Southern Noir Film Hour
Motorco Music Hall, Durham
There’s a long, rich tradition of Southern Gothic films, but Southern noir is something different, and a rarer species. Southern Gothic is essentially tragic, treating darkness as a normalized part of society (see Deliverance), whereas noir is essentially psychological, treating darkness as something that comes from outside of society; it exists in the tension between what we consider civilized and transgressive. Beyond Blood Simple, One False Move, Winter’s Bone, and Cold in July, few films use the South as a backdrop for stories about crimes that push people outside the comforts of society.
But you can add a couple more to the list thanks to the new Southern Noir Film Hour, which debuts on April 25 at Motorco. It’s a double-feature of shorts by local filmmakers that take full advantage of their Southern setting—the Triangle, in particular—as a backdrop for visually lush stories about very bad things, with the screenings preceded by a performance from the band Swedish Wood Patrol and followed by a Q and A with the cast and crew.
Both shorts involve filmmaker Edith Snow and crime novelist and filmmaker Eryk Pruitt, an occasional INDY contributor, who decided to independently screen them in venues around the country instead of working the festival circuit. Snow costars in both and is the director of Cheat-Proof, which was written by Pruitt from a story they conceived together (as was Keepsake, Snow’s award-winning first film). It concerns a couple (Snow and Jim Moscater) meeting in the kind of kitschy, country-western-themed diner you’d see in a David Lynch or Jonathan Demme film—though actually, it’s the former 501 Diner building in Chapel Hill, decorated by Snow—to establish some ground rules for the adulterous affair they’re trying not to have. The showier of the two shorts, it employs split screens, jump cuts, black-and-white sequences, and more as the discussion turns into some very unsettling confessions. It has a jazzy, unnerving rhythm that is sometimes compelling and sometimes distracting.
Going Down Slow (written and directed by Pruitt) is the story of a married couple (Snow and Michael Howard) dealing with a bad turn after a difficult decision. Structurally, the film constantly cross-cuts between flashbacks and flash-forwards, in the tradition of such films as John Boorman’s Point Blank. The fractured timeline is integral to the payoff, though it occasionally undercuts Pruitt’s dark humor as the incident turns into a bizarre reckoning for the couple’s relationship. But the short beautifully employs sun-soaked back roads and riverside forests—that would be the Haw River—and the accident that spurs the plot will feel all too plausible to Durham drivers. There’s a lot to like in both shorts, and one can only hope they beckon other noir-ish filmmakers to follow down their dark Southern path.