In Kentucker Audley's tectonic, astonishing second feature people show up and dissolve like they're being swallowed into the land, itself always shifting, tilting from one locale to another between cuts as unsuspected as buried faultlines and just as sharp. Sometimes the adjoining geography has drifted far out past a chasm of black leader. Time is elastic, expanding to extend a slow moment, or contracting till a future point's unexpectedly here at hand. One's got the sense of a natural cycle churning and permuting, that the mesozoic hasn't left the continent, that splendor still remains. The action of the piece and its form and its locations come inextricably connected — a game of golf (the most 'landed' sport) occasions mention of the Mid-South's seismic history (all connotations of the phrase apply), and the protagonist's visit to a wellness clinic early in the film triggers a suggestion-recording to incant on the soundtrack: "We're gonna ask you to release that stress, release the pain, and forgive the cause of the stressor that created the allergy." The push-pull, peak-and-pass rhythms of the film exist consonant with activity in a bloodstream, and there's little to differentiate Cole (Cole Weintraub) and his behavioral cadences from the material of the work itself (which goes into motion shortly after the clinic sequence wherein our principal's connected by electrodes to the film-frame). Holy Land and Cole aren't just tangent to one another, and they're not even superimposed — he's walking fossilized within the matter of the movie. Impossible to say which wrought the other, no chicken-or-egg deal, only proto-Genesis and the holy land that a lot of us have forgotten, presided over by Audley who retains no illusions and reserves awe as he films the 'actual' streams at the end and beginning of the picture, where, incidentally, a bottle of Alizé's blown in for good measure.
The actual Holy Land — which is to say, Holy Land, Virginia (think of that billboard in DeLillo's White Noise) — can't compete with the sanctity of its forebear, capital-N nature. The 'official' veneration of the place is press-on, just slogans on signs. Yet the signs are exalted too by the terrestrial calm that generously surrounds them, so in the beautiful passage of Cole's arrival they've metamorphosed out of something cheap and crass into 'stations,' to be sure, but ones totemic/immemorial. This give-and-take courses throughout, as when Audley shoots the poles along a stretch of power-line to show the way their 'incidental' cross arrangements provide an aleatory, and totally genuine, consecration: the presence of man on the planet.
Everything's manifold here. When the roundtable convenes to critique Cole's work-in-progress novel (mentioned in the prologue by CW to a hammock girl we never spot again, whom he takes unreplicated initiative to invite on his trip — salient detail), the attendees' remarks come across as well-intentioned as they are totally dispiriting, absent of obvious throughline, and oblivious to authorial potential — but fair is fair or something: this novel by Cole's got low chance of fruition right now and, in any case, is already the film itself. Check it: this sequence grinds the knowing joke home about the movie's own structure (though as I've suggested Holy Land's the process of its own creation) and another one too about conformist philistines. You can learn a really good lesson from classrooms: namely that (I'm quoting my dad) "opinions are like assholes — everyone's got one."
But before Cole makes it to the focus-group, and after his wheeling in town to crash at the house of a friend (appearing only momentarily in silhouette this friend registers another disappearance), he encounters a girl. Where does she come from? One trace of dialogue suggests she's a friend of a friend, who positions her as "the most extraordinary female that you've ever met, right."
—"Your real name's Bunny, or is that like a nickname people call you or somethin'?"
—"Yeah, it's my name since I was born. Given to me at birth, yeah."
First of all, and here's what I was getting at in the piece on Family Tree, this piece of 'dialogue,' her response, exhibits the quality where if you're reading it in a novel or short-story, maybe one by George Saunders, you say to yourself: "What an ear." But it happened before a camera, was caught by a mic, and instead you say, "That's not just an ear, that's lightning in a bottle," and this is the sacred element of the movies, one particular to the movies, where life's loveliness not only gets preserved and redepicted but, like revelation, helps bring life itself alive a little more. Those two "yeah"s are like bookends for the private library that's more than just words.
Second, and adhering to the line of scrutiny: Literature may well succeed in presenting a Daisy Miller, an Emma Bovary, or even a Caddy Compson but only the cinema, and only one so attuned as Audley's, will give you a Bunny Lampert. Contrary to received wisdom, the cardinal standard of casting is not "be Meryl Streep" — it's "be interesting and be charming," and that's the Truth. So here's this Bunny Lampert, not the Bunny Lambert-with-a-B signified by the end credits (a 99-year-old American aristocrat heiress of the Gillette fortune and widow of Big Paul Mellon) but rather Lampert-with-a-P, a "midnight beauty", to pilfer Du Bois' phrase from the Ginger Sand essay, whose soulful eyes and emotional delicacy coordinate a moral constant, the polestar in relation to which the Cole/film mechanism diverges in soft parallax.
There can be no explanation for the ebb/flow of Cole's behavior or rejection of Bunny in the succession of scenes that follow their first lunar kiss (green stockings and a kneehole, beautiful composition, an abstract knot), although it might do to mention that the fortune-teller on the back deck predicts with the cross of tarot some beneficial outcome for the boy in "a trip over water". And while we certainly see Cole paddling at three points in a boat to nowhere-in-particular, once for each of the tarot reader's "card clarifiers" (Cole:"How come you didn't want to come over... the boat?" His friend played by Tim Morton: "I don't know, I just didn't feel it. Bad news, or sumpin'."), the prophecy hardly chimes with much resonance till we recall Bunny's words spoken under the sun: "I have olive undertone in my skin, it's from the Mediterranean blood on my mom's side."
Lightning over water. People and matter exist as one in Holy Land, and Bunny is the good-luck-charm, the rabbit's-foot talisman that Cole rejects at his peril. His final encounter with Bunny, who's come to spend time at the flop-hostel where he's residing, ends in this exchange:
—"Say something to me. Say something."
—"Say something. I came all the way out here."
—"What do you want me to say?"
The plea for intimacy, in Lampert's open voicing, breaks the heart. Cole, closed-circuit, opts not for the romanticism of Gainsbourg's "Bonnie and Clyde" caught floating fragmentarily out of his car radio, but rather the idle bull-posturing he can share with his buddy at the crash-pad:
—"Like in the middle of the night, if you do end up getting that hooker or whatever..."
—"What's the demographic for prostitutes, out here, is it, it's like, strict 'Vietnamese', or..."
—"It's gonna, it's gonna be, poor — 'poor black'."
After Bunny departs from the world of the movie, the flip-out, breakdown process in the Holy Land-mechanism, first intimated by Cole's to-camera address at the picture's midpoint ("I guess this movie's already getting a little easier to make." — preceded by a shot where the shadow of the camera apparatus like the shadow of the cross marks his body), subsequently stifled, now achieves inexorable momentum.
Primordial chaos. A random deal of the deck.
A new beard.
Lunch with sister Betsy.
Blind-date and puke from a shot.
Firing a rifle, militia-focused.
Labor for wages.
He'll circle and dance with you.
"The Physics of Night".
Lightning in a bottle.