Aint Them Bodies Saints and the New American Myth

Modern American Myth? Neo-Realism Noir Folk? Western Gothic Morality Tale? I'm not sure what to call it. Either way...there is a new-ish genre that seems to be emerging in the hinterlands of the American film landscape. The Zellner Brothers (along with other crews of Austin-based visionaries), the work of Kelly Reichardt, the (however misguided and twee) Benh Zeitlin camp, even the heavy hitters like the Coen BrothersPT Anderson, and maybe even Terrence Malick (if he wasn't such a blowhard) could be lumped in here- hell, even the very namesake of this blog-  all create earth toned tales of a New American Myth that seek to do the same work myths have always done: create social morality tales out of fictions, thinly veiled mirrors into the souls & minds of the contemporary reader/audience/protagonist/hero. The historical context of this genre only makes sense as the country grasps for a National identity following a few decades of intense flux- economically, technologically (& it's resulting globalization), politically- looking inland to our pioneering roots for purpose and an understanding of how to move forward following the plumb line of our past. Aint Them Bodies Saints is a perfect embodiment of this genre and, truly, a perfect film.

I've been trying to write this post for weeks now but the layers overlaid in ATBS are so dense I find it hard to even begin to unpack it...Like most of the films in this New American Myth genre they begin by creating a very distinct setting and mise-en-scene, almost like a parallel universe cast in in color, costume and sound. The narrative of Aint Them Bodies Saints is laid on top of an intensely beautiful bed of an earthy hued Texas, costumes that are really a new level of muted, subtle clothing porn, a soundtrack of tilted modern Americana folk with sly hand clapping rhythms and softly jagged melodies, and a kind of incessant tactile drip of palpable tension & emotion (bloody, sweaty, teary eyed in a non-saccharine blend of superb acting). Not that creating a world is something that doesn't happen in the movies but the world created by this film- and by some extension this entire genre (I could easily see the women of Meek's Cutoff loping through the field of ATBS)- is a distinct vision of a raw modern America with nature encroaching (or is it encroaching on nature?), sun flares at the edges of this little projected microcosm. Then there is the narrative.

Aint Them Bodies Saints is about the idea of identity, who we are, and who we want to be, a brilliant idea when considering the very nature of film viewing/audience identity and the strangle of internet persona... The protagonist goes about creating a modern myth of who he is, telling a story of himself and grasping at the idea of love as a part of his self written narrative. For me the handling of these layers of fictions is astounding: the fiction of the basic narrative (the film plot), mixed with the false persona the protagonist creates about himself (who he wishes to be in the eyes of others), set against the audiences own desire to identify with those in the story (in this case the untrustworthy heroes), makes for a viewing experience that jostles the very nature of how we have come to interact with cinema: our willing suspension of disbelief preyed upon- who can we trust, what can we trust, who do we want to be, who are we? (waves enthusiastically at NSA! HI GUYS! DO YOU LIKE MY BLOG?!).

A myth can be a prominently believed lie that some set out to debunk or a social, historical tale (sometimes but not always supernatural in nature...our own real world bordering on supernatural lately) of a particular people. What do these new myths tell us about ourselves then? Well, 1. THEY ARE FILMS! YAY! I've kind of been waiting for a mythic tradition of filmmaking to emerge in the states! Books (like the bible! Or Homer! Or Whatever!) are no longer a glue that holds together our cultural reference, not to say we all see the same movies but, the concept of film-as-myth is increasing and provides a level of multi-sensory storytelling that- in pure lighting alone- can transmit a story to others unlike any printed page.  2. This genre is preoccupied with a sense of angst, often ego driven or in terms of an American legacy. The protagonists are fueled by American capitalistic tendencies, money or fame, and sometimes even a more basic desire: survival (the tornadoes of A Serious Man, the melting ice caps of Beasts, the looming storm of Take Shelter- man vs. THE NEW-post global warming nature). These films look at what drives the country and the modern American man through all of our nervous feelings of measured inadequacy.  3.  Family, emotion, and spirituality are secondary goals in these films, a necessary weakness, yet, more often than not, the thing the hero, and all characters, need in order to survive. These films are all saying: do not identify with us, identify with those around you..reminding us that we are real people in a very unreal 21st century where our myths are beams of pixelated light floating onto our pupils.

What kind of country do we want to be? What do we want people to think of when they think of America? What did some other people think that caused some of them to fly planes into some of "our" buildings? This genre of New American Myth project the zeitgeist of our current soul searching country, a country who was actually founded on the freedom to soul search yet, now, unsure of the very definitions of soul searching and freedom.



 

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