DIRECTED BY: Tim Sutton
FEATURING: Willis Earl Beal
PLOT: An R&B singer wanders through Memphis, Tennessee, struggling to find inspiration to complete a second album after a successful debut.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s only slightly weird, and while there are moments of unquestionable beauty, its vast empty spaces make it a real wristwatch checker.
COMMENTS: Although anyone who’s ever worked in any creative medium can identify with its torments, writer’s (or musician’s) block is a hard thing to convey to an audience in a fascinating way. Although the cinematography here is sublime, and Willis Earl Beal has a weird funky charisma, Memphis is not up to the challenge of engaging us with this artist’s disengagement. What Memphis is best at is depicting the African American communities of it’s title city as a throwback to the ancient world of the blues, a place where men still wear felt hats and play dominoes and drink out of paper bags (I know men still play dominoes and drink out of paper bags, but not while wearing porkpie hats). With tree boughs hanging over the boulevards and weed-choked lots separating the bars from the churches, these neighborhoods look simultaneously urban and rural, like postcards from a pre-smart phone era.
Beale is a man out of time, too; he fits in better with the grizzled old men sitting on their porches than he does with folk his own age. As the movie progresses—to whatever degree such a deliberately static work can be said to progress—it becomes increasingly unclear whether the singer might actually be suffering from some form of mental illness. When he says in the opening scenes that he’s a wizard who conjures his own reality, it sounds like a metaphor for artistic creation, but the more he rambles about envying the trees or copulating with the dirt, the more you consider the frailty of the line between genius and madness. There are parallels between his alienation from his own creativity and alienation from God (and thus from his own church-centered culture). He refuses to sing at Sunday revival, and an old man’s midnight advice to him is chilling: “Using your talent is what God wants you to do. He gave it to you for a reason… I’d hate to be in your shoes, where you owe God.”
There are some very good shots in this sprawling, strange and obscure movie. Beale composes in a strange polygonal room with neural ductwork. He slow dances with his sweetie in a neon nightclub, continuing in a trance even when she withdraws. These are moment of poetry that will reward a certain breed of contemplative cinemagoer. Typical audiences are going to find this affair far too slow and inconclusive, however. Beale’s musical talent is only glimpsed in frustrating snatches. The movie is only seventy-five minutes long, but scenes of the melancholy protagonist walking around whistling or practicing his stick-fighting moves with a broom seem interminable. Memphis‘ non-story could have been conveyed with as much impact at a third of the length.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…Sutton at least keeps the running time trim. Perhaps he knew that the strange magic he and Beal occasionally conjured was destined to have a short shelf life. Better to leave the few audience members plugging into this cryptic oddity wanting more.”–Film Journal International (contemporaneous)