Friday, November 14, 2008


I've been searching for the way I want to talk about Lance Hammer's Ballast, a film whose narrative grows up from the Mississippi Delta, whose aesthetic ancestors hail from art cinema houses near and far, whose editing rhythms emerge from a rich tradition of leaving things unsaid, and whose distribution tactics result from a passionate DIY attitude. There's a lot to talk about and a good deal of it has already been said, which, oddly enough, leads me to my first point.

The way this movie looks and moves speaks to a lot of other styles and traditions, causing many reviewers to write about Ballast in these terms, terms like "aesthetic ancestors"...sound familiar? Yes, I feel the pull to say Ballast cuts and pauses like a David Gordon Green movie and hope that that reference might trigger some things in my reader(s) mind about how those cuts and pauses actually look and sound and feel. But, tempted as I am, I'm tired of reference. It's lazy. It can be a helpful shorthand but it has to actually be helpful, which means not so shorthand that nothing is actually said. Importantly, I appreciate comparisons and examples, it's just that they have to be explained, justified, cracked open, bled dry. That's the fun of it! If everything can be explained by just saying it's something else, where's the dirt and the joy and the discourse in that? Even in our post-modern whirlwind of ideas referencing ideas that only lead back to referencing those first ideas, even this has to be taken apart and spread out on the living room floor to really see how it's working. And another thing, letting a name and a short adjective phrase stand for making a critical observation keeps perfectly "qualified" people out of the conversation and anybody who is sincerely in pursuit of learning something, of engaging with the beast, and listening to other human beings, well they either don't or ought not do this. Ha. It sounds like I'm talking to somebody specific, but I'm not. It's a critical limitation of many, sometimes me.

In an effort to rein this thing in and bring it back to Ballast and at the risk of making this piece completely over-wrought with these meta-critical remarks, Michael Koresky's opening graph to his Reverse Shot article on Ballast first got me going on this mental jag and I continue to find his words quite liberating. He writes,

"It’s sometimes necessary to discuss a movie without reducing it to a category. Unfortunately, that’s not what critics often do. A film like Lance Hammer’s Ballast deserves to be considered on its own terms, rather than compartmentalized and defined in relation to concurrent film movements. To simply talk about the aesthetics and storytelling approach of Ballast by comparing it to the work of the Dardenne brothers or perhaps the American independent strategies of early David Gordon Green (both of which dredge up even more film historical categories, respectively neorealism and a Malickian brand of poetic naturalism) is an easy out, and not that different from reducing it to labels like 'Southern' or 'black.'"

Right on.

And so a few words on the film,
As it's title suggests, Ballast is heavy. It's a story of one twin's heartache at the loss of his other half and it's a story of the struggle to keep it all together in the face of poverty, broken family, and the trouble that rolls in like a dark storm when bored kids do dumb things. Hammer shapes this grief and struggle quietly: young James (JimMyron Ross) plays in the crowded remnants of an abandoned home; Lawrence (Michael J. Smith) finally emerges from his home to eat a silent dinner with a concerned neighbor; Marlee (Tara Riggs) stares at her son's bruised face; plastic deer stand stock still and expressionless in a cold yard. The midwinter Delta forms an unrelentingly gray backdrop, punctuated only by a lone motorbike careening through dirt roads and the sound of dried twigs crunched underfoot. Hammer's camera waits patiently with an image until we can fully feel the weight of the world sink into Marlee's posture, or James' gun-wielding hand, or Lawrence's eyelids. But Hammer doesn’t just use long takes, he describes a moment or a feeling by cutting together its most essential parts, a kind of elliptical editing that seems to channel the rhythms of an erratic, unseen ocean. Together, Ballast’s form and content create this omnipresent weight and conjures a feeling of unchangeability, brought even deeper by fleeting moments that hint of other, lighter worlds--a flock of birds taking flight, a train rushing through town, the speed of that motorbike against the wind. All of this is quite beautiful.

But what makes this movie special is its ability to slowly and subtly push back against the heaviness of the world. It does so through a rather hopeful theme of learning and teaching. Lawrence, Marlee, and James do not just personally commit to overcome their differences and march in unison toward a happy ending; their character development is not the product of individualized soul searching, which is why I find it helpful to understand their character development as more of a learning curve. From running the store, to overcoming grief, to putting down a gun, to the literal manifestation of this theme in Marlee and Lawrence’s decision to home-school James, the changes in these characters are results of one-on-one negotiations. In the face of such weight, they allow themselves to learn from each other. This movie isn’t as tidy as some would like to think; these peoples’ problems are too big and their futures are too fragile and Hammer is too smart for this thing to tie up in a clean bow, but the hope, the floating light in this heavy fog, is that simple idea that human beings can come together and learn from each other in order to make things work.


Jeff The Jeff said...

Wonderful review.
Thanks very much for the insight. Also, I agree about comparisons in reviews being lazy/crutches. Every time I see a comparison without justification it makes me cringe.

(I came to this site via Feministing, and I absolutely love what I've read so far. Do me a favor and post more often, will ya?)

Andy said...

Hi Martha! I like your blog! When you get to NY we're going to see movies ALL THE TIME (I'm tired of going alone).


Chris Martin said...

At the risk of imposing exactly the same reference conundrum that your post brings into question, I would like to add a further possibility, but only to show how Hammer escapes it. Yes I saw some Mallick and yes some Green and even, dare I say, some Korine-potential at the beginning, but the director I thought about most while watching Ballast was Bresson. I think the main thing was the film's insistence on a feel for the real, not resorting to overwrought dialogue or choppy edits or the manipulations of music. What I really appreciated about Ballast was how Hammer achieved this without losing compassion for his characters, the way Bresson often did in his effort to be "objective." It was like Bresson with a heart. I think the teaching component you bring up is central to this difference. How can one teach without ruining objectivity?

Keep up the posts friend. I like to eat breakfast and read them. Though I do run the risk of replying and thus being late to work, as it presently the case...

martha said...

Yeah, Chris, Right On! Here's an excerpt from an interview Lance Hammer did with (hometown hero) Rob Nelson for Film Comment:

R.N. Which filmmakers are you fixated on?

L.H. Well, there’s Robert Bresson, first and foremost—for his conviction and austerity, for his courage to remove everything that’s not absolutely essential. That’s always been very powerful to me. I’m really influenced by Bresson’s writings. I kept Notes to a Cinematographer in my pocket while shooting Ballast. It’s funny, some reviewer wrote that I had probably kept Notes to a Cinematographer in my back pocket on the set. And in fact I did.

R.N. The approach to the screenplay was Bressonian, too?

L.H. Somewhat, yeah. It’s such a simple, stupid screenplay, but it took two years. For me, every word is a symbol of something visual. That’s why it took so long. I was always constructing a visual film in my head and trying to commit that to the page. What I was trying to capture wasn’t really something I could put into words. It was about capturing an emotion that human beings have when they’re in a place. It was essential not to present a document—a screenplay—to the actors. I wanted them to rely on their own ways of engaging with the world, to respond to these artificial scenarios that I would present. I had to accept a certain level of artifice from the beginning—the scenario that is not true. Imagine if it were true: how would you respond? Without the benefit or curse of acting experience or a printed document, people just respond as if it were really happening to them. More accurately perhaps: they respond the way they did when they were children, who know how to role-play really well, with true emotion.

R.N. Would you say that your use of nonprofessional actors is the greatest of all influences you’ve taken from Bresson?

L.H. Bresson talks about his “models” not having the ability to act—therefore they can access something more truthful because it’s the only way they know how to present themselves. They don’t filter it. That was very important to me. So when it came to casting, I looked for people who naturally had that unfiltered quality—which took time. The auditions were basically trial-by-fire rehearsal sessions where I’d say, “Here’s a scene, let’s talk about it, and let’s do it.” The people who could just naturally do it, I knew they could do it again. Some people just can’t do it at all. By far the best parts in the film, when I look at it now, are the parts where the actors just completely owned or invented something that wasn’t in the script. When someone begins to own their own words and begins to think their own way, and has the courage and the freedom to do what they want, really good and unexpected things can happen. People like Mike Leigh and Wong Kar Wai have been doing this kind of thing for decades.