In his essay from the late 1940s entitled “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” literary theorist Lionel Trilling, a member of the famed New York Intellectuals, stated that “pleasure in cruelty is licensed by moral indignation,” and would go on to claim the middle class as the group of people where such a strange aesthetic relationship often takes hold, designating moral indignation as their “favorite emotion.” Rich Hill exists in this space; detailing the lives of three separate, impoverished teen boys living in Rich Hill, MO, directors Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos allow their camera to probe and linger in spaces of disorder and grime, but without any discernible purpose other than gaining access to lower-class spaces—another popular pleasure created through middle-class distance. Rich Hill is poverty porn, and this isn’t simply because the film examines poverty, but because it does so with pity as its operative mode, engendering little more than a space for viewers to leave the film acknowledging its sadness.
The film, which recently won the documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, unsuccessfully attempts to transform its subjects’ circumstances into lyrical lament a la David Gordon Green or Terrence Malick. However, Palermo and Tragos don’t have an eye for it; beneath aimless tracking shots of dilapidated buildings and an indistinct, almost temp-track melancholic score, the boyhood struggles of Andrew, Appachey, and Harley remain at arms length, primarily because the filmmakers confuse access with insight. That access amounts to “boys-will-be-boys” moments of cursing-out the TV while playing video games, applying far too much cologne, and sleeping in Playboy Bunny bed sheets, juxtaposed with more startling behavior, such as when Harley explains his incoherent views on violence: “I got strong feelings about rape; I’m against it,” and concludes by stating that he would like to murder rapists. It becomes clear that Palermo and Tragos include this sequence to set up a later revelation: that Harley was raped by his stepfather as a child.
Child rape is a questionable “payoff” in any film, but remains consistent with Palermo and Tragos’s undiscerning insistence of revealing the depths of sorrow afflicting these lives—or it reveals their banal manipulation tactics and cognizance of what will outrage the middle-class viewers bound to see their film. They also feature lines from their subjects like “It feels good to have the bills paid for once” or “Me and my mom used to listen to this song before she got locked up” with little more in mind than piling on the pitiful sorrow. Of course, an entire socioeconomic stratosphere exists outside these communities, but Rich Hill makes no mention of it; it’s too busy wandering in and out of its simplistic aesthetic register, juxtaposing fireworks with arm wrestling and any other number of forced metaphors (leaves barely hanging to trees in the wind is perhaps the most risible). Where is the joyful peculiarity found in Louis Malle’s God’s Country? How about the devastating ethnographic urgency of Martin Bell’s Streetwise? Near the beginning of the film, a train chugs through the small town. The far-reaching grasp of industrialized expansion may have arrived in Rich Hill, but insight or purpose into this dynamic have eluded Palermo and Tragos’s grasp.
Amir Bar-Lev brings considerably more lucidity to Happy Valley, a film which seeks less to understand the psychology of convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky than Penn State’s fervid devotion to sports culture, which was given severe sanctions from the NCAA in 2012, including a $60 million fine and four-year ban for the football team from post-season play. Bar-Lev examines the build-up to Sandusky’s conviction with sporadic media coverage (primarily ESPN), often overlapping such footage with commentary from those closely linked to the university and the case.
If Rich Hill gives glimpses of formative masculinity in the midst of economic destitute, Happy Valley implicitly questions what happens when such qualities gain capital; from the obnoxious sports chants to riots resulting in property destruction, the license given the State College, PA community ability to indulge a self-aggrandizing hubris in the years preceding convictions for child rape and the firing of beloved head football coach Joe Paterno must be directly attributed to the university’s own top-down complicity, which has been fostering student and community hysteria for profit and little attention to what such an unchecked power structure could yield. For Bar-Lev, these elements reinforce the deluded nature of such communities: those that would build a statue of a living man, as Penn State did for Paterno, only to remove it shortly after the imposition of sanctions. There’s even a mural of famous Penn State alumni which gets repainted several times throughout the film to reflect the shifting sobriety of a community forced to realize their immortal heroes are, of course, human after all.
Happy Valley grasps the forms of mild self-awareness that drive sports culture; the film’s most acute depiction of this is a Penn State freshman whose wall is littered with pictures and logos of university legends (he wears a Penn State hat and T-shirt and even has the logos on his bed sheets). Yet, when asked about the Sandusky events, he speaks with a clarity that reflects his understanding of not only the case, but also what football means to his community. Nevertheless, he remains a devoted Penn State fan and states his unwavering devotion to the “program”—language that speaks to at least some form of geographical pride and indoctrination. What Bar-Lev offers, then, isn’t a case study of one university, but an example-based mirror to be held up to any culture that thrives on irrational hagiography—and politically absent engagement—as a model for culture obsession. Such behavior enables meaningless violence (in the name of reinstating a football coach) and sustains itself on insular insistence of one’s own significance, no matter the contradictions faced. Happy Valley quietly reveals the structures that assist deviant behavior as the site of true horror.
Jaap Van Hoewijk’s remarkable Killing Time bests both Rich Hill and Happy Valley in terms of engaging horrors that fiercely bubble just beneath the consciousness of family members linked to violent trauma. Less a polemic against the death penalty than a jarringly composed piece of “present tense” filmmaking, Van Hoewijk forgoes any access to death row inmate Elroy Chester; instead, Chester’s family and a single victim remain the focus, as they wait, in the hours leading up to his execution, to receive closure.
The film’s title sustains its clever, disturbing double meaning by providing varieties of both as juxtaposed examples. The Chester family “kills time” as they wait, eating meals, calmly discussing the procedures to be followed after execution, and comfort one another through assurances that “he’ll be in heaven soon.” Meanwhile, for the police department and local newscasters of Port Arthur, TX, it’s “killing time,” as the excitement looms. The police chief can’t wait for “the animal to be put down” and reporters joke and guffaw as they set up for coverage.
Van Hoewijk structures the film in two sections. The first, “Crime,” briefly presents crime-scene photos, explains Chester’s multiple rape and murder convictions, and, in an extended sequence, recounts the events is provided by Erin, raped by Chester at 17 years old. However, the last three-fourths of the film are titled “Punishment,” lending a Dostoyevskian ethos to the structure, but there’s no Raskolnicovian figure here—only simple people forced to confront death with the meager means which their limited socioeconomic circumstances provide. Outside, protesters claim that lethal injection is “racist and hates poor people.” Chester is black, as are his family members, but the family, themselves, makes no such appeals for racism. They sit, rather calm and quietly, awaiting news. Each family member speaks with Chester by phone; some cry and wipe away tears, other stifle their emotions.
When news finally comes that Chester has been executed, the family merely nods and goes to view his dead body. As they leave, the film ends, but remains in the room with the dead body, in long shot. The body, at the depths of the frame, sits lifeless, but Van Hoewijk’s film nearly bursts at the seams with troubling uncertainty. What just transpired on a socio-political register compels the protestors and police. Yet, on a familial level, it’s a moment of passage from one place to another, both literally and symbolically. As Erin states near the film’s end: “No matter what someone did, it’s hard to watch a person die.” As Killing Time demonstrates, it may be even harder to see someone die while being crippled by a sense of societal determination, that not only can nothing be done to stop an execution, but that these events were, somehow, destined to occur; at least, Van Hoewijk’s cumulative observations devastatingly suggest as much.
True/False runs from February 27—March 2.