F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 25, 2017)

25 05 2017

No book I’ve read in the past few years has changed the way I think (and thus, the way I write) quite like Chuck Klosterman’s “But What If We’re Wrong?” The text is worth reading for a number of reasons, but what’s really stuck with me are his notes on canonical thinking. This weekly column is, by definition, an attempt to set aside movies and put them on some kind of elevated pedestal above the riff-raff of the multiplex. And in time, very few of these will be remembered.

The Kafka of our time, Klosterman argues, “will need to be a person so profoundly marginalized that almost no one currently views his or her marginalization as a viable talking point.” His chief example? Native Americans. They are out of sight and out of mind for most of the country. Their vantage point on so many issues is so underrepresented that we scarcely even notice it missing. Rhetorically, he asks, “When the Academy Awards committee next announces the nominations for Best Picture, how many complaints will focus on the lack of films reflecting the Native American experience?” To answer, odds are very few.

And yet … this is their country. Americans like myself, descended from Europeans, are mere immigrants.

To be fair, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” is not written or directed by a Native American. The creative force behind the project is Chloé Zhao, who made her feature film debut delving deeply into reservation life and culture. There’s not a moment that feels inauthentic, though. In a remarkably assured first film, Zhao illuminates a portion of the country that many people forget exists. And, ironically, that very fact makes her film far more likely to stand the test of time than many others I have heaped praise upon in the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column.

In her lyrical interpretation of a South Dakota Native American reservation, Zhao adopts the roving, windswept look we come to associate with Malick. But that’s where the conversation should start, not where it should end. “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” is incredibly grounded and less ethereal. Zhao’s interests are noticeably more tactile. In a sex scene, for example, she hones in on tangible elements in the frame: the hymen blood, the friction of the sheets, the shimmering surfaces of two teenagers discovering the possibilities of their bodies.

The film is far from plotless, though it’s definitely not plot-driven or thematically motivated. Zhao simply gets us into the state of mind of two teenagers, free-wheeling John and his green younger sister Jashuan, as they watch the dust settle following the death of their largely absent father. Most events chronicled in “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” are actions taken by John, which are then observed or secondarily experienced by Jashuan. But the perspective of the film belongs to her.

Technically, this narrative could fall under the “coming of age” category. Zhao, however, seems less concerned with charting progress and more interested in extracting one vivid cross-section. In “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” we come to understand her naïveté and curiosity inside and out. Through it, we also receive a filtered look at the poverty and neglect that run rampant through Native American reservations. It’s a glance that could replicate Zhao’s own in studying this community – but very likely resembles far too many in the country.

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