Diggers (2007)

In the multiplex, “digital” signifies splashy, hyper-real animation and effects-laden spectacles. Outside the multiplex, digital media are increasingly the first choice for artists interested in creating small, personal films. Diggers, a little seen 2006 film directed by Katharine Dieckmann and written by actor Ken Marino (Veronica Mars), is a case in point.

Rooted in Marino’s experiences growing up on Long Island in the ’70s, the film’s HD photography is one of its primary assets. Far from appearing electronic or artificial, Diggers feels warm and authentic, credibly capturing the rhythms of life in a rural community that is losing its traditional way of life.

Set in 1976 on the south shore of Long Island, Diggers focuses on the lives of four young men, Hunt (Paul Rudd), Jack (Ron Eldard), Cons (Josh Hamilton), and Frankie (Marino), as they grapple with the realities of diminishing opportunities. The area’s major traditional industry, clam digging, is being squeezed from one side by resource depletion and conservation measures and from another by an intensifying corporatization of the clam beds.

Space for single individuals to make a decent living, let alone families, is increasingly limited, but these guys know little else. Hunt anchors the film, and the movie’s prologue ends with the death of his father (Beeson Carroll). This death, occurring out on the bay after Hunt’s father had gone out to dig, functions as a metaphor for the community’s way of life and the dilemma confronting the four protagonists. The guys are gathered together for the first time at the funeral, and the remainder of the film follows Hunt and his friends, and particularly Frankie, as they struggle with the question of what to do with their lives.

One of the virtues of the film is the way that writer Marino and director Dieckmann allow the context for their narrative to emerge gradually and organically. The audience gradually learns about the state of this resource and the dominance of Southshell, the corporation that’s taken over most of what’s left of the industry, through dialogue and elements of the mise-en-scène. Interestingly, the diggers are shown to be far more bitter about the corporate encroachment on their way of life than they are about a need for conservation measures. If anything, they appear all too aware of the sorry state of the clam beds and the need to take care of the resource. This makes the film’s narrative different from those often associated with, say, timber in the Pacific Northwest, where similar discussions are invariably framed as jobs versus the environment more than they are as workers versus corporations.

While the broader historical context is handled with subtlety, the same cannot be said for the signification of the era. Within the film’s opening shots, for example, the audience is regaled with a radio announcer proclaiming it to be “September 1976”, a newspaper headline about that year’s presidential election, and one of the film’s central female characters, Gina (Maura Tierney), reading the Hite Report as she works the grill at a local diner. In other respects, the production and costume design are well done and naturalistic, making good use of muted earth tones in furniture, decoration, and clothing to convey a sense of the time. Only Lauren Ambrose’s Zoey appears in high ’70s attire, but that is entirely appropriate as she is meant to be encoded as a privileged visitor from the city.

Michael McDonough’s HD photography renders the film in rich, true colors. On DVD at least, it is only in low light conditions where the media’s bits and bytes are pixilated. The potential of HD is perhaps most obvious in wide shots of the bay where the diggers ply their trade. Distant vegetation is clearly distinguishable not just at the level of individual plants and trees, but even at the scale of branches, leaves, and stems. Aside from one outdoor night scene lit with a red light, the image never appears to be anything other than natural. The result is a depiction of the world that looks and feels real.

The veracity of Diggers‘ world is important because the film is, above all, driven by its characters. Rudd effectively plays Hunt as a withdrawn, sensitive soul, whose eyes and body exude uncertainty. He skillfully shows us a character torn between love, guilt, and resentment regarding his father’s death and the life he feels he was led into by his father.

As Hunt’s sister, Gina, Tierney provides the movie’s strongest performance. With little screen time to work with, she develops Gina as a woman coming into feminism on her own terms, in her own time, and for her own reasons. Notably for a film centered on men, her self-possession does not make her into a villain or object of derision. Like everyone else, she is simply coming to terms with change. Rudd and Tierney are credible as siblings, not simply because they are reasonable physical matches, but because they have a familial chemistry, one that captures both the closeness and distance that can exist between adult family members. Most importantly, they tend to elevate whoever they appear on screen with.

Which is not to suggest that the other performances in the film are poor. All of the actors do good work here, but in more marginal and supporting roles. As the married-with-too-many-kids Frankie and Julie, Marino and Sarah Paulson feature in the most significant storyline aside from Hunt’s. They and their relationship are drawn much more broadly than Hunt and Gina. When introduced, they are yelling and snapping at each other, and Frankie, especially, comes across as an ignorant and insensitive lout. Over the course of their narrative, however, they get a few quiet moments, and in facing the prospect of yet another child, show themselves to be genuinely loving and supportive of one another.

The remaining principals amount to well-played types: Jack is the town rake, Zoey is the City Girl, and Cons represents the counterculture. Of these three, Cons is the toughest to accommodate in the limited time allotted for his development. A self-styled intellectual, drug dealer / user, and long-haired hippie, the character’s ticks and quirks seem out of place in an otherwise middle-American milieu.

Hamilton’s character likely fell victim to the film’s most notable flaw: the underdevelopment of the relationships between the four male friends. There are two artfully composed shots of the quartet lined up together, one near the beginning in front of a funeral home and one later on at the beach, that suggest a deep interconnectedness, but rarely do we actually get to see these connections in the course of daily life. A brief scene at the local bar after Hunt collects his father’s ashes is the most effective in this regard, showing camaraderie not only between Hunt and his buddies, but also Gina and Julie. On the other hand, a brawl near the film’s end between the four guys and a trio from Southshell falls utterly flat. Indeed, it highlights how little the audience is told or shown about what these men mean to each other. A subsequent verbal fight between Jack and Hunt fails to resonate for the same reason.

A review of the deleted scenes included on the DVD suggests that most of what got cut from the final version were scenes or parts of scenes that showed more about the lives of the supporting characters and the substance of the friendship between the four men. Dieckmann and editors Sabine Hoffman and Malcolm Jamieson clearly decided to train the story on Hunt, and that Frankie and Julie’s story also needed to be told. Given the quiet strength of Rudd’s performance it’s hard to knock the former choice, especially with Tierney serving a key supporting role. One can debate the decision to devote the balance to Frankie and Julie, but with Frankie as the only married member of the brethren, their relationship does add depth to the narrative. That Frankie is loosely based on Marino’s father undoubtedly played some part in his and Julie’s relationship serving as a secondary point of interest.

The commentary track from Dieckmann and Marino sheds light on the film’s origins and the process by which it got made. It also offers insight into how the two saw different characters and their roles within the film’s narrative. On balance, though, the track is of the love fest variety, which is appropriate for a movie like Diggers that is something of a labor of love for its makers. Far sharper regarding the making of the film, is the episode of “Higher Definition”, HDNet’s preview show, featuring Dieckmann and Marino. The DVD is rounded out by a 1999 documentary, “Baymen”, that works well as a historical and ethnographic complement to the main feature. Given the breadth of the content provided on the DVD, I would have liked to have seen a feature devoted to the film’s photography.

Diggers is a small, flawed gem of a film that few had the chance to see in a theater (indeed, it was released simultaneously in theaters and on HDNet on 27 April; the DVD followed a few days later). It is, however, no less representative of the future of cinema than is the next Pixar animated feature or CGI-heavy comic book movie.

RATING 7 / 10