Held Tightly
By Julia Gunnison

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt
Dir. Raven Jackson, U.S., A24

There is a scene in Raven Jackson’s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt in which the protagonist Mack (Charleen McClure) meets her former, now-married lover, Wood (Reginald Helms Jr.) after a period of separation. The simple lines they exchange (“How are you?” “Everyone’s good”) are thoroughly inadequate for expressing the aching pain and dizzy euphoria of their brief encounter. These emotions are spoken instead by gestures, rhythms, and sounds: Wood’s hand on Mack’s back; the extended duration of their embrace; the undertones of a person’s breathing that can only be heard when they are very, very close. Throughout, the film holds us as tightly as Mack does Wood. In this scene, we stay with their hug for a conspicuously long time—but time in this instance may be more aspirational than real, expressing Mack’s longing for this moment to continue.

It’s a curious task to describe a film that embodies the superfluity of language. When films diverge from narrative conventions, other artistic forms often provide the vocabulary we need. “Poetic” is a word often leaned on when discussing films like Jackson’s, which privileges sensorial fluidity over more straightforward narrative progression. It is undeniably apt in this case, especially as Jackson is a poet herself. Her written words achieve a hyper-specificity that All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt thrums with. In both forms, she zooms in so far as to leave narrative behind, creating more mysterious, immediate sensations.

Set against the natural landscapes of rural Mississippi, the film traces Mack’s experiences with love, tragedy, family, and her growing sense of self. Though Jackson hits upon certain major turning points in Mack’s life, she is more interested in softer moments that happen in between. Mack appears in the film at different ages, represented by different actors. The film easily slides between eras, often using a familiar shot of the back of Mack’s head to ground the viewer during these shifts. Within this tangled chronology, Mack’s perspective from childhood stands out. In her poem “My Mother Walks Naked into the Kitchen,” Jackson describes looking up at her mother from below, fascinated by her body’s magnetism. Her eyes see legs, thighs, and hair with a child’s alternative vision that time quickly dulls. All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt captures this same youthful curiosity and reconceives it cinematically. An early sequence during a party at the family’s home highlights Mack’s mother’s bright red nail polish, and we can feel the childish fascination with the pretty, grown-up accent. As the adults dance, laugh, and drink, these merry noises filter over to little Mack in the next room, fragments of sounds she may hear at full volume in the future, but not quite yet.

Beyond poetics, taking a closer look at the director’s methodologies reveals other formal analogies. In her short film Nettles (2018), Jackson links together six vignettes about moments of discomfort or revelation in women’s lives. Each section is centered around a body part, and some are connected by a structural thread that moves almost like a backstitch. “Throat” lingers on fingertips before cutting to “Hand”; in “Hand,” a character voices her back pain, anticipating the next section, “Back.” This stitching holds the film in place, creating small loops that curve a half-step back around the previous piece before continuing onward. All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt has a similarly clever editorial approach. Jackson utilizes not-quite-match cuts in many places, like when we jump from Mack and her sister practicing kissing with their palms to Mack’s mother puckering her lips in the bathroom mirror. Elsewhere, the film creates dynamic contrasts: Mack and Wood’s quiet reunion ends with an aggressive cut to a thunderstorm. This assemblage, which results in pairings, repetitions, and spirals based on textural patterns, is not unlike a patchwork, where discontinuities and inventive associations are the source of the work’s artistry.

Maybe sewing and textiles come to mind because of how crucial touch and texture are to the fabric of the movie. For Jackson, touch is like a magical power. It usurps spoken language as a mode of communication between lovers, friends, sisters, and fathers and daughters. Mack’s father snaps his finger against his young daughter’s forehead, then repeats the gesture decades later with his granddaughter: a playful touch that signifies family and marks time. In the lush world of All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, humans are always extending their bodies into nature, illustrating a symbiotic relationship that reaches an almost spiritual level. Fingers sink into rich, deep mud; children’s hands trace the slimy length of a fish; faces press against feral, grassy ground. As a storm rages outside, Mack lies in a bathtub, listening to the raging thunder and gently shushing her pregnant belly, as if her unborn child were the source of the noisy ruckus—and perhaps she is. For the edges between the human and nonhuman are just as amorphous in the movie as the distinctions between different time periods. These communions of bodies with nature contain an element of seeking. The characters are instinctually pulled towards the earth, reclaiming parts of themselves that lie buried in the dirt.