Something, Anything: Transcendentalism in Appalachia

By Crue Smith

After I attended a screening of Paul Harrill’s latest feature, Light From Light, I
jokingly told him that his film “was the marriage between Carl Dreyer and the Heartland Series.” Carl Theodor Dreyer being a renowned Danish filmmaker and a figure head of post war Transcendental filmmaking; and the Heartland Series, which was a television show that played in Knoxville, focusing on all things Appalachian, from culture to history. Though I was joking, it’s also the truth.

In the book, Transcendental Style in Film, Paul Schrader defines the style as “an actual or potential disunity between man and his environment, a growing crack in the dull surface of everyday reality (5).” Schrader goes on to say, “By delaying edits, not moving the camera, forswearing music cues, not employing coverage and heightening the mundane, transcendental style creates a sense of unease, the viewer must resolve (5-6).” After rewatching Paul Harrill’s first feature Something, Anything, it’s clear that he’s a student of the transcendental masters. His work echos Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, and Carl Theodor Dreyer. But, what sets Something, Anything apart from the work the Transcendentalist filmmakers, is Paul’s own southern Appalachian sensibility, which blend together beautifully.

Something, Anything, follows, Peggy a young real-estate agent played by
Ashley Shelton. After being pressured into marriage and starting a family, she has a miscarriage which leads her to separate from her husband, Mark, played by Bryce Johnson. The film opens with the marriage proposal. Peggy staring at an engagement ring, surrounded by her friends and family. This leads into a montage of Mark and Peggy preparing the wedding, Peggy starting her career as a real-estate agent, and the wedding reception, where her maid of honor tells her to have kids, “lots of kids.” This places an emphasis and expectation on a traditional Southern life. However, once the marriage starts to dissolves, Peggy’s thrown into loneliness and depression. During this separation period she receives a letter from her old friend, Tim, played by Linds Edwards, who has been living as a monk in monastery in Kentucky. This piques Peggy’s curiosity and thus begins her personal and spiritual journey; to find authentic love and real meaning in her life.

I’ve gotten to know Ashley Shelton and Linds Edwards. They met on the set of
Something, Anything and are now happily married. I asked them how Paul was able to bring out these minimal and subtle performances. Which Ashley responded, “Paul just said in a kind, gentle voice ‘smaller.’” In the book Note on the Cinematograph Robert Bresson argues that the actor should be less performative and more like a “Human Model.” “The thing that matters is not what they show me but what they hide from me and, above all what they do not suspect is in them (4).” Though, this is a bit controversial and I don’t think Paul was and is dead set on this ideology, he understands the importance of subtle and gentle performances.

The film doesn’t need a blow up, there are no snarling arguments, there are no exposition dumps. The most subtle action, a look or a hand gesture can has the biggest consequences. Actors show the audiences everything we need to know about the character, in the the most understated way. Peggy moving her ankle way from her husband’s caressing hand, or Tim’s impulse to place his hand over Peggy’s hand during a quiet coffee date shows the audience everything they need to know about what the characters are feeling and and what they want.

The film was shot over the course of a year and a half, in Knoxville Tennessee. Its
narrative is separated into four chapters, each representing a season. This attention to detail adds more depth to the film’s aesthetic and mood. This decision not only adds a layer of depths to the film’s aesthetic and the narrative theme of different season’s of life. Paul is able to slow things down and present the situation in the film in a subtle way. Paul ignores, for the most part, the conventional and traditional aspects of cinematic style. He holds on shots and rarely uses traditional coverage, only using a handful of shot set-ups per scene.

Much like the actor’s performances, the style is subtle focusing on the mundane, but once an action breaks the monotony, it has a powerful impact on the viewer. The film’s aesthetic is both economical and clearly voiced, focusing on what characters are feeling rather than moving the plot forward. He wants us to sit with Peggy, going through each season of her emotional journey.

I appreciate Something, Anything a little more every time I see it. Going into my
late twenties, the film means something different for me now, than it did when I saw it the first time a few years ago. It’s both a love letter to East Tennessee and a rebuke of the traditional “Southern Living” life. It’s a film informed by both Transcendental cinema, as well as Appalachian culture, giving it a unique aesthetic and voice. I was taken aback by Ashley Shelton’s opinion of Paul and the film, “ It was my first real movie and he cared. He cared about me and my performance. He cared about making a work of art.”

Schrader, Paul. Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Oakland, CA:
University of California Press, 2018.
Bresson, Robert, and Jonathan Griffin. Notes on the Cinematograph. New York: New
York Review Books, 2016.

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