Wednesday, February 13, 2008
A few weeks ago, I was in snowy Park City, Utah, at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. While there, I attended the premiere of "Ballast," a made-in-Mississippi movie that rallied the efforts of a 35-member Mississippi cast and a mostly Mississippi crew, including Producer Nina Parikh and Production Manager Todd Stauffer.
"Ballast" opens with requisite beauty. A young boy, James (JimMyron Ross), walks through the fallow, muddy (hopeless) fields of a Delta winter. Suddenly, seemingly filled with a drive to know he is alive and effectual, the boy breaks into a run. He runs headlong into a flock of snow geese, the only significant breech in an overcast, monotone day. As he runs, the birds rise en masse and fly away, and there you have it—unity and escape—the entire movie in 10 seconds.
Except that this is not the entire movie, because, no matter how much James wants to be effectual and no matter how great the characters' desire for escape, the reality of the situation is different from the metaphor. And capturing reality was writer/director Lance Hammer's primary ambition in making the sparse, lyrical "Ballast."
During filming near Yazoo City and Canton, Hammer championed authenticity above efficiency. This adherence is surely why Hammer walked away from last month's Sundance Film Festival with an award for directing. But is California-born Hammer's perception of Mississippi reality an accurate portrayal, or is it a matter of convenience, the way the rest of the country wants it to be, the way we even portray ourselves when it helps our cause?
Driving through the Delta a few winters ago, Hammer was struck by the lunar, isolated quality of the stark trees and infinite terrain. To capture his vision, he had Director of Photography Lol Crawley shoot "Ballast" in documentary, hand-held style and almost entirely in natural light. He cast non-professional locals and scouted existing locations. He wanted only overcast shooting days. When the weather wasn't compliant, the crew waited until it was. Scenes were interrupted to catch some fleeting bit of atmospheric Delta-scape (such as those poignant snow geese or a passing train). Post-production was kept at a minimum. The finished product disdains musical scoring, and the most miniscule details became part of the location experience (on Hammer's set, telephones actually ring).
The result is a distinctly American echo of European-style filmmaking—a story of place, carefully unfurled through significant events in the lives of fringe characters. In "Ballast" these characters are Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.), a depressed shop-keeper, dealing with the suicide of his twin brother; his ex-sister-in-law Marlee (Tarra Riggs), a recovered addict, janitor and single-mom, hovering just below the poverty line; and James, Marlee's delinquent 12-year-old son.
Hammer has written a story about characters that don't matter to the world, so they better learn how to matter to each other. It is a story of humanity, and as such, place and ethnicity should be irrelevant. But visually, Hammer harps on place, and thematically, place came before story. He attributes ethnicity to place: His African American characters are a reflection of Delta demographics. And while his plot thankfully avoids overt racial confrontation and derivative blues references, he manages a clichéd construction of Mississippi. "Ballast" serves the Delta on a platter, a desolate place, scattered with desperate, downtrodden people. And there is nothing novel about that perspective.
Maybe that's what the Delta is, minus the veneer of the blues and select "revitalized" towns. But it's certainly not all that the Delta is, and it's not the entire contingency of being a black Mississippian.
"Ballast" is just a movie. It's a single family's story, and it can't be expected to display the range and complexity of the contemporary Delta experience. But Hammer had to make a choice, and the story he chose already resides within our cultural consciousness. It's a story that, for its scant, struggling ray of hope (bond together as family, and things won't be OK, but they may get better), depicts Mississippi as a romantically devastated place. Many Mississippians are over that depiction.
Nevertheless, "Ballast" is a gorgeous film. In addition to Hammer's directing, Sundance awarded "Ballast" an Excellence in Cinematography Award. Shot on 35mm film, "Ballast" presents an overriding motif of watery blues and greens and, due to small space and low light, skillful depth of field manipulation, which, in and of itself, offers meaningful commentary.
In one scene inside Lawrence's convenience store, the focus melts from Lawrence and Marlee's heated discussion to James's small, still figure, achingly focused on copying a particular card—the Jack of Hearts. Like the opening geese, it's a telling, flawlessly captured moment. These moments are "Ballast's" redemption.