The abstraction of narrative devices to facilitate a certain tenor has lent itself, among certain circles, to the term “tone poetry.” While cinema has remained a primarily narrative medium for much of its history, for every “great novelist” the medium has had, there is a poet in the wings. Names such as Claire Denis, Marguerite Duras, and Terrence Malick come to mind. And newly, with her feature debut All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, Raven Jackson follows in this lineage.
Jackson is herself a poet turned filmmaker whose upbringing in the Deep South has informed her poetry’s imagery, drawing out with assured precision Jackson’s own connections to nature and family. Her debut feature, All Dirt Roads extrapolates those themes into a portrait of Mack (Charleen McClure), a Black woman raised in Mississippi in the ’60s and ’70s, cataloging a lifetime’s worth of bonds to the Earth — both spiritual and physical. Told in a decidedly non-linear fashion, the audience grows accustomed to gaps in their understanding, as one experiences memories obfuscated by time. What’s left after are only the most evocative sensorial pictures of what a life felt like, how the ground smelled between childhood’s fingers, the creeping ambience of a summer storm, the tender swallow of a lover cradling pockets of fabric in generous embrace.
Jackson has wasted not a single frame of her gorgeous 35 mm, each instance of dust a reminder of the tactile nature of the medium Jackson is working within, one which was imprinted with light and bathed in a chemical solution so as each corporeal vestige might glimmer in its crystals. Bodies are as central to All Dirt Roads as any aspect of the earth, hands existing as a particularly prominent feature of Mack’s memories, intertwining and coming apart as small waves lapping at the clay-filled banks of Mississippi’s rivers. One is reminded of Robert Bresson’s gravitation to these fixtures of the human anatomy, and the magnetic draw they had on his influences- among them philosopher Michel de Montaigne; in Montaigne’s words: “Behold the hands, how they promise, conjure, appeal, menace, pray, supplicate, refuse, beckon, interrogate, admire, confess, cringe, instruct, command, mock and what not besides, with a variation and multiplication of variation which makes the tongue envious.”
In the film’s most accomplished scene, hands are unsurprisingly the focus. Mack is reunited with Wood (Reginald Helms Jr.) after some undisclosed time apart, and the two former devotees carry a tearful hug for five minutes, uninterrupted. A less assured filmmaker wouldn’t trust the gesture to carry itself, but Jackson’s sense for touch lends the sequence a moving immediacy. Not a sound is heard beyond the crying, bated breath of Mack and Wood and the chorus of birds around them. This very resolve to silence is where Jackson departs from Malick and many other tone poets. The majority of All Dirt Roads is left unscored, soundtracked instead by the ambience of natural phenomena surrounding its characters. Where Denis’ or Duras’ use of music allows them a transitioning force akin to a fog, Jackson’s images are stitched together (quite masterfully by Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s editor, Lee Chatametikool) by their unusual visual rhythms, which Jackson has referred to as “slant rhymes.”
Her most obvious influence is, of course, Malick, with his sweeping, whispery poetics, and his signature aesthetic devotion to finding the divine in the terrestrial — and in some cases, the extra-terrestrial. All Dirt Roads makes for as consummate a sensory experience as any of Malick’s films, and where Jackson falls short is something more of a curiosity than an outright flaw. For all the time spent ruminating in nature, the bodies of her protagonists, and the spiritual world from which they come, we understand little of Mack through the lens with which Jackson has chosen to frame her. Though the audience may occasionally feel an intimate connection to Mack via their view into some of the most vulnerable moments in her life, one is left with little to ponder after the film beyond the “mood board” sights and sounds. Mack is, primarily, a vessel through which Jackson can explore ideas of love, loss, and motherhood in aesthetic and, indeed, poetic fashion. Her conclusions about these ideas are vaguely shaped, if not enigmatic, and due to the intentionally elusive nature of the narratives that shape Mack’s life, she herself is blurred to the point of unrecognizability. So while All Dirt Roads fails to offer up an absorbing portrait of a single person, it’s nonetheless a wonderful experience for the senses and perhaps a promise of cinema’s next great poet.
DIRECTOR: Raven Jackson; CAST: Charleen McClure, Moses Ingram, Zainab Jah, Sheila Atim; DISTRIBUTOR: A24; IN THEATERS: November 3; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 32 min.