A bit of a pocket interest this week on Midnight Screenings, with two instances of foreign masters exploring the thick, sickly world of the American Southern Gothic.
Admittedly, Jean Renoir – arguably the most astute visual master in all of cinematic history, likely matched only by Ozu – discovering America with a molasses-soaked, moonshine-glazed, grievously wounded Southern Gothic Faulkner riff is maybe the platonic ideal of a movie made for me, but, personal preference aside, Swamp Water is still pretty good. Although it’s hard for the choke-point of The Rules of The Game – the immediate predecessor of Swamp Water, the apex of Renoir’s career, and (no big deal) perhaps the greatest film ever made – not to suppress Swamp Water’s inimitable craft when viewed in relative terms, Swamp Water, on its own terms, is wonderfully tasteless – especially for a 1941 film – nonetheless.
Like most Southern stories from Twain on down to Laughton, Swamp Water places milieu and swampy tableau at a premium over narrative complexity, preferring to let the prognosis of dread and the thematic texture alloy itself to the creaky, murky water and fetid, near-hysteria atmospherics. Rather than appending a narrative from above – flattening the mood and the squashing the mystique of the otherworld that is the Southern Georgia Okefenokee Swamp – Swamp Water would rather intimate its narrative from the groundswell of murk and mire below it. It’s as if the film seeps out of the location itself, traversing dialogue to trespass on the more uncommon, and rewarding, realm of location-oriented “voodoo”. At minimum, one suspects that this film is wrapped around Werner Herzog’s DNA.
A progenitor to Jeff Nichols’ Mud – and a successor to Southern stories about children, boys especially, investigating adulthood through the backwoods myths and outlaw mystique of the moonshine era – Swamp Water is the story of a young man (Dana Andrews) and a criminal who temporarily surrogates as his father figure (Walter Brennan), the two forging an impromptu cottage animal hide industry until the legal, proverbial Man gets them down. Distinctly of the renegade South, as opposed to the Antebellum institutional South, Renoir’s film adds a dose of lyricism and melancholy to a theoretically exploitative, masculine feature without sacrificing the profligate genre-cred its mercurial story requires to avoid the artistic penitentiary of prim-and-proper social respectability.
Still, although a notable thing Swamp Water is, Renoir’s film reflects an undeniable confusion, if not active contempt, toward the Hollywood machine that manifests in a slightly-reined-in inhibition to prowl around with his famously mobile archaeologist of a camera, always locating new truths and visual connections about his characters with naught but a flick of the lens. Part of it may be the small-scale nature of the story; Renoir’s communalistic cinema, always drawing energy from the ever-shifting relations between the humans caught in his lens, is slightly more torpid than usual here, given that he usually only has a pair of characters to work with. This is Renoir thawed-out, even if it isn’t Renoir comatose.
Still, a Southern film is undeniably a fit for Renoir’s patented emphasis on social exteriors as palpable building blocks for human life; the historical American South was almost unilaterally more concerned with the explicit social rituals, appearances, and masquerades than the American North, usually more fixated on essentialist ideas about a person’s internal self. The chromosomes of the French aristocracy tale The Rules of the Game are inlaid in much of Southern culture, specifically the works of Tennessee Williams who mediated an agreement between that exterior-focused style and the more internal exploration of the imaginative-self found in Faulkner. Unless it was filmed in Connecticut – the South of the North, culturally speaking – Southern culture is the obvious American anthropological object for Renoir’s interest in the way that social appearances and rules of social conduct don’t deny some fixed internal “true” self but actually construct our interiority dialectically (a sort of theatricality of the human soul).
Renoir brings some, although not all, of this theme to his canny exploration of how a boy constructs an image of a heroic renegade out of his adult guide, an image that both elides and reveals who that adult man is to the general public as Renoir explores disparate visions of the man without ever “answering” what type of person he really is. Renoir, of all great filmmakers, was most fully aware that “who” a person is remains fluxional and contextual, that their self was multitudinous and rooted as much in others’ perceptions of us as anything else, and Swamp Water turns this thematic dial up to at least a 7, if not nearly to full-blast.
So, yeah, it’s nearly impossible for anyone who has seen any other Renoir films to not find Swamp Water a little gossamer in its fabrics (and considering how unknown Swamp Water is, it would be a Smithsonian worthy exhibit for someone to have only seen this one). But, as a little Southern ditty about the self heating to a boil in the humid histrionics of the world around it, let no one say that Swamp Water deserves relegation to the dustbin of cinema history. Even if the camera isn’t as investigative or active as one would hope, the mise-en-scene is aces, casually exploring the differences and similarities of the Southern swamp and the nearby town that exiled the man, while also suggesting without openly stating that this swamp, with its spare, mythic nature, is an outlaw from human reality as well. It’s as though the swamp, a tactile place that nonetheless exhibits more of a mythic, imaginative role in the American mindset, bred this man whole-cloth from its mind in a film that is primarily about the murky intersection of physical and mental space and identity in a world where the two are often inseparable.