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.