Far Marfa – Generation X, the Wild, Wild West and Lowered Expectations
By Chad Nance
In Cory Van Dyke’s new film, Far Marfa, the writer/director takes audiences on an amiable stroll through the angst and demished expectations of Generation X nearing mid-life while he introduces us to a cast of characters likely recognizable to fans of the early work of the Cohen Brothers and Harold Ramis. Far Marfa is essentially a slob comedy in the vein of The Big Lebowski or Fletch, minus the sometimes cruel aggression of Chevy Chase and the dim-witted squalor of The Dude. Shot with a painter’s eye and existing in an isolated Texas community that somewhere along the way made a hard turn from the Wild west into the Wild Weird, Far Marfa is a small treasure of a film that entertains, amuses, and in the end offers up a measured spoonful of hope to go along with the rather grim realities of the early 21st Century.
The star of the film, actor Johnny Sneed, inhabits the character of erstwhile music producer Carter Fraizer with a hangdog expression and sometimes twitchy physicality that suggest a man who struggles mightily just to keep his shit together… and often can’t. Much of Sneed’s soulful performance is in his eyes. Carter Fraizer’s eyes seem to look out at the world with the casual doom of a born loser and the desperation of a secret optimist. While facing his seeming systematic misfortune with Charlie Brown-like self-pity, Frazier also keeps an eye out for the dimmest sliver of opportunity. At the beginning of Carter’s story he looks to hot young blondes as the “anchor” on which he will build a “successful” life and by the end of the film he has come to realize that “success” is not about chicks or money. In fact, the destination may be pointless – it is the journey and the struggle that hold value and meaning.
Far Marfa’s narrative is deceptively laconic. Van Dyke has done a delicate balancing act of tone and story-telling in a film that is edited so tightly that I imagine there is a hard-drive somewhere in Texas that holds many of Van Dyke’s babies whom he sacrificed for the good of a story that never gets in the way of its characters or twists them up in knots in an attempt to make some deep statement about the state of modern life. Those points, however, are made with subtly and grace. The search for a piece of a rare, misplaced art is simply the bones on which Van Dyke builds flesh and blood human beings that amuse, frighten, and anger audiences in equal measure. The pay-off with the painting at the end of the film comes in a single shot that shares resonance with the last shot of Mike Nichol’s The Graduate, by way of Citizen Kane. Another moment in the film echoes The Graduate as well, when two momentary lovers take time to look away and let the audience in on their apprehensions about how and why human beings tend to cling to one another in ways that often cause as much pain as they do pleasure.
Marfa, itself, is a character in the film. The vast scrub land will be familiar to film audiences who are fans of No Country for Old Men, There Will be Blood, and George Steven’s legendary Giant. Not satisfied to merely trot the camera out at magic hour and score some easy production value, Van Dyke also shows us a shabby, re-purposed community where Americans are hard at work building a new future on the crumbling bricks, sheet metal, and Formica of the past. Far Marfa’s production design does not have the same studied preciousness of David Lynch or Harmonie Korine, though. Marfa feels real, lived in, and not overly designed or thought about. If you have spent any time traveling in the American Southwest, Marfa will remind you of small towns turned artist communities like Bisbee, Arizona and Madrid, New Mexico. Marfa is a real, breathing, and pulsing community full of characters that not only feel like human beings, but also stand in for some 21st Century American archetypes.
Among these characters are two Baby Boomers. One looks back on his past artistic passions with regret and existential angst and a second who has not only turned from true art to fully embrace mammon, but also holds onto his financial/social position with the greedy petulance of a man afraid that everyone around him will figure out that he is really full of sheep dip. It is these characters that Van Dyke uses to both entertain and amiably make his points as a story-teller.
Carter Fraizer is a character who continues to live off of an album he produced years ago. Like many in Generation X he also has to have help from his parents. He exists in a world of lowered expectations where past glories are fleeting and so far away that their light has grown dim and almost ceased to exist all together. There are hints at Carter’s former life in the tattered posters on his wall and the occasional drum stick that the filmmakers occasionally placed into the background of the frame as a subtle reminder.
Douglas, as the heavy, is a former rebel, an artist who ran in the social circle of a legendary but now dead artist who burned bright then burned out. Douglas is the Baby Boomer survivor who somehow managed to find a way to exist in the Clinton/Bush Era, but lost his soul in the process. Forgetting that he once honored and revered true artistic passion, Douglas now only honors and reveres aggressive avarice. The good die young and the bad just keep on existing by feeding off of the creativity and intellect around them while producing little of their own.
In the end Van Dyke’s wonderful gem of a movie comes down to one idea… work, specifically working with your hands to make or create something tangible. Several characters make references to physical labor being a way to tap the soul back into life by becoming an active participant rather than an observer. It is a rebooted American Dream from a generation who had many of their opportunities squandered by the generation before. The end of this new journey may not be the glories of financial riches, but the satisfaction of a job well done and the knowledge that even if you never sell much, that is still better than selling out.
Far Marfa will screen once more during the RiverRun Festival at 8:00pm Monday night at a/perature downtown.
You can also buy the film HERE.