Tim Sutton’s much-ballyhooed drama Memphis is a groping, inchoate mood piece about a groping, inchoate artist, a blues musician named Willis (Willis Earl Beal) whose creative drought is corroding his soul. A few years back he was blazing, but the songs no longer come on command. So Willis drifts around the ramshackle African-American neighborhoods of Memphis and the swampy woods that encroach on them. He fucks a little, drinks a little, but assures his friends that he can do without sex and bars; if necessary, he says, he can fuck the dirt. (He launches into an amusing monologue — maybe facetious — about once having done so.) Early on, he tells a TV interviewer that his success came naturally, that he created a world in his mind in which he was an all-powerful wizard and could accomplish anything. And on the evidence, he could. But what happens when he can no longer conjure up that world?
Sutton juxtaposes said groping, inchoate musings with snippets of religious services, with their calls to Jesus and murmurs of affirmation. Willis was once a worshipper but stopped going to church; he can’t even find his voice when he returns for a visit. In private, the preacher tells him that God gave Willis his talent and that Willis must always repay the debt. Willis listens, but does he truly understand? Should he understand? It’s not entirely clear if Sutton is contrasting the certainties of a life in the church with the terrible self-doubt that almost all great artists experience, or if he’s saying that without God, the artist himself has no voice. A broad hint is a sign on a church that says “Jesus Hears.” Perhaps Willis is singing for the wrong reasons and the wrong audience. He certainly knows that “there’s no glory in bars … in a woman’s pussy … if you’re gay, in a dick up your ass…”
Amid the longueurs of Memphis are arresting snippets of scenes and haunting lovely shots of the landscape, both urban and wild. Sutton finds the lyrical tension in torpor; he shows how Willis’s artistic vacuum isn’t a passive thing, how it eats into him, how it even permeates the natural world. The dilapidated houses, the swamps, the trees — they’re shuddering in the stillness, waiting for the alchemy that is Willis’s art. This is a kind of blues we’ve never seen onscreen before, and Willis Earl Beal is an evocative protagonist. It’s hard to tell if he’s a real actor, but his tortuous tempos have a magnetic pull: He’s credibly submerged in himself.
The movie doesn’t add up to much, though. In one scene, Willis bullshits a record producer who’s not so patiently waiting for new songs. Willis says he’s a tree, or at least wishes he were, because trees give oxygen and “we need oxygen.” In Memphis, there are a lot of shots of trees, and some of them struck me as art-movie bullshit not so different from Willis’s own. The film is less than 80 minutes and if you cut the shots that go on too long it would be less than an hour. It’s too easy to detach yourself from a movie this draggy and amorphous, and inserts of boys on bicycles or girls walking down sidewalks or the trials of Willis’s one-legged friend don’t compensate. Willis often drums on his legs and comes up with phrases, bits of songs — “Surrender to the maze … fall asleep, pull the shades … I know it’s OK-ay-hey” — but they struck me as pure doggerel. Is the final shot of a boy bicycling into the light meant to symbolize Willis’s emergence? You tell me.