Tim Sutton’s Memphis plays like a vaunted director’s greatest folly. That’s a compliment. Here’s a film of the moments — lyric and rough-hewn, bawdy and elliptical — a great storyteller hopes might enrich a memorable story. (Or, in the case of a Heaven’s Gate, bloat a weak one to bursting.) Here’s all the mood and grain and urgent, instinctive, discovered-on-the-set surprises that so often get shot and cut and maybe one day added back in as home-video extras. Here’s the florid mystery of the life of an impoverished southern artist, the sweat and joy of walking and whistling, of steering a bike through puddles, of listening to scabrous talk from unsettled minds. Here’s everything that might illuminate a story, but none of the story itself. It’s just the coloring. Just the curiosities. Just the stuff that every other director would, with regrets, chop out.
That means Memphis might drive the story-hungry right out of the theater. On occasion, the movie exhibits some narrative drive. Early on, a troubled R&B singer (Willis Earl Beal, who also did the elliptical soundtrack), unable to get it together to write material enough for the album everyone thinks is in him, walks past lurid Southern foliage while a preacher, off-screen, scrape-shouts a call and response with a raucous congregation. The Memphis we see here — half urban rot; half lush, green-tangled country — is somehow gorgeous and dispiriting at once, fecund yet un-nourishing. (Memphis gives you lots of time to think about such things.)
Soon, the singer’s at the pulpit, the parishioners are amening, and the preacher is promising them a song. The singer startles at this and then mumbles that he can’t sing today but will come back again sometime. The crowd, only a touch more subdued than before, praises Jesus as he exits. One woman, terribly moved, embraces him. Then: more walking, Sutton’s Memphis framed in fascinating layers — leaves and tree limbs, wig shops and overgrown gravel roads. It’s a movie of a place and of a character rather than about them.
The interiors are often cluttered, sometimes grimy, painted in streaks of shadow. Later, the singer sits in a cramped room (his?), possibly working on a song. He mopes in murk on the left third of the screen, beside the slab of dark doorway in the center; to the right of that is his reflection, in a mirror. These three gray-brown bands of color suggest, at once, a Rothko, a still life, and the feeling of a day passing by and grinding you down. Like much of Memphis, it’s a marvel, a vision to feel and contemplate.
“I imagined this into existence,” the singer says, early on, of his small allotment of fame. He follows that with “The thing about sorcery . . . ” and goes on for quite a while about being a wizard. That’s something of the movie’s approach: Here’s a filmmaker of supreme talent and confidence whose muse demands that he, like the singer, try the patience of his audience. Later, the singer rides around in a Cadillac with a one-legged man whose voice is so sandpapery it might have a grit number. He also frumps about on a mattress with a girlfriend, who, like everyone else, expects more of him. They break up at some point, but we don’t get the scene. We do see a scrap of a tense recording session, and we also hear him describe the time when an American Apparel ad got him so excited that he laid right down on the ground and fucked the dirt. Eventually, he sets up a tarp in the woods and camps, leaving us to wonder: Is he homeless? Is this his back-to-basics creative process?
Sutton knows you know the familiar beats of movie plots the way you know the changes of a pop song you’re hearing for the first time: We spend our lives absorbing them, and we feel what they’re going to do before they do them. Like jazz players only bothering with the parts of the song that interest them, Memphis only touches upon the barest scraps of narrative, leaving you to work out what matters itself.
Memphis is an experimental film only in that it affords audiences the chance to experiment: From the notes it plays, what song do you hear?