Coming to Terms (Jon Jost, 2012)
Butte, Montana, is a decaying city. It is smack at the top of America’s largest Superfund site, the Upper Clark Fork river. This makes it a near-perfect setting for Coming to Terms, more so because the city of Butte is as much a character in the film as any of the humans who populate it. As goes the family, so goes the town, or some weighty pronouncement along those lines. And yet there’s a part of me that says “wait, you are making far too much of this simple tale.” That’s one of the conundrums with Coming to Terms; it is a very small, intimate film, and while I was watching it, it felt small and intimate, but as I drove home, it kept growing in my head until it had become something gargantuan, an eight hundred pound elephant in Hollywood’s room, and somehow these two things did not seem contradictory in my head. They still don’t, but it does make the movie something of a bear to talk about. This is exacerbated by the flipping in my head regarding whether Coming to Terms is a better movie than my favorite Jon Jost affair, 1977’s Last Chants for a Slow Dance. A great deal of me thinks it is, but despite some similarities in tone, the two movies are so different that it’s tough to compare them. Where Last Chants deals with tension, Coming to Terms deals, in many ways, with its release, and the despair left afterwards.
NOTE: while every other summary I have read of the film contains the same spoiler, I feel compelled to still call it a spoiler alert and warn potential viewers I’m giving the game away. (It is impossible to discuss certain things about the film without knowing its central conceit, so I can’t really avoid it here.) Proceed with caution. (Further on, there is also a major spoiler for The Turin Horse, if you haven’t seen that yet.)
Plot: A father (Forevermore: Biography of a Leach Lord‘s James Benning, better known as a director), the scion of a long-fractured family, calls them home one last time—his estranged current wife Dot (976-EVIL‘s Roxanne Rogers), ex-wife Elaine (Frameup‘s Kathryn Sannella), and the son he had with each wife, Curtis (Earthling‘s Ryan Harper Gray) and Patrick (Homecoming‘s Stephen Taylor) respectively—for an announcement: he is dying, he would prefer to do so by his own hand rather than waiting, and he requires assistance from them. Needless to say, this causes consternation, as well as some conflict. The stripped-down narrative of the film is intercut with a number of sequences of the town and surrounding landscape, thus my assertion in the opening paragraph that the town of Butte is a character in the film—one that, specifically, parallels the Father (who is unnamed throughout).
Now before I go off where I’m going, I’ll say up front that Jost himself has been pretty aggressive in calling the film nothing like he’d ever seen before, a comment he reiterated at the director Q&A at the Cleveland Cinematheque last Thursday, and might well disagree with everything I have to say below. I rationalize that pattern recognition is the nature of the beast, and thus, your mileage may well vary. We all draw from our own mental banks. I’m reasonably sure that the opening title sequence, which starts off with a cloud shot and then lays an X-ray under it, would not have evoked the opening sequence of Ikiru in my head had I not found out a day or so before that it, too, is screening at the Cinematheque this month (I’m dragging the family), but the rest of the film has a very strong connection with Béla Tarr’s last film, The Turin Horse. As an example, take the central shot of each film. In Tarr, that comes on Day Four. The horse has been getting more and more listless by the day, and he looks like he’s on his last legs. Ohlsdorfer closes up the barn and goes back into his house, and then Tarr lets the camera sit there staring at the barn door for three full minutes. It’s one of the most tense scenes in modern cinema, I think, as we sit there staring at that damn barn door playing Schrödinger’s Horse in our heads. Coming to Terms‘ central scene comes after three long sequences that start the narrative. (There is an opening sequence about which another paragraph will probably be forthcoming.) The first introduces our four non-Father characters, the second is the scene in which the Father discloses his intentions, and the third goes back to the four non-Father characters, who parallel the first sequence mentioned here, but with new information. (There is a very short scene between the third and fourth of the Father fumbling with something electronic. It becomes important later.) There is much to be said about all of these, but for now, there’s the fourth sequence. It’s the first of the exterior-landscape sequences that bridges the gap between the “narrative” film and the “exterior” film that parallels it. The Father, in that second sequence, mentions that the doctors could do something that might give him another few months, but he has refused. I may be reading in here, but the obvious implication is that the Father has terminal cancer. The sequence here is a series of images of the wall of the Berkeley Pit, one of the main reasons for the Upper Clark Fork River being a Superfund site. It gives people cancer. And we sit there looking at these images of the wall of the Pit (the fades gave me the impression of time passing more than anything else), and we play that same game, except here with Schrödinger’s Father, and there’s that same sense of tension. Did that short sequence lead to him committing suicide after getting everyone up there as a kind of last laugh that he could still be so influential in their lives? (You’ll have to see the film yourself for an answer to that question, and yes, that is a naked attempt to get you to seek it out.) As I said, that’s the most obvious Turin Horse parallel in the film, but it’s not the only one.
The opening sequence also put me in mind of The Turin Horse, though in hindsight more than when I was watching it. That movie has repeated scenes of Ohlsdorfer and his daughter eating potatoes. Don’t make fun—there’s a lot you can learn about a family from their choice of dinner, and by the third repetition, you can tell a lot about the family dynamic just by what’s going on at the dinner table, not to mention where Tarr puts his camera. Here, the Father eats a bowl of soup. (It’s tomato soup, for what that’s worth.) The Father is generally intent on the bowl of soup, but every few bits or so he stops and looks up, off to his right. The first few times he does this, the viewer probably has no idea what’s going on. But the repeated looking up draws attention to the left side of the screen. We gradually become aware of the light on that side—there’s an egress there, a door or a window, and presumably, the Father is looking out. (It is only later that we realize he is awaiting the family.) That’s very Tarr to me, and the parallel is underlined by both Tarr and Jost being very studied about where they put their cameras to capture a scene, and allowing those scenes to develop at their own pace. (The current critical-darling term for this is “slow film.” I think that’s vaguely derogatory.) But where Tarr’s movies have always had that weird alternate-universe quality to them that finally led to Tarr destroying his own fantasy landscape in The Turin Horse, Jost’s movies, the few of them I have been able to see so far, are very much rooted in the real world. This is a story that could have easily played out pretty much anywhere in the world, at any time. It may be happening right now, as you read this. That does tend to underline the studied-ness of what is going on here; part of me wants to call it artificiality, but again, that term strikes me as vaguely derogatory. Let’s say “choreographed”, instead.
For example, a couple of paragraphs ago I drew a parallel between the first two sequences in the movie that feature the non-Father characters. These two sequences are extremely choreographed, for all that the characters, in each part a mother and her son, do not move; they are posed in a V formation, speaking to one another—communicating with one another—but speaking away from one another in direction. (Hopefully you’re reading this at var.ev., where there’s a visual aid so you know what in the world I’m on about.) It makes sense; this is a family where communication has been godawful for decades. Dot mentions in the first of these scenes that she and the Father have been living apart for seven years—he in Butte, she in Oxnard, taking care of his mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. “But,” she says, just a trace of hope in her voice, “we’re still married.” That’s bleak. When you see the first of these scenes, the choreography will be somewhat overwhelming. By the time you get to the second half of the film, the scenes where more than two characters appear onscreen at once in natural settings, that will seem odd to you.
This has gone on far longer than I intended, so I’ll try to bring it to a close here, having said far less about this movie than I wanted to. The concept of away, as noted just above this, is another important one in the film, for what I hope are obvious reasons. But the most powerful example of away here comes not from the obvious. It occurs in the middle sequence of the three I started off babbling about some fifteen hundred words ago. The family are all gathered in the Father’s ramshackle house, but the only character onscreen the entire sequence is the Father. Jost and Benning are very careful about setting the scene here. The Father asks the ladies to leave. They do, we hear them do so. The Father speaks to his sons. He cuts his eyes to the right when addressing the first of them, then to the left as he addresses the second. We know where they are. And then comes the most powerful bit of filmmaking in Coming to Terms, the one that made my jaw drop and started me thinking “this movie may be better than Last Chants”. As the Father continues speaking to his sons, when he starts talking about the difficult stuff, he looks directly into the camera. That may not seem like much, but think about the way the scene has been set. When the Father is looking directly into the camera, he is looking away. “Directly into the camera” is the Father’s version of the thousand-yard stare in that scene. That blew my mind. Jon Jost wants to talk about stuff no one’s ever seen on camera? BANG.
And I didn’t even start talking about the second half of the movie, which is just damn heartbreaking.
None of that really reads like a review, does it? Well, I hope it’s obvious that I am recommending you see it—today if at all possible. It is a movie that continually frustrated me in the best of ways. At least a half-dozen times while I was watching this, I was certain I knew what was going to happen next, and every time—every one of them—I was wrong. (If you’ve been paying attention, unfortunately, that was kind of a major spoiler.) While the movie is in no way a mystery—it is barely a narrative (this was a conscious decision on Jost’s part), and if one had to genrify that narrative, it would be a drama—and yet it still manages to confound on any number of layers. I’d call it ineffable if I hadn’t just spend two thousand words spouting off about it. I’m back to what I said originally about the contradictions in my head as regards Coming to Terms. I did finally answer that question about whether it’s better than Last Chants (yes, though I can’t put my finger on exactly why), at least. One way or the other—99% of the world will probably never even know this movie exists. A couple of decades for now, the few are going to be hailing this as one of the best American movies of the 2010s. Get in on that bandwagon early. **** ½
No trailer. If I had skills I’d make one.