Is This the Real Life?
Jeff Reichert on Rich Hill and Low Tide
What would it mean to contend that Roberto Minervini’s 2012 narrative feature Low Tide feels more “real” than Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos’s 2014 documentary Rich Hill? What are the implications in arguing that a work imagined by an artist, then scripted and performed before a camera, bears more of those markers we associate with “reality” than another filmed in a real town that tells the stories of people who actually exist? And what does it mean to say that something feels more real than something else? What is the value in realness, the obsession with authenticity, anyway? Somewhere in this line of questioning can we locate tropes and elements that have traditionally delineated the difference between documentary and fiction films? Or, in these heady times where so many films exist at the boundary between the two, is the impetus on viewers to recalibrate their expectations and assumptions of the real entirely?
Questions of authenticity in representation have been asked about film since its beginnings, and for much longer in other arts. Comparing Low Tide and Rich Hill provides a particularly fertile test case for probing this contested line. Both are set in generic, largely white, economically distressed towns in middle-American states (Texas in the former, Missouri in the latter) and focus on the struggles of impoverished adolescent males. Both films employ a similar aesthetic of roving handheld camera and largely maintain observational distance from their subjects. Perhaps most importantly for this discussion, they’ve been produced at a time when a certain kind of documentary realism has seeped into a wider swath of fiction films. When these films are pitted against each other, their successes and failures remind us that the reproduced “real” is always heavily constructed, constantly negotiated terrain.
About midway through Low Tide, the unnamed central character (a preteen boy played by Daniel Blanchard, a nonprofessional actor like the rest of the cast) heads to a local butcher. The facility is dingy and run-down compared to the sterility of most American grocery stores; pre-slaughter livestock mills about in cramped pens, and the place appears to be manned by a minimal staff, though it doesn’t seem infected by disease or rot—it’s just an out-of-the-way shop in a rural area, likely an existing, operating source of food for the local community. The boy enters and asks a worker: “Can I have three dollars of meat?” From this simple interaction we learn some things about his situation. That the “what” of the purchase is less important than the “how much”; if he’d had only two dollars, that’s the amount of meat he would have gotten. The crumpled quality of the bills produced suggests a cobbling-together, that the three dollars were excavated from the bottom of an overstuffed purse, or maybe one was happily discovered underneath detritus on the living room floor. Throughout the film we’ve heard the boy’s mother (Melissa McKinney), a dreadlocked nurse who seems more interested in partying than mothering, tell her son to fix himself some food as she leaves for an evening of drinking, but as we’ve seen no other monies exchanged for meals in the film, this butcher trip is clearly some kind of indulgence. Minervini’s camera stays close to the boy, and like many other sequences this one has an incidental feel not tied to the pull of a story; this freedom allows a window onto his entire existence. In the midst of a narrative film, we can here locate documentary value. This is that place. These people. Yet, as we know very well, none of this happened in actuality.
There’s a similar moment in Rich Hill, in which handsome, thoughtful young Andrew scrapes together small change to buy some bottle rockets at a ramshackle local fair. Unlike the Texas town that’s never identified in Low Tide (if not for the film being part of a proclaimed “Texas Trilogy” it could be set in many places), Andrew’s home is made known to us—he subsists on the margins with his mother, father, and sister in Rich Hill, Missouri, population 1400, a town where about twenty percent of its inhabitants live below the poverty line. Andrew is one of Rich Hill’s three protagonists, along with Appachey and Harley, all young, white males of generally the same age, slightly older than the boy of Low Tide. The filmmakers track their struggles: Andrew’s father can’t find work and his mother is ill, leading to instability and regular relocation; fatherless Appachey works out his simmering rage on any and everything he can, jeopardizing his schooling; kindly and sweet Harley, who lives with his grandmother, looks forward to calls from his mother, imprisoned for violently attempting to protect him from the stepfather that sexually abused him. Rich Hill relates their stories via observational sequences and to-camera interviews captured over an unspecified period of time that is constructed to feel something like a year. Throughout we tour their homes, watch them in school or wandering Rich Hill with friends or alone. This is also that place. Also these people. Yet, unlike in Low Tide, they are the real thing.
It shouldn’t need repeating at this point in time—though it does—that there are differences in how narrative films and documentaries create meaning, what kinds of meaning each is more adept at facilitating, and what strategies are needed to create those different kinds of meanings available to them. Cinema’s relationship to the creation of meaning has been ever complicated by its core properties—the usually photorealistic image is easily connected to the assumptions underlying verisimilitude (I see, therefore it is), its temporal, forward-motion component tethered to the needs of narrative. Thus the movies have most often been a medium for telling stories about people, real and created. Documentaries, with their interviews, graphics, narrators, archival materials, and vérité footage, have tended to convey actuality. Fiction films, with their actors, scripts, choreographed camera movements, and managed productions, more easily immerse audiences in fabrications. These are reductive breakdowns, and the boundaries separating the two have always been porous. Over time, as the stylistic trademarks that set documentary filmmaking apart from polished studio productions (handheld camera, location settings, field sound) have seeped into narrative filmmaking, the obviously unreal unrealities of mainstream studio narratives have regularly been usurped by snakier objects like Zero Dark Thirty, in which manufactured reality is presented as if it could be the reality itself (the real-unreal). Similarly, as documentaries have become more commercially viable, they have often taken on the more produced trappings of narrative films—see how Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Man on Wire play with the imagery and structure of heist films to enhance their factual narratives (the unreal-real). It’s at this nexus where Low Tide and Rich Hill grow most fascinating, where the former’s real-unreal and the latter’s unreal-real meet.
What does all that mean? Well, Low Tide is a manufactured scenario (unreal), rendered via a set of aesthetic choices to believably place viewers in a particular space and time (real). This immersion of the audience in its milieu—perhaps the most common strategy for arriving at generally accepted realism—arrives, via the camera’s insistent focus on the central boy, who, except for a few shots, is dominant in every frame. We only see the parts of his house that he moves through, though we recognize via its threadbare decor that it is the home of poor people. We only see the area neighbors he comes into close contact with—such as an older gentleman with whom he picks up discarded soda cans to exchange for money. This compressed perspective leaves little room for markers of artifice, like overly composed frames and reverse shots. Strung together, Minervini’s often long, handheld takes form a meandering narrative of isolated events in this boy’s life, yet Low Tide never feels like it’s heading toward a certain destination—until, all of a sudden, that destination arrives with a dire thud. Throughout, we are meant to believe in the possibility of this boy’s existence. Or those of many boys like him.
Meanwhile, though Rich Hill’s aesthetic feels superficially similar to Low Tide’s (most especially its handheld, figure-focused shooting), certain choices can’t help but draw attention to its construction. Interviews delivered to-camera and overt editorial interventions (unreal) help package and transmit the unruly stories of three boys’ lives (real) into a digestible whole. Shot over many years, the film is assembled to feel something like one, and this editorial massaging proves problematic for the film’s realism. Once the three boys have been introduced, Rich Hill settles into a rhythm, and the titular town recedes: we’re given a bit of conversation with one of the boys, followed by a handful of lovely shots, then the next boy, more conversation, more shots of them in town and so on. Regular images of holiday decorations help us recognize time’s passage. With each return to Andrew, Appachey, or Harley, the film creates the feeling that something new is happening to them; in the film’s construction, the three boys are all given arcs, revelations—the trappings of narrative. Yet once the film ends it’s hard to shake the sense that, in the aggregate, not much has changed in their lives (the closing cards, which provide updates, suggest more happened once the cameras stopped rolling in earnest). Rich Hill never allows itself to become a sensorial, immersive work because it’s too often concerned with elevating the small moments of these boys’ lives to the level of the consequential—or what it thinks its audience will regard as such. Most of what happens in Low Tide is placed on a similar plane as that brief interaction with the butcher—incidental, ambient. Real.
The immersive qualities of Low Tide register a sort of realism that Rich Hill might have pursued. But in those choices that move the documentary away from immersive realism, it offers a different kind of truth. Any time in a nonfiction film that a figure sits in front of a camera for an interview, the register shifts. The person being interviewed was actually there in front of the camera, of course, allowed himself or herself to be filmed and, presumably, is sharing a portion of his or her real experience. Yet the documentary interview is an inherently unnatural, unreal device. Noting this is not to indict its value (the greatest documentary, Shoah, would not exist without interviews), it’s merely to remind that allowing a figure to speak to camera means an address to us, the audience, that brings us back to our physical selves sitting in a theater watching a movie. The illusion of coherence is punctured. Rich Hill relies on its subjects talking to camera, on capturing their painful testimonies for much of its considerable emotional heft. In Low Tide, there are long stretches of silence in between perfunctory conversations—you can easily imagine the real-life version of this mother-son duo having little to say to each other. Yet Rich Hill’s use of interviews allows space for devastating moments like Andrew pondering the course of his young life: “God has to be busy with everyone else. Eventually he will come into my life.” For all that “telling” is often derided in documentary filmmaking, when used carefully, it can be just as valuable a device as “showing,” and can provide access to other, equally valuable truths.
As Rich Hill draws to a close, life is still troubled for all three of its subjects. Sadly, the film seems to feel the need to manufacture a satisfying narrative climax where open-ended-ness would have sufficed. Thus, a darkly lit scene of Andrew arm wrestling with his father while his family looks on is intercut with a fireworks display and set to swelling music. It’s a sequence that stretches for meaning and falls flat under its own weight. It’s the kind of finale that makes one wonder if the drive toward satisfying narrative ends is anathema to the real in documentary.
Meanwhile, over in Low Tide we find hints of what might have been melodrama in a less obsessively realistic construction: the boy has attempted to poison himself and ends up in the hospital. Soon after he and his mother are tearfully, ruefully reunited, they head to a vast body of water (the Gulf of Mexico, perhaps) and play together. The film ends on their hug, a moment of overwhelming, wordless emotion that Low Tide has been starved for. Change is in the air for them. Minervini’s choices as a narrative filmmaker have allowed him to calibrate small details all throughout his narrative to produce this effect. Rich Hill’s filmmakers, tied to events actually lived, and bound by responsibilities fiction filmmakers don’t always share, have created a kind of tapestry that’s immensely moving in places, but uneven and suspect in others. Both films are admirable in their drives to film in unseen places and with forgotten people, laudable in their ability to encourage empathy for tenuous American existences. To argue then, that Low Tide is more real than Rich Hill isn’t to simply say that one is better than the other, or that the narrative is more authentic than the documentary. It’s just that Minervini fully exploits the freedoms afforded him, and understands with a canny, intuitive sense where his real really is.