves and dips it regards Hardman and Moore from all sorts of odd, counterintuitive angles that effectively destroy the space where directors normally get in their own way with bad ideas or too much art: its approach to framing is as much an advancement for humanist aesthetics as the pan in The Crime of M. Lange.