Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Go Down Death (Aaron Schimberg, 2013)

Go Down Death
Go Down Death is an analogue anomaly. An indie film with a stew of characters and events ripped from a fantastical folkloric Americana, it resembles a cross between Guy Maddin and Robert Crumb.

Filmed on grainy black-and-white 16mm stock, and shot within an abandoned paint factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Go Down Death has a ruined and artificial look. It’s remarkable that such a low-budget film seamlessly evokes photos from the 19th century.

No standard narrative arc and three-act structure to speak of, Go Down Death is a mishmash of vignettes set mainly in a Podunk brothel. It moves between a handful of characters that include: two “Mutt and Jeff” soldiers stranded in the woods, surrounded by birch trees; johns sharing post-coital chit chat with their prostitutes; and a boy named Butler, who just so happens to be the town’s gravedigger too.

The topic of conversation in these monologues and dialogues revolves around looming mortality. “Womb don’t rhyme with tomb for nothing,” one of the soldiers tells Butler, enticing him to enlist in the army because he’s guaranteed a grave. Although Schimberg borrowed the title from a 1944 Spencer Williams film, it was first the name of James Weldon Johnson’s funeral sermon. If not exchanging thoughts about inevitable death in hilariously dry scenes, they sing about it. Go Down Death is a cross-eyed musical as well. A cabaret performer sings the nightmarish “Too Young to Die,” in which the title is the only lyric, and it’s repeated endlessly.

Zachary Treitz’s Men Go to Battle (2015) is a film with a similar budget that depicts the past with convincing results. Where that film deploys naturalism, Go Down Death uses artifice. It conjures half-recalled and imagined moments from the dustbin of American history. Go Down Death is fabulist folklorama.

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