Film Review: Lomax

August 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

Released: June 15, 2014; Narrative Short; Written & Directed by: Jesse Kreitzer; With: James Y. Jones, Georg Koszulinski

Lomax is the tale of Alan Lomax, a folklorist who traveled to the Mississippi Delta in 1941, at the behest of the Library of Congress, to record an oral history of the blues. He took 500 pounds of recording equipment with him which he powered with his car battery. This account of one little snippet of his travels has him meeting and recording Bill Henley, a man whose spirit and voice are given real depth by James “Tail Dragger” Jones, a protégé of none other than Howlin’ Wolf.

The story is simple: Alan finds Bill, he coaxes him from his home, asks him to sing, and he records it. Prior to the recording, they talk. Bill is clear that he isn’t visited much and that that’s all right by him, perhaps even preferable. The viewer gets the impression that Alan finds it helpful and possibly even necessary to talk to his subjects before recording them, to know them just a little before collecting their voices. He takes careful notes during his conversation with Bill.

The dialogue is stark, the music bonding the two men, as opposed to their conversation, in sort of a warmer expression of a mutual goal. It might also be that something larger than language is supposed to be the focal point. Or it might be that what we see in this film is the course of a conversation between a black man and a white man in Mississippi in 1941. Regardless, it’s moving; there are obviously just larger elements afoot than words. And it doesn’t mean that sound isn’t important here. There is the haunting use of music by way of both the musical choices, themselves, and the minimal background sound when someone sings. A voice, the oddities of its owner’s mouth movement, and a symphony of cicadas are all we’re left with.

The Southern landscape has a similar effect, the richness of a gothic, bittersweet history serving as the backdrop for a blunt skyline with a clipped line of trees. This movie is, at its core, a love letter to the region and to the history of a beautiful and disquieted place. It might be the most nuanced film I’ve reviewed thus far, which is saying something.

Because Alan Lomax is a man as important as his mission, this film doesn’t shy away from admiring, doting, on his equipment, his microphone, his automobile, and a shiny new record, both before and after it has been grooved by Bill’s voice. And because Bill is a man as important as his song, which happens to be about his mule, the film also allows for some really fantastic attention on the animal in flashback. There’s a truly uncomfortable and, still, lovely shot of the side of the mule’s head while it walks, its eye black, the effect a little chilling. The film is shot in super 16 mm, a really appropriate medium, both because of the visual produced, and because it’s a really lovely way to showcase the era.

Jones and Koszulinski are perfect, engaged yet awkward, and allowing the satisfaction in the music to surface. Jones is genuine and a little curious. Koszulinski is thoughtful, and a little withdrawn.

This movie is presented by the Association for Cultural Equity, the organization responsible for founding Lomax, and it is billed as a reimagining of the meeting between the two men. I urge you to do yourself the favor of checking this one out. It is an absolutely stunning movie, the kind of film that only really gets made because someone cares so deeply for its subject matter.

– Leah Gehlsen

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