God's Pocket John Slattery (USA 2014) Philip Seymour, Christina Jenkins, Richard Jenkins
Viewed Empire Cinema Newcastle UK 12 AUG 2014; ticket: £3.50How to lose your soul
God’s Pocket reminded me of Carson McCullers’ work. Slattery’s film, based on Pete Dexter’s novel though set in the North rather than the South, has that same feeling of pervasive decay attaching to it; a decay of community registered in the sepia grain of its colour.
God’s Pocket is set in the 1980’s, and basks in the eternal etiolated twilight of ‘50’s America. A place where filmmakers go when they want to find somewhere the human face and the human body not computers iPhones and tablets, are the interlocutors between people. A vanished world. A vanishing America.
So this is a movie about place and the qualities that people bring to their neighbourhoods. As an ensemble piece centred on the eponymous small community of God's Pocket it invites some comparison with the films Frank Capra made in the1940’s celebrating small town America: It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr Smith goes to Washington. Capra’s movies were optimistic affirmations of American values; decency individualism and democracy. Looked back on the films have an inherent charm, but the scripting’s were not representative in any meaningful way of blue collar working class or minority groups. They were an idealistic rendering of a homogenous America, a setting with apposite values later exploited by Spielberg’s suburban dream. Nevertheless as expressions of an idealised people Capra’s films were powerful sentimental models.
Slattery’s film moulded around the face and body of Mickey (played by Seymour), comes across as a particular statement about the way things are today. Not of aspirational hope or optimism in the values of US society, but a study of decadence. A society that is dilapidated, coming apart in the constant flux of unravelling values. A society that partially lame hobbles on. It is not so much the people of God’s Pocket who are degraded rather the system, the social and economic matrix. The people respond as best they can to the pressures within which they have to survive. We’re looking at a broken machine held together by human resilience. Even for the ‘respectable’ inhabitants of the neighbourhood, those trying to work, the small business people, everyday life is circumscribed and penetrated by debt gangsters and crime. These people pay the 'Goodfellahs’ whores. And they now have to ‘whore’ for themselves to exist.
Initially the film’s structure is woven about a Voice Over, the words of Richard Shelburn, a journalist on the local newspaper whose poetic insight into the community again reminds me of McCullers prose ( She must have been an inspiration to many writers of Dexter's generation). It’s not so much a Voice Over but almost a Greek Chorus a heightened poetical polemic whose muse is truth. What develops in God’s Pocket is that this chorus, Richard's voice gradually leaves the wings and takes on a full frontal character in the script. Richard Shelburn moves from being a voice off to having an identity, a physical presence, an active role and to finally being centre stage.
There is scope in terms of script and film structure for a Voice to become a flexible component in a film's structure. Too many films are structured about Voice Over narration that is predictable and flabby, comprising a Ready-Brek solution to core scriptive and filmic problems. So the idea of a Voice that elides into a different type of dramatic presence has transformative possibilities.
In God’s Pocket I think this movement of voice into presence doesn’t work. It feels like the intrusion of what is a subjectivity into collectivity. The elemental basis of God’s Pocket is its collective character which is reflected in its ensemble playing. The community is a decaying matrix of family ethnic and business ties corrupted by debt and gangsterism. Slattery brings this complex of relations into play through the device of a sudden death that agitates the community sending a series of adaptive and sometimes violent ripples across its surface.
Interestingly the key filmic component of the collective playing is not the wide shot but the close up. The face reacts to relations, and by framing his camera on the face and body, Slattery negotiates the ebb of flow of emotions deals and conflict. One of the strenghts of God's Pocket film is the use of the face to reveal the nature of these interconnecting reactions. But more than this the face suggests the strands of consciousness and cognizance that lie below its surface. In the strong scene in the bookies, with bets on, it feels possible to see beneath the surface of the expressions in the faces of the two gamblers and pick up the scent of drugs and protection rackets that undelay this culture.
The intrusion of the journalist, Richard Shelburn, into the story is an individualist intrusion that undermines the core collective substance of the film without any compensating benefit. The final centre stage liaison between Richard and Jeannie (Mickey’s wife) feels like a mechanical device. It betrays the film in a number of ways. It undermines any moral dimension to Jeannie. OK, she is in a way peripheral (all the women in God’s Pocket are peripheral), but even in her peripherality she conveys a certain insistent strength of character. The idea that she fucks an old celebrity journalist because he spouts some tired old prose at her (the fucking in God’s Pocket is joyless pump house style). It’s a scripting decision that demeans her. A device to work Richard from the back stage to front of house. A device that only succeeds in debasing the movie. Changing it from gold to lead. Slattery may argue that the device eventually allow the repressed violence of God's Pocket to be revealed. But we get this eliptically from the body of the movie without needing to see Richard kicked to death.
God's Pocket is a movie that doesn’t so much have a narrative but works by creating a world of collective interconnectivity that is undermined by a liaison that takes place outside its own parameters of significance, crudely interpolated and without compensating gain for the audience in either insight revelation or even tension.
So long as it remains true to its collective focus God’s Pocket unfolds as a series of expressive vignettes of blue collar community. However corruped God's Pocket retains it sense of identity.
When it loses this focus it loses it soul. The actual ending in the trailer park is interesting as it suggests a sort of idea: that the only movement possible is to find a 'way out'. Perhaps somewhere like Florida where they have a benign proactive gun laws.
Adrin Neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org