[3 July 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
As writers, we are taught to avoid clichés. Avoid them like the plague. Avoid them like red-headed step-children at a reunion. As a literary shortcut they supposedly show sloppiness and a lack of imagination. In movies, we criticize them as an easy out to what are typically tough interpersonal or narrative problems. In fact, any film or filmmaker that relies on said truisms to tell their tale is usually raked over the coals, read the riot act, and run out of town on a rail. But not Giuseppe Andrews. As a multitalented hyphenate who can seemingly master all media - written, visual, aural, philosophical - he’s perhaps the only auteur working in independent cinema that could take the tried, the tacky, and the sometimes true and work it into a wonderful dissertation on the usual family struggles and strife.
Tired of living under a bridge like a troll, middle-aged homeless man Ronzoni decides to reconnect with his roots. Buying a bowling ball as a Christmas gift, he heads out to visit his retired father and distant sister Agatha who live in a local trailer park. Unfortunately, they both think he’s a wholly worthless bum. When a large box lands on his chest, Ronzoni is stuck behind his dad’s double wide and no matter how hard they try, they just can’t seem to get the empty cardboard container off his body. Wanting to escape his incessantly whining, the pair head off to a hotel. There, Agatha meets Nicholas, an in-room escort who opens her eyes to the joy of music and the fun of making anti-porno. Eventually, the duo checks out and heads back to the park, only to discover that Ronzoni has been freed. While his fate is more than uncertain, father and daughter agree - their relative was a real piece of sh*t.
With its groovy gimmick and visual experimentation, Long Row to Hoe reminds the Andrews’ purist of just how amazingly gifted this gonzo filmmaker can be. From his simple storytelling approach to his constant narrative counterpunches, he can take the most menial material and make it into a masterpiece. With his always solid cast including the reliable Vietnam Ron, Ed, Marybeth Spychalski, and Walter Patterson, and the relatively new location of a local park to accent his typical trailer towns, Andrews offers us a theater of the absurd masked as the everyday grind of a biological back and forth. Ronzoni clearly has issues with both of his relatives. His father has nothing but foul words for his wayward son, while Agatha blames him for everything odd and unruly in her life - including a strange piece of frozen meat she finds in her freezer.
Both would rather see him gone for good rather than part of their life, and when he ends up wailing away in the backyard, they can’t wait to escape. When they return from their trip to the hotel however, their nonchalant reaction to his apparent disappearance marks their true, unfettered feelings. Andrews clearly understands how most kinfolk interact. Holidays are horror films where false fronts have to be prepared and put on just to get through the difficulties of the day, and with Ronzoni and his apparent lack of legitimacy, such an act is even more difficult. Ed’s aggravated responses to Ron’s sheepish apologies argue for how deep this hatred runs, and this is one of the reasons Long Row to Hoe is so potent. We rarely see families in such a full on mode of hatred. Sadly, there’s a lot of bile built up over the years when it comes to this tragic trio.
As a storyteller, Andrews loves the obvious symbol. Ronzoni is crushed by an empty box, something that should be simple to remove. No one can, however and it tends to confirm his reportedly useless nature. The sheer futility of such a set-up mirrors the attempts by Agatha and Dad to get the hopeless hobo out of their life. Similarly, when the pair rent a room for the night, the arrival of an in-room escort offers the eye-opening reaction to the outside world that our heroine has rarely had the opportunity to experience. The entire anti-porno sequence, filled with repeated visual jokes and silly sight gags, also offers its own unique perspectives. For a couple of young people, including one paid to act as the other’s consensual companion, to simply aim their camera and manufacture superficiality says a lot about the interpersonal skills and passion of all involved.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Giuseppe Andrews film without its freak show element, but this time, it’s the words that act as oddities. Hearing Dad talk to his chair-bound buddy in a series of senseless chestnuts, one well worn maxim after another tossed freely into the air, we begin to sense a clear cut creative purpose. Andrews is visibly striving to show how communication without truth is just that - an endless string of pointless words that lack a legitimacy and a meaning. This happens many times in Long Row to Hoe - characters will break out in cliché couplets, their thoughts now clouded by a phraseology that suggests something while literally saying nothing. It’s not all that novel for Andrews. He’s used curse words and scatology in a similar manner before. But with clichés, the message becomes even more consequential. All the admonishments about using such communicative shorthand are true. They honestly add nothing to the tête-à-tête.
If art is life reflected in a wholly original and unique manner, then Long Row to Hoe is a piecemeal Picasso. It’s a Vermeer minus the brilliant use of light, an avant-garde gemstone in a showcase filled with carefully cut glass. Andrews continues to author one of the most amazing cinematic oeuvres ever, a day-in-the-life briefing of the most meaningful bits of life’s fringe findings. From the homeless to the housed, the sensible to the strange, he has long since taken his place as the troubadour for the downtrodden and the champion for their challenged. As clichéd accolades go, he’s as good as it gets, and there truly are none better. But beyond such simple sentiments, Giuseppe Andrews continues to shock and amaze, not only with his growth as a filmmaker, but with his seemingly endless fount of creative fuel. On paper, Long Row to Hoe sounds superficial, perhaps even silly. In execution, it’s electric.