January 22, 2006
Bell Diamond, 1986
Few filmmakers capture the complex landscape of rural America in all its strong-willed self-determination, insularity, and dispiriting sameness as pointedly and eloquently as Jon Jost. It is this conjured frontier image of all-or-nothing prospects and fickle fate that engenders wealth just as easily as it nurtures poverty that Jost alludes to in the implicit irony of the film's title Bell Diamond, the name of an abandoned mill that would render many of the townspeople unemployed and eking out an existence as part-time day laborers facing an uncertain future within the limited opportunities of a depressed local economy. Far from a financial security seemingly within reach as reward for dedication to duty and honest, hard work and rugged individualism, what instead remains of Bell Diamond is a vast graveyard of idled machinery, gutted infrastructure, and broken dreams. Once a thriving industrial plant in a bucolic, working class community, the abandoned mill symbolizes the unrealized potential and failed hopes of a generation of drafted soldiers returning from combat in Vietnam to rebuild some semblance of a normal life - a lost generation embodied by the silent, introverted everyman, Jeff Dolan (Marshall Gaddis), an unemployed mill worker who spends his idle hours absorbed in the abstraction of a perpetually switched on television. But beyond the demoralizing inertia of chronic unemployment, Jeff's troubled domestic life also betrays the elusiveness of a fairytale homecoming after experiencing the devastation of war, as his wife Cathy (Sarah Wyss), already frustrated by their inability to conceive a child (a residual side effect of his military exposure to Agent Orange) confronts his predictable habituality, inertia, and emotional isolation and announces that she has decided to leave him. Aimless and alone, Jeff returns to Bell Diamond in a haze of despair to face the limbo of anonymous, empty industrial towers that have defined his self-enclosed identity. Jost's combination of elegant, signature landscape shots with the dedramatized improvisation of non-professional actors eschews the introduction of overt emotional manipulation to create a poignant and understated work. Evoking the raw emotionality of a John Cassavetes internalized encounter where domestic ritual serves as a surrogate for unarticulated affection, the silent encounters in the film are similarly muted yet charged with the passion of symbiotic intimacy (most notably, in the sequence of a resigned Jeff helping Cathy carry her belongings into a truck after a truncated argument). It is this undercurrent of undying love and devoted intimacy that inevitably reinforces the hope, compassion, and humanity that lies within the seemingly bleak and irredeemable tale of economic (and spiritual) recession, a redefined, contemporary fairytale forged from tempered dreams, acceptance of fate, and humble desire.