By Jude Warne.
In his 1854 book Walden, Henry David Thoreau sets forth a crucial instruction: “Resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” This, perhaps, is the overarching message of Daniel Patrick Carbone’s first feature film Hide Your Smiling Faces. In the proverbial end (or, for the sake of this film’s characters, by the end of their particular film) we must all acknowledge that no one gets out of the circus alive. This is a tough lesson to learn for young people whose main interactions with technology involve a Discman. Although we see them play around with a gun belonging to a friend’s father, we never see these kids watch television, or pick up a comic book, or ask their parents if they can go to the movies, even though they’re off from school for summer vacation. This forces them to spend most of their time in the beautiful (and beautifully photographed) forests and waters of New Jersey, indeed resigning themselves “to the influence of the earth.”
Smiling Faces is extremely concerned with dying, impermanence and the inevitable havoc that nature wreaks. The first images of the film construct a sequence, in close-up, of a snake consuming its quarry – a familiar and common moment in the natural world, a moment that provokes no aftermath. The death of Tommy’s friend, whose body Eric comes across in the early moments of the film (Tommy and Eric are brothers, played by Ryan Jones and Nathan Varnson, respectively), does provoke aftermath though, at least of a sort, and it is this aftermath that constitutes the majority of the film’s story. Carbone’s directorial approach is meditative, almost brooding, and seems intent on establishing a world that runs on mutability; however, this rumination screams rather than whispers to us, seeming to hail Yorick’s skull at us with all its might.
Director Terence Malick is often accused of cozying up to natural scenery rather than characters in his films, and Carbone could easily be accused of the same here. Smiling Faces doesn’t really care about establishing relationships between characters, or about depicting the ongoing benefits of living within a community, whether it is a family or a small town. Carbone’s characters are individuals, solitary animals that operate according to their own whims, whims that frequently delve into the bestial. And how do beasts with consciences behave after they experience a calamity, the death of a young friend who may or may not have jumped from the bridge he seemingly fell from? Consciences are ultimately dealt with on individual terms, and as there are no voiceovers (nor should there be) we are left with a seeming abundance of quiet desperation. There is a token scene of the townspeople at a sort of post-tragedy meeting, but because this is Carbone’s show, the meeting does not prove fruitful and the townspeople do not join together. Here, all men and boys (there are almost no female characters present, other than Tommy and Eric’s mother, who is barely so) are loners at heart.
Tommy and Eric are no fools; they identify the futility of their organized world and decide to retreat back into the woods from whence they came, or from whence the audience first met them. This, after all, is where Carbone wants them to belong, and they do, but in a slightly different and weightier way this time. Their friend’s death has changed them, and both brothers seem to adopt new character traits that nature itself seems to inspire. Tommy seems to step back from the Jersey woods, acknowledging neither their destructive potential nor the callous indifference that resides there; he uses nature as a comfortable alternative to his ineffective parents. Eric seems to accept the fierce, aggressive cruelty of nature and commits himself to its power, becoming absorbed into the heart of its world – but he is older than Tommy and thus perhaps is more willing.
All roads lead to death in Hide Your Smiling Faces. This is an ambitious subject to tackle in a first feature and Carbone gets a lot of beautiful cinematography (courtesy of Nick Bentgen) as a reward for his efforts, and he deserves kudos for having faith in the collective intelligence of his audience. By the time the film is over, we are left saying, “interesting… a bit dismal… beautiful images… too short perhaps…” – all-too-familiar last words.
Jude Warne recently earned her BA in Cinema Studies and Art History from New York University. She currently works at NYU Stern School of Business and is earning her MA in Humanities and Social Thought at NYU. Her hero is A.O. Scott of The New York Times.