Symbolic landscapes shift during the years. For a century or more, starting perhaps with Mark Twain, American writers have looked to the South as a metaphor for failed expectations and ruinous nostalgia. William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Wolfe, Walker Percy and James Agee have exhumed the gravesites of the Confederacy and found the present day burdened with both rosy memories of plantation culture and the toxic legacy of slavery. Under the Spanish moss and behind the peeling paint of colonnaded porches lurk all manner of steamy secrets. As past grandeur faded into decadence, fiction flourished—as it generally does during times of social revolution. After civil rights, after sun-belt prosperity, the South has become just another venue for Starbucks, McDonald’s and the Gap. Anywhere, U.S.A. Football frenzy and the Confederate battle flag over the state house just can’t carry the full weight of regional identity any more. Artists must look elsewhere for images of an America reluctantly purging itself of its utopian self-delusions.
Look west, young filmmaker, and grow old with the nation. “The Great Train Robbery” came out in 1903, and through a century of Western movies, the open spaces beyond the Mississippi have given the American imagination a sense of boundless optimism, of opportunity, of mindless confidence in the inevitable triumph of simplistic frontier justice, risk-taking and hard work. Times have changed. Artists have to pull focus on the West, much as an earlier generation of writers tore through the gauzy history of the South. The new West consists of dusty highways, corrupt oil brokers, exploited wilderness, trailer parks, desperate Indian tribes and amplified guitars. It embodies the ruined promises of an earlier era, made all the more tragic for its failure to live up to its mythic status, which in fact had only minimal basis in reality.
Northfork presents a such revisionist history of mythic America in uncompromising terms. It opens with a coffin floating to the surface of an artificial lake. The closing credits reveal the full title of the work with tombstone finality: “Northfork, 1776-1955.” The American experiment, begun with a statement of lofty purpose in Philadelphia has ended in the dust raised by multicolored cars with tail fins in Montana. Only the dead bodies from the past occasionally rise to the surface as reminders of what once was. Yes, these two images, appearing at the end and the beginning, reverse the logic of the film’s statement, but Michael Polish, like many young filmmakers, feels little need for either narrative or thematic coherence. He composes his film in a dream mode. Images and fragments of story—some realistic, some wildly surreal—drift across the screen like fantasies in a fevered sleep.
To ask what it means is to miss the point of what he is trying to accomplish. The result is pretentious, overly clever, tedious and at times simply incomprehensible, yet at the same time it is also brilliant and disturbing. Like many of the best directors and screenwriters—like Fellini or Buñuel, for example—or a lyric poet, he pushes the art form beyond “mere” story-telling.
Northfork, Mont., faces annihilation in the early 1950’s. The federal government nears completion of a new hydroelectric plant, apparently begun during the Roosevelt administration and delayed by war. Once work on the turbines ends, a dam and artificial lake will obliterate all traces of the town. Evacuation and salvage operations have already created a ghastly shell of human habitation. Six sinister agents, dressed in black overcoats and fedoras, drive their perfectly maintained round-back 1940’s Fords around the neighborhood urging the few stragglers, by persuasion or implied threat, to leave. An empty diner serves only one item, but since there is no menu, customers must guess what is available, while a mute attendant nods silently until they hit upon chicken soup.
Images speak more eloquently than words. Father Harlan (Nick Nolte), wearing a wilted collar and oily cassock rather than liturgical vestments, conducts a service for the remains of his congregation. The back wall of the church has been removed and the sanctuary fuses with a featureless plain, where buffalo graze, and ultimately with the snow-tipped mountains in the distance. All this sacred space, church and plain alike, will be flooded in the name of progress, and thus the service might be a requiem for America. The grotesque concrete monstrosity, with its humming, featureless machines, will replace herds, mountains and church as the icons of Northfork. The intrusion of ugly artifacts into the sacred wilderness can only be considered sacrilege.
The impulse to understand America in religious terms dates back to the early settlers of New England, who considered themselves as missioned by God to create a new pristine Eden in the howling wilderness of the new world. This conceptual vocabulary suits Michael Polish and his co-writer and twin brother, Mark Polish, quite well. One recalcitrant farmer awaits the cataclysm in a houseboat he erected on stilts in the middle of a field, but instead of stocking it with pairs of animals, he takes only his two wives. The end of this divine project of America will come with a flood that repeats the day of Noah. At this point the message becomes convoluted. God, it seems, uses the government to create a flood that will destroy the countryside for some unknown sin, which may involve becoming complacent while government and its gospel of progress violates the country. The Polish brothers would surely resist trying to impose conventional logic on their story, so the matter must rest unresolved.
Surely, sin abounds in many forms. A couple has adopted 10-year-old Irwin (Duel Farnes) from Father Harlan’s orphanage, but when he develops some mysterious illness they return him as though he were a defective dishwasher. The orphanage has been emptied, like almost everything else in the Northfork, but Father Harlan takes him back without complaint. Later another couple comes to adopt him, but they want to spend the afternoon with him, as if to try him out first. Harlan demands unconditioned acceptance on their part, telling him they are not shopping for a puppy. As the boy grows worse, Harlan prays that God may free his spirit from the prison of his body. He acquires penicillin from a nearly empty pharmacy to help him survive, yet as he tenderly bathes the comatose child he may, or may not, have drowned him.
Death remains problematic for Irwin, since he may be the angel and thus immune from mortality. Scars on his frail body suggest that wings and halo have been stripped from him so that he can look more like a real boy. In the desert he comes upon four real angels, although their grotesque appearance and behavior belies what Daniel, St. John and Milton might have led us to expect. Wearing incredible glasses with multiple lenses on arms and hinges that he continually adjusts with his prosthetic hands, Happy (Anthony Edwards), the scientific angel, examines Irwin carefully. Feathers allegedly from former wings are bogus, but the scars on Irwin’s back are consistent with the claim of amputation. The early mystic writers from Puritan New England harbored visions of a new species—part human, part angel—arising on God’s new continent once freed from the corruptions of the old world. Irwin may stand at the end of the process, an American boy-angel dying and seeking refuge in a distant realm because he can find no home in the new America. At the end the seraphic choir flies away together, not on angel wings but in a 1930’s twin-engine prop plane, which replicates Irwin’s favorite toy, and so may be only an image from his dreams. Or it could be an indication of his death.
Some will find this mysterious, symbol-laden film intriguing, as I did, and some will find it annoying, as I did. Only the grumpiest, however, would fail to be captivated by the images. Cinematographer M. David Mullen has washed all color out of the film stock in such a way that the people as well as the Montana prairie radiate an ominous barrenness. A bathtub impaled on the second-story drain pipe of a demolished house presides nakedly over the neighborhood. A wide panorama pulls back on rows of empty graves in a perfectly flat cemetery. The greenish concrete corridors in the dam could easily be pathways to hell.
The Polish brothers keep their script from sinking into bathos with usually effective dead-pan comedy. The dialogue serves its purpose well, but on occasion I found its irreverence easing over into undergraduate nihilism. Does the story take anything seriously, or is everything in Northfork and in America during its decline or in the universe in its inexorable slide into entropy just one big joke? Howard Hawks once observed of his own classic comedy “Bringing Up Baby” (1938) that he regretted that there were no sane characters to provide a context for the comic characters. Take that to heart, Polish brothers. If everything is a joke, even in black humor like “Northfork,” then nothing is funny. Or worse, then the jokes cannot be taken seriously.