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Review: 'Memphis' breaks film convention

However, Tim Sutton’s “Memphis” exists in the moments that most movies leave on the cutting room floor.

It exists as a tonal, visual poem. Yet it ripples with nebulous purpose, executing laissez-faire intention.

Mostly, the movie lacks the normal filmic construction that is the assumed language by which movies are made. Video rhetoric has become second nature to generations and generations through constant exposure to tiny people speaking prewritten words to each other as part of their narrative lives inside a magical box.

Audiences easily accept the admittedly bizarre conventions of video storytelling thanks to an inherent human desire to form connections. The language of film-making is really more about psychology than anything else.

Even describing what can only be loosely termed as the film’s plot seems disingenuous somehow. It’s got character, setting, image, tone — but not really ‘plot’ in the conventional sense.

In “Memphis,” the nigh-documentary eye of the camera follows a blues musician amidst a creative crisis (played by musician and former Albuquerque resident Willis Earl Beal). In the opening scene he declares himself a wizard, able to imagine and manifest his life.

“Everything is artifice,” he tells his interviewer, before trailing off to let the moment hang.

Then, he mostly exists. He spends time mumbling in an energetic black Baptist church that pounds with music and life. He walks impoverished Memphis streets amidst the constantly revisited images of children spinning about on bicycles. He drinks. He spends time loving and fighting with a woman in his oddly empty house. As he meets her at her job, she impressionistically seems to emerge from a sea of false heads and wigs. He wanders on. He plays dominoes with his buddy, who is emphatically revealed to have only one leg.

In one dreamlike and poignant sequence, he dances with a woman who seems to constantly change form, and then no one at all.

As poetic as the film is, it is hardly surreal overall. Largely, it is neutral on the subject of narrative, letting the images and disconnected people and monologues drift along like a roaming mind. This might be understandably frustrating to an audience that enters looking for the arc of a Freytag triangle that is so customary. But the lack of conventional storytelling allows for the poetry of people and their language to exist as independent lyrics that shape a tone of mystical melancholy.

Really, “Memphis” is engaging under the entire premise that it avoids convention. There is a lovely pleasure to wondering at the sorcery that the protagonist and the film itself claim to possess. The musician struggles for provocative answers and connections to be made, just as a hungry audience might. Instead, it is better to let the timbre of the emotion accent a gut reaction rather than a mental exercise in analysis.

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The drama is left out, instead growing in the audience’s reaction, rather than the so-called dull parts chosen to play onscreen. That’s the “Memphis” emphasis.

Graham Gentz is a movie and theater reviewer for the DailyLobo. He can be reached at or on Twitter @DailyLobo.


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