Requiem for an American Dream

Between fiction and reality in rural Louisiana.

Michael Atkinson June 22, 2016

Mark, a meth addict from West Monroe, La., goes boating in a local cypress swamp. (Courtesy of The Other Side)

Rober­to Minervini’s The Oth­er Side is a scrawny, off-putting mutt of a movie, one you’re like­ly to over­look, but shouldn’t — it has scads to say about two very dif­fer­ent but very vital con­tem­po­rary sit­u­a­tions. On one hand, it’s a scald­ing por­trait of the Unit­ed States we try not to think about, the self-med­icat­ing Amer­i­ca lost in the mar­gins of red-state pover­ty. On the oth­er, the film’s very exis­tence is a tes­ta­ment to how we no longer can, or choose not to, dis­tin­guish between fic­tion and reality.

Together, the two halves of Minervini’s film couldn’t be more prescient, as the rest of us wonder about the neglected, pervasive social rot that has pushed the Trump gazingstock up the mountain of presidential possibility.

The two points are not unre­lat­ed. Cap­tured in grit­ty, off-the-shoul­der footage, the film’s sub­jects are Mark and Lisa, a real-life cou­ple liv­ing in the for­got­ten weed­lands around West Mon­roe, La. They look 50 but might be 30: Years of metham­phet­a­mine junkiedom and its atten­dant hygiene deficit have tak­en their toll. Minervini’s cam­era does not shy away, sit­ting as close to them as a fel­low tweak­er as they score, boil up and shoot dope into their arms, nip­ples, and so on. It is not a pleas­ant spec­ta­cle. The thing is, they’re sin­cere­ly in love — unwashed, clue­less, coo­ing love­birds in a col­laps­ing trail­er on the 21st-cen­tu­ry edge of nowhere.

When they’re not active­ly inject­ing, Min­ervi­ni fol­lows after them like a fly-on-the-wall doc­u­men­tary purist, as Mark per­forms pet­ty crimes, vis­its his very sick mom, hangs with elder­ly drunks spout­ing Trump-esque para­noia (Mark, no paragon of rea­son, is on their team), and promis­es to go clean on the day his moth­er final­ly dies, and not before. Inter­min­gled in this is The Oth­er Sides oth­er side — a com­mu­ni­ty of earnest if hard-par­ty­ing mili­tia men, train­ing in the woods, lis­ten­ing to know­ing lec­tures about the lib­er­al-Com­mie apoc­a­lypse (“It’s com­ing, that’s for sure”), tar­get-shoot­ing at Oba­ma masks, and Bud Light-ing their way to a kind of last-ditch white man’s auto­mat­ic-weapon auton­o­my in the wilder­ness. (We are to recall that West Mon­roe is, among what­ev­er else, also the home­town of Duck Dynasty.)

Togeth­er, the two halves of Minervini’s film couldn’t be more pre­scient, as the rest of us won­der about the neglect­ed, per­va­sive social rot that has pushed the Trump gaz­ing­stock up the moun­tain of pres­i­den­tial pos­si­bil­i­ty. Here is the trou­bled id of the Amer­i­ca we want­ed to ignore, until we couldn’t.

At the same time, the movie is not a doc­u­men­tary — not quite. While the para­mil­i­tary cra­zies seem to have an unspoiled authen­tic­i­ty, Mark and Lisa are act­ing. That is, Min­ervi­ni obvi­ous­ly shapes scenes around them and con­structs sit­u­a­tions, watch­ing them in pri­vate moments as though they were in fact utter­ly alone, or pre­tend­ing to be. (This includes very real sex.) A day­time skin­ny dip in a local pond is per­formed for the cam­era, as is Mark pre­sent­ing Lisa with an engage­ment ring — although her tears are indeli­bly gen­uine. You can nev­er tell what’s real” — and must we try? The film’s most shock­ing sequence involves Mark shoot­ing up a strip­per with a vast preg­nant bel­ly, and then watch­ing her (as we do) spread her legs on the stage for a pay­ing cus­tomer. Crit­ics have cried exploita­tion, but why do we assume it wasn’t saline? Many film­mak­ers, includ­ing Wern­er Her­zog, Jafar Panahi and Miguel Gomes, have demon­strat­ed how easy it is to smudge the fiction/​nonfiction bor­der, and how read­i­ly we accept film­stuff that’s com­plete­ly fab­ri­cat­ed as true. (Many duplic­i­tous pro­pa­gan­dists have done as much, of course.) Today, in a pop­u­lar cul­ture dom­i­nat­ed by real­i­ty TV and self-pro­mo­tion and social media hyper­ex­po­sure, we have to accept that we may nev­er again be able to tell the dif­fer­ence for sure. Visu­al media itself is, and in many ways has always been, a vehi­cle of uncertainty.

All the same, and how­ev­er assem­bled from a secret recipe of truth and false­hood, The Oth­er Side stands as a jar­ring and nec­es­sary win­dow thrown open on the Amer­i­can scene cir­ca 2016, in the shad­ow of a propul­sive elec­tion sea­son fueled by the unsta­ble kerosene of long-brew­ing socioe­co­nom­ic frus­tra­tion and dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion. We could all use a vis­it to West Mon­roe, as a coun­ter­a­gent to our sense of real­i­ty” culled from media sources that also fil­ter and warp to an unknow­able degree, with the clear agen­da of con­firm­ing our posi­tions and sup­port­ing our media-buy­ing habits — and that includes In These Times. Minervini’s movie is a real­i­ty show, but one busy chal­leng­ing our pre­sump­tions, not val­i­dat­ing our isolation.

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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