Tuesday, August 7, 2012

My Review of "Snow on tha Bluff"

Damon Russell’s hyper-real, 2011 “found footage” flick is a movie every Atlanta resident would be wise to check out

There’s a place in Atlanta called “The Bluff,” which rests inside English Avenue and Vine City. Long story short, it’s a place you should never, ever go to if you value your own mortality.

For those of you unfamiliar with Atlanta’s geography, “The Bluff” makes up neighborhood planning unit L, which is nestled in the northwest side of town. For a while, it was where Martin Luther King, Jr. called home (and to a much, Much, MUCH lesser extent, Herman Cain, too.)

The area is famous, primarily for its almost entirely-drug fueled economy - allegedly, it’s the place to go if you want heroin in the ATL. According to a 2010 report, “The Bluff” is the single most dangerous neighborhood in Atlanta, and the fifth most dangerous in the country. Words simply fail to describe just how horrific life in “The Bluff” is - to give you just an inkling of an idea, it’s a community where, in 2006, local police had a lethal shootout…with an 80 year old woman.

A lot of times, it’s easy to exaggerate how horrible living conditions are in such environments. I’m not quite sure accurate the depiction of life in “The Bluff” is in “Snow on tha Bluff” - a 2011 film directed by Damon Russell - is, but gauging from the myriad reports I’ve read about the area (with some describing the neighborhood as a literal biohazard for Atlanta), I’d say there’s probably more fact to Russell’s film than fiction.

For my money, “Snow on tha Bluff” (a film that’s currently being screened in small-chain theaters nationwide, but much more accessible as an instant view on Netflix) is the absolute greatest “found footage” flick in almost 30 years, and the movie within the subgenre that’s most effectively fused the real with the cinematic since “Cannibal Holocaust” - an Italian horror-flick so realistic that the director of the film found himself in court on murder charges until he could fly the cast in alive.

The only difference between “Cannibal Holocaust” and “Snow on tha Bluff,” I suppose, is that the corpses in the former were all staged. There are several scenes in Russell’s film which show real-life homicide scenes in Atlanta - of course, the director didn’t cause these incidents, but he managed to weave these real-life acts of violence into the narrative of the picture. That, I suppose, says more about life in “The Bluff” than any feature length expose could - if you need stock footage of a homicide scene, all you have to do is walk around the block for a while, and you’ll be sure to find some.

I’m not sure which aspects of the film were real and which were staged. Pretty much all of the scenes of violence - the drive-bys, the car chases, etc. - we’re clearly staged, but as for everything else in the film, including the scenes of drug use and production, I’m almost 100 percent certain that everything we view is legit, beginning with the movie’s main character.

Curtis Snow, a lifelong Bluff-dweller, is the kind of human being that seems like he could ONLY exist within the mind of some eccentric crime-drama writer. He’s a philosophizing, morally ambiguous drug-runner whose life consists of armed robberies, tossing back Tecates and babysitting his son while cutting up lines of dope. The only thing is, Curtis Snow is a real-life person, and he swears that he’s essentially playing himself in the movie. Snow, now in his mid-20s, claims to be a real-life stick-up-boy, and has gone on record as stating that the film accurately mirrors his own life. There are scenes in the film where Snow visits his mother, and the two talk about Snow’s deceased brother. There’s an additional scene where Curtis guides the cameraman to the telephone pole where he said his brother was gunned down. It’s tied with ribbons and balloons and teddy bears and flowers. These scenes may or may not real, but they feel about as authentic as anything I’ve seen in an Errol Morris film. Last year, Snow had has face slashed by a man wielding a box-cutter - and his commentary after the attack synchs up absolutely perfectly with what we’d expect to hear out of his “character” in “Snow on the Bluff.”

The acting in the film is so natural and unstilted that I’m convinced that nobody’s really acting. Perhaps the director did just waltz into Snow’s territory with a camera one day, and just started recording him shooting the breeze with his pals and neighbors. The highly dramatic scenes, obviously, feel a little less authentic, but even then, you can’t help but feel as if that’s how the people within the film’s world would react to such events. While the authenticity of the film is certainly questionable, there’s absolutely no denying the film’s realism.

So many crime-dramas glorify the lifestyle, a message that the typical Martin Scorsese film can’t dilute no matter how perfunctory the “crime doesn’t pay” finale in films like “Goodfellas” and “Casino” are. Alike the truly excellent 2008 film “Gomorrah,” “Snow on the Bluff” gives us an un-romanticized, un-stylized look at just how gritty and scummy professional criminality can be. Nobody in the film wears Gucci or drives BMWs; rather, they roll around in Nissans and dirty Atlanta Braves hats. Unlike Tony Montana, nobody watching the film would feel even the slightest desire to switch sneakers with Curtis - a character that, throughout the film, remains more unsavory and contemptible than sympathetic and tragic.

As a philosophical text, especially regarding the sociology of the drug trade, “Snow on the Bluff” is an absolutely fascinating work. In so many films, you wonder why people would continue to involve themselves in affairs where they KNOW that the only outcomes or jail, destitution or a funeral home. In a particularly effective scene, Snow lays out his raison d’etre, stating that drugs can do some good for him and his family - primarily, by keeping his bills paid and keeping him from being evicted. It’s such a simple, albeit revealing, answer: the business might kill him, but at least it’s going to keep him alive until it does.

I have difficulties considering “Snow on the Bluff” to be a great film in terms of technicalities and production, but it’s clear that the filmmakers’ intent wasn’t to create an excellent theatrical experience, anyway. Instead, they wanted to tell a story about life in a place where society seems to come to a complete stop, and the people that can’t - or in some cases, won’t - leave a neighborhood routinely looked upon as hell on earth by the media.

“Snow on the Bluff” is a troubling film, a riveting story and a movie that makes you wonder where we’re headed as a culture. It’s a morally ambiguous glimpse into a segment of humanity that we tend to overlook and a movie that - perhaps indefinitely - changes the way you look at your own urban landscape.

A word to my fellow Atlantans: it may not be the best movie you’ll see this year, but it might just be the one you ought to see the most in 2012.


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