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Title: Lance Hammer, Ballast (2008)
Post by: wings on 01 Oct, 2008, 15:35:16
Lance Hammer, Ballast (2008)

Alluvial Film Company

Micheal J. Smith Sr., left, and JimMyron Ross in Lance Hammer’s debut film, which takes place in the Mississippi Delta.

Catching the Heartbeat and Fragmented Poetry of the Delta

Published: October 1, 2008

There isn’t much talk and not a drop of cynicism in “Ballast,” Lance Hammer’s austerely elegant, emotionally unadorned riff on life and death in the Mississippi Delta. Shot with a sure hand and a cast of unknowns, the film doesn’t so much tell a story as develop a tone and root around a place that, despite the intimate camerawork, remains shrouded in ambiguity. Mr. Hammer puts in the time, but never asserts that he knows this world and his black characters from the inside out, a wise choice for a white boy playing the blues.

Taken on its own, “Ballast,” which has been making the international festival rounds with great success since its premiere at Sundance in January, offers plenty to chew on. Shot on 35-millimeter film by the British cinematographer Lol Crawley, it opens with a hand-held camera trailing after a boy of around 12, James (JimMyron Ross), looking and then walking toward — and soon running at — hundreds, thousands, of geese noisily taking flight into the blue winter sky. The boy doesn’t say a word as he watches this screeching mass, yet a feeling of loneliness, thick as a winter coat and every bit as palpable as those darkly swirling birds (surging like storm clouds, like waves), settles around him.

More moody skies follow, interspersed with words that, with few exceptions, sound as unrehearsed as life. Through a series of short, elliptical scenes, fragments of beauty caught as if on the fly, you learn that James lives in a cramped trailer with his single, hard-working mother, Marlee (Tarra Riggs), though mostly what he does is drift. Visibly bored, seemingly friendless, he putt-putts across his unnamed township on a small motorbike and sniffs around the local bad element, adolescent thugs offering perilous companionship and crack cocaine. Despite all this drifting, the film remains grounded, tethered to a great mass of humanity named Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.), who increasingly fills the screen and gives this exceptionally fine feature debut both its title and heart.

Mr. Hammer developed “Ballast” with his mostly untrained actors over several months of rehearsal. Although the results generally look and sound more authentic, more real (whatever that means!) than even most American independent fare, the film nevertheless ebbs and flows like fiction. It builds on a series of incidents — a suicide, an attempted suicide, some bloody hooliganism and a misfired gun — any one of which would have given most of us enough excitement (and barroom anecdotes) to last a lifetime. It’s the kind of dramatic pileup that bodes ill in many films, but here feels natural as air largely because Mr. Hammer’s visual style — at once spare and detailed, restless and anchored by a classic sense of film space — tempers the story and keeps it from boiling over.

This visual style owes a strong, self-conscious debt to the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who, over the last dozen years, have shaken up the world cinema scene with their grave, beautiful, urgent films, including “Rosetta,” “The Son” and “L’Enfant,” about the everyday struggles of ordinary people. Though Mr. Hammer is clearly taking cues from the Dardennes, among the most influential filmmakers working today, his movie is the latest in a tradition of homegrown realism rooted in Italian neorealism and nurtured by avant-garde cinema and documentary traditions. Before there was “Ballast,” there was “The Cool World,” Shirley Clarke’s still-vibrant 1963 drama about black gangs in Harlem, and “Killer of Sheep,” Charles Burnett’s 1977 masterpiece about a poor black Los Angeles family.

“Ballast” doesn’t need to reach the sublime heights of “Killer of Sheep” to earn its rightful due: it’s a serious achievement and a welcome sign of a newly invigorated American independent cinema. Mr. Hammer, a Southern California native whose background studying architecture is evident in his graceful compositions and sensitivity toward forms — Lawrence’s body at times looms larger than his tiny house — hovers near his characters without ever piercing their skin. He doesn’t draw blood, but he does do something so many movies forget: he captures the rhythms of life. Using caressing natural light, he watches and waits as Lawrence smokes another cigarette and James circles this big man like a puppy. He follows Marlee across the yard and James across the field. He catches their footfalls, the sounds of their breath.


Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan.

Written, directed and edited by Lance Hammer; director of photography, Lol Crawley; production designer, Jerel Levanway; produced by Mr. Hammer and Nina Parikh; released by Alluvial Film Company. At the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Micheal J. Smith Sr. (Lawrence), JimMyron Ross (James), Tarra Riggs (Marlee) and Johnny McPhail (John).

Title: Re: Lance Hammer, Ballast (2008)
Post by: wings on 01 Oct, 2008, 15:36:42
Ballast interview - Director Lance Hammer
Title: Re: Lance Hammer, Ballast (2008)
Post by: wings on 01 Oct, 2008, 15:37:30
"Ballast" Trailer