“Video games don’t really make you smarter, but they can make your fingers faster,” says Desi, her eyes fixed on a screen splatted with bloody and frantic action. “It’s like education for your hands.” And if that’s not enough, she adds, video games do have a good side: “I watch less TV.”
At only 12 years old, Desiree is both wise and weary, too aware of how her experience is disappointing, but determined as well to overcome, not to repeat the “pattern” she sees in her family. “I wasn’t raised by the perfect family either,” she says. My mom, she never smiles” and “my daddy’s in jail.” The family she knows is comprised mainly of women, as October Country documents, women who contend with remote or abusive men, women who worry they’re providing imperfect role models for their daughters. But even as they may recognize what’s at stake in their interactions, the Moshers remain uneasy, feeling unable to do anything different.
Opening 12 February at New York’s IFC Center, October Country focuses on the Mosher family to explore the many ways that patterns shape lives and expectations. Introduced as a “collaboration” among filmmaker Michael Palmieri, PopMatters Mixed Media blogger Donal Mosher, and Mosher’s relatives (all of whom will be on hand for a discussion at the 7pm screening on opening night), the movie is a lovely, lyrical meditation on family ghosts, on the implacable effects of the past on the present. Covering a year in their lives — from one October to the next — the movie uses mid-autumn’s stark poetry to suggest the family’s haunting by ghosts.
The film opens and closes with Halloweens in Mohawk Valley, New York, as the Moshers face ghosts of all kinds. The first shots show wind rattling tree branches, shaking loose dry leaves, as Dotty remembers her own parents’ lifelong conflict, carried apparently to their graves. “Someday,” she says, “You’re not gonna have a mom and dad, you’re gonna have your brothers and sisters to turn to, and if you don’t have family, you don’t have anything.” With this lesson in mind, Dotty worries that her granddaughter Daneal has learned from her mother Donna, Dot’s daughter. “It’s history repeating itself,” she observes, partly bemused and party disappointed. “Donna was very young and involved with an abuser when she had Daneal.” And now 19-year-old Daneal, recently separated, is about to lose custody of her baby Ruby. “Can’t play mommy,” Daneal understands, “if you’re not grown up yet.”
Daneal’s cigarette smoke curls into the shot of Dotty, the camera panning from one to the other, without showing them both in the same frame. They sit at a dining table, Dotty gazing at her granddaughter, Daneal playing with her cigarette, turning it repeatedly in the ashtray before her. Desi, Daneal’s little sister, thinks she might like to have Ruby live with her and Donna. “I want to teach a little sibling everything I know about the world,” she announces. “You think you know a lot about the world?” asks her off-screen interviewer. “I do, yeah,” she answers.
Other Moshers express less confidence in what they know. Daneal’s Aunt Denise worries over her niece’s bad choice, the man who was “a little rougher with her than he should be, especially when she was holding the baby,” Dotty sees the repetition. “Young girls today think that it’s gonna be different,” she says. “They can’t comprehend that you’ve been there, you’ve done that, and you want the best for them… It ends up being the same kind of life that your mom led. By then, it’s too late.”
Dotty’s own sense that it was too late started early. Her husband Don went to Vietnam when they were both young. “He went in [to the service] a kind gentle young man and came back very, very changed. He came back hard and cold and had seen too much for a boy of 18.” Don describes his career succinctly, a veteran of Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Desert Shield, as well as 27 years of service with local police and fire departments. “When you leave home and you enter a violent destructive world,” he explains, it robs you of that chance to transition between being an adult and a child. And sometimes you wonder, ‘Is this the real me or is this what I’ve been created as?’ And you’ll never know.”
While home video footage shows him joking with a fellow officer, he describes his grief, the horrors he witnessed that can’t share with his family. For Dotty, he embodies an unsolvable dilemma: “I think the war is going to stay with Don forever,” she says. “He’s trying to find a way to get it out without talking about it. He’s closed emotionally. It’s very hard for him to put his arms around his kids and say, ‘I love you.”
Instead, as the film shows, Don remains caught inside his own memories. Donna notes on 4 July that her dad can’t watch fireworks with them (“It sounds like bombs to him”); the film shows fireworks, the soundtrack staticky and muffled rather than booming. “When you come home,” he says in voiceover, “you’re different.” Unable to explain that difference to his wife and children, he feels betrayed too. “No one told you about the fear that makes you wet on yourself, that makes you cry in fear. No one told you that your friends were going to die. No one told you that you would be the last thing they saw, that all you could do was hold them as they died. No one told you of the ghosts that were always there in the back of your mind, that they’d never go away.”
The documentary connects Don’s battlefield ghosts with those those hovering at home. Dot feels betrayed by her foster son Chris (who ends up in jail after stealing from his family), as well as Daneal, whose new boyfriend is controlling and selfish. As quietly self-aware as Don is concerning his efforts to connect with Dot, he is utterly unable to reconcile with his sister Denise. Now self-identified as wiccan, Denise takes the camera crew along with her to a cemetery at night, where she calls out to spirits in hopes they will speak to her. Dot remembers that o the day Don went to Vietnam, Denise said, “I hope you go to Vietnam and get killed and don’t come back.” He has never forgiven her, his sense of betrayal underscored by her “beliefs,” jarringly visible in her costumes, incantations, and behaviors.
When Denise arrives at her brother’s home for a Halloween party, Dot hopes for the best, decorating the kitchen with streamers and treats (“ghost vomit” and “menstral cakes” [sic] that are, she asserts, “bloody good”). She’s chosen Halloween for a family party, Dot says, “Because everyone can come as somebody else. They’re not really coming as part of the family, so if they come in disguise, they don’t even really have to admit they came to the house.”
Each Mosher reacts to his or her ghosts. Donna, Daneal, and Desi prepare for the night, their faces transformed by makeup and masks. Don faces away from the camera, feeling betrayed again. Chris arrives dressed as a woman (with a black eye, which he explains is “what happens when you disobey”), and heads out into the street with Desi, for what she imagines will be her last time trick or treating. “It doesn’t feel like Halloween, you know?” she says. Last year, she was a devil, with plastic pitchfork and red-painted face. Now she’s wondering why she’s dressed up. “Next year,” she says, “I might even hand out candy instead.” She’s growing up fast.