At the start of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Quentin Compson goes to see Miss Rosa Coldfield to hear about what used to go on around the big house out at Sutpen’s Hundred, and he gets an earful of sound and fury aplenty. There is nothing simpleand everything seriousabout Quentin’s queries of the past, which in Faulkner’s famous view is neither dead nor even past. The great author knew that the dead are in and out of our heads, hearts and houses all the time, and that at our moral peril are we indifferent to their ongoing commentary, their whispers, murmurs, shouts and rages to explain.
Esteemed film critic turned filmmaker Godfrey Cheshire has in Moving Midway, his first feature, put his great big, highly engaging Southern family (considerably bigger by the close of the show than at its inception) up on the silver screen, with no less serious a literary purpose than the Bard of Oxford, yet with a light touch all his own. He lets them all talk up a stormthe walls can’t, so the folks must!about what’s happening to the family seat, an 1848 plantation house called Midway just a few miles east of Raleigh.
Midway was Cheshire’s mother’s childhood home. By the beginning of the 21st century it was in the hands of Cheshire’s first cousin, Charlie Silver, and the place Cheshire grew up knowing as “out home” and “a place of entrancing escape” was now surrounded by franchise heaven and passed by 55,000 cars on U.S. 64 every day. When Silver says, “We’re gonna pick her up and move her,” the game is afoot. What first-time director Cheshire knew, and what he dramatizes deftly and with a cool, courteous insight and humor, is that the act of moving Midway would put the old place and all its memories on not one but two roadsthe one of several miles to its new location, the other a more circuitous route through a good many hearts and minds.
In following the planning and the move, and in reconstructing the Hinton side of his complex family history (genealogists will love seeing names fly by through the centuries, back to Charlemagne), Cheshire has some terrifically appealing folks helping him out: his droll, sociable mother, Sis, and the cheerful, stoic New York University historian Robert Hinton (an African-American who grew up in a Raleigh housing project and who has Midway ties) are tops among them.
When Silver points out the family coats of arms painted by the late matriarch (and house-haunter) Mary Hilliard “Miss Mimi” Hinton when she was 92 years old, Sis says, No, she did not, ’cause she died when she was 91! Elsewhere, Sis gives her full appraisal of an antique coverlet Silver has imported to Midway from Pennsylvania in just two words: “Yankee quilt.” When the black-powder rifles are blasting away at a Civil War reenactment, it is impossible not to flinch with Sis. Seconds later, Hinton shrugs about the men in gray at the same battle, saying with a smile, “I’m perfectly happy for them to keep fighting the war as long as they keep losing it.”
Ghosts are everywhere. The shade of Miss Mimi, says Sis, “will throw plates right off the wall,” and family members wonder: What does Mimi think? And will she move with the house? What about the ghosts of the Hinton slaves who built Midway, many of whom lie buried in an overgrown graveyard nearby? Hinton believes they’ll come along, too, musing that perhaps “the house itself is a ghost.” Silver, who with his wife, Dena, agonized over the weighty decision to sell the land and move the house, touchingly admits to trying to make peace with the family haunts about the impending move: “We’ve literally sat on the steps some nights and talked to ’em.”
Back in the world of those who can still fog a mirror, it would be hard to beat the seriocomic scene wherein Charlie and Dena sit down with well-known Raleigh restaurateur “Big Ed” Williams to buy from him the land to which Midway will move. This swift negotiation is a pure-T model for a real-property transaction, genially rendered.
The move is an engineering marvel, an adventure, and house-mover Mike Blake is a showman himself: “I can only do one thing, but I can do it very well.” The aerials of Midway tightroping along the thin ridge between two vast quarry pits are stunning, and the slowly gliding house is frequently seen from the perspective of men walking alongside and underneath it, tightening chains. A shocking bang as loud as a thirty-aught-six signals a chain’s snappingonce re-rigged, Blake then pumps up his jacks and elevates the steel beam on the house’s starboard side so it can clear a bridge rail by a skinny inch. “The railing and the beam,” he says, “and the beam wins.”
Cheshire visits black family members he had no idea existed before he started shooting, descendants of the child of Charles Hinton, the white antebellum owner of Midway, and his slave cook Selanie. The conciliatory visits Cheshire makes to the newfound African-American side of his familyto the aged Abraham Lincoln Hinton, to a reunion at the Garner Lion’s Cluband the black Hinton family members coming to “the new Midway” once it has been moved and re-set are at the heart of the picture. So, too, are the ongoing purposefulness of Charlie and Dena Silver and the growing friendship of Hinton and Cheshire.
Late in the film, Sis Cheshire and Abraham Lincoln Hinton laugh together about having smoked rabbit tobacco as children, and then, a few moments later, they crack up to the point that all they can say back and forth through their laughter is “Lord have mercy,” with Sis getting the film’s hilarious yet trenchant last words: “Lord have mercy is right!”
Cheshire has used Midway with amazing success to explore the Southern plantation in reality and myth. Renowned Southern historians John Hope Franklin and Harry Watson weigh in. Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara shows up, as do D.W. Griffith and Birth of a Nation. When Midway house is undergirded and under way, WIDE LOAD signs upon it advertise that what C. Vann Woodward called “the burden of Southern history” is wheeling by on the big screenand “wide” is understated indeed.
By the time Moving Midwaythis lithe, alluring documentary with its at-times Altmanesque dialoguedraws to a close, the ghosts have turned in excellent performances alongside the living, and the folks of the undead past may as well have tromped right in and signed Charlie and Dena’s guest book in the front hall. Midway itself has done some dazzling choreography, as over the quarry and through the woods to a brave new world great-great-great-great-grandfather’s house did go.
Bland Simpson is Bowman & Gray Professor of English & Creative Writing at UNC-Chapel Hill and is a longtime member of the Tony Award-winning Red Clay Ramblers.