The Path to Enlightenment

'Pilgrim Song'

Director Martha Stephens
Director Martha Stephens

Pink-slipped at the end of the school year, music teacher James (Timothy Morton) registers no obvious emotion regarding his termination. Neither delighted by being cut loose from the daily grind nor angered or fearful about his fate, James merely packs his things and drives off, rejecting the principal's kind offer to help him find other work. This is the pilgrim we get to know over the next hour and a half: an unmoored man in transit. Back at home, he's aloof if not downright cold toward his live-in girlfriend Joan (played by Karrie Crouse, who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Martha Stephens). Meanwhile, he packs camping gear for a trip and raids his penny jar to make ready for his journey. James is going to leave Louisville and hike Kentucky's Sheltowee Trace Trail.

"He's not a really extremely nice guy. He's fun to watch but he's not always nice. He's selfish," says Stephens of her protagonist, James. For this filmmaker, hooking viewers with ingratiating characters is not necessarily part of her game plan. The journey that characters undergo is what piques Stephens' curiosity. Initially, James' journey occurs in silence as he hikes and communes with nature. Bit by bit, however, his solitude is interrupted by other wanderers. At a barn dance, he succumbs to infidelity, and later on, James is befriended by a man and his young son who are living in a camper. It's here that James makes a midnight confession that releases a weight from his shoulders. "Karrie's from North Carolina; I'm from Kentucky," Stephens offers by way of explanation. "And salvation and redemption are everywhere. Religion is everywhere. And with James [that admission] is his salvation, at least admitting it to himself. He's such a pent-up person, his unhappiness is so bottled-up that admitting all this is like him releasing it. We see him really vulnerable for the first time, and it's rewarding to us to see him vulnerable."

The journey that James undergoes is inward and lyrical. It's informed by nature as much as it is by the characters he meets. In this regard, Stephens' work has much in common with her fellow graduates of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, whose work tends to strongly reflect the region's natural environment. "We went to school in Winston-Salem, which is a city, but we are surrounded by the Piedmont," Stephens reflects. "It's just hills and stuff, and maybe there's something about the slower pace of life in the South and in North Carolina that makes slower movies. Maybe if I went to school in New York, I might be more in tune with city life. ... I mean, you write what you know, right? So if filmmakers are living in small apartments in New York and just broke up with their girlfriend, then they're going to write about that. I actually live in West Virginia; I don't live in Los Angeles or New York."

Still, there's a lyricism in Pilgrim Song that is purely Stephens and can't be chalked up to the influence of her natural surroundings. The film unfolds in poetic vignettes, as if we are witnessing elliptical moments from James' trek. Stephens confesses to strong literary influences in her work. Cormac McCarthy and John Steinbeck are among her favorite writers. But movies, especially some from the Seventies, have also had a strong impact on her. "I love breathing room in movies," says Stephens. "I'm sad that audiences can't be more patient sometimes with slow, methodical stories." It's true that Stephens builds movies that beat with your respiration, yet their power still manages to take your breath away.

Pilgrim Song, Narrative Feature Competition, Thursday, March 15, 3:30pm, Alamo Lamar

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