NOWNESS: WHY DEBRA GRANIK'S MOVIES MATTER - Kyle Meyers
Debra Granik is a true independent filmmaker, who has a gift for working in collaboration with her ears and eyes open. All her work, including her best known films Winter's Bone (2010) and Leave No Trace (2018) bring a rare generous and trusting approach; let’s call it wholehearted. When discussing her recent work with Gareth Higgins, she highlighted the idea that "people are very open to conversing with someone who is curious about things....and not being jaded is, maybe, one of the baselines for love. When we're jaded, we're kind of hard, crusty, or calcified." After investigating the last decade of Granik’s work, it’s very clear that curiosity is a core principle in both her life and art. Her films are poignantly illuminated by Andrei Tarkovsky’s idea that “Hardness and strength are death's companions, while pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being."
Granik's adaptations become reasons for her to engage culture and subculture with such a non-jaded, pliant baseline. When she made Winter's Bone, shot on location in Southern Missouri, she not only invited locals to act in the film, but embraced their input and influence on character development. She was interested in understanding their perspectives and experiences, merging them with her own script. She attunes herself to the actual environment, allowing it to inform the setting, the characters, and the story itself. (This is a far cry from a more recent film that used Missouri as a fictional setting, appropriating the location for "calcified" political purposes, with no evident regard for the actual people and place.) Granik's immersive approach looks like cultivating an adaptation as an anthropologist, collaborating at every level, and simply seeing what emerges. This is a more spiritual type of storytelling that moves from "I have a story to tell" to "I'm going to hold the narrative loosely, explore further, and see what is revealed".
In Devotional Cinema, Nathaniel Dorsky discusses two types of time in filmmaking. The first is "relative time, which is how any film progresses from the first shot to the last." The second is absolute time, what Dorsky describes as Nowness. He says, "Experiencing Nowness in a work of art allows you to participate directly with the very heart of that work and it's maker. You are right there with them, sharing their vision." This experience of absolute time requires a few things, I believe. It begins with an invitation from the artists (for them and us) to be open and honest, with a willingness to see and be seen. This is unfortunately, rare, as we too often seek escapism and consumption, and movie companies are all too happy to oblige, creating a kind of codependency. Worse than that, there are far too many movies from the past five or so years where I felt held at a distance or even punished for showing up and watching, while some others desired to teach me a lesson. These are not invitations, but forms of protest that exploit the audience at worst or preach to the choir at best. Debra Granik, on the other hand, is less concerned with mind control or emotional abuse. She warmly invites us to come sit around the campfire, have a drink, and listen to stories told and songs sung. Your own story might even be welcome there, which reveals the other requirement for Nowness. Trust.
"Nowness is tainted by the need to accomplish something, to stay in control." It's difficult to trust others, be spiritually open, or be intuitive when we need to maintain jurisdiction. Granik's relationship with Ron "Stray Dog" Hall (whom she had cast in Winter's Bone), naturally became a documentary as they became friends. Titled Stray Dog (2014), it's often described as a contemplative portrait of a Vietnam Veteran. The film resist agenda, accomplishment, or even a directed voice-over. It simply feels like Granik came along with her camera to quietly, affectionately observe and listen. His story is told with real vulnerability, never indulging in self-pity, but illuminating what Granik describes as "scrappy survival". A work of authenticity that would have not come to pass if Granik and her team had not trusted local people to participate, engage, and influence the storytelling process of her previous film. Nor would it have happened if Ron had not extended the invitation into his own life and community. This is how bridges are built.
The last scene in Stray Dog ends with the first notes of Springtime. (Winter's Bone as well, with baby chicks - visualizing the "freshness of being") A flowering young fruit tree is being visited by bees. Ron excitedly tells the camera, "That little bee's in there speadin' the pollen for me." After reaching his hand out to the bee, it buzzes off. Ron tries to make peace, saying, "I ain't gonna hurt ya little feller, I need you." It's only a subtle moment, but it encapsulates the whole documentary. More than that, this pollinating image will become the emotional fertilizer for Granik's next film, Leave No Trace, continuing her journey of listening closely and saying yes to this experience of communion-based storytelling.
Leave No Trace (2018) directly counteracts George A Romero's popular, tweet ready quote; "I've always felt that the real horror is next door to us, that the scariest monsters are our neighbors." Much of the tension experienced in the film is the anticipation of such horror. The story follows recent war veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his thirteen year old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), living illegally, but efficiently on public land in Oregon. We journey with them after they are arrested by State authorities and put into a housing re-entry program. Because of Will's anxiety from Post Traumatic Stress, he and Tom leave their placement home, heading back into the cold, damp forest with very little. Throughout the film, they encounter park rangers, police dogs, social workers, church folks, empty train cabs, truck drivers, marginal communities, and even stay for a night in an isolated "cabin in the woods". At every plot turn, I wondered who would be the enemy, villain, or monster. Fascinating to me, none were to be found. Instead, Will and Tom were graciously offered various forms of hospitality and support. I discovered the suspense was only within. I had carried it into the theater with me.
I had brought a few other things as well. I'm not a war veteran like Will, but experiences in my own life had left me "jaded, crusty, and calcified". A few months before seeing the film, I journeyed to New Mexico for a ten day wilderness experience. The essence of the retreat was like a personal Nowness, moving out of your head and into your heart. From talking to feeling, basically. ("Is not most talking a crazed defense of a crumbling fort?", asked Hafiz many centuries ago.) It took a few days, but my own fort began to crumble. Upon returning, it was both good (I was more gentle, open) and not so good, as my emotional wounds were still very close to the surface.
Fortuitously, I had no idea how much of a mirror the film was going to be. Will lives in the wilderness, but for him it's about survival and dis-engagement from civilized culture. That was true for me also, but only internally, as I was still trying to function in my established roles. Seeing him so humanized by Granik's non-judgmental lens allowed me to remain open to the abundance of natural metaphors he and Tom encounter. As the narrative unfolds, the core struggle is between Tom's growing desire for stable community and Will's need for independent solitude. After Will experiences a life-threatening injury in the forest, he and Tom are taken in by a local trailer park (another influence from Stray Dog). During his recovery time, Tom connects with members of this small, friendly community. One of them maintains bee hives.
Another solid example of collaboration, Granik hired an actual beekeeper, Susan Chernak McElroy, for the role. Her bee training with Thomasin revealed a variety of emotional metaphors. Because so many bees are working together, you can feel heat coming from the hive, a warmth generated by purpose. If your presence is anxious or calm, the bees will likely mirror that. Like most other living creatures, you have to earn their trust. McElroy iterates, "When a bee stings, it dies, so they don't want to sting you. They want to land on you and get to know you".
In the film, after Will has healed enough to walk, Tom wants to show him what she has learned. With bee suits on, she becomes the teacher, and he the student. Together they feel the warmth of the hive. She tells him that "a person can withstand five hundred stings". (At that moment in the theater, I began experiencing lots of feelings, realizing I had left my defenses back in New Mexico) Asking him to close his eyes, she quietly takes off her bee suit. When he opens them, she stands before him, communing with the bees, trustworthy, without anxiety or armor. She gently tells him, "See, you don't need to be scared".
My emotions thought she was speaking directly to me, so I didn't get to see the next scene. It was a bit like, "Give me a minute, let me get it together. Just gotta pick myself up off the floor." (Dylan) In a moment of true Nowness, my own wounding and lack of trust (in people, not bees) was laid bare. I wanted to be like Tom, as I had been many years ago, curious, open, and hospitable. But like Will, I often experience the fear of being stung, or simply misunderstood. I sometimes just stare in silence, desiring the wild simplicity of the southwestern desert, not just for survival, but for solitude and balance. It often feels far away, but that seems okay, as "The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home." (Berry)
Will remains burdened by his trauma and decides to leave the community, which I can empathize with. Tom leaves with him initially, but then chooses to return, no longer able to carry the weight with Will. This moment of differentiation between them is wrenching, but feels emotionally mature. Just before they depart from one another, Tom gives Will the magnesium spark they use to ignite kindling for campfires. It's a practical item, but also a Spiritual one. Like the Light of Eärendil, it offers "a light in dark places" (Tolkien), both internal and external. Will wears it as a necklace, and the spark hangs like a cross. Granik allows the scene to breathe with all the truth and integrity of an artist who is also a mother. The sequence is one of the most serendipitous moments of cinema this decade. A gift we don't necessarily deserve, but Granik (and her collaborators) generously give us anyway. It’s the fruit of keeping her feet to the ground for more than a decade, looking for things hidden or (often) unseen in otherwise abandoned places. Her faith in storytelling, trust in people, and ability to hold together suffering and hope illuminates the way forward, both in life and art, hopefully for decades to come.
Kyle P Meyers is a husband, father, and Marriage & Family Therapist, living in Columbus, OH. An avid lover of cinematic expressions, you can follow his film loving thoughts here - https://twitter.com/ftoncinema