Cinema Signal:

Magical Realism:
Theory, History, Community

. "Northfork"

Take the style of Terry Gilliam, reduce the budget by several millions of dollars, and you will have an idea of what to expect in "Northfork." It is magical realism that boasts exceedingly high production values and a plotline that will challenge your state of wakefulness. Can a movie be tedious and fascinating? Labored and surprising? Monochromatic yet visually stunning? Let me be the first to say, "Northfork" is not for everyone. But a movie buff will not want to miss this visionary and difficult bit of inventiveness.

The proposition is that a community of village size, in 1955, sits on a natural basin of land that will be flooded by a new dam. The inhabitants have to move. The upside is that power will be provided for those above the new waterline. The downer is that the last few stragglers don' wanna go but are essentially doomed to do so.

The Evacuation Committee, you see, has hired teams of slick, black-suited sales-types to root out the remaining obstructions to progress. Each of these men are under contracts that will, when they have convinced 65 people to leave, grant them lakeside properties. Among these highly incentivized people are Walter O'Brien (James Woods) and his son Willis (Mark Polish, the writer of the piece). There's also Eddie (Peter Coyote) and Arnold (Jon Gries). Each team encounters and confronts different sorts of resistors with different states of reluctance to depart the area, one who has built an ark and is stalling (Mr. Stalling and his two wives) while looking for a sign from the almighty; one who shoots on sight; and a couple too engaged in foreplay to think about it.

One of the inhabitants who doesn't seem to be pressured to leave is the good Father Harlan (Nick Nolte), to whom a departing couple come to leave their sick adopted child, Irwin (Duel Farnes in his feature film debut). The Hadfields (Claire Forlani and Clark Gregg) have decided they can't make the journey with an ailing 8 year old. Father Harlan is disappointed in their lack of commitment to the boy, but takes the now orphaned child in and soon learns that in his delirium the boy has become convinced he's the lost member of an ancient herd of roaming angels.

The question of celestial identity is not outside the ambiguities of the allegorical fantasy but, rather, integral to it. Little Irwin's fevered visions conjure a nest of heavenly characters in search of their lost brethren. These are eccentric, wingless, earthbound Angels that include the androgynous Flower Hercules (Daryl Hannah), Happy (Anthony Edwards), the blind, multi-focal spectacle wearer and scientist of the group, and the loquacious Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs). The trouble is, these spatial spectres have no special powers to recognize the lost member of their flock once he enters their other-dimensional domain, and he has to provide sufficient evidence to convince them he is who he says he is.

This is a film that moves in its own opaque ways and may hold little clarity and even less dramatic engagement for most. But before you go thinking that it's not worth taking seriously, be advised that there is much in store for you in its production values. Besides a very professional and highly regarded team of players who place themselves at the creative disposal of the originators of such absurdist material, the visual style is smashing.

From a technical point of view, the decision was made by director Michael Polish to desaturate color. The visual range of the film was designed to fall within ten shades of gray-scale, a considerable challenge to set builders, propmasters, costumers, etc. But the biggest achievement in the stylization was cinematographer M. David Mullen's award-level composition and lighting with special emphasis on how he light-bathed the seraphic dreamscape and its otherworldly inhabitants. Strong backlighting and tonal burnouts provide a visual key to the ethereal figures, mesmerizing in its virtuosity. Production designer Ichelle Spitzig contributed, as well, to the conversion of the Montana landscape into a design accomplishment, further indicating the strengths and weaknesses of the Polish twins as filmmakers.

Beyond the design of the image lies the purpose of the vision, which seems to be a statement on the human cost of progress. Just as the image of justice is blindfolded to represent her blindness, so the brothers Polish seem to be pushing the blindness of advancing civilization and technology to demonstrate unethical effects on the individual. Obfuscating literal meaning with an immaterial splash of biblical creationism seems to serve their desire to suggest universality for the theme but it doesn't do much to humanize the lyric. An interesting, if not an altogether engaging, bit of message-making.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Rating: 9

I'm interested in showing this movie in a literature class as an example of storytelling infused with imagery and symbolism. thanks

                                                      ~~ m. clair 

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