Terence Nance is an artist originally from Dallas, TX. His first feature film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and won a Gotham Independent Film Award. The album of the same title will be released later this year.
The following is written in the way that I suppose this elegiac film is constructed — freely.
In the opening scene of Memphis, Willis asks no one in particular, “Is this TV?” laying out the rules of the meta-narrative we are about to experience. The real-life Willis Earl Beal is about to be interviewed as fictionalized “Willis” on a (“real?”) television show that has been staged on a set which is being filmed somewhat voyeuristically with a long lens by Tim Sutton for the film Memphis. During the interview (and overall in the film itself, and supposedly, probably in everyday “life?”), “Willis” — who is simultaneously also Willis Earl Beal — will espouse all manner of existential musings as to the nature of his experience as an observed body or being or soul who emits expressive creative energy. He will attest most formally and curmudgeonly to the stress that this observation causes him, or the stress he has manifested it to cause him in his quest for… (it will be revealed later) glory (as achieved through a sexual encounter with the core of the earth, tactilely felt through gentle contact of his genitals with warm soil).
He is a trickster, he quips at the multiple layers of observation that are happening, and questions their propriety, their authenticity, their validity, their necessity, their beauty.
“Willis” and Willis seem to take the interviewer on a sort of ride at first. Standard first question: “Did you ever imagine that you would be here, you know, a big musician?” Seemingly pompous and cocaine- or alcohol-addled response: “Yes, of course. In very many ways, I created this… I consider myself to be a wizard.” But in “Willis”/Willis’ mouth, the bravado and pomposity become scripture, and stand-up, and venting to your momma, and secret messages from an alien who you think is sexy and want to be your boyfriend. The last two styles landing most intensely in Willis’ resolution, which laments something like, “Your wizardry’s magic will manifest all of your wildest dreams but the magic doesn’t fulfill everything you thought it would fulfill….” I haven’t heard a truth so relatable to my life and journey in years. Especially not in a feature film by a dad from the Slope.
“Willis”/Willis really capitalized the ANGST in existential angst in his… “performance?” I mean, who can blame him? The world is designed to destroy people who look, sing, walk, see, hear, feel, cry, fuck, die, dribble, laugh, dance like him, and I’m not just talking about the black part, or the male part, or the artist part, but also the nihilist part. The casually, fatalistically beautiful, “I do not exist and neither do you” part.
We’ve all been there, transfixed by the decay and proud of our transcendent selves at how “over it!” we are. Willis’ way of putting it is, “It’s all artifice,” and I think that most of us think of the “it” to be, like, the banks, and reality TV, and the fuggin government. But the nuance of this movie is how transgressive and wide-ranging and “take no prisoners” Willis and I are with our fatalism. I mean, I think he means, and I find myself feeling but not thinking, that it’s all artifice. The reality TV, the banks, the Jesus, the government, the “secret,” the landmark, the manifestation, the meditation, the Buddha, the “being in the present,” the connection to the oversoul, the sigils, the love, the peace, everything… even at its best, is boring, ineffectual, and simple and most angst-ily… fully in opposition to the idea of your individuality, your specialness, your significance, and your quest for a sensory experience of the sublime.
But let’s rein that in, because it is sublime to sit with your lady in your bed and waste the day away, especially if her face looks like that, and it’s also sublime in fits and starts to hear your voice, and your drums, ring through your head and lose yourself in time, and lose time. So, there’s that. But it is a struggle, and the search for sublimation does not exist on a social or emotional binary, the emotional and moral binary that society teaches us is constantly subverted… like every minute of the day for all of our existence.
A man in church laments this dissonance. “I couldn’t separate whether it was tears of sorrow or tears of joy and I’m going through a spiritual conflict within myself.” He says that and you know he really knows that the tears were both, and he’s OK with that. He just had to fit it into a binary package so that that guy in the corner of the church with the camera and the long lens could understand some modicum of the nature of what’s at play… or maybe not.
Tim Sutton’s camera is cast as the observational and respectful outsider. The distance of the camera from the subjects brings this through; the movie is consistently long-lensed from an unrevealed subjective point of view that could be a kid, or Tim, or kid Tim. I do know that at church, and at play, and in the studio, everyone keeps stealing glances at the camera, if not outright staring at it as if it is welcome, yet odd, isn’t there all day everyday, doesn’t necessarily belong, but also questioning… what is “belonging,” anyway? Fortunately, I don’t think that fly-on-the-wall naturalism, or a camera-less environment unpolluted by a “hegemonic gaze” is what this film is after. Instead it’s after something that is possible. It’s after what all engaging art is after, the unplanned magic of any given moment unfolding as it could only have that – one – time.
Willis, mired in his place between the unbodied sublime and life as a successful musician, sits in an unlit room. Upon looking at a fallen chandelier that mimics his position — fallen, an unused pretty thing, a light that’s off, but still looks nice laying on the floor — he has a thought. He has a thought that was written by Katt Williams and has been felt by black men the world over: “Am I a tiger? Or just a vicious ass Koala bear?” Amerikkka will do that to you, but so will a sexy someone sometimes.
The beauty of the execution of this film is that it maintains the mystery of the city and its characters through the clarity and authenticity of its perspective. At the end of the day, Sutton doesn’t seem to be pining for a seat at the domino table, which is refreshing. Photographically, and even energetically, the film says simply, “I’m not at the table playing dominoes. I’m watching the game.” And when one of the players says something coded in culture like, “Don’t hold my money,” I’m comfortable with the fact that Terence from Dallas knows what that means, because his grandparents live in Oak Cliff and might break a card table if you don’t give up the money left in your hand before the dishes get washed for the next round.
This sort of unadorned, naked, observational style is not without its controls. And the feat of this film is how well it relinquishes control to the performers while simultaneously retaining some directorial aesthetic agency. The main knob that Sutton has his hand on is the rhythm of the images and sound. It’s elegiac but with hard stops, kind of like Birth of the Cool Miles mixed with some progged-out punk/math-y early Bad Brains stuff.
The ethnographic canon of black representation and image-making is hyper-present in this film. Sutton mines these familiar images in a way that I know works on me, works for me. I can’t decide if it’s the shining level — subliminal messaging to directly reference these image-making traditions — or if he is just subconsciously inspired. Either way, the effect is that the film is in conversation with its cultural and aesthetic lineage.
Memphis ends where it begins, with young Willis, Willis’ heir, on a self-imposed initiation experience, one less grave and more naive than the one Willis is on. He is testing the limits of gravity on his bike, testing the borders of his city, of his box, of his cultural comfort zone, testing the limits of his joy, his balance, the burden and the gift of his culture, his skin, his voice, his instrument, and his energy having been passed from “Willis”/Willis to him, symbolically and overtly through the gifting of a bejeweled ring from Willis to… let’s call him “prince.”
Later in the film, during a game of war between the two, “Willis” asks his heir, he who will take up the crown once Willis is gone, “Do you believe in magic? Do you believe in God?”
What goes unspoken in that question and unanswered in his response, but which is very much implied, is more grave. The thicker question at play is, “Do you believe in God’s pace, God’s ways?” It seems God has seen fit to make sure we know that the trees won’t go away — that God will keep moving, growing over and forward and around our intercessions into this planet. Memphis in this film is being overgrown, overtaken, rolled back into its original state. It’s becoming an ancient ruin, teeming with grass, and trees, and life.
A place befitting its name.