2023, NR, 86 min. Directed by Emily Mackenzie, Noah Collier.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Nov. 17, 2023
Poking around the wreckage of the American dream has long been a fascination for generations of filmmakers. There is a recognition in watching the struggle between an idealism instilled from the culture itself (innate exceptionalism, bootstraps pulled, etc.) and the utter indifference it is met with by a society hellbent on consuming its own. It’s the protagonist of Chris Smith’s seminal 1996 debut American Job, it’s the heartbreaking self-destruction of Steve James’ 2002 doc Stevie, and it’s most of the filmography of Ross McElwee. And it is currently personified in Roderick James, one of the handful of residents in Dalton, Georgia, featured in Emily Mackenzie and Noah Collier’s hilarious and poignant documentary, Carpet Cowboys.
The town of Dalton is recognized as “The Carpet Capitol of the World,” and once upon a time it was filled with carpet industry millionaires who paved the floor of the world’s casinos and office buildings, palaces and homes, and especially shopping malls, with all manner of eye straining designs and color. This was the Seventies and Eighties, and what comes up invariably comes down, so in the Dalton of the here and now, the carpet companies have mostly been snapped up by two or three large corporations, where much of the town is employed. The film casts a hypnotic power between the shots of the massive machinery in the manufactories, the parade of employees stress testing carpets by walking on them 20,000 times (takes about two weeks), with the archetypal landmarks of the small town: boarded up gas stations, parking lots sprinkled with the carapaces of long haul trucks, and the endless stretches of carpet wholesale emporiums, the otherworldly score by Kara-Lis Coverdale rendering a sci-fi quality to it all.
Naturally, peculiar characters abound in Carpet Cowboys (the film was executive produced by John Wilson, so that should give you some indication of the film’s tone), but eventually taking center stage is Roderick James, a Scottish expat whose love of the American West and carpet designing skills led him to settle in Dalton some years ago. Currently turning a corner into his golden years, James is having a rough time securing any kind of employment within his field and is seriously considering a move to the Philippines (the home of his wife), eyeing China as the place where his talents will be sought after.
Following James, I couldn’t help but think that Mackenzie and Collier had found a real-life David Brent (I know, they’re probably everywhere). The sheer force of his belief in his own skills (clothes designing, particularly) and the unflappability he exhibits is constantly stupefying. But everyone has a limit, and it is with no small amount of grace that the filmmakers give James his dignity in the end, making peace with his unexpected life turns. There is a place for beautiful losers, if only to remind us of our own delusions.
One of Dalton’s famous residents, 15-year-old Tripp Phillips, who secured funding on the TV show Shark Tank for his water soluble LEGO adhesive, sums it up with a more manageable attitude. When asked by the filmmakers for his definition of success, he responds, “Whenever you can just, like, chill.” Dare to dream.