Beale Street Blues: Memphis

08/27/2014 4:00 AM |

Directed by Tim Sutton

The unsettlingly serene Memphis is a second feature that looks in on one particularly extreme case of sophomore-slump anxiety—though this enveloping film is no sophomore slump itself. Brooklyn-based writer-director Tim Sutton follows a young recording artist (Willis Earl Beal, magnetically rambling in his first film, for which he also composed the ghostly music) as he walks along the city’s sidewalks, lays about his unfurnished house, and dodges questions from a label executive about when he’ll deliver his next album. Even the few glimpses here of the soul singer actually in the studio emphasize the basic estrangement of the recording process: each session player appears alone in his own shot, with only his individual instrument track audible.

Sutton’s debut, 2012’s Pavilion, was remarkable for presenting child-of-divorce dislocation with an almost evaporative calm, and here as well the filmmaker settles into a hypnotically laid-back rhythm. As shot by DP Chris Dapkins, Memphis itself often seems to be waiting for something to happen: the camera follows cars, observes aimless bike stunts, and admires the oak trees from below. Just as many of the images exhibit an internal drift, the film’s focus often strays from Beal to a handful of people within his orbit (a Caddy-driving associate, a sort-of girlfriend, and her boys). Even in the case of characters less spaced-out than the singer subject, action seems to further shroud intent, rather than reveal it: a ways into the film, that associate, driving by himself, pulls off the road, smashes the back window of his sedan, and then sits down in the backseat, where he stares at the small column of fire billowing forth from his cigarette lighter.

Portrait-of-place title and vivid on-location photography notwithstanding, Memphis remains an interior journey throughout its 75 minutes, treading through dark territory with strange ease, patiently illuminating the contours of its main character’s writ-large crisis of faith. Not only has he come to doubt his talent and grown impatient with industry process, he’s unable to find religion, though he’s evidently in search of it—he wanders in and out of Baptist services, and in the barroom struggles to articulate his wilder personal beliefs (straight-faced, he claims to consider himself a “sorcerer”). As he goes from one haunt to the next, he gradually burrows further into self-imposed isolation—though what looks like a personality breakdown to the viewer might well be some sort of back-to-nature transcendence to the protagonist. Eventually straddling an invisible line between reality and dream, Memphis winds up making the former feel like its own play of visions—theologies, mythologies, and works of art, none of whose creation comes easy.

Opens September 5 at IFC Center