Four guys hang out in a diner in New Orleans. They meet up there every day. They have been doing so for years. Maybe even decades. These guys feel like childhood friends. They hang out without even remembering why they started hanging out in the first place. Maybe that’s the point. Who else would tolerate some of their shenanigans? They argue. They strut for each other, boasting, bragging. They talk a big game about what they want for themselves, and the women in their lives (“cunts”, for the most part), they dress a bit flashy, in bowling shirts and spats. But what do they have going for them? They are middle-aged fantasists, they still think that big things are coming for them, that some breakthrough in understanding/opportunity is imminent. They’re slightly pathetic, yet in a way that is always recognizably human. They are “Ditch”, “Gat,” “The Professor,” and “Leon”, the lead characters of King of Herrings, co-directed by Sean Richardson and Eddie Jemison (who also plays “Ditch”). Jemison also wrote the script.
Filmed on a shoestring (or even less), King of Herrings, in black-and-white, has the look and feel of a gritty art film from the late 1950s, early 1960s (and I mean that as a compliment). Sean Richardson, the co-director and producer, was also the cinematographer and he has a superb eye. Shots are framed with elegance and thought, adding emotional heft to a simple scene of a wife cooking eggs for her husband, or a guy washing his hands in the restroom. The shots are startling, sometimes beautiful. They are not merely attention-getting; they crack open the event of the individual scenes, showing us the emotional underbelly, the deeper subtext. The camera angles and interesting framing elevates King of Herrings from realism into something loaded with symbolism and surrealism. Everything seems slightly “off”.
Most scenes are underlined with a strange and haunting score (by Chris Walden), almost jazz, sometimes blues, with a hillbilly twang. The film takes place in New Orleans, after all. Like the camera angles and the look of the film, the score helps you orient yourself: This does not take place in a realistic world. This is not “kitchen-sink realism”. It is also not the New Orleans the tourists see. It’s the rough and well-used waterfront, the weed-infested cobblestones, the dreary streets on the outskirts of town.
All of the actors involved in this film have deep roots in New Orleans (and many of their careers have taken them far from that original landscape). These guys have all been friends for years in real life, and that rapport shows. You feel like you’re eavesdropping, even as the script is slightly elevated in language, again giving the feeling that something is “off”. All of this makes for hypnotic viewing. It’s compelling visually. It sucks you in through its framing and its cinematic devices: overhead shots, lens flares, closeups … Nothing feels arbitrary. Knowing that they shot it in two weeks just adds to the hypnotic factor. They had rehearsed the script for a couple of weeks so that when it came time to shoot they could move with the velocity of a well-oiled ensemble.
“Ditch” (Jemison) is married to “Mary” (Laura Lamson, in an unforgettable performance). Ditch is a bully and a misogynist. Mary is a shut-in, living in fear of her husband, rushing around to get him a drink when he comes home. She is supposedly a dressmaker, but even that is challenging for someone like Mary. “Gat” (David Jensen) is also married (we never see his wife), but is engaged in some kind of crazy flirtation with a redhead who says suggestive things to him. He wears flashy shirts to attract her attention. “The Professor” (Joe Chrest) sells magazine subscriptions for a living, and is drawn to Mary. He concocts a reason to go visit her, and try to sell her a subscription to “Reader’s Digest”. She, shy and almost pre-verbal, serves him Saltines on a little white china plate. The subscription-selling scene is a mini-masterpiece of surreal script-writing and character development. It’s a romantic scene, but with a strange edge of uneasy static underneath it all. We’ve seen “Ditch”. We know his ugly volatility. He applauds infidelity in the other men (perhaps it validates his own behavior), but he would not countenance anyone getting close to his property. Then there is “Leon” (Wayne Pére), a guy who speaks with an electrolarynx due to throat cancer. Over the course of the film, Ditch’s teasing about said throat-microphone gets more and more brutal, until finally he does, indeed, go too far.
These four guys play poker until they are thrown out of dive bars. They get drunk. They throw up. They wander around the city. They seem to have nowhere to go. My favorite section of the film was a long montage sequence, overlaid by music, where Ditch and Gat hang out, walk around, on sidewalks, past graffiti, sit on docks, go out on a rickety boat, all the time laughing, talking, smoking cigarettes, stopping to make their points … The montage has a great sense of energy, visual engagement, landscape (the majority of the film takes place either in the diner or in Ditch and Mary’s apartment, an obvious result of the budgetary constraints).
One of the great strengths of King of Herrings (in the script, the direction, and the performances) is that while it does not sentimentalize these characters, it doesn’t condemn them, either. It presents them, warts and all. They are guys with limited options in life. While that does not excuse their brutality, it does explain some of it. These are guys who see women as frighteningly “Other”. Women are weak, and therefore to be held in contempt … and yet also … they have power over men, because men desire them … It’s a double-bind, and the two women in the film, Mary and “Evie” (Ditch’s sister, played by Andrea Frankle) are both trapped. It’s a man’s world and they’re just living in it.
The four guys circle the two women, closing in. Only Leon appears to have the necessary distance to understand what is happening, and also understand that maybe … maybe … there are other options available. Maybe he has that distance because he has already faced the worst thing, his own mortality. No racing around in flashy shirts for Leon. Leon knows that we all are going to die. He understands the most difficult truth of all. Maybe that’s why Ditch zeroes in on Leon as his most hated adversary. Ditch thinks that by controlling his woman and controlling his friends … he will stave off death.
I love a script that is bold enough to merely suggest this dynamic, that resists banging me over the head with it in an explicit way. Ditch is repulsive, and Jemison is a good actor. He is ugly enough to his wife that his behavior is inexcusable. He is appallingly cruel to his friends. He crosses the line, repeatedly. Jemison (and the script) does not try to excuse him, elevate him, or romanticize him. We are not asked to pity him, not explicitly, but I found myself pitying him anyway. What a trapped and little-minded man.
King of Herrings is currently making the festival rounds. It’s an ensemble picture, where the characters cannot connect, and yet also cannot break free. It doesn’t put too much on its topic. It doesn’t try to do too much, a wise choice. King of Herrings sits in the room, long after the final frame. I found myself thinking of some of the shots afterwards, pondering the deeper meaning of them, the implication of them, and also … their sheer beauty.
Funny to find beauty in such an ugly world.