Films that aspire to provoke sustained contemplation might be divided into two groups: those that call for critical analysis, and those that invite a personal response. Films in the first category tend to be more cerebral and didactic; those in the second, more poetic, meditative, and open-ended.
Northfork, from brothers Mark and Michael Polish (Twin Peaks Idaho), is an instance of the latter. Set in the last days of a doomed Montana valley town slated to be flooded for hydroelectric power, Northfork introduces us to an earnest but vague local pastor (Nick Nolte), a frail little boy (Duel Farnes), a team of grim-faced evacuation agents led by James Woods, a few assorted oddball stragglers who have yet to move to higher ground, and a bizarre quartet of misfit "angels" searching for a missing kinsman.
With its surreal, dreamlike ambiance, juxtaposition of transcendent and mundane elements, lyrical imagery, and contemplative pacing, Northfork alternately evokes comparisons to such films as Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, Malick’s Days of Heaven, and certain films of Tarkovsky, Bergman, David Lynch, and Carl Dreyer.
In connection with films of this sort, it might be useful to divide viewers also into two groups: those that find such films deeply evocative and rich with transcendent significance, and those that find them insufferably boring, gratuitously weird, and overbearingly pretentious.
In the case of Northfork, viewers of the latter sort may rest assured, they are emphatically not the target audience. Among viewers of the former sort, I suspect there will be two opinions. Some may find the film fodder for thoughtful meditation on the mystery of death, the heartlessness of progress, or the loss of the American West. Others will feel that this is one case in which the other set of viewers are more or less right: This film really is insufferably boring, gratuitously weird, and overbearingly pretentious.
I side with these viewers. For me, whatever serious ambitions the Polish brothers may have had for Northfork are undercut by a number of factors, not the least of which is a jokey subtext of deadpan puns, sophomoric pop-culture references, and sight gags cropping up seemingly pointlessly, as if challenging the audience to decide whether they’re in on the joke.
Films like Wings of Desire, Andrei Rublev, The Seventh Seal, and Ordet, while they may not be unproblematic, all have a kind of moral seriousness that rewards serious scrutiny. This doesn’t mean they’re necessarily devoid of humor (consider the gallows humor in Seventh Seal’s exchange between Death and the player in the tree, or the bawdy performer in Andrei). It does mean that any humor is organic to the subject matter and themes.
In Northfork, by contrast, the jokey elements are artificial, and strike a note of banality that undermines whatever sense of transcendence the film might be attempting in its stark, sweeping cinematography and mystical, dreamy milieu. Banality isn’t necessarily incompatible with transcendence; films like Andrei Rublev and Seventh Seal might even be said to be seeking for transcendence precisely amid banality. Northfork, however, does the opposite, reducing the transcendent to banality.
Here’s a small example. There’s a scene in the film in which an outhouse metaphorically becomes a confessional — a bit like Colin Farrell’s phone booth in Phone Booth. There’s even a cross carved into the door instead of a crescent, and the man inside is both the penitent ("I’m sorry," he sobs over and over) and, symbolically, the priest (his son, standing outside the outhouse, calls him "father").
Yet unlike Phone Booth, this moment doesn’t reveal anything about the character’s inner self, doesn’t suggest any real sense of self-examination or moral renewal — doesn’t, in fact, have any moral significance at all. Thus, where the religious symbolism in Phone Booth helped confer moral weight on what could otherwise have been a mere thrill ride, the same symbolism in Northfork has the opposite effect, trivializing the religious referent rather than drawing on its power. (The emphasis on banality over transcendence is further reinforced by a line in which the son makes a joking reference to the smell of his father’s bowel movement.)
The same goes for the film’s other biblical and religious references. Crosses and rosaries abound, and the movie repeatedly cites the story of the flood in Genesis 6, both verbally and visually. Yet when we come upon a miniature replica of Noah’s ark in the middle of the valley, we aren’t invited to ponder its significance, let alone reflect on the scriptural story. It’s just a gag, a visual conceit.
Another problem with the film’s humor is that none of the characters are in on it. Everyone we meet in Northfork is unremittingly serious and grim, or at best wistful. Not that they’ve got a lot of reason for levity (though men do joke even on the front lines of battle and on the way to the gallows). But the imposition of comic one-liners and other humorous elements on these somber characters creates a goofy sense of Coen-brothers type farce that doesn’t mesh with this otherwise self-serious arthouse film.
Take the local pastor (Nick Nolte), who’s called Father Harlan and wears a sort of makeshift roman collar, but doesn’t seem to be Catholic or anything much like it. He’s so intense that he speaks exclusively in earnest whispers, though what he has to say is seldom memorable ("We are all angels; it’s what we do with our wings that separates us").
There are also the six black-cloaked government evacuation agents, who have a deal for prime lakefront property in exchange for convincing the residents of Northfork to move to higher ground. They’re as humorless, and for the most part as emotionless, as the computer-program Agents in The Matrix.
Then there are the angels, who bear such whimsical monikers as Flower Hercules (Darryl Hannah) and Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs), and are just as oddly dressed. The angels at least seem to be capable of deliberate sarcasm and irony, though it’s anybody’s guess why it’s meant to be funny that Cup of Tea is always proffering one.
Only Irwin, the sick little boy, manages to muster any brightness or cheer. If the filmmakers have any affection for anyone or anything in this film, it’s probably him. Yet, apart from a pathetic moment when he realizes that his adoptive parents have abandoned him, even Irwin is hard to care much about amid all the film’s weirdness and ambiguity.
I’m not against weirdness and ambiguity per se. I’m willing to grapple with films that offer riddles and pictures rather than ideas and answers. But I need to feel that, as with The Seventh Seal or Andrei Rublev, the artist is trying to do something significant and meaningful. With Northfork, I feel as if I’ve seen a film that may be beyond having anything to say, perhaps even beyond believing that there’s anything to be said.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.