God save the king!
In keeping with the King James model of the Bible, this exhortation was first shouted by the Israelites when the prophet Samuel knowledgeable them that God had granted their needs and chosen Saul to be their first king. It didn’t matter that God had simply upbraided the individuals for insisting they needed somebody to rule over them – pointless when the Lord their God had delivered them by the clutches of so many enemies into the Promised Land. No, the set up of a really human potentate, one whose private jealousies would ultimately produce critical hassle, was automated trigger for celebration.
Now, in a beautiful, lyrical, and punctiliously unsettling poem of a film, celebrated filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon has as soon as once more questioned the knowledge of contriving an absolute authority determine to bow right down to. Within the Appalachians the place she hails from, coal reigned as king for a lot of the 20th century, however not anymore, and her artfully ambivalent movie units the nonetheless weighty pull of coal’s kingly previous towards the area’s hopes for a freer, extra sustainable future.
Breaking with the Previous
The movie divides itself into roughly two narrative strands. One focuses on King Coal’s continued sway over the individuals of Appalachia, a mountainous area crisscrossed by the borders of a number of states, together with not simply West Virginia, but in addition Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and extra. Coal’s pervasive energy within the area has been celebrated by everybody from nation singer Loretta Lynn to documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple.
The second narrative strand focuses on a pair of West Virginia schoolgirls who attend occasions, make college initiatives, and whereas away the time, speaking and dancing. Within the concepts and desires they share, the women embody the hope of a future past the king’s reign.
To emphasise King Coal’s lingering energy within the area, director Sheldon options many scenes of group gatherings. The movie opens with the dropping of an enormous block of coal in a single city’s New Yr’s Eve celebration, options clips of a footrace the place organizers throw coal mud on passing runners, and locations the digicam strategically to emphasise the appreciative however meager crowd at a coal-shoveling contest. One of the memorable of those scenes incorporates a highschool soccer sport during which the house staff, the Miners, every contact a rough-hewn piece of coal mounted on a pedestal as they emerge from the locker room to expire on the sphere.
Sheldon initially units the digicam low and on the other facet of the rough-hewn ebony touchstone, chopping the gamers’ faces out of the highest a part of the body in order that solely their uniforms and their fingers seem on display. The facility of coal erases the person identities of the gamers, nameless younger paladins taking the gridiron in service to the king.
The 2 schoolgirls who kind the main focus of the opposite narrative strand are by no means named within the movie, however they write their signatures on it indelibly. All the time in movement, usually dancing, intently observing the proceedings of official occasions, they have interaction curiously and respectfully with the geological liegelord, however they’re by no means certain to him.
Whereas it will be straightforward to romanticize the women, making them into latter-day counterparts of William Blake’s unhappy chimney sweeper in Songs of Expertise, maybe, Sheldon manages to mix them naturally into the movie’s visible and narrative schemes whereas concurrently in accordance them full personhood. They’re each the themes of the digicam’s eye and the free topics of their very own imaginations.
By them, director Sheldon solutions a query requested within the voiceover narration: what are we with out coal? They respect the facility of the previous and the king’s rule over it, however they’re intuitively impartial and getting ready themselves for a future with out it.
Indoctrination vs. Training
In an early scene, a former coal miner received up in helmet, suspenders, and coal-blackened work shirt holds a category of schoolkids spellbound along with his tales of working within the mines. On the finish, the youngsters flock to the visitor to the touch the piece of coal he has introduced with him, one exclaiming that it appears like a diamond.
In a special movie, this might really feel like a scene of indoctrination, exhibiting how the children are being drafted as early as attainable into preserving the king into the following technology. However in King Coal, the scene feels extra like a warning: the king nonetheless has some devoted apologists who’re inflicting propaganda on essentially the most harmless of lots.
Extra interesting are the numerous quieter scenes of much less formal training. One among my favorites exhibits the taller, red-haired woman visiting a household farm and listening because the mom explains the therapeutic properties of the crops they stay amongst. Quickly, the mom calls to the household flock of sheep, who hesitate however then come working down a grassy hillside to her.
It’s a easy visible reply to the essential query, what are the residents of Appalachia with out King Coal? Folks surrounded by extraordinary pure wealth and vitality, not certain to the profiteering that the king used to make attainable.
The King’s Funeral
The movie opens with an attractive lengthy shot of a funeral procession transferring slowly alongside a inexperienced hillside with the mountains and sky rising into the space behind them. It’s an ideal prelude for the memorial service that Sheldon ends the movie with.
Bidding farewell to the king is a matter each of formality and of expertise, together with photographs of the casket being made by hand, the logs lower and planed by a talented woodworker.
On the memorial service, a soloist accompanied solely by a drum calls out the farewell verses and is answered by the refrain, “Beneath the linden tree.” It’s a conventional musical farewell for the top of a contrived custom that was by no means meant to final, however solely to reap mammon from a area that – as this movie exhibits – as soon as was and now should change into once more a lot extra.
The bookended funeral scene conjures (amongst different allusions) “God’s Funeral,” Thomas Hardy’s bracing poem concerning the demise of the divine. However not like Hardy’s mourners, who give voice to an period’s lack of religion within the heavenly king of English Christianity, the demise march in King Coal is as releasing and hopeful as it’s mournful.
Coal Nation, U. S. A.
As critiques have famous, King Coal is extremely and self-consciously elegiac. However make no mistake: it’s additionally stressed and corrective, unwilling to bow the knee anymore to a monarch who must die and take his courtroom with him.
The clear antecedent for this movie is Barbara Kopple’s terrific 1976 documentary, Harlan County, U. S. A., which chronicles the horrors and the delimited however heroic triumphs of an Appalachian coal miners’ strike towards company exploitation. Kopple’s movie doesn’t precisely have a good time the soiled, harmful work of coal mining, nevertheless it definitely celebrates the miners and their dedication to their labor.
Made nearly half-a-century later, Sheldon’s movie walks a wonderful line between respecting the individuals who nonetheless pay obeisance to the king and arguing forcefully that their allegiance is misplaced and lengthy overdue to finish. With the lovingly orchestrated funeral service, King Coal affords itself because the means to an honorable closing passage for the king.
The time period “documentary” has all the time been straightforward to misconceive, suggesting that the digicam works as a mere observer, merely documenting what individuals do. However that’s by no means been the case, going all the way in which again to Robert Flaherty’s proactive path in Nanook of the North (1922), during which he requested Nanook to stage quite a lot of actions particularly to be filmed.
A century later, Sheldon makes no bones about staging varied actions for her movie. In that sense, it’s a lot much less a mere ‘doc’ than an inventive essay, a deeply private try and discover a delicate, difficult matter and share the contemporary, pressing truths yielded by the trouble.
After we see the red-haired woman close to the top of the movie dancing in a pavilion or working free alongside a raised sidewalk, we all know that we’re not simply witnessing the demise of a king, however the beginning of a imaginative and prescient for the longer term.
It might be attainable to criticize King Coal for being nearly too private, too idiosyncratic, maybe even too satisfied of the righteousness of its personal polemic. Some residents of Appalachia are nonetheless doing simply wonderful with the king and, little doubt, don’t need anybody telling them it’s time to bury him along with his crown. However Sheldon takes care to border her argument not as a mere case of needful progress. She provides the king a correct send-off, a loving, peaceable, honorable goodbye.
King Coal is a uncommon murals that manages to look ahead exactly by wanting backward, placing boundaries across the previous solely to make it a part of the longer term. God is finished saving the king, and the Appalachians and America will, the movie poignantly suggests, be all of the more healthy for it.
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