Moving ahead is the aim of life. Horton Bucks is on the road, but his destination is spiritually “behind” him. From the West, he is heading into the past—in his case, rural Missouri, for the occasion of his mother’s funeral. He will be reunited with his younger brother, Stanton, his father, Gus, and a girl whom he repeatedly raped when she was 12 and he was 18—although “rape” is still not how he thinks of it. After all, Leslie enjoyed giving him those blow-jobs, didn’t she? Horton cannot conceive of himself as having to any degree sexually exploited the child that Leslie once was and thus misses the connection between this patch of the past and two matters in the present: Leslie’s augmentation of her salary and tips as a barmaid by the fellatio she regularly sells on the side in the same establishment; the drunken rape to which Horton subjects her after Leslie has taken him into her home. (The rape is elliptically presented—as is every bit of violence, including two ax murders, in this film.) But won’t things get better? Isn’t Stanton’s infant girl a patch of the future that Horton, a solitary drifter, finds in his welcoming arms? Only, we glean that the anonymous child isn’t really Horton’s niece but, rather, part of a hidden scheme that has been engineered by Horton’s drug- and alcohol-stewed father. Horton calls her “Bubba,” which is what Gus used to call him; and she cries and cries, as Gus assures Horton he once did. In a way, this baby is Horton’s “destination”: yet another image of his past, but one whose exquisite beauty radiates illusions of progress, hopefulness, redemption. Horton is going nowhere all over again.
Bubba Moon Face—the poignant title enjoins the nicknames that the Bucks brothers give the otherwise anonymous infant—is an independent film that identifies loose ends in a segment of working-class America with dead-ends. Blake Eckard wrote, produced, directed and edited, achieving his richest piece of work thus far. (I’ve written on this blog about three earlier films by Eckard.) It cries out for the spirituality that seems to have been squeezed out of part of the American bloodstream. It passionately advocates for Bubba Moon Face. It agitates the viewer’s soul.
The pre-credit opening is concise. A withdrawing camera in front of a solitary moving car—Horton’s car—establishes openness and fluidity, the grace of motion and of possibility in the American landscape. This impression is undercut by the cut to Horton inside the car, at the wheel. Now the space is claustrophobic, but at least the car is still in motion. A series of landscape “snapshots” erases the impression of such motion, implicitly trapping Horton (and Eckard, and us) in flashes of Horton’s memory. Horton’s car itself, broken down and suddenly incapable of motion, completes the series; the unexpected shift from daylight to darkness, besides predicting the film’s “destination” (Bubba Moon Face largely becomes a film of the night), makes all the more dramatic the shift from working, moving vehicle to one in need of urgent repair. Temporarily at least, Horton will be “trapped” in his home town, his past, while waiting for the repair of his car. (Eventually, even the repair cannot overturn this entrapment of his.) Implicitly and figuratively, Eckard has added Horton to the series of static, confining “snapshots.”
These place-images—indeed, the whole juxtaposition of motion and stasis that these become a part of—are part of the signature of Jon Jost’s cinema that Eckard, Jost’s former student, has borrowed for his own purposes. Metaphorically, they denote here the dead-end into which the ideas of American progress and rugged individualism have fallen. Throughout, the principal cinematic influence is not Jost, however, but David Lynch, as the Buckses and assorted “girlfriends” are shown to be both weird and desperate, and are ever more firmly enrobed in voluminous darkness, in the futile dead-end of small-town American life. Like alcohol and drugs, sex numbs, releasing individuals, briefly, from the dissatisfaction engendered by life’s emptiness and monotony while at the same time repeating and confirming this emptiness and monotony.
Later, in a bravura stroke, the juxtaposition of motion and stasis reasserts itself. The latter is provided by Horton, who is standing on a bridge. Underneath is motion: a blank, opaque river whose grave, deliberate drift we detect from its delicate, filigree-like pattern of river foam. The sequence of shots—Horton, mesmerized by the river; the river itself—suggests that this first appearance of the shot of the river is subjective, a projection of Horton’s loneliness, dissatisfaction, loose-endedness: the personal and financial failure into which the life of the former high school football hero has fallen. (None of the Buckses have bucks; Horton arrives to town with $20 in his pocket.) A repetition of this passage—or, possibly, a different shot of the same river at the same spot, with a highly similar crust of foam—seems objective; the river has evolved into a potent symbol: the repository of the failures of all of the Hortons in America. Horton’s lack of self-awareness or sense of responsibility—for instance, regarding his sexual use of Leslie when she was twelve—is suited to this omnipresent failure, for which, in a sense, Horton himself was groomed, by his father’s failure before him, by the failures all around him, by the limited prospects in America, especially small-town America, where everything is an uphill struggle. I myself identified the river with Horton’s mother, who we are told had one leg (as a diabetic, this made me very nervous)—in effect, the crippling of America. Bubba Moon Face essays damaged lives—so much so that even the ready symbol of hope that a baby represents is undone. The film leaves us with Bubba Moon Face in a jag of seemingly endless tears (Eckard, here, Blakean)—and with a final shot of the river, one somewhat different, where the previously bejeweled river foam (among other visual alterations) now resembles wrinkled, aged skin. In context, the curse of mortality draws its potency from the dissatisfying nature of the human lives that the film has shown us. Lives end without ever having achieved their potential. The river predicts the future even of Bubba Moon Face, subsuming her. There is no escaping the visionary quality of Eckard’s film. One may ultimately view the film’s river as Nature itself—or as the lonely, contemplative exhalation of God. Perfectly suited to it is the film’s gorgeous musical theme by Erling Wold.
One of the film’s loveliest aspects is the frequent use of monochrome by Eckard and Cody Stokes, his cinematographer. Soft and diffuse, the monochrome—generally, reddish; also, sometimes, grayish-blue—little resembles the hand-tinting of silent film frames, which tends to be sharper; it is vaporous, indoors and out, lending a haunting sense of transience to people and things. Similarly, Eckard and Cody collaborate on remarkable instances of swathing darkness, again, both indoors and out, and on sources of light in darkness, with the light scattered and diffuse, as if existing to show the darkness rather than bring light to it. Echoing in our mind’s ear, Bubba Moon Face’s cries pierce these nearly dissolving images, these impressions of transience, with unshakable suffering in the time-and-place of the present.
The acting is all of a piece, although Joe Hammerstone does better with the role of Stanton than Tyler Messner does with the ickier role of Horton. But the standout, surely, is Joe Hanrahan as Gus, the boys’ loathsome father, who throws up in Horton’s face Stanton’s having built his own home even as he, Gus, plots to confiscate it. Hanrahan’s Gus is both Dickensian and quintessentially American: someone so mean and depraved, and given such context, that he comes to embody the assault on family that has become an American mainstay of the past thirty years, beginning with the pathological presidency of Ronald Reagan.
Which brings us to certain odd facts about Eckard himself. A person of faith, Eckard has allied himself with reactionary political forces (he’s a Republican)—although, blessed with a complex personality (and a kind, giving spirit), he doesn’t make films that comport with his avowed politics in any way I perceive, and he champions some U.S.-born filmmakers of the Left: besides Jost, for example, Orson Welles, John Huston and—I hate his films—Stanley Kubrick. Eckard’s Bubba Moon Face recently played at the St. Louis International Film Festival and is slated for other appearances on the festival circuit. If I were you, I would catch it where I can. See how you respond to this terrific new film of his.
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