Vividly shot in the titular city, Memphis is the sophomore film from Tim Sutton, writer-director of the digressive, virtually plotless coming-of-age film Pavilion, whose lush pictorialism owes more to European traditions than typical American-independent styles. Though significantly more conventional by comparison, Memphis shares with Pavilion an austere sense of lyricism and form-bending aesthetics. It is also anchored by a strong performance by avant-garde bluesman Willis Earl Beal, who plays a fictionalized version of himself, a respected and semi-famous musician stuck in a creative and existential funk. In his blurring of the lines between documentary and fiction, Sutton experiments with form in ways similar to what Matthew Porterfield did in Putty Hill — but where that film played as a sort of ecological taxonomy of a suffering community, Memphis more intimately points toward the spiritual crisis of an artist in stasis. With its lyrical mosaic of tangled emotions, aching images and fleeting memories, the film could be said to offer the closest visual representation of blues music that one is likely to see in a film.
In both his features, Sutton places tremendous emphasis on surroundings: cracked sidewalks, billowy trees, sun-scorched skies, dense forests, old homes, packed churches, and seedy bars. The characters fit within their environments seamlessly, in such a way that indicates the people and settings are one and the same. This is where Sutton’s documentary leanings pay off in unexpectedly affecting fashion: The nonprofessional cast surrounding Beal, from the barflies to the preacher man to the disillusioned one-legged townie, offer their personal outlook on life, and one never gets the sense that Sutton directed them to do anything more than simply be honest. Their naturalism extends outward to Beal, who recently told Filmmaker magazine, “I couldn’t figure out if I was acting or telling the truth.” Indeed, a sincere-sounding Beal opens the film by discussing the relationship between art and reality, claiming “life is artifice” — a statement that is a compact, if somewhat parochial, way of describing Sutton’s style, which isn’t so much concerned with life’s artificiality but the ways life and artifice combine to form a truer and more-beautiful reality.
The film is predictably short on answers, but Sutton movingly suggests it’s the journey, not the outcome, that matters.
Such questions of art and reality certainly aren’t new to cinema, but Sutton is more interested in experimenting with form for expressive rather than purely aesthetic aims. To that end, he offsets his formal experimentation with rich characterizations and a leisurely but no less immediate narrative strategy — but to call the film a “character study” or, even worse, a “mood piece” diminishes how articulately Sutton expresses the tension between an idealized life and an actual life, of fantasy and reality’s constant battle for the human psyche and how we achieve peace when we find ways to reconcile the two. Memphis, both the film and the place, is a state of mind the characters either find innocuous (Beal’s girlfriend, bored but seemingly content in her ways), unbearable (Beal, in his tortured stasis), or simply okay (Beal’s girlfriend’s son, whose youthful exuberance and sense of mobility are reflected in bike-riding scenes highly reminiscent of those in Pavilion).
Some of Memphis’s denizens find solace in religion, which doesn’t soothe what ails Beal, though not for lack of trying (early in the film, for instance, he attends a rambunctious and worshipful sermon, but is decidedly unmoved). Instead, Beal turns to art to discover his faith — but instead of simply having his lead actor state that notion outright, Sutton demonstrates it in a scene in which he sits in his attack working on his rinky-dink keyboard, with the space’s high, arched ceiling and soft streams of light suggesting a cathedral. But just like Beal’s last visit to a holy place, he finds little comfort here: The music isn’t coming out the way he wants, and his struggles in the recording studio suggest it might never again — surely a debilitating fear for someone whose life is so fixed to his art. Thus, he searches, and we along with him, for whatever it is that connects life to art — or, as Beal also describes it, “magic,” undoubtedly another word for spiritualism. The film is predictably short on answers, but Sutton movingly suggests it’s the journey, not the outcome, that matters.