OXFORD FILM FESTIVAL 2011
By Don Simpson | March 3, 2011
Director: Martha Stephens
Writer(s): Martha Stephens
Starring: Martha Stephens, Kentucker Audley, Will Casse, Karrie Crouse, Jim Johnstone, Bryan Marshall, Brendan McFadden, Carolyn McIver, Rob McNurlin, Timothy Morton, Earl Lynn Nelson, Alexander Sablow, Lucas Stout, Bethany Tiller, Caroline White
Passenger Pigeons ambles along four distinct story lines set in Appalachia over the course of a weekend. Similar to another SXSW 2010 alum, Matt Porterfield’s Putty Hill, the person who ties everyone together is dead; we never see this person, we only hear his name when it comes up naturally in conversations. The deceased, a local miner named Peter, died in a recent mining tragedy. Coal is still the center of the universe in these dark hills of Eastern Kentucky. It is the sole economic driving force, offering some of the only paychecks that are above minimum wage. In most cases, coal miners have no other options; mining is their one and only career choice. Working in the coal industry pays their living expenses in exchange for risking their lives on a daily basis.
Peter’s brother Moses (Bryan Marshall) found a way to avoid working in the coal mines—he moved away and never looked back…that is until Peter’s death. Moses arrives back in town in his Dodge Dart (I would not be surprised if this is the very same car he left town in many years ago) to see to his brother’s remains and reconnect with his sister-in-law (Karrie Crouse) and young nephew (Will Casse). Moses’ return home is not easy for him; he left this place for a good reason, but at least there is plenty of marijuana and beer to ease the pain of his return.
Two “suits” — Buck (Earl Lynn Nelson) and Nolan (Brendan McFadden) — from the coal company where most of the local townspeople work arrive to oversee the mine inspections and deal with public relations related to the tragedy. Buck is ready to retire, so he is showing young Nolan the ropes of his trade. Nolan seems unable to fully comprehend what he is getting himself involved in; it will obviously take him some time to develop the thick skin and “shit happens” kind of detachment that this job requires. Buck and Nolan are truly the film’s odd couple; they offer the film’s only fleeting moments of comic relief while their relationship becomes amazingly complex.
Jesse (Kentucker Audley) is given a brief vacation from the coal mines in the aftermath of Peter’s death, so he takes his girlfriend Elva (Caroline White) on a “vacation” to a motel in a nearby town. Elva wants to discuss Jesse’s future ad nauseum, while Jesse just needs an escape from the recent tragedy. The young couple desperately tries to navigate each other’s feelings about Peter’s death and the dangers of Jesse’s employment.
Robin (Martha Stephens), a young female activist from Washington D.C., arrives in town for a mountaintop removal protest. She is totally unaware of the recent tragedy (she has been camping) until she discovers why the protest has been canceled. Nonetheless, Robin attempts to spread her message about the horrors of mountaintop removal to the locals, but her explanations only seem to fall upon deaf ears, that is until she meets Valentine (Jim Johnstone), a retired miner who takes a keen interest in Robin’s message.
Martha Stephens’ Passenger Pigeons bares a certain kind of resemblance to Robert Altman’s seminal masterpiece, Nashville, primarily in terms of structure; of course the structural analogy only goes so far because Altman forms Nashville’s stories around the climactic concert/political rally, while Stephens forms Passenger Pigeons’ stories around the tragedy that occurs before the cameras ever start rolling. Also akin to Altman, Stephens is never condescending or patronizing of her characters, yet she never romanticizes them either.
Stephens also adopts Altman’s unique approach to indirectly discussing politics. Both Altman and Stephens cleverly utilize images and locations to inform us of their political agenda, rather than relying upon overly preachy dialogue. Passenger Pigeons never once comes out to say that it is an anti-coal (or anti-mountaintop removal) film, but the images are crafted in such a way to reveal the sadness and dangers inherent in coal mining.
There are drastic differences between Altman and Stephens too, especially in terms of tone, pacing and aesthetic. Stephens’ unabashed desire to capture the purist possible realism leans more towards the tone, pacing and visual aesthetic of films like Putty Hill and Wendy & Lucy. (So if you thought Putty Hill and Wendy & Lucy were tedious, boring and/or pretentious, maybe Passenger Pigeons will not be the film for you.) From the casting of local Kentuckians with no acting experience (all of the performances are commendable, I might add) to the cinematography and sound recording, Stephens reveals her intention to capture something very close to reality.