Monuments of Passaic

Nick Pinkerton on Nathan Silver’s Stinking Heaven

Nathan Silver, Stinking Heaven, 2015, digital video, color, sound, 70 minutes. Ann (Hannah Gross).

A TALE OF REHABBED JUNKIES shot on junky, rehabbed video equipment, Nathan Silver’s Stinking Heaven is a singularly bleak smash-up psychodrama. Silver’s fifth completed feature since 2009 comes in at a slender seventy minutes; he works at a brisk clip, and like the much larger filmography of South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo, Silver’s work thus far can be experienced as a series of evolving drafts, reworkings that give the feeling of working toward something rather than acting as a testament. In addition to Stinking Heaven, this year Silver premiered a four-minute squib of a short, Riot, a reediting of camcorder movies of the young filmmaker and his claque of white neighborhood friends recreating the Los Angeles riots in a backyard in suburban Massachusetts, oblivious to mandates of political correctness. The home-movie aesthetic is important to Stinking Heaven, shot on an Ikegami HL-79E, a 1980s vintage broadcast camera. More than providing a nostalgic patina, the obsolescent technology and the 4:3 broadcast television framing remind us how our perception of photographic realism is attached to a teleological sliding scale.

The setting of Stinking Heaven is identified as “Passaic, New Jersey 1990” by a single on-screen title; after that, viewers are left to fend for themselves. The movie opens as Betty (Eleonore Hendricks) shares a druggy idyll with her girlfriend, Ann (Hannah Gross), passing a jerry-rigged water bottle crack pipe, then stripping down to plash in an outdoor swimming hole. After the first of many vaulting elisions, we catch up with Betty as she is married to grizzled, middle-aged Kevin (Henri Douvry) in a living-room ceremony officiated by Jim (Keith Poulson). Gradually the dimensions of Betty’s new life come into focus: The house is a communal living space for recovering addicts—per their charter, they “Choose to be together, choose to be sober”—presided over by Jim. They pay the bills with money earned by selling a homemade kombucha drink at local flea markets and, more importantly, with checks from a relation of Jim’s who owns a scrapyard.

Silver’s Soft in the Head (2013) takes place in a homeless shelter whose exclusively male population is stirred up by the appearance of a young female in their midst; his Uncertain Terms (2014), is set in a shelter for pregnant teenagers. In Stinking Heaven, the filmmaker again deals with the interaction of fragile group ecosystems and volatile outside elements. These are some of the same concerns which come about in directing an ensemble performance piece, and this connection is lent a self-reflective touch by the fact that the commune members are themselves, after a fashion, filmmakers—what we see of their group therapy consists of members helping one another to reenact their rock-bottom moments while someone stands to the side and videotapes the action for posterity. These exercises are sprung on the viewer unannounced; when, for example, Kevin barges into the living room in his underwear, shrieking about having been beaten up and pissed on outside of a bar, it’s only after the initial shock has worn off that we detect the presence of a camera.

Silver had his cast cohabit for the duration of the heavily improvised shoot so that the circumstances of the production might more closely mirror those of the story being told, and he is simultaneously engaging with a realist tradition that seeks to pin down quicksilver emotional truth using the tools of fiction filmmaking while questioning whether such an endeavor is even possible. (And what, if any, validity there is to the cult of “overcoming.”) Stinking Heaven is a movie at odds with itself, as its characters find themselves at odds with one another. In Silver’s abrasive films, the communal enterprise is a sort of autodestructive art, in which mismatched, out-of-sync gears grind one another down, finally bringing the entire mechanism to a halt.

Nathan Silver, Stinking Heaven, 2015, digital video, color, sound, 70 minutes. Courtney (Tallie Medel).

If we can point to any single catalyst that sets the breakdown in motion in Stinking Heaven, it’s Ann’s reappearance in Betty’s life. (Joining the group, Ann seems more motivated by spite toward her ex than a desire to get straight. This drives out Betty, never to return to the film, and triggers Kevin to relapse.) But in fact the seeds of the group’s destruction are planted even earlier. While married to Lucy (Deragh Campbell) and ostensibly the group’s authority, Jim takes every opportunity to slip into the communal van for interludes of afternoon delight with Courtney (Tallie Medel), Kevin’s daughter, who looks on with big, Kohl-rimmed eyes from an adjacent bunk bed while her father and Betty share their first night of connubial bliss.

It’s a scene-stealing part for Medel, whom I first clocked playing a teenager carnally obsessed with her older brother in Dan Sallitt’s 2012 The Unspeakable Act—and it is worth noting that the subject of incest seems to have a peculiar pull for filmmakers originating in the small, claustrophobically tight-knit New York independent film scene. (See also Alex Ross Perry’s 2011 The Color Wheel.) Silver’s cast mixes indie veterans like Campbell, Gross, Medel, and filmmaker Jason Giampietro, very funny as the group’s crooked-grinning instigator, with little-known gigging middle-aged actors like Douvry, Eileen Kearney, and biker-bearded Larry Novak, making for a motley combination of histrionic performance styles. Adding to the suffocating air in the house is Silver and DP Adam Ginsberg’s penchant for smothering, shallow-focus close-ups, which also have the benefit of omitting background details and allowing the filmmakers to, with a minimal budget, make a more or less convincing period piece set on the brink of the Lollapalooza era. (The setting is not so prominent a part of the story as in Whitney Horn and Lev Kalman’s tenure-track time capsule L for Leisure [2014], though Paul Grimstad’s synth score does evoke period-specific Angelo Badalamenti dolour.)

The movie doesn’t end so much as burn out. Centrifugal force spins the members of the commune off on their different courses, the narrative shakes itself to pieces, and Jim takes up an offer of a job at the junkyard. Stinking Heaven isn’t a great leap forward for its director, but Silver’s practice isn’t the sort that invites that kind of tutelage-to-mastery conversation. It’ll be right back to the drawing board—or the scrap heap—and another jagged rattletrap collection of spare parts.

Nathan Silver’s Stinking Heaven has its New York theatrical premiere through December 15 at Anthology Film Archives.