"Memphis" and the beauty of plotless movies

Should you watch a dreamy, gorgeous, intensely slow-moving R&B odyssey? Here's why movies like this still matter

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 4, 2014 2:15PM (EDT)

 Willis Earl Beal in "Memphis"
Willis Earl Beal in "Memphis"

I feel reasonably sure that writer and director Tim Sutton does not delude himself about the commercial potential of his film “Memphis,” an extraordinary visual and musical tapestry built around the compelling persona of real-life Memphis R&B singer Willis Earl Beal. As in, it doesn’t have any. “Memphis” will probably irritate as many viewers as it enthralls – there were several walkouts during the New York press screening, and those people really don’t have the excuse of not knowing what they were in for – but more than that, it will simply be ignored. Sutton’s film represents a non-narrative or anti-narrative tendency in cinema that is not extinct and probably cannot be extinguished, but has been shoved firmly into the margins in our era by the overwhelming power of plot.

That tendency has no traction in the marketplace, and I think if we’re honest it never really did. If you go back 50 years or so, you can find a handful of contrary examples, but they are very few in number. By intriguing coincidence, “Memphis” arrives at almost the same time as a 4K restoration of Alain Resnais’ 1959 “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” which along with Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 “L’Avventura” and Resnais’ 1961 “Last Year at Marienbad,” set the template for a certain kind of angst-ridden, intensely visual and nearly plotless ‘60s art film. “Hiroshima Mon Amour” will get a theatrical rollout after its New York Film Festival premiere, as will Jean-Luc Godard’s new 3-D movie “Goodbye to Language,” which I have not seen but can guarantee ignores the dictates of conventional storytelling. The combined paying audience of “Hiroshima,” “Language” and “Memphis” probably won’t add up to the viewership for one episode of a moderately popular cable series.

I really loved the experience of watching “Memphis” once I got into the groove with Sutton and Beal, who plays a fictional version of himself as a stylish singer-songwriter with visionary inclinations who goes through a personal meltdown, partly but not entirely because he does not fit easily into either the traditional models of African-American R&B or the white indie-rock world. As photographed by cinematographer Chris Dapkins, “Memphis” really is a portrait of a history-rich American city as experienced by one man’s odyssey through its oak-shaded streets, its crumbling old houses, its whiskey-soaked bars and storefront holiness churches. I was reminded more than once of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” except with Memphis playing the role of Dublin and Beal’s outsider-insider character as Leopold Bloom, and that may not be accidental.

So now I find myself in the position of recommending a movie while attaching a whole bunch of asterisks and caveats that sound condescending: If you’re in the mood to zone out and ride along in a decaying Cadillac wherever these guys will take you, and you can deal with the fact that “Memphis” doesn’t really have a plot and that much of the dialogue either doesn’t matter or is not comprehensible, then this is the movie for you. If not – and “not” is going to be the correct answer for an awful lot of people – then almost every other movie out there is a more appropriate choice. There is no way in hell my wife would go see this movie, and I can only think of one or maybe two of my friends who would willingly bestir themselves to do so based on my word of honor. Would I myself have sought out “Memphis” if I were not, in effect, being paid to do so, and if I hadn’t been invited to go watch it in a comfortable screening room? I don’t know the answer to that, but despite my reputation as a hardcore snob who seeks out seven-hour films from Azerbaijan, it’s not like I don’t get that it’s a lot less arduous to watch episodes of “Veep” on iTunes instead.

Culture and media were vastly different back in the era of Antonioni and Resnais and early Godard, but not entirely in a good way. If those movies have enduring value – and I have no idea how “Hiroshima Mon Amour” will hold up – it isn’t because a surprisingly large number of people were browbeaten into seeing them by New York intellectuals. In fact, that was almost certainly a bad thing: It cemented several different negative cultural stereotypes, including the idea that there was an unbridgeable gulf between the tastes of ordinary moviegoers and those of some hermetic and sadomasochistic elite, and also that “art” was a mysterious code variously understood as pretentious bullshit or as something to be studied by a monastic cult under the tutelage of Susan Sontag. Those stereotypes endure, even after all this time, as we saw in the “cultural vegetables” debate among film critics a couple of years ago.

I don’t think people who find non-narrative cinema puzzling or frustrating are Philistines. They’re completely right; the only question is whether you can find something rewarding on the other side of that puzzlement and frustration, and that’s a highly individual matter. But I also think it’s important to steer away from what might be called the bastardized Pauline Kael position (not quite embraced by Kael herself) that mainstream entertainment is the central mission of cinema, and its other streams are irrelevant or snobbish distractions. Most of all, I firmly reject the unbridgeable-gulf hypothesis, which is something I hope to address more directly in an approaching project I will call the Tarkovsky Challenge.

Most people, most of the time, now matter how well educated or steeped in the avant-garde tradition they may be, would rather watch “Breaking Bad” or “Guardians of the Galaxy” than “Memphis” or “L’Avventura.” Story structure is intensely reassuring, and something close to a human need. But it’s not the only thing we need. Movies in the latter category fulfill a purpose even if you don’t watch them, I would argue, and are entirely comprehensible on their own terms, meaning that the experience must be its own reward, without the artificial satisfaction of character-conflict-resolution. The scene in “Memphis” when Beal’s character dances with a young woman in a nightclub to Bobby Blue Bland’s “I’ll Be Good to You,” or the one when he lights a bonfire on the porch of an abandoned house, contain no secret hidden meanings or covert narratives, and require no pseudo-intellectual exegesis.

Watching a movie like “Memphis” can help remind us that cinema is a visual and aural medium first – an experience that ultimately cannot be reduced to language -- and that the plot-driven narrative tradition is only one of its aspects. It can fuel the imaginations of writers and directors working in more conventional modes; the influence of non-narrative and experimental cinema can clearly be seen from Alfred Hitchcock to Martin Scorsese to Paul Thomas Anderson, from “The Sopranos” to “The Wire” to "Mad Men." This is one of the areas where art comes close to religion, I think – perhaps uncomfortably close, given the atheistic or anti-clerical leanings of most artists, critics and elite audiences in our age. Can I tell you exactly what happens in “Memphis,” or what it’s “about”? Absolutely not. But it worked its magic on me, and its meaning is something I take on faith.

“Memphis” opens this week at the IFC Center in New York, and opens Sept. 12 at the Sundance Sunset Cinema in Los Angeles, with other cities and home video to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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