I like arthouse films. I like them on principle. It is necessary to like them because unless some of us do they don't get made, and cinema can be much more than variations on the seven main plots added to whatever the zeitgeist, the state of technology and the current star system permit. I like them slow, I like them enigmatic, I like them a bit dotty. I don't mind them being portentous, I don't mind them being a little up themselves, as people say. It is fascinating to see what the visual imagination can do over a stretch given a bit of equipment, a bit of money and a lot of devotion. It doesn't mean I can't walk out of them as I did out of Derek Jarman's The Tempest many years ago. I just thought, I love this play, the one by Shakespeare, and there is only so much self-referential crap I can take at a sitting, and, come to that, there must be more comfortable places to sit. (Granted, I might have been wrong about both the film and there being more comfortable places to sit.)
And there is Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr and Jim Jarmusch...
So, yes, in principle, I am all for them. It is a civic duty - though I do sometimes lapse in practice.
A Christmas present from H & R, we watched Northfork a couple of nights ago with a certain gawky fascination. Rather than try to describe events in it I want to take a commenter from IMBd, one machineart, who sums it up like this:
"Northfork" tells the story of a '50s era small town in the middle of nowhere that is two days shy of being inundated and submerged thanks to the U.S. government's desire to make a reservoir on the place where the town stands. It's a wry parable about loss and remembrance, featuring angels, dreams, premonitions, and the most hilarious government reclamation functionaries since "Repo Man."
Adumbrated by another commenter, psychdiva1, who says:
Whether you wish to view the more fanciful scenes as literal or the product of a dying boy's imagination, one strong theme connects all the stories. Change happens. Each sub-story revolves around a profound change. The little boy is dying. The town is being evacuated. The movie illustrates how we get dragged along by changes we are powerless to stop. We should ideally make the best of them and accept whatever heartache they cause. Some look forward towards a new freedom (the little boy) and some obstinately refuse to accept them (the ark family). And Walter has to learn the lesson that there are some changes we think are over and done with that must be relived (reburying his wife). Just because we think we've buried a chapter in life under the ground doesn't make it so. This is shown so clearly by the conversations between Walter and his son Willis.
So now you have the scenario and you know about the dying little boy, and the repo men, who are really angels, as you can tell by the little white feather in each one's hatband, and the ghosts who are more or less everyone else, and Daryl Hannah who plays a ghost character called Flower Hercules who hangs around with a sinister English ghost called Cup of Tea who keeps offering everyone cups of tea, a melancholy juvenile cowboy called Cod, and a blind-as-a-bat-yet equipped with a range of fold-out spectacles character (see picture above) who can tell by very close examination whether a set of angel wings are really angel wings. His name is Happy and at one point his arms seems to fall off. Ah, well..
But I haven't yet told you about the man with two wives who lives in an ark, or that brief moment of sex in a deserted house (they are all deserted houses) and about the woman with a strange driftwood face, straight out of David Lynch, via Nosferatu, who serves the repo men soup in a deserted empty eaterie. And there is a strange creature, like a neckless giraffe made out of an old broken laundry rack and a lot of old pyjamas that teeters here and there for about five minutes without amounting to much then finally keels over. David Lynch's man, Kyle MacLachlan, gets a little less screen time than the pyjama-giraffe, but you also get Nick Nolte as Father Harlan who prays a lot for the boy and may actually be alive, or at some stage between life and death, though I wouldn't put much firm money either way.
As for the narrative (why havent I mentioned the narrative?) it consists of the repo men trying to get all the remaining ghost folk out of the valley before it's turned into a reservoir. And the little dead boy, who is dead.
When I put it like that you will see that Northfork does not lack for variety and invention, and why it is everything an arthouse film can be (see list above). The black and white photography is insistent and edgy, sometimes comically yet statuesquely beautiful, the acting is generally fifties-deadpan, the pace - it does have pace of a sort - is quirky, slow and properly dreamlike, because, I suppose, a heavily symbolic yet enigmatic, elegiac dream is what it is supposed to be. The dream is of death and vanishing and lingering human presence.
People have compared it to Jarmusch's Dead Man(which is marvellous) and Wenders's Wings of Desire, which is also rather splendid. In fact both Dead Man and Wings of Desire - two films about ghosts and angels, haunted places and dream journeys - are considerably grander than Northfork. But Northfork is not bad. I wouldn't unwish Northfork . I'm glad it's there. I might even watch it again just to see what the giraffe was up to.
Oh, and Daryl Hannah wears a wig. There is no suspense about this, it is clear from the start.