This American Life
2009 // USA // Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher // June 5, 2010 // Theatrical Print (Webster University Moore Auditorium)
[October Country is being featured in a limited engagement from June 4-10, 2010 at the Webster University Film Series.]
B+ - On its weather-beaten surface, October Country is a straightforward documentary in the "anthropological study" vein. Surprisingly deft and arresting, the film profiles a blue-collar family living in the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York, and marks co-directors Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher as emergent talents in documentary film-making. Emulating Errol Morris' signature approach—restive, slightly distanced, and ever-conscious of their medium's artificiality—the directors chronicle a year in the life of Donal's extended family, observing their tumble-down surroundings and listening to their stories with sorrowful attentiveness. Undeniably, the Moshers' tale is a bleak one, characterized by wartime ghosts, criminal betrayal, domestic violence, cruel estrangement, foolish decisions, and perennial economic hardship. What's remarkable about October Country is how Palmieri and Mosher elevate the story beyond voyeuristic goggling at misfortune to achieve something far more intricate. In its finest moments, the film serves as a bitter rumination on the cyclical quality of family history, as well as a cinematic séance, not only with the Mosher clan's particular demons, but with the Puritan shades that still haunt the American experience.
The film follows four generations of the Moshers for a year, from one Halloween to the next, gradually revealing not only the ever-shifting landscape of their travails, but also the surprising and often heartbreaking texture of their personalities and relationships. Dottie is the resolute but also palpably saddened matriarch, determined to keep her family afloat despite mounting evidence that its fate is almost entirely out of her hands. Her husband Don is a taciturn Vietnam veteran, a man who returned from the war hardened and withdrawn. He seems to be the most level-headed member of the clan, but his resentments and his untreated (and virtually unacknowledged) PTSD consume him. Their daughter Donna is a domestic abuse survivor who gave birth to a daughter, Daneal, when she was still a teenager. Daneal, in turn, has repeated her mother's mistakes, and is fighting for custody of her two-year-old daughter Ruby with the girl's abusive father. Daneal's eleven-year-old sister Desi is both smart and a bit of a smart-ass, pushing nonchalantly against the constraints of her kin and her town. Other family members lurk around the periphery. Don's obese, arthritic sister Denise is a cemetery-skulking Wiccan, shunned by her brother for her religious beliefs and her "attitude". Their own familial problems notwithstanding, Dottie and Don have taken in a foster son, Chris, a swaggering shoplifter who is painfully aware he is on the wrong path, and yet seems unwilling to change his ways. Everyone chain-smokes.
Palmieri and Mosher permit the family to paint the contours of their story in their own words, intruding only rarely with an off-camera question or two. Similar to Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's stunning feature, Trouble the Water, the directors avoid domineering narration in favor of a shared storytelling approach with their subjects. In contrast to agitprop documentarians, Palmieri and Mosher's artistic arsenal is first and foremost that of the cinema: photography, sound, music, editing, and always the faces of the family. Their visages command the frame, simultaneously seeking the camera's approval and ambivalent about how anyone but God (or the dead) perceive them. The film's understated revelations are as compelling as anything in the worthiest fictional feature, such as when ex-cop and war movie aficionado Don is shown laboring in his attic woodshop on, of all things, delicate dollhouse furniture. However, where Lessin and Deal's film forged a triumphant sense of perseverance from calamity, Palmieri and Mosher are working in a far more poetic mode, one that is unabashedly melancholy and offers no easy answers. Consumer culture, globalization, misogynistic violence, abortion rights, and imperialistic war all feed into the Moshers' tribulations like raw, knotted timber, but the film is not ultimately about such matters any more than it is about the Halloween holiday that serves as a backdrop to the opening and closing scenes.
Repeating patterns figure heavily in the thematic landscape of October Country, and the "turn of the seasons" framework—cogently but modestly presented—resonates with the cycles that crop up in the lives of the Moshers. Daneal is following in her mother's ill-fated footsteps, but resists the hard-won wisdom of the older woman's bruised experience, preferring the simple myth of villainous mom and saintly (absent) dad. There are boyfriends, one after the other, always possessive and abusive and always trashing the family before leaving it, like a cheap hotel room. Chris is a habitual criminal who has no intention of straightening out, even as he speaks glowingly of the Moshers' generosity and love. He promises that he will eventually hurt them, and he does. Everyone looks at Desi, on the verge of adolescence, and wonders aloud if she will repeat their mistakes. The girl just snorts, rolls her eyes, and turns back to her video games: "I'm smarter than any of them." There is an aura of Old Testament doom that permeates the film, a sensation that nothing that was ordained by unseen forces can be escaped. Will I always be a bad person? Will I always love bad men? Do I have to grow up and get a shitty job in this shitty town and eventually die here?
Palmieri and Mosher pose their film not just as record of personal despair in twenty-first century America, but also a communion with something more profound in the national fabric. Deep in its chilly bones, October Country represents a fragment of our ongoing cultural struggle with our Puritan forebears, those English exiles who valued stoicism, saw the Devil's hoof-prints everywhere, and still hiss of the futility of escaping that which God has written. What would those forebears say, the film implicitly asks, of the plastic witches and artificial cobwebs of the Moshers' Halloween party? What would they say of Family Dollar and Ninentedo, of family court and disability checks? What would they say of Denise, with her unicorn paintings and loneliness, standing with a camcorder in a graveyard and asking the phantoms, "Anybody want to talk to me?" Whether our Puritan past has any salience in this age of modern uncertainty and desolation is debatable, but October Country is persuasive in its assertion that—to paraphrase Faulkner—the past is not past at all. It's a sentiment written on every careworn and hard-bitten Mosher brow.