Sundance 2018 Critic’s Notebook, Day 2: Clara’s Ghost, Hale County This Morning, This Evening
For the second consecutive year, Sundance showed an Academy-ratio film with Ghost in the title, but Bridey Elliott’s feature directorial debut Clara’s Ghost is decidedly not A Ghost Story. Bridey stars along with father Chris, sister Abby and mom Paula (the only non-actor in the bunch, though she easily holds her own). The plot’s loose: sisters Riley (Bridey) and Julie (Abby) — former child stars as the Olsen-esque Reynolds sisters — come for a one-night visit home. Father Ted (Chris) has just lost his casting in a show being put together by Julie’s fiance and is feeling rancorous. Some magazine photographers come over to take photos of father and daughter and ask softball questions about what family means to them (Ted: “Family is the whipped cream on the sundae of life”); mom Clara (Paula) is conspicuously not included. The sisters plan to stay the night, so Riley calls high school friend/weed dealer Joe (Haley Joel Osment, blessedly still in Silicon Valley blithe stoner pocket). The booze comes out, and the rancor follows in short order. Elliott’s intro was correct: “This is a movie best watched with a glass of vodka in your hand.” This is one of the most booze-sodden movies I’ve seen in a while.
Clara’s Ghost is basically a rumpus room session for five talented comic performers, all with a firm handle on measured, partially justifiable spite. I laughed quite a bit, whether it was father Chris switching gears post-dinner (“Joseph, why don’t you join me in the ballroom? You can watch me switch from vodka to scotch”) or Julie worrying about her bridesmaids’ heft (“I need to write an email with everyone’s goal weight”); the vibe is Baumbach without default access to financial security or reflexive recourse to the meanest possible thing that can be said. Clara’s Ghost also is one of the few movies in recent memory to integrate talk of e-books, web series, Kickstarter et al. as credibly part of the characters’ lives, rather than as an attempt to forcibly comment on How We Live Now. I also enjoyed the soundtrack, which has the temerity to include most of David Hemmings’s recording of “MacArthur Park,” a nice joke on its own.
Kudos to Elliott and DP Markus Mentzer for aspiring higher than the usual comedy mode of locking down the camera at a few unexceptional angles, then cutting for coverage on the best improv take; there’s zooms to spare and nicely burnished interior nighttime light. It’s definitely a one-location movie, but one that avoids visual claustrophobia. However: there is, in fact, an actual ghost which is supposed to complicate and deepen Clara’s character (her feelings of neglect and isolation in a family all on a different page from her are the real throughline), but one jump scare and a few tinges of the supernatural do nothing to deepen the material, a metaphor for what’s already basically text. Good comedy is not to be despised, and adding an extra incongruous element comes off as unnecessary. I know this is slightly hypocritical, as I began my first post for this year’s fest by basically saying everyone should try harder, but this isn’t exactly what I had in mind. By and large, though, this is good work.
RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening is the first film shown at Sundance to list Apichatpong Weerasethakul as a creative advisor, which alone would have been enough to get my attention. Ross was a 25 New Face of Film two years ago and interviewed Strong Island‘s Yance Ford for us last year, so some of his artistic concerns were already on my radar. Writing here about his goals as a photographer, Ross says of a shot of his mother: “The American stranger knows Blackness as a fact — even though it is fiction — albeit a flexible fact applied in consultation to their personal relationship to Blackness. […] Framed Black, everything from the welcome of my mother’s face to the bend of her resting elbow is cast in infinite silhouette, backlit by history.” This is reductive and unproductive: hence, as Ross noted in his 25NF profile, Hale County “considers the iconic use of the African-American body [and] uses recumbency, gesture, gaze and the actions of obstruction and concealment to incite interpretation and access to my fiction.”
All this translates fairly precisely in Hale County. It feels a cop-out to assign any film the I-give-up label of “tone poem,” which implies, among other things, a lack of narrative throughline, which County has. Ross met his two main subjects — aspiring basketball player Daniel Collins and new father Quincy Bryant — while working at a non-profit in rural Hale County, Alabama. Their journeys provide arcs without necessarily rhyming with or superficially complementing each other, and they’re not forced to overtly stand in for a precise portion of The Black Experience. If Daniel’s desire to break out into the world via basketball carries unavoidable echoes of Hoop Dreams narrative(s), his commitment to the game is rendered as a physical experience rather than a conspicuously symbolically-weighted narrative of struggle against odds. During a drill where he catches and shoots one ball after another, the embodied camera’s lockstep behind him, hustling nearly as hard around the court while staying fixed to his back.
It’s at moments like this, when Ross commits to a sustained shot or series of images that function as a concrete reality to experience, that Hale County most got me. A long shot from a car traveling down city streets for a parade goes on well past any people on the street into dustier climates, building to a moment of reflexive dread as police cars are sighted. Quincy and partner Boosie’s first child is born and, midway through, runs from one living room point to the other and back again on seemingly infinite loop, with a non-purpose directed persistence that goes from cute to exasperating to admirable. Oral histories — e.g., of freezing work at the nearby catfish factory — are present and unavoidable in inevitably psychographically charged territory.
Other moments were more likely to bounce off me: pretty much any of the textbook rhyming edits, which nearly always leave me cold anyways (a shot from sweat dripping on the court floor to raindrops hitting the ground), more conventionally poetic footage of rural landscapes. My favorite shot/sequence is the spookiest: the camera, in a car, drives up to a house whose facade screams “plantation-era leftover.” Tires and other rubbish are being burned, and Ross cuts to footage of vaudeville/silent film blackface performer Bert Williams hiding behind/poking his head through bushes, a ghost of a complicated past still haunting a trope-ridden property. Ross sets up his camera to look at tree branches and smoke coming from behind, finds a compelling image and sets about finding different ways to abstract it; the sequence goes full experimental, not before Ross explaining what he’s doing to an understandably curious civilian passing by. These are his images, playing with historical context while creating their own connotations and attempting to see familiar territory afresh. I respect Ross’s ambition and general project more than a brainwave readout of moment-to-moment reactions would indicate.