An afternoon that starts with John Darnielle doing an Ace of Base cover can’t be all bad. Back at ATA for my third and final Noise Pop Film Festival double-feature, I was heartened by the quality of the now-customary Wolfgang’s Vault retrospective.
Too bad the movie that followed it was so disappointing. The directorial debut of J.D. Wilkes, frontman for Th’ Legendary Shakers, Seven Signs purported to tell us something about music, myth, and the American South, themes that are familiar but always worthy of revival. Wilkes, a Kentucky native, has a unique perspective on the region, and a fledgling but not insignificant eye for stark documentary image. Unfortunately, he has yet to learn how to make a coherent movie.
The film is comprised of a series of loosely connected vignettes, all tenuously connected to Wilkes’ attempt to portray the “real” South, which he believes has been papered over by the commercialized rapine of things like KFC, NASCAR, and The Beverly Hillbillies. The director seems to hope that if he concatenates enough examples of his movie’s three titular themes, the connection will somehow become clear. Soft-spoken men in overalls speak to an idealized, metaphysical homeland, giving way to young musicians in thrift-store cowboy shirts and oh-so-retro horn-rimmed glasses, who are quickly replaced by a lone, goateed college professor and a rogue’s gallery of Dixie oddities and eccentrics that are introduced haphazardly and without due explanation. There are strange people in the South, you say? Funny, I thought there were strange people everywhere.
Wilkes clearly loves the part of the country he grew up in, and he has knowledge of and access to a wide array of provincial points of interest that might otherwise have never found their way onto film. Given this unique understanding, it is even more frustrating that he can’t think of anything meaningful to say. Wilkes also, perhaps unwittingly, managed to make the whitest movie about the South ever committed the film. I’m sure some angry, anonymous person will appear in the comments to correct me if I get this wrong, but I can think of three instances in Wilkes’ hour-long movie in which African-Americans are anything but passerby in the background. He includes an interview with a Creole violinist who discourses briefly on the ethnic Jambalaya that consitutes Cajun and Creole culture, saws at his violin, and then is never seen again. After that, it’s a lame ghost story about a pregnant slave murdered by her master, and a man in South Carolina with no hands who sells corsages on the street. Again, my notes are not as clear as they could be on this point, but I’m almost certain that the only 100% black man that appears in the movie–the florist–comes right after the segment about Big John Strong’s freak show.
If you couldn’t tell by all the pre-emptive exculpation in the above paragraph, I want to avoid accusations of racism. Wilkes filmed the South he knew, and just because that doesn’t include much material about black people doesn’t mean he’s a bigot. At the same time, this oversight (and I’m reasonably certain that is what it was) speaks to the problem at the core of the movie: It’s not enough to make a documentary about all the weird, interesting shit you know about. You have explain why it’s interesting to you, why other people should care, and how it fits into some kind of context. If you avoid topics that are of crucial import to your subject matter, you have to account for this omission. And when you’re talking about the American South, its myths and most importantly, its music, isn’t race and the involvment of African-American people one of the most crucial topics?
Despite the film’s many failings, there are moments of small beauty. Wilkes’ interviews tend to culminate in impromptu backwoods jam sessions, and the collaborations between him and some of his most rural interview subjects are simultaneously haunting and touching. The film’s ongoing trope–in which Wilke’s commissions a salt-of-the-earth sign painter to create a set of misspelled religious exhortations (“Beleive”), and then tacks them up in the places he visits–gets old quicky, but some of the shots of the signs languishing in the middle of eerie, Southern Gothic backdrops serve as powerful evocations of the environment the filmmaker is hoping to portray.
A director’s first film is almost invariably rough going, and I must be sure to leaven this review with the hope that Wilkes takes another crack at it. There are few people with the wealth of life experience he enjoys, and even fewer who are inspired to turn this knowledge into a documentary. If he learns from his initial mistakes, he will have a lot to teach us. Until then, we can enjoy his harmonica playing, which is wonderful.