Rich Hill: Sundance Was Wrong

2 Oct

I don’t think the documentary deserves the film festival’s grand prize.

I found the film to be overwrought and overly dramatic. A one-sided portrayal that preferred a melancholy look even during happy times.

I watch documentaries ALL the time–it’s my favorite genre, actually.  So it’s not like I just don’t get it.  But I almost turned this one off before the halfway point.  Nothing was happening.  We looked into lives, but there was no further analysis or explanation.  I figured the reviews and forums would note the same thing–but to my great surprise–people seem to love it.  And the one review (A) that wasn’t glowing, got a bunch of hostile comments (B).  Saying that the author of that piece was pretentious, and didn’t understand small towns.

I feel like the bleak story is garnering praise, not because the film is accurate, but because the middle and upper class urban audiences watching it feel guilty.  The viewer feels guilty about living amongst more people, having more, and thus getting a greater advantage in life.  What viewers don’t understand, is money doesn’t mean happiness.  And yes, there might be more opportunity for people with means, but it doesn’t mean having to aquiense to a dreamless, disenfranchised exsistance you can’t crawl out of.  Some people are happy, even in poverty, because they have family and nature and traditions.  There aspirations may not be the same as the affluent, but people in poverty aren’t as dire day-to-day as this film presents–there IS some real happiness.  Kids don’t remember presents or not having the latest brand name jacket–they remember LOVE.  It’s no accident the “good” kid in the film has both a mother and father.  Audiences are mistakingly saying the movie is a good one, not because it is, but because they feel the need to acknowledge small-town, poverty-stricken America.  Which IS important.  But that doesn’t make this a good film.

And don’t get me wrong–the story of poverty (and the stories about and by marginalized groups) are important to tell.  But the ACCURATE stories.  It’s not doing anybody any good to skew the facts in either direction.  We need to hear about, and understand these concepts, but in a manner which leaves the subjects dignity.  This film may aim to provide empathy, but you actually leave the film judging.  Why can’t Independence Day fireworks BE authentically happy?

I am from a small town, and there was joy.  Sure, I didn’t have access to AP classes, cultural events, or big corporate jobs, but my community is not suicidal because of it.  I think a real weakness in this movie is  how it took away their subjects decency–under the auspices of being candid, empathetic, and non-judgmental.  Instead of taking about what Apache’s mom does for work, how many hours, what struggles she may have to face–the camera scanned the filthy walls, and trash on the floor.  Also, this film may have shown what were supposed to be happy moments, but did so in a way as to make the happiness less-than.  The melancholy feel was pervasive throughout the hour and a half.  This one-sided film neglected to mention the teachers, the sports, the churches that are certainly predominant in rural America.  There ARE people trying to make a difference in these kids’ lives, and it’s a shame that the film-makers were so busy trying to show the misery they neglected the heroes.

I currently live under the poverty line, am on food stamps, and go without many things.  I live the mango scene almost daily–EBT does not buy over-priced produce that has a short shelf-life.  You have to buy Grocery Outlet sodium-infused cheap foods to make the money last.  But this doesn’t make life unlivable and depressing as this film would have you believe.  It does not mean you’re starving and hurting on a daily basis.  Poverty alone, does not equal total hopelessness, as “Rich Hill” purports.

I also can criticize the film because I lived in Missouri for 6 years (C).  So it’s not like I don’t know–as commentors were saying on the other critical review of the film.  I loved Missouri, actually.  And I’ve lived in Dayton, Nevada, Reno, Seattle, Spokane, and Salt Lake City, so I have places to compare it to.  Missouri is often made out to be this horrid Bible-Belt place where renecks spend every moment they’re not in church hunting or doing meth.  And this film helps play into those stereotypes.  Choosing Missouri as the location for a poverty film is cliche.  There are rednecks and losers in every state and city.  Missouri is not inherently poverty-stricken, or uneducated.  Like any place else, there are poor, trashy people, criminals, and hooligans, churchy people, and hunters.  But there are also scholars, progressives, and winners there.  This film would have you believe Missouri is squirrel-eatin’ country folk who caint do right.  It’s an unbalanced assessment.

The hugest weakness of the film, is the fact it gives no overarching commentary.  I don’t mean, they should tell us their opinions or make the movie biased, but information and context would make the film better (D).  I want to see a map of where Rill Hill is located in Missouri.  It should be stated or inferred that there is no way to make money because of location, it’s in the hotbed of meth, or it used to be a gold mine, but is now a ghost town.  Location would give the viewer an idea of WHY.  I want some context as to HOW the town has no jobs and adults have seemingly given up (or had no hope in the first place).  I want to know the population size, employment statistics, at the very least, an explanation about how the town named “Rich” Hill became so desperate.  I also wanted to know if the profiled families are the worst of it, or if this is the common way for people to live in this town.  The film offers none of that.  Only bleak long shots of toys strewn in yards, dirty walls, and foul-mouthed youth.

In the end, I accuse this of being an exploitation film, little better than The Kardashians.  Though the subjects of the film are at the opposite end of the spectrum, they are still being portrayed in a one-sided overly dramatic and frivolous light.  And that’s not fair.

(A)

Rich Hill

In his essay from the late 1940s entitled “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” literary theorist Lionel Trilling stated that “pleasure in cruelty is licensed by moral indignation,” and would go on to claim the middle class as the group of people where such a strange aesthetic relationship often takes hold, designating moral indignation as their “favorite emotion.” Rich Hill exists in this space. Detailing the lives of three separate, impoverished teen boys living in Rich Hill, Missouri, directors Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos allow their camera to probe and linger in spaces of disorder and grime, but without any discernible purpose other than gaining access to lower-class spaces—another popular pleasure created through middle-class distance. Rich Hill is poverty porn, examining lower-class spaces with pity as its operative mode and engendering little more than a means for viewers to leave the film acknowledging its sadness.

The film, which won the documentary Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, unsuccessfully attempts to transform its subjects’ circumstances into lyrical lament a la David Gordon Green or Terrence Malick. However, Palermo and Tragos don’t have an eye for it; beneath aimless tracking shots of dilapidated buildings and an indistinct, almost temp-track melancholic score, the boyhood struggles of Andrew, Appachey, and Harley remain at arms length, primarily because the filmmakers confuse access with insight. That access amounts to “boys-will-be-boys” moments of cursing out the TV while playing video games, applying far too much cologne, and sleeping in Playboy Bunny bed sheets, juxtaposed with more aggressive behavior, such as when Harley bluntly explains his thoughts on sexual violence: “I got strong feelings about rape; I’m against it,” and concludes by stating that he would like to murder rapists. It becomes clear that Palermo and Tragos include his views to set up a later revelation: that Harley was raped by his stepfather as a child.

Child rape is a questionable “payoff” in any film, but remains consistent with Palermo and Tragos’s undiscerning insistence of revealing the depths of sorrow afflicting these lives—or it reveals their banal manipulation tactics and cognizance of what will outrage the middle-class viewers bound to see their film. They also feature lines from their subjects like “It feels good to have the bills paid for once” or “Me and my mom used to listen to this song before she got locked up” with little more in mind than piling on the pitiful sorrow. Of course, an entire socioeconomic stratosphere exists outside these communities, but Rich Hill makes no mention of it; it’s too busy wandering in and out of its simplistic aesthetic register, juxtaposing fireworks with arm wrestling and any other number of forced metaphors (wilted leaves barely hanging to trees in the wind is perhaps the most risible). Missing is the joyful peculiarity found in Louis Malle’s God’s Country and the devastating ethnographic urgency of Martin Bell’s Streetwise. Near the beginning of the film, a train chugs through the small town. The far-reaching grasp of industrialized expansion may have arrived in Rich Hill, but purpose or insight into this dynamic have eluded Palermo and Tragos’s grasp.

http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/rich-hill

(B) comments:

  • You are far too pretentious to critique this documentary.

    Speaking as someone who grew up poor in the foster care system, it was refreshing to see a story that wasn’t sugar coated and didn’t have a happy ending. Your critique exposes just how narrow minded, callous and pompous you are. What a whimsical little fairy tale world you must have grown up in, where magical pumpkins were a plenty and any hardship or strife was manufactured purely for the sake of drama. If only we were all as privileged as you.

    Wow….have you ever lived or been to rural America? That seems to be the issue with your review. Maybe, they didn’t convey the message enough for those of life of privilege? The documentary was right on for REAL America…be happy your life took a different path..It is ugly and unfortunately..REAL

    http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/rich-hill

    (C)  Comments that prove my points:

    • I’m looking forward to seeing this film, but not because I believe it will be a good film. I’m curious to see exactly how inaccurately this town, one that I have lived near for over 20 years and have family live there, is portrayed.

      The film makers told the community that this would be a celebration of small town life. Instead, they chose to take the three saddest stories they could find and sensationalize their plight. Two of the youths in the film no longer live in Rich Hill and continue their transient ways as many families in their situation do. They are not a product of the town, but instead found their way there, stayed for only a short time, then left.

      The community has been following the press releases related to this film for many months. All of them are very similar: comparing Rich Hill to a third-world country and making outlandish claims such as the people are disconnected from the world and that the local school has the best jobs in the area. Nothing could be further from the truth, even though I will admit that the town resembles nothing like New York, Los Angeles, or Sundance (and I am thankful for that!)

      As I said, I do plan to see this film for as cheaply as I possibly can. I refuse to line the dishonest film makers’ pockets any more than they already are. I truly hope that this “documentary” dies a quick death as many festival films do.

      I will not see this “film”, nor will I give it another thought after I am through typing this. I grew up in Rich Hill and I am thankful I did, some of my best memories take me back there, and I will cherish those memories until the day I die. I do not live there now, but another small town in fly over country and I go back and visit Rich Hill when I can. At one time in my life I had the privilege to be an active duty U.S. Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, CA and I was able to witness for myself just how “glamorous” certain parts of “The City of Angels” are. After reading the review, It seems to me that maybe these Hollywood “elites” should focus their lens on the third world, dirt-water areas of The Greater LA Metropolitan Area (especially Hollywood). You see, while I may have grown up in small town America, I have visited and sometimes lived in the big cities of America and around the world and you can find these stories any and every where you go.

    •  

      Snobbish filmmakers from California go to rural Missouri to make a reality film about poor people.

      This makes me sick.

      http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/rich-hill-sundance-review-673217

      (D)

‘Rich Hill’ review: Successes can’t hide film’s shortfalls

Updated 7:19 pm, Thursday, August 21, 2014

Documentary. Directed by Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo. (Not rated. 91 minutes.)

“Rich Hill,” a melancholic, impressionistic portrait of three impoverished youths in small-town Missouri, is both ambitious and unambitious.

What makes this elegy worth watching is the unfettered access to Andrew, Appachey and Harley, teenagers who are dealing with a hardscrabble existence in which role models are nowhere in sight. Throughout the film, we marvel at how directors Tracy Droz Tragos and cousin Andrew Droz Palermo capture the kids and their interactions with their families – it’s all very natural.

The cinematography is so beautiful, and the score so hypnotic, that the project threatens to come off as an exercise in trailer park porn (for the record, there are no trailer parks in sight, but you get the point).

Even though these talented directors for the most part walk a fine line between glorifying poverty and making a statement about small-town life, they fall short in providing context for the boys’ problems and in explaining why it’s so tough for them to find help. This is a big-picture topic, and we have big-picture questions.

Do the boys or their families reach out for assistance? Is there any aid available? Any mentor programs? Do people around them care? Are there a lot of poor kids like this in town? We don’t know – and we don’t see the boys or their families in many meaningful interactions with the outside world.

After the first five minutes or so, we figure out that these kids’ prospects are grim, and most of the subsequent scenes say the same thing, even though they are exquisitely filmed and edited.

As it stands, “Rich Hill” is a poetic statement about the sadness of rural poverty. It could have been a lot more.

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