Setting Down Roots
R. Alverson’s debut feature The Builder was one of the centerpieces of last week’s New York Times article on record labels jumping into the independent film distribution game; it is being released by the indie imprimatur Jagjagjuwar (home to bands such as Okkervil River and Bon Iver), which has been organizing grass-roots screenings at bars and alternative screening venues. I saw the film last summer, shortly after Alverson completed it, but reading about these screenings compelled me to revisit it. Something about the description of the film playing for a small audience who “watched patiently at small candle-lit tables, beers in hand,” burnished my own recollection of a film whose running time was inversely related to the amount of overt incident contained in the plot.
Which is completely the point—the film is about inaction, about failure to progress. Telling the story of an Irish carpenter who purchases a plot of upstate New York land on which he plans to reconstruct a historical American house by hand, Alverson quietly insinuates that this personal affliction may be acutely national. The carpenter leaves his girlfriend and their Manhattan apartment to dedicate himself to this seemingly noble task; but his progress is minimal, his planning haphazard, and the film’s sharpest point is that it’s all too easy to mistake the conception of an idea for the realization of it, and to misappropriate the satisfaction commensurate to the latter. The carpenter’s dream rests upon straw shoulders, and when he senses they are about to give out, he flees New York and holes up with friends in Virginia. There’s a haunting moment when, after telling them about the house, they ask him how it’s coming along. He pauses, and then nods and says “she stands.” And in this moment, in this lie, we know that he’s forsaken his dream, given up on whatever self actualization he hoped to derive from it and has no plans to answer for all he’s left behind. He takes up a job as a dishwasher, and soon afterward the film comes to an end.
At 94 minutes, it almost feels apt to call The Builder a long short film, rather than a feature; it provides not so much an experience unto itself but a suggestion of the same. It’s a window into a character, and as such it provides no peripheral insight. It asks for patience and invites contemplation. It slips in and out, quietly, without incident, staking no bold claims on our time but stirring up a sense of oppressive unrest that is, one realizes later, difficult to shake. There’s something about the experience of a film like this—fleeting, and yet deeply felt—that is akin to a song. When one doesn’t have to concern oneself with the attenuations of a traditional narrative, a movie can be watched (and rewatched) in a more emotive manner; it can set a mood, play in the background, or be attended to in full. The latter is, of course, the proper way to see any film, this one included; but that it can function otherwise at all perhaps speaks to why the The Builder‘s exhibition in bars and other venues traditionally assigned to musical acts feels so uniquely appropriate. If Drag City‘s distribution of Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (also cited in the Times piece) is the equivalent of a confrontational punk tour, then The Builder is the softspoken folk singer whose voice gradually draws all eyes towards the back of the bar. Indeed, Alverson comes from a musical background, as the frontman of the group Spokane, and will be providing a soundtrack companion to The Builder that “might serve as a jumping off point for the movie itself,” according to its website. I like the idea of a film’s existence extending beyond the proscenium of the screen, into other mediums. Little films like this one too often drift away and disappear in today’s climate; what Alverson and Jagjaguwar seem to be doing is taking special care to set down just the right sort of roots.
— David Lowery