We chat with Sarah Adina Smith, writer and director, about the magic available to us today and “fortune cookie” wisdom.
The Sword of Damocles is an apology for those who rule us in the systems of control. Time is a butcher’s chop and existence is its block. What are we doing?!
The Shallow Pocket Project is going to Tribeca (in spirit)! We’ll be chatting with several independent filmmakers making the trek to New York for this year’s film festival. Stay tuned! Check out our last Tribeca chat with Jamie M. Dagg (Director of ‘Sweet Virginia’). Special thanks, as always, to In The Mouth of Dorkness, Brad Gullickson, and Darren Smith.
Sarah Adina Smith is a fucking brilliant madwoman. It hurt my brain talking with her. Honest to goodness, I am not being hyperbolic. She is so effortlessly purposeful and creative in her casual discussion of philosophy that it made me wish I was smarter. I’m not insecure. I’m very smart. I just want you to understand she radiates like a burning bush. She is a filmmaking prophet, exclaiming the nature of the universe.
Her latest film, Buster’s Mal Heart, starring Rami Malek and DJ Qualls, debuted last September at the Toronto International Film Festival. It screens today at Tribeca. And, on Friday, it gets a theatrical release. This is how she describes the movie:
“It’s a story of a spiritual fission catalyzed by a cry against the gods… a cry so loud that the fabric of spacetime caught on fucking fire. It’s a meditation on individual responsbility in a mechanistic universe. Whose fault is it that Jonah was born with a malformed heart? Who should stand trial, the insane man or the universe that gave birth to him?
This is from her director’s note in the press kit. Typically, that’s where a director puts out a brief essay that spits lightning through the spirit of their movie. It’s their pitch, a product designed to draw attention. Right? Okay. Well, this is just how Smith talks. She pours philosophy and poetry like water and all the while teases herself for her “fortune cookie wisdom”. She’s a gifted truth-teller, y’all.
“You are your own rad fucking camera.” — Sarah Adina Smith
The Midnight Swim (streaming on Netflix) is her first film, with a similar story wrapped up in its own cosmological experience. There, she explores motherhood and sisterhood as three half-sisters come together to mourn the passing of their mother, who died seeking the bottom of a lake known to be bottomless. If Smith has a singular idea she’s continuing to explore, it’s that there is a system to the universe. The Midnight Swim is about discovering that through motherhood and embracing a renewed turn in the machine. On the other end, Buster’s Mal Heart is about giving a giant middle finger to the machine. Because who asked to be born?
She’s playing with religion, science fiction, metaphysics, conspiracy theories, fantasy, and hardcore philosophy. She does an excellent job weaving all these styles of narrative and different tropes together into something that’s digestible if you’ll only engage and think about what you’re seeing. More than anything, that’s the impression I got from our conversation. She wants you to engage. The film isn’t some mystical tome of hippy-dippy nonsense read out in a breathless monotone like monks chanting on a sweltering day. Yes, Jonah (Rami Malek) has been torn, metaphysically, into two men. But, that man is struggling against things to which we can all relate.
He’s grinding, endlessly and without progress, for money in a service industry job. He, his wife, and young daughter live in his in-law’s house. He spends his nights at the hotel as a concierge and his days watching his daughter. Y’all, I’ve had that schedule. That shit is hard. Real hard. At one point, Jonah tells The Last Free Man (DJ Qualls) that he just wants to get some “traction.” And it’s the way he says “traction” that has me connect with it. Low, growly, as though a base, instinctive need had gone unsatisfied. Traction. I just need to get some traction.
Money is undeniably a system of control the man puts over you. It’s designed that way. The Last Free Man thinks so, at least. You grind and grind and grind and at the end of the grind you get a little coin. That coin isn’t enough to live off of, but it’s enough to make you think you could if only you could get just one more coin. And so you grind some more. Until tragedy. Then what?
“You just have to be a voyeur.” — Sarah Adina Smith
In this framework, Smith had this idea that she “wanted to stretch the soul as far as it will go.” I like the idea of that phrase. What does it mean to stretch a soul? And what could cleave one? We asked her about the creative inspirations for Buster’s. Clearly not one to prevaricate, she did some truth-telling. She shared she used to indulge in marijuana, but she reached a point where even a small amount was enough to send her into an uncomfortable psychological place which she did not care to visit. So, she swore it off. Now, you or I might just move on to other introspective efforts. Not Smith. She is engaged, all engines full steam ahead, y’all. She sought out ayuhuasca.
For those who don’t know, that’s a brew made out of a vine with psychedelic properties. The indigenous people in the Amazon basin consider it spiritual medicine. Basically, the idea is to take a draft and allow a spiritual awakening to the nature of the universe and your role in it to unfold.
From that trip, she conceived the idea of a man whose soul was stretched to the extreme in grief and outrage at the uncaring nature of the gods. Such as they may be. Why does grief stretch the soul? There is a fundamental friction to the universe. And that fault line grinds hard. Follow me on this. Existence implies and requires non-existence. Basically, memento mori, mother fuckers. We are small. Really small. We live on a small planet in a tiny part of a solar system. That system hurtles through space, a tiny part of a vast galaxy. All contained within an infinite universal system. The infinite machine. Our insignificant little sun will pop, and everything that has happened on this water-soaked rock will no longer matter. We don’t matter. And yet, we feel special, right? We feel our limited time here, with the people we love and care about, matters. That’s the fundamental friction of the universe. We matter because we care, but the universe which gave us existence does not even notice us. And at the height of grief, what will you do in the face of an indifferent creator?
“The direction I gave DJ was: you have the biggest dick in the world.” — Sarah Adina Smith
Jonah is torn. One runs off to sea, fleeing the consequences of his existence and refusing to confront them. Stuck aboard a rowboat with no oars, deep at see in permanently becalmed waters, he spends years adrift. The other goes all Twisted Sister. He’s gonna fight the powers that be. He hops from unoccupied winter home to unoccupied winter home, shouting to radio disc jockeys about how they’re all so condescending and that the Inversion is coming. Here’s the thing. You can’t live your life in twain. And that’s what makes it all so damn hard.
Rami Malek and DJ Qualls give perfect performances. Smith has written a masterpiece. A friend of mine said he’d heard her compared to Kubrick. And you know, I’m not saying she is. But, I’m saying I have a hard time arguing against the idea. Her visual storytelling is mindbogglingly good. She is making wholly originally, deeply compelling art. On her present course, yeah. I could see it. She is that good.
Seek out Buster’s Mal Heart and see it in a theater. It’s out this weekend. If you have a showing near you this weekend, go support independent film, my friends! And, check out our conversation. It’s the most fun, batshit crazy time I’ve had talking film-making. How does she react when one of us shares they were not on the wildly pro side of Buster? Radically. And! And! She does share how DJ Qualls came to be part of the team and why his character had to have the biggest dick. Click below (or here for iTunes).