We know about Rorschach inkblots where a set of intricate but accidental sprawls of ink squished by folding paper are presented to a person who is expected to “see” or imagine by being reminded of various figures. These are presumed to have bubbled up from one’s subconscious, revealing one’s inner life. If you see all rabbits, fine -- but what does it mean? If you see all foxes, also fine -- but what does it mean? It’s more art than science -- more party game than analysis.
“Northfork” might be a film that is as interpretable as an inkblot, but I think it was filmed here on the east slope of the Rockies in what had to be spring or fall -- probably fall -- because at that time the land here is the opposite of an inkblot. Rather it is a silver screen on which one can cast not shadows but light shows: gleams, dusty rays, prism refractions, haloes, shafts of light, skies silvered with cloud, heads backlit by sun.
Briefly, in case you never heard of this movie, it was done by the Polish brothers (that’s their name rather than their nationality and I don’t know how “polished” they are) who are notorious for making cryptic, pretentious movies. In this case the occasion is the building of Hungry Horse Dam, which stands for all dams and for all huge Corps of Engineers industrial projects that change the face of the land and destroy human community in the name of progress.
I understand dams. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, downstream from major dam projects built in my childhood, most notably Bonneville. I remember when it was finished that my family went on the tour, descending down into that massive concrete structure and standing by the turbines, thrumming with unearthly power. And we watched the lady who sits at a window by the fish ladder with a little clicker to count the salmon. This replaces, of course, an ancient culture of Indian people who stood on flimsy little scaffolds that looked like diving boards, netting the huge salmon as they innumerably leapt upward through rapids toward the headwaters to spawn, then die to feed the bears and eagles, the offal replacing the nutrients constantly washed downstream by the Columbia River.
Hungry Horse Dam is on the west side of the Rockies where there is enough water to make a really big dam effective, but the movie was shot on the east side. Hungry Horse was the source of many impressive black and white publicity photos that provide the title backgrounds and recurrent images in this stripped down, nearly black-and-white movie. But outside the photos, the shots are all of the land at its most “bleak,” severe and unflowered, just dry grass for the hairy cows and young fenced buffalo (raised for food), and mountains on the horizon. The latter are white with snow, pretty much, and snow comes lightly during the story. Only at the end is the land seen as beautiful with closeups of sleeping waterfowl and exploded cattails in the potholes left by the ancient glaciers.
The feeling is very much like Ingmar Bergman's movies, the measured and meditative use of scene: what Paul Tillich might call the “ground of being.” Clearly there is meant to be religion, stalwartly represented by Nick Nolte with long hair and a cassock. (He’s looking a little rough these days, though he’s two years younger than me!) He tenderly cares for the pivot point of the narrative who is a little boy, grievously ill and claiming to be an angel.
Do you remember the Christmas story, “The Littlest Angel?” Or maybe some of the little boys in Maurice Sendak’s phantasms. That’s the kind of little boy this is. Like the little boy in “Who Has Seen the Wind?” who goes to the church to ask for answers from God, whom he assumes lives there. Maybe “The Little Prince.” Bergman never uses a little boy -- he often uses a troubled woman as his central personality. There is at least one echoing scene -- the little boy and one of the “angels” go silhouetted along the horizon in the same way as the characters in “The Seventh Seal.”
There are four “angels”: A Johnny Deppish young man with artificial hands and an array of jeweler’s loupes and spectacle lenses to help him read scripture. His name is Happy. There is a hollow-eyed cowboy (who looked to me to be wearing a Bob Scriver buffalo skull bolo tie) who never says anything -- he’s “God.” He turns out to be a skypilot. God never tells you anything. You have to get Happy (rabbi?) to read scripture. And there is an English gent, complete with accent, feather boa, and either a tea cozy or mob cap on his head. He perennially sips tea, which he is willing to share, and clearly is one of those church ritual and circumstance people.
The most angelic and only female angel is Darryl Hannah in a sort of Elizabethan shirt. She is admonished, “Don’t let your maternal nature unman you.” She is nurturing, concerned, grieving, joyous, aching, protective, and all the parental qualities. Pretty much like the actress, who once played a mermaid in a different movie and who visited a Great Falls motel where there is a swimming pool with a bar built into the side and put on a mermaid suit to divert the drinkers for a while. (Normally there are several athletic young local women who do the honors.)
Over against this angel crew, who have evidently come to witness the death of the community, most vividly represented by the flooding of the graveyard, is a set of Kafka-esque bureaucrats -- all men of roughly the same appearance, all dressed as men were in the Fifties in long coats and fedoras. (We call ‘em “stingy brims” here.) Each black hat has a white feather tucked into the band, like the white spot in the black half of a yin-yang swirl. Basically human and decent, they are charged with the terrible task of clearing out the balky remnants in homes. It’s interesting that in two of the other angel movies I have (“Michael” and “City of Angels”) the angels are John Travolta and Nicholas Cage, both wearing the long black coats but not the hats. In fact, both are all TOO human, which is the plot point. Interesting that they are also tall, dark males. In "Northfork" Hannah is the only blonde female and she wears a black wig -- like an Orthodox Jewish woman.
These bureaucrats walk through the damn’s [sic] guts, stopping to pat the bump where one of the workers was accidentally entombed. (Famous references to real cases and well-known short story here. "The price of progress.") They constantly gripe and wisecrack, just the way real bureaucrats do. (“Stop screwing around,” they admonish one young couple who is doing just that.) One pair of them (they work in pairs like Mormon missionaries) is a father-son team with a mother in that cemetary, unclaimed.
I can’t think of anyone else who has used this prairie this way. Normally it is photographed as a panorama of deep romanticism, a Charlie Russell land of sunset hues and colorful characters. This movie uses grassland the way Bergman uses the sea, the stony beach. Dwellers here are aware that this used to be the floor of an ancient sea and is saturated with salt and alkali. But there are no Lot’s wife’s stories in the movie, unless she is in the coffin the father and son finally retrieve.
Much to think about. The movie is rated PG-13 (because of that young couple “screwing around”) but I think it should be rated “mature audiences only.” Or maybe to be brutally honest, “pretentious adult audiences only,” though one really doesn’t need a tea cozy on one’s head. On the other hand, if you are against symbolic ideas, progress as calamity, and Ingmar Bergman, go see those other angel movies.
I’m pretty sure those other two are rated “R” because in both a cherubic blonde young woman (one of them Meg Ryan) doesn’t just get “touched” but “screwed” by an angel. This is more Greek than Judeo-Christian and if you want to speculate on the children who result, that’s a whole different set of movies.