There's something about the flicker of a 16mm film that recalls the intimacy of candlelight. It's a wobbly, fuzzy format, a film for fairy tales and flashbacks, and Bill Brown's Mountain State, which leads off a traveling film tour exploring—and called—Lo-Fi Landscapes, is partly both.
His hand-made tour of West Virginia historical sites could be more glibly described as “meditative” or “introspective,” which it is in the sense that very few things catch fire. But Mountain State is most of all a gentle film, its cinematography politely subordinate to its subject matter. Over a careful 22 minutes, Brown visits state historic markers with Errol Morris' steady eye and Jonathan Richman's sentiment: specifically, “I wanna keep my place in the old world/keep my place in the arcane.” Mountain State looks back at the lost past, and though Brown's grave markers are more often metaphorical than literal (though he does visit a cemetery known for UFO sightings), there is a certain sort of distinct solemnity to Brown's sparse narration. Between subtitled musing about life and death, Brown finds a history all the more remote in its strangeness: reading, for instance, a marker explaining how a man was warned by a dream that Indians would attack his family, or how a ghost appeared to her parents and revealed—later verified upon exhumation—that she was murdered. “It was the only known case in which testimony from a ghost was used to convict a murderer,” intones Brown; all around him, passing semi trucks make a cicada hum.
“History is a ghost, and every historical marker tells a ghost story,” Brown writes about his film; that's true but also a truism, since every true story must one day become a kind of ghost story. Mountain State is instead a film about absence, not presence; when Brown reads about his ghosts, now haunting highway rest stops or vacant fields, it revives them only long enough for us to imagine how much things have changed, so much so that even ghosts must be gone. A strange thing, to mourn the death of a ghost. Brown's film ends with a perfect little scene—the birth of a ghost, let's call it, so as not to spoil it. But it's also a sad ending: there remains an implication, flickering in bright and soft 16mm daylight, that history is really just death.
MOUNTAIN STATE SCREENS WITH THOMAS COMERFORD'S LANDMARKED/MARQUETTE AND BILL BROWN AND COMERFORD'S CHICAGO/DETROIT SPLIT AS PART OF THE LO-FI LANDSCAPES FILM TOUR AT OPEN BOOKSTORE, 144 LINDEN AVE., LONG BEACH, (562) 499-OPEN; WWW.ACCESSOPEN.COM. MON. CALL FOR TIME AND TICKET PRICES.