If there is a thin veil separating heaven and earth, Memphis captures the rippling of the veil. Theologically, that might be an inaccurate statement about the nature of reality, but poetically and as a description of the atmosphere of writer/director Tim Sutton’s sophomore film, Memphis, it’s accurate. In the film as in life, the only thing that often separates us from the kingdom of heaven is our awareness of it and willingness to interact with it.
In Memphis, a young musician wanders around his city running his hand along the curtain hiding the spiritual realm looking for a way in so he can finish his latest album. A more pedestrian way of saying this would be to say he’s “looking for inspiration,” but that common phrase simplifies how mysterious this film is (and the mysteriousness of the creative process, for that matter). “Inspiration” is too domesticated a term to capture the otherworldliness of the term’s Latin (by way of Old French and Middle English) origin, a word that meant to be filled with the Spirit as if God is inflating a human balloon with godly breath and then releasing the lip and letting the human expel divine air. Our nameless protagonist (played by ingenue Willis Earl Beal, a musician whose songs fill the soundtrack) knows he needs God’s breath, and he’s searching everywhere for it. This quest is bigger than music-making, of course. We all need God’s breath to inspire our work whatever we do.
Memphis is a wandering film. Film critics often use the term “elliptical” to denote films without clear plots, because these kinds films are full of scenes that simply trail off without clear resolution, like an ellipsis… Memphis is that kind of film to the end, and you’ll enjoy it to the degree you are willing to wander with the film. If you watch it—it’s available now on Netflix Instant—let your mind wander while watching. Accept the chance to sit and breathe with the film. Memphis is contemplative, searching, easy, so contemplate, search, and take it easy while you watch. You don’t have to make sense of it. Just let it be, and be with it for a while.
Notice how often the film features the wind in the trees. Notice the musician’s fascination with air and breath. Notice the room in his house where he composes late at night. What surrounds him? Moving air is the essence of music like light is the essence of a film. This film is as fascinated with light and the way light is refracted, obscured, and filtered by windows, mirrors, and lenses as the musician is with air. The most striking image in the film is that of a shattered windshield falling apart in pieces as a car drives down the road. It’s letting the air in, and the light is unfiltered. What does it mean?
All this makes Memphis sound dreamy, doesn’t it? It is a dreamy film, but it’s also as grimy as the sidewalks the musician walks. Memphis feels as much like a documentary as it does an art film, as if the filmmakers are truly just following this man around for a few days. This real-feel is helped by Sutton’s use of non-professional actors in all the roles and by the film’s actual-streets-of-Memphis setting. Just as Terrence Malick or Lee Isaac Chung grounds the ethereal in spit and sweat, Sutton locates glory in the tangible reality of the musician’s world. In doing so, he thins the curtain between heaven and earth and makes the Transcendent immanent.
Films like Memphis can be frustrating, because while moment to moment their images can be affective, they never compose a unified whole. I think of films like this like stars in the night sky. There are countless brilliant points of light, but those points are separated by a void. The picture you see is whatever constellation you trace between the stars. Even better, don’t try to connect the dots. Just rest beneath the stars, breathe the cool air, and let the night wash over you.
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