Friday, June 7, 2019

SIFF 2019: Dark Meets Darker in the Under-Lit Louisiana of Phillip Youmans' Burning Cane

BURNING CANE 
(Phillip Youmans, USA, 78 minutes) 

Louisiana native Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme) plays the pastor at the heart of Burning Cane, 19-year-old NYU film student Phillip Youmans' feature-film debut, a downbeat affair with a strong sense of place (much as with Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, it began life as a school project). Reverend Tillman is one of three characters in a rural African-American community who intersect in significant ways.

The film opens with a woman's steady voice. Helen (Karen Kaia Livers) talks about trying every trick in the book to cure her dog of mange. Though we see her moving about her shotgun shack, we don't see her speak, a technique long associated with Texas director Terrence Malick. Helen, who favors floral-print dresses and leather boots, proceeds to chop up a chicken, filling the screen with blood, flesh, and feathers.

While she goes about her business, the widowed pastor works up a sweat at the pulpit. The gist of his sermon: loved ones are superior to material things. He takes particular offense at the saying, "He who dies with the most toys wins." Afterwards, he swerves down the road while driving home, drinking and smoking all the way. The next time Helen, a church worker, spots him getting into his car while drunk, she offers to take the wheel, but he won't have it. "God is looking after me," he explains.

If God really is looking after the pastor, the Supreme Being is doing a crap job, because Reverend Tillman ends up crashing his car. Earlier that day, he had been complaining to Helen and another woman that he doesn't feel like he's reaching the younger parishioners. He follows with a crude comment about transgender individuals, indicating that his intolerance may have something to do with his lack of reach.

In the third story strand, Helen's unemployed son, Daniel (Dominique McClellan), looks after his son, Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly). They sit in silence for the most part, though a moment of levity arrives when they shake off their lethargy long enough to dance along to Robert Johnson's "Hot Tamales and the Red Hots." Like the pastor, Daniel can't resist the demon drink. He just keeps going until he throws up. And then he drinks some more. It doesn't take long to put two and two together: Daniel is like the dog with mange.

If the film ends in a way some may find shocking, it's all set up in that opening sequence. Even if it's inevitable, it doesn't feel completely earned.

Charles Mudede, staff writer at The Stranger (and my former editor), believes that the comparisons between Youmans and Malick are overstated, writing, "Too many critics have associated this startling work by a 19-year-old NYU film student, Phillip Youmans, with the films of Terrence Malick. But we can do better than that. If we really think about these brutally beautiful images of rural black life in the South, we find a much closer association with the films of the Mexican director Carlos Reygadas."

It's a flattering comparison that Youmans doesn't completely deserve. A few exterior shots recall Silent Light, the Reygadas film Mudede goes on to cite, but if the Malick comparison fits, and it does, there’s a third-hand feel to the film--as if Youmans were more influenced by the filmmakers who have followed in Malick's wake, like David Gordon Green (George Washington), Lance Hammer (Ballast), and producer Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild). That isn't a terrible thing, but it isn't all that great either. And that's okay. Youmans has years to develop a more original style.

What's great is this: Wendell Pierce. Since the other, less experienced actors tend to be unsteadier on their feet, he gives the film the gravitas it needs. Pierce commands the screen when he's on it, and the film dies a little when he isn't. It doesn't hurt that the church scenes--Youmans served as both cinematographer and co-editor--are sufficiently bright that you can see exactly what's going on, whereas the other scenes are bathed in inky darkness, so when I say that Pierce lights up the screen: I mean it literally. Here's hoping Youmans achieves that level of mastery someday.



Burning Cane plays for a final time at the Uptown on Fri at 3:30pm. Director scheduled to attend. For more information, please click here.  

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