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CineVegas 2009: The Promised Land ("Redland," Norton)

Cheap to fund, digitally shot portraits of everyday life compose the heart and soul of contemporary American independent film. But when a director makes the decision to reject casual naturalism, shoot on film and concentrate on visual beauty, the contrast with typical indie fare is revelatory. Shot on 35mm, Asiel Norton’s Redland, which premiered at the 2009 CineVegas Film Festival, is a reminder of how long the spirit of 70’s era Malick, Weir, and Altman have been missing from the independent film landscape. Norton says he wanted “the film itself to look alive, like the film was breathing,” and Redland does seem like a living entity, resplendent with flaws and blurs, textures and shadows.

Set in an outpost of civilization, Depression-era Redland County, California, the plot follows the stark lines of a Greek tragedy or a passage from the Old Testament. Mary Ann (Lucy Adden), the teenage daughter of a family scraping out an existence on a mountainside, aborts her own child to keep a love affair secret. Her father embarks on a hunting expedition with her lover, and after a delay in the trip, the family begins to starve. Events are abstracted and swallowed up by the atmosphere of the forest, the ebb and flow of nature muting human violence and tragedy. Like McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Picnic at Hanging Rock, the terrain becomes as much a character as the human lives that scramble over it.

With shaggy beards and a laconic, muffled manner of speaking, the almost interchangeable male characters appear to have wandered directly out of shantytowns and homesteads. Their dignified bearing and hollow cheekbones make them resemble Civil War soldiers gone AWOL, more Mathew B. Brady than Walker Evans. The gamine, blonde Mary Anne, functioning as a lighting rod for the emotions of the male characters, is almost animalistic, melting into woods and fields, a lost soul whose fertile body dictates her fate. Throughout the film she provides a colloquial, enigmatic voiceover, an homage to the naïve narrators of Badlands and Days of Heaven.

To make the film look like a Hudson River School painting come to life, the DP used anywhere from 7 to 13 filters to impart redwoods, livestock, and flowers with an orange gold glow and hyperreal level of detail. Beads of moisture stand out on mushrooms, salamanders and ants glisten in sun, white feathers on the breast of a chicken look soft and strokeable. The palette of the film, limited to yellows, blues and browns, is at times so sepia toned that it resembles a faded old family album. Intentionally jarring sequences abandon composition for stuttering, hand held camerawork, brushing so close to the characters that only limbs or faces are caught looming out of ambiguous murk. Audio of heavy breathing and shuffling clothing suggests death throes or physical arousal.

Redland ultimately creates a sense of metaphysical fragility, of lives fractured in the crucible of nature. But more important than the film’s meaning is its look— an American independent film that looks like Redland hasn’t been made in years. The director’s dedication to an aesthetic vision is what makes the film so satisfying and unexpected, especially in the world of independent film. Every single frame of celluloid has been fully realized and produced, resulting in an unusual example of cinematic beauty.

“Cheap to fund, digitally shot portraits of everyday life compose the heart and soul of contemporary American independent film.” If this indeed represents its heart and soul, the patient is in need of immediate medical attention. For the impoverished filmmaker, digital has become the default in all but a few instances. And in most cases it resembles a very poor relation. Both aesthetics require care, attention and understanding, but digital converts sometimes think they can get away with winging it. Bad habits abound. Indiscriminate shooting, haphazardly hand-held shots- generally sloppy filmmaking. One’s ideas in the end will be supported by the materials one chooses and the manner in which they are used. A more rigorous approach to these devices is something that should be employed. It’s funny how these days preferring film seems quixotic. Is it a form of resistance? Kudos to Asiel Norton and other likeminded filmmakers, then, for weathering the digital storm and choosing to shoot film.
Um, I seem to remember that David Gordon Green’s George Washington also had a laconic, wistful young female v.o., was shot on film, and focused on the natural environment. GW came out in 2000. That was only nine years ago. It was an independent film inspired by Malick and Altman and Burnett and Michael Ritchie and Clu Gulager. I think that’s ground zero for this movie.
Mac, I totally agree about DGD. I’m sure there are other examples if we look hard enough. It should also be noted that there are certainly many filmmakers outside of American cinema who could be said to engage in the type of filmmaking Malick and Altman practiced.
The David Gordon Green comparison is fair, but flawed. For one thing, nine years between similar films does not constitute a trend. Second, Redland is much more like Green’s underrated Undertow than it is George Washington, in its relationship to nature as opposed to the developed cityscape of George Washington, or something like Killer of Sheep. I think that is what we are supposed to take away from the Malick comparison, which people forget sometimes means more than pretty cinematography. All of Malick’s films can be as much – or even more – about the natural environments in which they take place than the characters themselves. The same is true of Redland, or something like McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Quintet.
I wanted to contrast Redland with specifically American independent film— I know there are parallels in world cinema, enough that I didn’t want to tackle the complicated connections between them all. If anyone has some specific films in mind I’d be really interested to hear them. David Gordon Green is an apt comparison, but nine years was also quite a while ago.
beautifully written Anna. I haven’t seen this film. You mentioned wanting to hear of specific films and based on your description and the other filmmakers cited , Carlos Reygadas comes to mind. e.g. Japon, Battle in Heaven and even Silent Light. Perhaps it’s not a neat comparison as it’s not North American, but the spirit and material of his films immediately comes to (my warped) mind.

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