Wednesday, October 04, 2006

17. US filmmakers Michael and Mark Polish's "Northfork" (2003): A notable effort using surreal and absurdist images offering layers of entertainment

























"It all depends on how you look at it-–we are either halfway to heaven or halfway to hell," says the priest Rev. Harlan in Northfork. The Polish brothers' film is an ambitious one that will make any intelligent viewer to sit up, provided he or she has patience and basic knowledge of Christianity. The layers of entertainment the film provide takes a viewer beyond the surreal and absurd imagery that is obvious to a less obvious socio-political and theological commentary that ought to provoke a laid-back American to reflect on current social values. The film's adoption of the surreal (coffins that emerge from the depths of man-made lakes to float and disturb the living, homesteaders who nearly "crucify" their feet to wooden floor of their homes, angels who need multiple glasses to read, etc.) and absurd images (of half animals, half toys that are alive, of door bells that make most delicate of musical outputs of a harp, a blind angel who keeps writing unreadable tracts, etc.) could make a viewer unfamiliar with the surreal and absurdist traditions in literature and the arts to wonder what the movie is un-spooling as entertainment. Though European cinema has better credentials in this field, Hollywood has indeed made such films in the past —in Cat Ballou, Lee Marvin and his horse leaned against the wall to take a nap, several decades ago. Northfork, in one scene of the citizens leaving the town in cars, seemed to pay homage to the row of cars in Citizen Kane taking Kane and his wife out of Xanadu for a picnic.

The film is difficult for the uninitiated or the impatient film-goer—the most interesting epilogue (one of the finest I can recall) can be heard as a voice over towards the end of the credits. The directors seem to leave the finest moments to those who can stay with film to the end. If you have the patience you will savor the layers of the film—if you gulp or swallow what the Polish bothers dish out, you will miss out on its many flavors.

Darryl Hannah in the role of the androgynous Angel

What is the film all about? At the most obvious layer, a town is being vacated to make way for a dam and hydroelectric-project. Even cemeteries are being dug up so that the mortal remains of the dead can be moved to higher burial grounds. Real estate promoters are hawking the lakeside properties to 6 people who can evict the townsfolk. Of the 6, only one seems to have a conscience and therefore is able to order chicken broth soup, while others cannot get anything served to them.

At the next layer, you have Christianity and its interaction on the townsfolk. Most are devout Christians, but in many lurk the instinct to survive at the expense of true Christian principles, exemplified in the priest. Many want to adopt children without accepting the responsibilities associated with such actions.

At the next layer, you have the world of angels interacting with near angelic humans and with each other. You realize that the world of the unknown angel who keeps a comic book on Hercules and dreams of a mother, finds one in an androgynous angel called "Flower Hercules." While the filmmaker does give clues that Flower is an extension of the young angel's delirious imagination, subsequent actions of Flower belie this option. You are indeed in the world of angels--not gods but the pure in spirit—and therefore not in the world of the living. The softer focus of the camera is in evidence in these shots.

At another layer the toy plane of Irwin becomes a real plane carrying him and his angels to heaven 1000 miles away from Norfolk.

The final layer is the social commentary—"The country is divided into two types of people. Fords people and Chevy people." Is there a difference? They think they are different but both are consumerist.

To the religious, the film says "Pray and you shall receive" (words of Fr Harlan, quoted by Angel Flower Hercules). To the consumerist, the film says "its what we do with our wings that separate us" (each of the 6 evictors also have wings--one duck/goose feather tucked into their hat bands but their actions are different often far from angelic as suggested by the different reactions to a scratch on a car).

The film is certainly not the finest American film but it is definitely a notable path-breaking work--superb visuals, striking performances (especially Nick Nolte), and a loaded script offering several levels of entertainment for mature audiences.

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