“Life feels like a gift you didn’t ask for. You appreciate the gesture. You just don’t know what to do with it.”
Eli (Tom Dunne) is a self-described “traveling man”. He is on a journey to walk to the ocean from the arid desert outside of Los Angeles. He cannot see to travel by car or bus or plane. Why does he need to do this? Well, he is a compulsive and inveterate questioner, and his questions make up the majority of the haunting voiceover that seems to follow him, or drive him on. The questions he asks are the big ones: Why am I here? What does God want from me? Is there a God? Is He for me or against me? What is expected of me? What does it mean to love? To hope? What is the nature of things? What is my place in the universe?
Perhaps he walks because these questions take time to percolate. Rilke tells us that we must “live the questions”.
When asked why he is walking to his destination, Eli replies, with a slight question in his voice, “To prolong hope.”
Eli is the protagonist of Jim Akin‘s striking feature debut, After the Triumph of Your Birth. Eli’s story is woven through with the stories of two other wanderers, dreamers, wounded souls.
You can read more about the background of this unusual and beautiful film in Kent Adamson’s in-depth essay.
Jim Akin is a musician and still photographer. Coming out of Akin’s love of the striking image, the possibilities inherent in proper framing (not to mention plain old excellent location scouting), After the Triumph of Your Birth sounds, on the face of it, like it might be a visual collage set to beautiful music (composed by Jim Akin and his wife, the legendary singer Maria McKee, who also plays one of the key roles in the film). And yes, there is a collage aspect to After the Triumph of Your Birth. The images are unforgettable. Sometimes they are disturbing, alienating. They call up the poetic resonances of Haskell Wexler’s best work, or of Wim Wenders’ dreamy version of America, put so palpably on film in Paris, Texas.
Eli walks through a landscape both familiar and dreamlike. After the Triumph of Your Birth is a story of California, too, Los Angeles in particular. It’s the Los Angeles peeking through the cracks in Mulholland Drive, in parts of the Valley portrayed in Punch-Drunk Love. Los Angeles is often portrayed (or thought of) as a place of glittering boulevards, glamorous palm trees, sports cars, beautiful rich people, the movie industry. But there is another Los Angeles, coursing alongside the familiar: gritty industrial outskirts, old-school signage, tired and yet still-vibrant back-lot energy, wide open spaces blasted by sunlight and architectural wonders like viaducts, canals, abandoned bridges damaged by earthquakes and general weather-related age, empty storefronts. California was always a place of dreams, long before Hollywood co-opted that position. It is the great Western border, the end of the road. It took great gumption and fortitude for pioneers to make it that far. Eli, with his dusty boots and battered suitcase with a cloth handle, is in that pioneer tradition.
He’s not running from anything, although he is haunted along the way by memories, of his “cool cat” father, of his rather monstrous and yet beautiful mother. There is a sense that he must keep moving forward. A preacher joins up with him for a bit, talking to him about Jesus and salvation. Eli listens politely. The preacher asks, “And what is it that you are doing with your life?” Eli responds, simply, “I’m trying to find it.”
Jim Akin’s eye roves the landscape, finds the interesting, the unique, the memorable, the evocative. One of the great pleasures of the film is the photography:
Although Eli is the clear lead, the other characters help us burrow deeper into the themes of searching and questioning for meaning.
When we first meet Eva, played by the wonderful Tessa Ferrer (granddaughter of Rosemary Clooney and Jose Ferrer, making her feature-length debut here), she is talking to her sister Millicent (Maria McKee) about her writing class. She is working on a story and she is not sure what to do with it. She is “stuck”. We also come to see that she is stuck in her life, too. At night, she works in what looks like an old-school dance hall, going home with men for money. The money helps. She won’t be doing this forever. She is also a singer, and carries her guitar around. But she says to Millicent that she feels like a “spider in a bathtub”, an image of helplessness and being trapped. You get the sense that Eva is trying to write her way out of that bathtub. (There were times, watching the film, when I wondered if all of the characters were being “written” by Eva, if everyone we saw were “rough drafts” of the stories Eva was working on.)
And then there is Millicent, played by Maria McKee. This is her feature-film debut as well, and she is gorgeous onscreen, honest and raw. Millicent is a survivor, but she is barely holding on when we first meet her. Millicent is a music teacher, working out of her own home, teaching guitar to children. She loves her work. She is dedicated to the kids she teaches. She is also unable to recover from a broken heart. She ruminates, obsesses, weeps, over her lost love, whose name was Joseph. She, too, is “stuck”. She lies in the pew of a church, hand over her face. She re-reads his last letter, sobbing in a way that tore at my heart. She has heartfelt deep conversations with her friend, Sister Roisin, a nun, played by the gorgeous and talented Irish actress, Maria Doyle Kennedy. I’ve been a fan of Kennedy’s for some time (starting from The Commitments, and she has a small part in The Matchmaker, which is hilarious and sweet: “I do have a room for you, although it is a bit ……. bijou.”) I was thrilled recently to see her in a big juicy meaty part as Mr. Bates’ vindictive ex-wife on Downton Abbey. Millicent and Sister Roisin walk through a park on a foggy night, talking about the nature of love. It is a tough conversation, and Sister Roisin’s advice is not what Millicent wants to hear. Akin lets the conversation play out, lets us linger in it. It’s a bold choice, one that is so refreshing in today’s quick-cut short-attention-span universe. People do talk like this “in real life”, and so why don’t we see it more often? It’s not cinematic? Bull shit it’s not.
While Millicent’s life is stopped dead in its track by the dissolution of her love affair, life of course goes on. She has one student, a little boy named Paul (a remarkable young actor named Dean Ogle). His mother is a floozy, always meeting up with men at short notice, leaving the boy alone in the house. He walks the couple of miles to Millicent’s house for his lesson. Millicent worries about him. She doesn’t have children herself, but she is a parent to this young lonely boy. He sees her as a safe haven. He writes songs with lyrics that disturb Millicent, in their expression of despair and hopelessness.
These three characters intersect, reflect, and converge. One night, Eli dances with Eva at the dance hall where she works. They go to a motel. They negotiate price, but with an undercurrent of real tenderness in the exchange. When they make love, Eva tells him to turn off the lights. It’s easier to dream in the dark. When they wake up the next morning, they talk about their lives, where they are going, and why. They go for breakfast. They walk through a deserted industrial landscape, talking, jesting, lots of word-play and deflection. Eli seems to want to get to know Eva. What does SHE want? He knows what HE wants. He wants to get to the ocean. But what about her?
Eva seems uncomfortable with the questioning. We think back to the first time we saw her, telling Millicent how “stuck” she feels, how trapped. It is the human condition.
In such a film, filled to the brim with questions, it makes sense that it would be haunted by a surreal character known as The Answer Man. The Answer Man wears a slick suit, a fedora, black-and-white spats, and mocks Eli’s internal questions with glib answers. He shows up everywhere. He lives nowhere. He is the voice inside all of us that tells us we can’t amount to anything, our quest is pointless, we deserve nothing more than what is right in front of us. The Answer Man is played by former Possum Dixon member Rob Zabrecky. He dances on the horizon like a vision of death.
The Answer Man’s words unfurl across the screen, like a sing-along at a late-night movie house. It makes a mockery of seriousness, of depth, of internal uncertainty. He is often accompanied by two tap-dancing gun molls, corrupt, seductive, and identical.
The device of The Answer Man could easily have tipped into parody, but somehow it does not. Jim Akin uses it sparingly, hauntingly. You forget about The Answer Man for long stretches of time, lulled into the dynamic between Eva and Eli, or caught up in the situation with Millicent and her young student. But The Answer Man always returns. He is around every corner, lurking in the shadows of wet alleys, waiting for you.
Answer Man sneers: “What is love? What does God want? I think God is sick of your fucking questions.”
After the Triumph of Your Birth is filled with music. There are soulful songs, playful songs, terrifying songs, with themes re-visited again and again. I’ve been a fan of Maria McKee for years. A singer and a songwriter, her voice aches with pain and loss, but also a burning desire to express, to share, to communicate. The music is used artfully here, with a couple of actual “numbers” performed. Everyone here is musical. Many of the characters, although articulate, find themselves in a wordless state. Eva is a writer who can’t write. Eli is a man of few words. Millicent is competent in her teaching, and falling apart in her emotional life. Little Paul is neglected by his mother, and fearful of his peers. Music expresses that which cannot be put into words.
You can order the film’s exquisite soundtrack on the website for the film.
After the Triumph of Your Birth is a poetic film, in the way that poetry can burrow into the truth of things by focusing on the unique, the small, the seemingly casual. The film is surreal, on the border of dreams and nightmares, and deeply personal. It’s not afraid to lighten the mood with the goofiest of humor (two ferrets have an existential argument about Life? Oh yes!), and it’s also not afraid to swim in the questions, to let the questions lie there, unanswered, and yet fully explored.
The first time we see Maria McKee as Millicent on screen, she is reading poetry to her young student, Paul. It is Pablo Neruda’s poem “Poetry”:
And it was at that age … Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don’t know how or when,
no they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.
I did not know what to say, my mouth
had no way
my eyes were blind,
and something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.
And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind.
The whole film can be said to be an extension of Neruda’s imagery. Everyone is summoned, everyone wants to be a pure part of something. A heart “broke loose on the wind” seems to be the desired result, and yet don’t forget that pesky word “broke”. Nobody escapes without pain in this life. In Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, the name “Eli” is a variant of “God”. There is a Biblical aspect to Eli’s time in the desert, the 6 days it takes him to get to the ocean. It’s a lonely world out there. Eli must keep moving. He is looking for redemption, solace, freedom. His heart breaks loose on the wind, propelled on by “fever or forgotten wings”.
Maybe it’s time to stop forgetting. Maybe it’s time to remember those wings.
Please read these other reviews of the film: