Whenever offended critics walk out of press screenings, I’m equally offended by how they abuse the privilege of seeing new work first and their disrespect for filmmakers who’ve worked so hard. They’re not doing their job, and if they can’t willingly give themselves over to someone else’s vision for all of eighty minutes, then they ought not to be doing that job at all.
Tim Sutton’s second feature, the impressionistic Memphis, about a struggling musician drifting through that mythical city and trying to find his place within it, is one such film that had restless members of the audience heading for the exits long before the credits of Sundance London’s press screening. As director Tim Sutton admits in my in-depth video interview, it wouldn’t be the first time. His film’s rejection of narrative conformity confounded many of those who stayed for the duration, but to meet Memphis on three acts terms in words a studio exec might understand is folly. It’s not about redemption or catharsis, but vibes, good and bad. Something to be read into but not necessarily understood. A sensory amplification chamber of a film, intended to be felt rather than figured out.
A sunburst patchwork of life on the Memphis streets, musician Willis Earl Beal (playing himself) roams about in a state of existential crisis, biding his sweet time finishing a record he owes the producers who took a chance on him and his obvious talents. In-between dissatisfying sessions with legendary local musicians, Willis encounters the day-to-day truths of one of Memphis’ poorer neigbourhoods and learns something of the suffering that comes with squandering God-given gifts. Pep-talked by a preacher and hanging out with hustlers over brown-bagged booze and dominos, Wills is someone who prefers epigraphically spouting off about the perfectionist’s pursuit of purity in art instead of performing in the studio, which at the present moment is something that only brings him pain. All the while, kids race around him on bikes like the whistle of the wind through trees, so prominently placed on the soundtrack, it becomes music in its own right.
Memphis is an illustrative and elusive film right down to its title, signposting where it takes place but disregarding the kind of joyous soul music it evokes. Not so much a specific point on a map, Memphis is a heavy-hearted state of mind. Director Sutton never works towards what this type of film should be, but what it can be. Doing away with all of the tropes you expect of films like Ray and Walk the Line, Memphis holds together as complete holistic picture of an artist, the people he’s surrounded by and the environment they live in. Sublimely shot by DP Chris Dapkins, it’s humane, warm and gorgeous to look at and given how profound its old fashioned message of American individualism feels in the last third of the film, who cares if the construct doesn’t add up the way you want it to?
The specificity of vision in the storytelling and the desire to tell that story in new ways is what makes the film work, even at its most figurative and abstract. Just like Willis, with a charismatic twinkle in his eye and an enigmatic quality that leaves you reading into every gesture and trying to figure out what makes him tick, Memphis is a pleasure to process. It’s a compelling and challenging work, which like all great works of art, feels instantly familiar while proving itself hard to pin down and hidden. Memphis does that thing of taking you somewhere unexpected but making you feel like you’re in safe hands. Even if you never quite know which way it’s going to shuffle next, it’s controlled enough that when it does stumble off into tangential strangeness, it does so anarchically without going too far. Never getting too bogged down in its own aesthetics of mystification, it maintains a primal emotional clarity.
Sure, the uncomprehending state of Willis’ artistic journey and his quest for spiritual fulfilment will likely prove incomprehensible to most, but to those investigatively minded, able to tune in to its ambient emotional tone and connect with the film’s exploratory and elliptical sound design, Memphis will make you see the place and maybe even the world at large as you never have before. It may not be the film everyone’s talking about (Fruitvale Station), the one pre-packaged with the most buzz (Frank), or even my personal favourite of the festival (Little Accidents), but when people look back on Sundance 2014, Memphis is the film that should be remembered.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on April 25, 2014