Film

Northfork (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

Challenges U.S. myths of enduring national identity, corporate good will, and westward-ho expansions.


Northfork

Director: Michael Polish
Cast: Peter Coyote, Anthony Edwards, Duel Farnes, Daryl Hannah, Nick Nolte, Mark Polish, James Woods, Ben Foster, Robin Sachs
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Paramount Classics
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-07-11 (Limited release)

Daryl Hannah as hermaphrodyte angel. A strange and sublime concept, conjured by Mark and Michael Polish, it is also the perfect use of Hannah's long limbs and unusual angles. As Flower Hercules, with sad eyes, short black hair, and a gentle manner, Hannah brings a haunting and much welcome generosity to Northfork, the third installment of the brothers' "American trilogy," after Twin Falls Idaho (1999) and Jackpot (2001).

While only one component in Northfork's odd vista, Flower Hercules stands out, in part because s/he is not a man, in a film full of them, in pressed suits and ragged duress, by degrees frustrated, bristling, and conniving. Flower Hercules is also unusual among her crew of angels, the leader Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs), mute cowboy Cod (Ben Foster), and gadget-maker Happy (Anthony Edwards), with wooden hands and elaborately thick glasses. Compared to her edgy and distracted fellows, Flower Hercules is gracious and attentive.

The object of her focus is Irwin (Duel Farnes), a pasty, ailing orphan who floats in and out of restive dreams throughout the film, and who may or may not be imagining these angels as a way of saving himself. With bumps on his head that may have been caused by a halo and scars on his back that look like remnants of missing wings, Irwin has it in his head that he's an angel left behind by accident, looking to be reunited with relatives he never knew he had.

The desire is understandable, as Irwin's earthly existence is bereft of good news. At film's beginning, he's abandoned by his adoptive parents, Mr. and Mrs. Hadfield (Clark Gregg and Claire Forlani), who leave him with at a home with ravaged Father Harlan (Nick Nolte). The institution is ominously empty, as everyone else has also left town. The reason for their flight is the film's second major plot-point-as-metaphor (after, or in tandem with, the angels): it's 1955, and Northfork, Montana is about to be flooded, owing to a spangly new hydroelectric dam. Everyone has been urged to move on, in the name of "progress."

In its poetic, elusive way, Northfork takes up this notion of "progress." For some, like Irwin and the Hadfields, impending events are disastrous. When the parents leave, uttering precious few lines between them, the child serves as the sympathetic, vulnerable, if somewhat mythic, individual; at the same time, the dam, along with its black-suited, narrow-tied representatives, become emblems of earnest industry and the future from which there is no turning back.

The action takes place during the last 48 hours before the flood. But it still moves deliberately, granting each separate scene its own frame, a beginning and end. The men go forth in pairs, "Evacuation Teams" who encourage residents to leave, with inducements including cash and their own motivation as well (they've been promised parcels of "lakefront property" following the deluge). One team is a father and son, Walter O'Brien (James Woods) and Willis (Mark Polish), who must also cope with the fact that the changing landscape necessitates digging up graves, including the one where Walter's wife is buried: "When this small town becomes the biggest lake this side of the Mississippi," he tells Willis, "your mother will be the catch of the day."

All of the Evacuators share a similarly offbeat sense of humor, though whether this derives from or is inspired by their work is hard to say. They begin their mission with inspiring instruction ("Just go in like you're guardian angels"), then ride in black Fords, across stark gray landscapes, each team assigned a recalcitrant holdout. Among these is one old man who's nailed himself to his porch and takes to shooting at his "angels," but in such a lackadaisical way that both parties -- shooter and shootees -- end up falling asleep, waking with a start, to realize the futility of their disparate "missions." Another is a man with two wives, who's refashioned his home as an ark, ready to float away when the waters come.

In fact, the film, like the other two by the identical twin Polish brothers, thematizes doubleness, in the two-man teams, two stories, two days before the flood. But it also finds difference in sameness, the layered pairings offering points of view that mirror but also refract one another. Most especially, Flower Hercules embodies a visible doubleness and quiet self-consciousness beyond typical understandings of individuality and movement. Much less interested in plot than in theme and image, Northfork imagines a journey without a clear end, along the way challenging, in particular, U.S. myths of enduring national identity, corporate good will, and westward-ho expansions.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image