dvafoto’s Book Club at the Movies, Vol. 2: “Winter’s Bone” and “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus”

More than a year ago my friend John Malsbary and I began trading emails about a couple of films and some ideas that they inspired. I suppose it is a follow-up to our first post together: Dvafoto Book Club, Vol 1: The Hurt Locker. This discussion started when he told me to watch Winter’s Bone and after I saw it I started drawing a lot of connections to my fascination with the documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. So I asked John to watch that documentary. This post is an edited form of the ongoing discussion John and I have been having, and jumps around quite a bit to other bits of art and society that we’re interested in. We hope you find it interesting. Watch the trailers for Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus and Winter’s Bone.

Matt Lutton:

I think the most important thing that sticks out to me personally with Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (directed by Andrew Douglas, 2003), in concert with Winter’s Bone (directed by Debra Granik, 2010) is the different approaches to telling stories that I’m interested in. I could see myself working on the stories at the heart of either movie, but I don’t know how I would do that with still images.
Watching Winter’s Bone, I kept thinking .. could I do something like this? Take a very realistic story and use some fiction to be able to communicate the story better? Would it allow me to give the audience more than they could see if I shot it ’straight’ as a documentary? For instance, some of the stories I’ve heard in the Roma camps (I spent much of 2009 photographing the destruction of a Belgrade Roma community), there is no way to show all of those elements in still images made at the moment. These were things that happened in the past, things happening where I can’t photograph, or mental images described to me. It seriously makes me think about doing some work on films some day, to explore that itch to tell a more complete story than “purely” what is in front of my lens. Or maybe there is indeed a way to do that within documentary photography.

It is the same thing with Wrong-Eyed, it makes me dream about making a documentary film. What they are able to pull out of the story, with some scripting, some crew, some lighting, is different than what I would get with my still photographs if I were standing there the day before or after with the exact same idea or perspective. Likewise, their way of telling a story would probably not work at all with the stories I have done. My stories exist because I’m one guy moving quickly with one small camera, really no equipment, and just shooting what happens in front of me, no set-ups at all. That movie can not exist without those setups. It took a crew of people to set up access and equipment, to get those people (in jail, in the bar, the preacher) to say their deepest thoughts in those particular tableus. We could both get in to these places, but our way of working changes what we will get on film. And making the decision about how you physically approach a story changes what you will record.

That’s the essence of what I’m interested in this conversation: the nature and method of story telling. And how choices about a medium, given their specific limitations and advantages, can reveal new elements of the story.

Since watching the film the first time I’ve read up quite a bit more on Wrong-Eyed and have fallen deeply in to Jim White’s music (see the embedded video below for one scene of White playing some music and telling a story while driving around). If you like his tunes and want to hear him talk about the making of the film there is a great live set and interview from KEXP in 2005. There is also a nice press kit with much info about the film, found on the website of the distributer.

The White interview on KEXP gave me some interesting perspective on what they set out to achieve. In response to one of the things you raised in your reading of the film, the whiteness of it all. They say that they chose to focus specifically on the rural southern poor white perspective. And for me, that is something that I haven’t seen much real documentary of. My experience with this population is mostly just jokes about rednecks and northern snootiness. Man, I want to just go drive around the south now. I don’t think I have the balls or emotional space at the moment to actually open myself up to these experiences and go to all of these places right away though. Something I’ve realized living and working abroad: it really can be easier photographing away home. Less personal baggage that you hear off the cuff. Not knowing the nuance at first (though I am obsessed with finding it over time, this is why I am five years in to my project with barely an end in sight). You can photograph and not feel so bad not knowing word for word the details of their life story.

John Malsbary:

I have no idea why you would be afraid of these places. You are straight, white and male. People would make fun of you for being northern/west coast, but that would just be their way of trying to know you. The struggle would be to put up with the hateful shit they’d say, and keep your cool, and not judge them or fight it. Or maybe you would feel you have to fight it.

You know, I think you’ve put yourself at such a disadvantage by talking to people in a foreign country. In America I sometimes feel like narratives are a dime a dozen. Part of my job, as I’ve told you before, is just being where people are aching to be heard.  My supervisors occasionally say that people with literally no money only have their story to trade.  No one wants a hand out from me.  So I receive stories like they’re legal tender.

For me it’s a pleasurable job. But I get a kick out of incoherent pandemonium. I think the hard part for a story teller would be sewing it all into something coherent.

Well, I’m watching it again, and I read the press sheet you sent me. I like that Wrong-Eyed has a higher production value than I originally thought. Sometimes it felt so staged. Knowing the staged-ness was purposeful helps me kind of embrace it. I guess I didn’t need liner notes to draw that conclusion though.
Second viewing was more peaceful. Sometimes I just closed my eyes and listened. I really liked the song in the barber shop (embedded below), when the female singer just sort of appears as the camera tracks into a second room. I have no idea how the director trained all the locals to feel comfortable in front of the camera. I guess that’s something you get to enjoy in any good documentary.

There are so many southern Gothic shadows. On trees and faces especially. Contrasted with the sharp fluorescent light in the church. A way to help us visualize or feel the struggle between sacred and profane, without having to see evil literally on the screen in front of us.

I know this movie went to a lot of pains to avoid stereotyping or trivializing its subjects. But at times I really did find those subjects infuriating. Why did the film makers make me listen to that woman in the Jesus diner say the phrase “numerous of this… and numerous of that…” They could have kept on track with their good and evil, life and death material without that turn of phrase. It’s weird, I make a big effort throughout the film to be open minded toward these people I have a hard time seeing them as complete humans.
That’s nasty, but at times that’s really how I perceive the hyper-devout. They are so void of critical thinking that I consider them pre-modern, and detestable. It’s only when I meet folks in real life that I can enjoy them as equals. In that sense, the screen necessarily dilutes the story, any replication is a dilution. And I can put my mind in that place in real life too. I can see someone as an object or just part of my job, and detach, as if they were only an image. That one weird sentence “numerous of…” really set me off.

I still get annoyed by this effort to seek out poor white people in the south and separate them from a history of racial violence. Look at Trayvon Martin. Too prescient maybe, but that shit happens all the time, and it’s systematic, it’s the result of racist gun laws, stand your ground laws, and a generally broken criminal justice system that’s rolled back Miranda rights and doesn’t treat racial groups equally. It’s too indulgent. Like, cool, all these nerdy white singers are into this music from the South. So much of it is from black people. But they’re still searching for some essential atmosphere, some mystical southern-ness. If that’s what you really want, I can lend you Gone With The Wind. You gotta at least say that there’s nasty shit going on now and in the past. They skirted the prison full of black people and managed to find the whitest joint in America. That allows them to indulge their whole good/evil, Saturday night party/Sunday morning faith dichotomy without addressing the reality that the majority of people affected by the prison industrial complex are black. In fact, my problem is that there’s not enough reality here. I’m turning on my advocacy for fiction in story telling because I’m mad.

Maybe the way they’re telling the story does get to the issues that bug me, and in a way that’s not confrontational and in your face. Probably I just need to get my head there, hear what you think, and re-evaluate.

There is one scene in Wrong-Eyed Jesus where the singer Johnny Dowd and Jim White are sitting in a diner eating french fries, and Dowd starts telling a story about a friend of his. It is an incredible story, about a man who gets in to a car accident while having sex with his wife on the road. She has a spinal injury and is laying in a coma for years. But the story is actually a performance of Dowd’s song “No Woman’s Flesh but Hers”.

It puts everything in to focus for me. It is all just story telling and images. The song tells a story, through lyrics. Dowd can tell the same story in prose, or even in conversation. By including this alternative “performance” of the story in Wrong-Eyed Jesus, I begin to think about how other stories have been taken from their original context, from their place on some continuum of real life. The interplay between fiction and reality, words and images, inside the film itself. And how these different mediums of story-telling compliment each other. Fascinating idea to think about, even above the beauty of the stories being told in the film.

So I’m a documentary maker or artist or at least someone very interested in these things. Maybe it is not important to pay attention to what the producers say about their product (they are biased after all) but I’m watching the director’s commentary of Wrong-Eyed tonight. And finding it fascinating and illuminating. I’m seeing things that I never saw before (because the director is there saying: look! see how clever I was at tying these two ideas together, or look at that guy’s hands as he’s talking, they’re like an angel’s wings beating).

And they explain their conceits and their decisions behind how they made the film. It answers a lot of questions (while raising more of course). I want to know how they did it. I want to see what they were thinking. It helps me understand what it was exactly they did, balancing what they intended versus what I personally got out of their film when I saw it ‘raw’. But I don’t know if I am interested because I am trying to learn from them for my own sake. I’ve said before, I’m getting incredibly interested in these pushed boundaries of documentary, of other ways of telling a story beyond what has always been orthodox journalism.

I would love to hear what you think about watching the film with the director’s whispering their secrets and ideas directly in your ear. Especially in the part of the film when they were filming, incredibly as we say, in the prison. It was the mayor, their ally, who got them in (“There was something so informal about this town, that if somebody was on your side, they could make something happen. they could get you in to a church on Easter Sunday, or they could get you in to the penitentiary”). And the Mayor asked them, do you want black or white?

That comment from the directors follows a discussion a few minutes earlier about the ‘endemic’ racism and segregation of the south. I know you zeroed in on the issue of race in this film, that maybe they are taking it too lightly or easy. But to me, what emerges in the commentary is a feeling that they knew what they were doing.

What do you think, is it important to know what the artist thinks about their work? Or should we only take it at face value? After all, their story telling, their product, was the original film, without their own voices narrating. The information we’re processing now is ‘extra’.

M Scott Brauer said something interesting when I mentioned being interested now in these kinds of films, he cautioned about going in with a story to tell before you found the people that will tell that story. In other words, if you are set in your mind about story you are about to tell, you’re may not be open to any realities that confront your vision when you’re out working. Brauer said : “Listen and learn from your subjects. But there’s another part to this that you should always let your subjects guide you. You’ve got to have a nose for when the subjects are being honest and when they’re trying to lead you into how they want to be portrayed.” The filmmakers had an idea of the South that they wanted to explore before the arrived to make the film. It is critical to let someone with real experience and local knowledge guide you, or you risk missing the forest for the trees with narrow characters who do not actually embody the story you sought. And then of course, you could be missing the “real” story.

The filmmakers of Wrong-Eyed Jesus insisted that they could not find a “true” southern person to show them around. But they did find Jim White, whose music and stories shape the entire film. In the end I don’t think they could have found anyone other than White to tell this story. Their story turned out to be told by someone who was an outsider himself, it reflects on the position of filmmakers in that environment. There are levels of access. White could get them part way, open some doors, and at least got us started in finding “some essential truth about the American South” (as the trailer says) even though he may not have any answers himself. Jim White, though originally from California, does know the South. He may have more to say, and have more of a perspective on things that can be more useful to storytelling and to journalism, because he is not burdened by the myopia of having lived there his whole life. One may speak with more conviction as a convert than as the native, and have more capacity to explore the depths. Or so I want to believe.

My mind is so cluttered with advertisements, football and celebrity gossip that anything smart can only help me. I don’t think I enjoy directors commentaries though, relative to other types. I’m more interested in film historians or critics or professors. They usually have more to say. I find directors spend a lot of time on gabbing about how great each actor or focus puller was. And I just get bored. (Some are really great, and I totally appreciate that. But especially with hollywood/big-indy films, they’re not that interesting).

To be honest it’s been ages since I’ve been able to really get into anything. In college I was pretty obsessed with movies and directors and wanted to know all this trivia. Lately I’ve been distracted. It’s unpleasant. But I never seem to have anyone to talk about movies and books with. And I’m so taken in by the screens everywhere. In fact I have NCAA tournament running in the background as I type this.

So yeah, in the end I think it’s important to know what artists think about their work. But like everything, it’s gotta come with a grain of salt, because the artist or film maker is also a performer. I, for one, am very susceptible to being swayed by what I’m told over what I see and experience. So I mean, say Leni Riefenstahl’s the artist, and I’m listening to her talk about her own work. My own critical eye is pretty weak, and the images on the screen, aside from the Nazi rallies, are very elegant and enjoyable. So I’m gonna be partial to her side of things. It’s gonna sway my interpretation, and then I’m going to look like a fool for defending her side of things.

I think I’m more partial than Brauer to my own side of the story. I don’t think I really tell it to many people face to face. Probably people who know my online persona know more about what I think than the people I interact with in real life. That’s just to say, I think my point of view is valid and my bias is going to be in anything I make, so why try to fight it. You know, film is not a science experiment. Film is not empirical. If there’s a story, and I felt strong about it, but I can’t find someone to articulate it… well, maybe that’s because everyone has a deficiency, lack of perspective, or a lack of imagination. Perhaps it’s not the best or most ethical story telling method. I’m not sure. Really, I don’t deal with that kind of problem in my life. I work in such a different field than you and Brauer. I will provide this rough quote (skipping “ums”) from the director’s commentary of Wrong Eye though:

“I talked earlier about breaking rules, breaking documentary rules and all of a sudden that environment of where on the one side of the wrecker’s yard you’re carrying concrete Jesus like a dead body on the other side you’ve got almost like a greek chronicler singing a lurid song. We’re definitely constructing our world. Having said that, we had to argue so many times at film festivals there are many ways to the truth and lots of versions of the truth.”

We talked last time in Dvafoto Book Club Vol. 1 on the topic of the film The Hurt Locker, about the “ecstatic truth”. And this idea has come up again in this discussion, I suppose we are circling around a larger question about what truth is and what means we may use to attain it. Here is Werner Herzog speaking about what he meant by “ecstatic truth”.

This is one of my three favorite scenes in the movie.  I love how they pan around from the environment to the performer.  Surprising audiences by plopping the musician into the film is such a tired gimmick. The assertion that Wrong-Eyed is a documentary, and the laconic southern pace, make surprise musicians in the frame somehow feel fresh.

At the same time, the musicians serve to remind me that we’re outsiders. And that serves to detach me from the action on screen. None of the performers feel like they’re of the south. They very well could be, but they’re not stereotypical. Usually they’re thin and dressed like they’re living in Brooklyn.

Consider the image below from Winter’s Bone. The musicians are all local. The filmmakers spent a few years making the film, and eventually made friends with the woman on the left. I’m not sure that it’s necessarily more authentic, and I doubt that I really care so much about authenticity when it comes down to it. You know what, I do care about authenticity. I think the Winter’s Bone method, the long haul, getting to know your peeps, I like that method more than the travelogue.

When I look at the warm living room get together, I feel like I’m part of the film, and I get caught up in it more. Which is a big part of why I like fiction. I’m more apt to think about something later on if it affected the most primordial part of my brain. Which is only to say, I like roller coasters. gain, I realize that I’ve turned so completely in on myself. I now think that Winter’s Bone is as documentary as Wrong-Eyed.

This weekend I was in a living room at a party with a couple I’ve known for several months. They’re Missouri transplants. I’ve never felt close to them. Anyhow, the girl nagged the guy until he gave her a tune on an unplugged electric guitar. She just started singing Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”. It’s such a cheesy high school stoner song. But everyone in the room just shut up and listened. I feel like we’re kind of friends now.

I think you hit the nail on the head, and expose exactly what made me want to discuss these films together, when you said that Winter’s Bone is as documentary as Wrong-Eyed.

The final, closing scene from Winter’s Bone has the little girl picking up the banjo and inventing her own blues. It is such an evocative moment: everyone must get to the point in life where they find or are given by circumstances their own music. She got it then. Just as people reach moments where they have grown up enough to make their own decisions and take on the burden of their family’s reputation and mis-deeds. (Let’s discuss that aspect of Winter’s Bone in another exchange soon, we’ll make it Part 2 of this discussion).

Music in Winter’s Bone is perhaps more authentically home-style than the professional performances of Wrong-Eyed Jesus. It reflects real-world musicians who play for the life of it. But both film examine the critical role of music in these American inner-societies. The music reflects the community’s values and fears, the performers are both outcasts from society and society’s most engaged storyteller. It is a contradiction about storytelling, that through your own story or of someone close to you, that you might avoid reality for the sake of an epic song. It may become an anthem for the community for generations to come. Jim White is writing about his life story and the events he has seen, but has always been an outsider, passing by and observing fellow Americans (fellow characters?) in Wrong-Eyed Jesus.

Speaking about music in Winter’s Bone, be sure to have a look at the short film “Hillbilly Up”, which was a DVD extra from the film. It is available online and iTunes for free viewing. It features much more live music and some discussion from people in the film.

HILLBILLY UP from Tory Stewart on Vimeo.

Recently there has been controversy between “story-telling” and “journalism” in a recent This American Life episode about Foxconn and Apple Computer’s working conditions in China. The long story at the heart of the piece is Mike Daisey recounting meetings with people and places in China, presented as reporting for his story. But later This American Life chose to retract the story, and produced an entire show discussing the decision they made to retract the story and why they felt they needed to go to that step. Apparently the original show was the most listened-to episode of TAM ever, until it was surpassed by the Retraction. I appreciate that the whole affair is getting people interested in what is true and what is not in China in Foxconn’s secretive factories. It also has people talking about the limits and rights of story-telling, and how it may be broadly different than the story telling that goes on in Journalism. How often does a retraction get as much weight as the original piece? Though embarrassing for Daisey and This American Life, it has got to be a good thing that we are thinking about these issues.

Seattle’s alternative newspaper The Stranger proceeded this all with a May 2011 review by Brendan Kiley which criticized Daisey’s approach to what he had seen (or not seen) and how he subsequently presented it as theater, in a review titled Mr Daisey goes to Shenzhen:
“And as a reporter as well as a theater critic, I’ll admit that facts are a bitch. They’re messy, they screw up your well-calibrated plotlines, and they’ll leave you in a ditch without a second thought. But facts matter. “

I was caught up in the Foxconn and This American Life outrage. That episode genuinely made me guilty and frustrated with 21st century life. It reminded me, in a refreshing and effective way that my actions and petty impatience has consequences. I was disappointed to read that the episode wasn’t all factual. But I was pretty quick to disregard the gleeful expose in the Wall Street Journal and try to hang onto the broader sense of truth that TAL elicited. I haven’t taken a flipping side throughout this discussion. So I’m not arguing that facts and details don’t matter, but that they are slippery devils.

The truth of the matter was stories was everything and everything was stories. Everybody told stories. It was a way of saying who they were in the world. It was their understanding of themselves. It was letting themselves know how they believed the world worked, the right way and the way that was not so right. -Harry Crews

This post is dedicated to the writer Harry Crews, one of the central characters of Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, who died this week. This is one of my favorite quotes of his from the film, and a fantastic way to end this discussion.

One Response to “dvafoto’s Book Club at the Movies, Vol. 2: “Winter’s Bone” and “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus””

  1. J A Mortram

    What a fantastic post and really great to find something dedicated to the real genius that was/is Harry Crews.

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