Ballast (2008)

Directed by Lance Hammer

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“Filmmakers are from a privileged class and tend to make films about themselves. That’s decadent and in my opinion worthless.” – Lance Hammer

Ballast concerns three people tied together by one man’s suicide.  They live in the Mississippi Delta, but the environment feels much more out of this world than that.  Hammer came from Los Angeles and a background in the art department of studio movies like Batman & Robin.  This film was an attempt (successfully) to tell a story with consequences and about real people.  Hammer would describe the setting of the film like that of the moon, full of beauty and sorrow, and while some might find reason to condemn his outsider-ness, it might just be that it’s the same quality which allowed him to tell such a universal tale.

The actors here are people, not actors.  They are at their most effective when we must watch them but not as much when we listen.  They move with the same quality of a Robert Bresson film, as detached as the models of his movies.

The less they imprint on a scene, the better.  We gather what they’re feeling because of the blankness of their canvas and how it works with the unsentimental editing pattern and icy cool cinematography.

You look at a few frames from the film, and you get the idea…

This is a story about grieving people working through what ails them.  We learn the most about them just by observing.  We see how they sit, how they stay silent, and we watch what they decide to do.  Their actions, in this case, certainly speak louder than words.

The story opens with a dead body.  The deceased’s identical twin, Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.) sits not far away, alive but unresponsive.  A neighbor inquires to see if everything is alright, and Lawrence walks outside to kill himself.

He survives, and in the span of a few screen minutes we see him wake up from a 10 day coma, take his first steps down the hallway and then return home.  He may have recuperated physically, but he hasn’t changed since the first time we saw him.

Lawrence will just sit around the house in a deep depression while the story moves over to cover the other two important characters, 12 year old James (JimMyron Ross) and his mother Marlee (Tarra Riggs).

They are the deceased’s son and ex-wife who soon move into the house next door to Lawrence.  Because Lawrence and his brother were tied together through financial investments that have now passed onto Marlee they will soon work together to run the roadside store and put together a viable homestead.

The story is relatively simple, and little dialogue is needed to convey the emotion of any particular scene.  Ballast is at its best when we do nothing but observe.  The less we know about the characters, the more we read into their specific actions.  It’s when the characters begin talking to each other that their lack of training begins to show.

This is a wonderful little film.  It’s modest and earnest without trying too hard.  Between the handheld, naturally lit cinematography and use of untrained actors, this certainly has the feel of a documentary.  It’s a style in itself which sometimes feels overplayed, relying on improvisation and an occasionally jarring editing style.  I suppose it’s just an exercise in restraint, and that in itself sometimes feels like a filmmaker imposing too much style on the film.  Still, whether I’m just a sucker for this method of shooting or not, I found that it worked quite well.

It’s hard not to care for these characters.  They reach respond to their own grief and trauma in certain ways.  Lawrence is passive, Marlee is active, and James is a kid, full of the same combination of confidence and uncertainty that we’ve all felt.  He’s the wildcard of the bunch, the one whose actions most threaten him and his mother and who ultimately brings them all together.

Ballast was an indie darling at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.  It was Hammer’s first feature film, and it came with that neat and tidy behind the scenes narrative that so often accompanies first time filmmakers’ and their ‘against all odds’ journey.  It’s the type of romanticized story that most of us (myself definitely included) love, but which over time has started to feel like a genre in itself, the product of a dedicated PR staff.  You see that same story with the likes of Quentin Tarantino’s video rental store days, Richard Linklater’s DIY approach to Slacker, Robert Rodriguez and El Mariachi, and there’s that story behind Kevin Smith and Clerks.  Going back further it’s there for young critics turned French New Wave directors like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

The point of this is to say that Hammer’s own backstory went into the PR push behind Ballast.  Not only did he fund the film himself, but he even passed on a deal with IFC in order to release the film on his own.  From what I can tell the film made only around $100,000 but who knows how much it cost, and how much went back into his own pocket.  All I do know is that since then Hammer has all but disappeared from the visible filmmaking scene.

This is where I project all my theories/emotions about filmmaking onto Hammer like he intends for you to do onto his characters within this movie.  Did Hammer have any regrets about this process or about the industry as a whole?  Maybe he said all he felt he needed to say, and that was enough.  Maybe the self-finance grind was tougher than he expected, and it burned him out.  Maybe he did everything he wanted to with a film and realized there’s more to life than devoting so much of yourself to something people will only watch for 90 minutes.

I don’t know, but it makes me think, even though that’s not really the point of his step back from the spotlight.  It’s sometimes difficult to see an artist’s career and life as anything but intertwined, as if it’s all some elaborate performance piece, and we are the audience.  He’s reacting to impulses we will never know and have no right to know, and yet it’s because of the purposeful sensationalism behind so many of these movies/artists that I find myself wanting to know more about what’s on the other side.  He did the thing he wanted to do, and we glorified him for it, but now what?

I’m far off topic from the movie itself, but last night I read an article about Roger Ebert’s passing.  His wife, Chaz, said that soon before he died he told her that “this is all an elaborate hoax,” meaning life itself.  Coincidentally his memoir is also titled “Life Itself.”

I keep thinking about that, maybe only in that quasi-spiritual manner of thinking that most of us fall into at some point, whether only for an afternoon or the rest of our lives.  What’s behind all of this, life and our purpose here.  It’s a question so all encompassing but also so often posed, that it’s hard to see it as anything but cringeworthy and redundant.  So many have asked it before, so who do I think I am to ask it once more?

But I’m someone with material dreams, things I’d like to own, do and become.  I want to make a movie, and if I ever make one as critically well-received as Ballast then I’d consider that quite the accomplishment.  Lance Hammer evidently thought so too.  Again, he put his own money into this production, itself a huge risk, and he believed in it enough to release it on his own, which is also a huge risk and somewhat noteworthy because it can be difficult to see anything but the imperfections of your own work.

So he made this thing, experienced something we can only guess at and which so many tried to profile in various Q&A lead ups to the release ten years ago, and now he’s gone from public view.  At least for now.  Maybe it’s purely a financial reason, unable to fund or find funding for his own films.  Maybe he retired to a rural area and is tending to some amount of livestock or started a family.  Either way, he doesn’t appear to be participating in the rat race that so many people, regardless of what industry, choose to jump into with the promise of something at the end of the tunnel.

So what does he know that I don’t?

Up Next: Cronos (1993), Unfriended (2014), Mom and Dad (2017)

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