Art House Beat: October Country is a Scary America & Neil Young’s Trunk Rocks the Brain
October Country (NWFF, March 19-25)
The first great horror movie of the decade is a documentary about an American family. “October Country” is eerier, creepier, spookier, and just plain more scary than any common fright film. The Mosher family is caught in a cycle of damnation to rival the lineage of the fabled Ushers. This is the family portrait Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” fell so short of being, the one that should shake us out of our torpor and wake us up to ourselves.
Don, a war veteran whose humanity was shell-shocked out of him in Vietnam, and who spent the rest of his life as an emotionally-challenged police officer, heads the Mosher family. His sister is a lonely and pathetic witch who hangs around the cemetery asking the ghosts if they want to play with her. His wife, awaiting the day when an intelligent person will emerge and escape from this cursed family, is a philosopher of the lost, watching the repetition of stupidity and violence in the lives of each of her family members. Her daughter, whose ex-husband is now in prison for child molesting, has two daughters. One of them, pregnant and realizing the necessity of an abortion, is losing her daughter to the child welfare authorities. The other is still young enough to have her wits about her, realizing that if she plays video games all day long, there will be little time to rot her brain by watching television.
The ugly little town where these people live draws its economic blood from Remington Arms, a weapons manufacturer, and distributes goods for the well-being of its citizenry through Wal-Mart. That is the extent of these lives, these personalities, these wasted souls who inhabit the spaces between the cheap bare walls of a pre-fab abyss. Were they not buried so deep in the blindness of self-negation, they might be able to defend themselves against the case the camera has prepared against them. As it is, we can only look on and see that we, no matter how superior to the Moshers we might feel ourselves to be, are part of this same decline in the art of living.
Neil Young Trunk Show (Varsity, March 19-25)
Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone in an interview for their 40th Anniversary issue that Neil Young “has a melodic strain that runs through absolutely everything he does. He can be at his most thrashy but it is still going to be elevated by some melody.” Jonathan Demme’s second concert film with Young backs up Dylan’s remark with a portrait of a main wrapped up in, obsessed by, and pursued by melody, whether gently singing it behind an acoustic guitar or struggling with it on an electric fretboard in front of a stack of amplifiers. Like the ballerina who put on the red shoes that led her on a dance that lasted until death, Young is welded into that guitar for life.
“Neil Young Trunk Show” is unique among concert films in that its focus is not the performance of familiar tunes to a cheering audience, but the creative process of the performing artist within a privileged space. Demme captures this man in his mid-sixties who remains in thrall to the muse of his youth, still shredding his fingers in search of that supreme note that can justify and close the song. By filming selections that are, for the most part, lesser known, Demme succeeds in drawing the viewer into Young’s always expanding musical universe rather than settling for reconstituted hits. And when an old favorite, such as “Cowgirl in the Sand” or “Cinnamon Girl,” is performed, it comes from where Young is at now, not where he was when he composed the song.
Filmed during two shows at Pennsylvania’s Tower Theater during his 2007 Chrome Dreams II tour, the film includes just enough backstage material to add a personal dimension to the performance, as when Young calls for his doctor to manicure the fingernail he has torn by playing so ferociously without a pick. When the movie is over, we don’t feel like we have been to a Neil Young concert. We feel we have been inside his head.
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