THE DELTA (Ira Sachs, 1996)

The Delta, a good first feature, was shot on a shoestring, in 16mm. Ira Sachs directed from his own script. A “gay film” insofar as the two lead characters are young homosexuals (I know nothing about Sachs’s own sexual orientation), The Delta is in fact a study of the impingement of raucously contemporary issues on a traditional setting, here, Memphis, Tennesse, Sachs’s hometown.

The main character is Lincoln Bloom (how historical; how literary), a 17-year-old boy from a well-off white family who divides his social time among the white friends with whom he hangs out, smoking marijuana and drinking, his girlfriend, Monica Rachel (a part of that group), and not-always-white strangers in the closeted homosexual area of his life. Lincoln’s near passivity in his acquiescence to those picking him up deep into the night suggests the difficult, hesitant steps he has taken in this forbidden direction in a southern-border community. We also see how these experiences are motivating him to overcompensate with Monica; she feels that his sudden forwardness fails to take her feelings into account. Without any scripted waste of time “filling us in,” we can see that Lincoln wasn’t always this way. He must have changed, and recently, because we see from her distressed and disappointed eyes that Monica is now trying to sort out this unidentified change in order to figure out whether and, if so, how she fits into Lincoln’s life now. He says he loves her, but he doesn’t always act lovingly towards her, and because he seems to be stretching the form of his affection beyond its actual content she doesn’t quite know what to make of this longtime friend of hers and his current attentions. Rachel Zan Huss, who plays Monica Rachel, gives a bright though brief performance, as if Sachs missed seeing that hers is the most interesting character in the film. (The entire cast is nonprofessional.) Perhaps he did see this during the shoot, but his limited resources required him to stick to a script that gave this intriguing teenager short shrift. Regardless, Sachs has sketched in a disheartening world, one prejudiced in terms of race, ethnicity, class, religion (Sachs’s one reference to anti-Semitism stings), in which all the teenagers live largely aimless lives crippled by social apathy.

Shayne Gray gives a sensitive, delicately nuanced performance as Lincoln, who aims to please the middle-aged man who one night picks him up and takes him to a hotel. He is too unsure of himself and too polite in the conventional southern fashion not to aim to please, but at the same time the stranger crosses some invisible line that finds the boy’s pride and comfort level recoiling. He will leave this stranger with no more than a kiss. When he asserts himself, Lincoln does so politely, in a low voice, his manner deliberate but inoffensive. Gray suggests the exact measure of fear in Lincoln’s response after the man has him strip, stand up and turn around by a mirror in the hotel room. In this mirror we ourselves see a projection of Lincoln’s discomfort: the man, seated as though at a fashion show, gazing at the boy with penetrating involvement; and when he stands up and moves towards Lincoln the encroachment is compounded by the image in the mirror matching the imposing authority of the actual figure entering the frame. Sachs has thus handily devised purely visual means for expressing the “boxed-in” situation that Lincoln feels he must get out of. Gray’s shrewd acting completes the mix of uncertainty and certainty, calm and panic, boyish compliance and mature assertiveness. I understand that Sachs had some difficulty finding in Memphis a boy the right age who was willing to depict Lincoln’s gay character. His search, it appears, did not go for nought.

The other main character is Minh Nguyen, a character Sachs revised in order to include features from the actual life of the actor playing the part, Thang Chan. Chan gives a sly, passionate and convolutedly complex performance; he is brilliant. Minh—“John”—is, he says, about ten years older than Lincoln. He is a Vietnamese immigrant. He has left behind in his homeland his mother (if she is alive) and his wife. Minh’s father, an African-American soldier during the Vietnamese war, abandoned “wife” and child after three years. Minh, too young, never knew him. “I want to kill him,” he tells Lincoln, the point in the film when the irony of Lincoln’s name exerts its most potent force. Minh left Vietnam because of the insupportability of his false heterosexual life and because interracial outcomes of the American presence are treated as pariahs in southeast Asia. These “blacks” are hated and shunned—a racist response, to be sure, but also a social response scapegoating identifiably pertinent individuals with the intense vulnerability that the community still feels as a result of the war and of the American intrusion. (Stunning irony: the object of racial bigotry at home, African Americans elsewhere in the world seem to personify America.) In a sense, then, Minh has come to America in search of the father who has always been missing from his life. Tragically, he will eventually find him.

Minh survives in America as a gay hustler picking up boys and men on the dark street and in dimly lit Memphis bars. Except for his johns, he keeps to his Vietnamese immigrant community. Being black as well as Vietnamese, he doesn’t always perfectly fit in there, either. We know this from the $50 tab he has run up in a Vietnamese hangout. Can he pay it? The owner’s wife thinks so. He tells her that he will pay what he owes in two or three days. She is skeptical. “There have been so many ‘two or three days,’” she says. In response to what may be a hypersensitive misconception that he is being kept to the fringe of this immigrant community, Minh thus keeps himself at the fringe, not fully embracing the community. He responds to the woman with the kind of prejudice that fills in the background of this film. He tells her he will talk to her husband, not to her. (Elsewhere in the film, in a similar outburst of misogynism, Lincoln calls Monica a “bitch.”) You know a filmmaker is immensely gifted when by so seemingly simple a detail—an unpaid tab—he concisely provides such a wealth of analysis.

Minh and Lincoln have made love. Minh later tells this midnight friend that he loves him. Minh seems utterly sincere in this, although Lincoln counters that Minh doesn’t even really know him—this, a bourgeois remark that fails to take into account the perilously fragile and surface-skimming life that Minh leads. On the other hand, Minh may be a little like Brigid O’Shaughnessy in not knowing when he is telling the truth, if ever. He later confesses to someone else that his solicitous manner covers a void of feeling, the deadness inside him. This is the one statement Minh makes whose veracity we cannot doubt because there is nothing self-serving about it. However, we do believe, I think, that Minh loves Lincoln with all of what heart he has. He finds Lincoln “beautiful” and touchingly modest, at times even sweet: an antidote to everything sordid and miserable in his own life.

Perhaps the most remarkable passage in the film is the long trip that the boys take down the Mississippi River deep into the night and the morning after in Lincoln’s father’s boat. Many compare this journey to Huck’s and Jim’s, on a raft, in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The camera languorously and tenderly records the journey, through water under an illimitable sky, under a bridge, finally onto shore; it isn’t rendered grand or showy, but mysterious and deeply sad, as though encapsulating the last stretch of Lincoln’s childhood and Minh’s profound reach after the childhood he never had. The end of innocence, it’s the flare of a flame just before burning out; it’s an exquisite passage, full of thoughts that lie too deep for tears. The outing culminates in Minh’s sharing, on land, the intimate details of his life, including his love for Lincoln and his hatred of his father. When they kiss, Minh lightly bites Lincoln so that Lincoln also will remember this experience of theirs that will never leave his heart.

The brief romance and love affair ends. The boys illegally set off fireworks and escape the police officer who is just about to arrest them. In the deep of night, their forms less discernible than the frantic speed and roughness of their flight through woods, the passage recalls the comparable (and incomparable) one in King Vidor’s all-black Hallelujah (1929). The boys stumble and fight. Arrest would have meant the exposure of Lincoln’s secret life. Lincoln is not ready for this, and he blames Minh for helping to bring it about. To his mind, Minh has thus crossed the same invisible line that the stranger in the hotel room crossed. He will never have anything more to do with Minh, and this shatters Minh—though not us, at which point we may begin to appreciate how astutely Sachs has distanced his material. The nearly abstract presentation of the boys’ flight from the law is a terrific example of this, although some commentators have instead cited the film here for technical shoddiness. The murkiness of the 16-millimeter shoot is no liability, however, when the artist uses it to achieve the kind of expressive result that he does here.

Indeed, the film is full of distancing devices, usually visual ones. For instance, the most intimate exchanges of conversation between the two boys occur on shore and in daylight, not at night in the close, dark quarters of their boat cabin. This separates the talk from sex, compelling us to analyze it in terms of the separateness of the boys rather than in terms of their shared experience. Scenes of sexual intimacy, on the other hand, are framed in such a way as to compress bodies: there is one such encounter in a car seat; another, in the boat cabin, is shot from outside the cabin so that the door frame limits our view. Thus by purely visual means Sachs has devised a way of conveying two ideas: the enormous burden to make the most of fleeting sexual encounters; the societal oppression that requires homosexual encounters to be uncomfortably “stolen,” as it were, much as Lincoln “borrows” his father’s boat. When Lincoln returns, moreover, he visits Monica. He undresses to take a shower, asking her to join him. “Join” him: togetherness. But Sachs’s presentation of this undercuts the couple’s togetherness and reveals instead their separateness. For one thing, Lincoln is inside the bathroom while Monica undresses in the bathroom doorway. For another, while she undresses a slight blue shadow of her plays on the open door’s surface, dividing our attention between Monica and her shadow, both in the foreground, rather than between Monica and Lincoln, thereby making it exceedingly difficult to bring the two characters together in our mind. Throughout the film there are like instances that instead of encouraging us to enter the film keep us at a distance from which we can better think about what we are seeing and analyze its thematic content.

Another distancing device Sachs uses is the repetition of remarks or of the same kind of remarks. “Whatever,” “I don’t care,” “It don’t matter”: Lincoln and Minh say these things over and over. Cumulatively, the remarks achieve a portrait of both boys as unhappy, of being unable to live one’s life fully or to direct its course, of apathy, of uncertainty. Elsewhere, a repeated remark underscores the bisexual split in Lincoln’s life, and how this split deprives that life of integrity, a sense of being complete. Minh tells Lincoln: “You’re a good flirt. I like it.” Later, Monica recoils when Lincoln, inappropriately acting on Minh’s, flirts with her. Thus with great economy Sachs reveals the boy’s sense of being fractured, incomplete. He is living in two different worlds, and the rules of one cannot be successfully transferred to the other.

The final movement of the film is tremendous. Minh takes a black man to Lincoln’s father’s boat and chokes him, from behind, in bed. He has found a black man to kill, as he said he wanted to kill his father. Sachs thus delivers his most gripping and grim irony. By generalizing his hatred from one black father to any African American and, by extension, all African Americans, he has, finally, at least to this extent, entered the American mainstream. As we have so many times before, we see Minh riding off towards the camera on his motor scooter. His face is blank. We instantly know that this isn’t the last time he will kill his father. Only now we realize we have witnessed the birth of an American serial killer. And because Sachs has so distanced us to facilitate our making connections and bringing his film to intellectual completion, we think of war—like the war that gave Minh a father that he wanted to kill in the first place. And we think of Lincoln’s family, its complacency—the complacency that enables hatred and wars. Now at last the film has shattered us.

Sachs grew up in Memphis, was Yale-educated in New Haven, Connecticut, and wrote the original script for The Delta in New York City. He returned to Memphis to make the film, having already made a short film. His talent is awesome. One commentator has dismissed The Delta as being “ridiculously ambitious.” This might have been true had Sachs’s reach exceeded his grasp.

CODA: Forty Shades of Blue (2005) leaves no doubt. Ira Sachs is a wonderful American filmmaker.

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One thought on “THE DELTA (Ira Sachs, 1996)

  1. This is one of the most thorough and thoughtful reviews I’ve read about ‘The Delta’. I played the character Lincoln Bloom & was about 23 years old at the time.  I’m from Little Rock Arkansas.  The small amount of money I made from ‘The Delta’ helped me finish nursing school and I’ve been an RN since 1999.  I’m also a photographer, writer & musician.  I’ve played drums in a band called Techno-Squid Eats Parliament which was signed to Ardent Records(Memphis) in the early to mid 90s. Recently I was in a band called Dangerous Idiots (signed to a London record label just after I quit). My newest band is called Glittercore.  I am not gay. Ira is gay. I loved having the opportunity to be a part of this film. In my opinion it was very daring and ahead of its time. I am married and have three kids & a step-son. Most people didn’t understand this film.  They complain about the ‘quality’ & sound. It was made to look and sound that way… like a ‘fictional documentary’.  Several gay people either comment that ‘it puts gays in a bad light’ and/or about how ‘cute’ I was.  It’s much deeper and more complex than they realize (or want to take the time to see).  Ira Sachs is a brilliant writer/director and a very nice person.  I haven’t acted again until just recently.  After The Delta I went to LA for a while and tried out for several things (A Thin Red Line & I Know What You Did Last Summer).  New Line Cinema was interested in me but I was unwilling to move to LA permanently. I was recently in a UCA graduate student short film – by Eric White – called “Tomahawk”.
    I still live in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Thanks for the review.
    You can find me and Glittercore on Facebook.  I’m also on Instagram as ‘Silk_Robot’.
    Cheers,
    Shayne

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