"A small movie about an often-overlooked type of guy."
SCREENED AT THE 2013 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON: Documentary filmmakers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin had two features at IFFBoston last year; I saw the one about teenage Russian models in Japan rather than the one about the attempt to open a fish-processing plant in Maine. The latter would have been a natural complement to "Night Labor", to the extent that I almost wonder if this film is constructed out of unused footage from the other.The film focuses almost entirely on one man, Sherman Frank Merchant. He's the sort of fellow who looks his age and then some; there's evidence of a lot of hard living and cigarettes on his face. Now, he clams in the afternoon, eats his catch for dinner, and then works the night shift at the plant. He doesn't talk much, but he doesn't seem to have too many people to talk with.
And so, Night Labor is a documentary that is almost 100% pure observation. We watch Merchant go through what seems like a typical day, with no narration and no particular attempts to add context. Even when Merchant says something, it's not really directed to the camera as much as it's an under-his-breath muttering that brings Popeye to mind when the audience feels generous and that guy wandering the street or riding the bus who is so disgusted or enamored with something that he has to say it out loud. How much the audience enjoys the movie may be directly proportional to how much they see as interesting details and demonstrations of processes with which they weren't previously familiar versus how much seems like banal minutia.
Whichever it winds up feeling like, it's certainly a fine-looking movie. There's plenty of sharp, clear photography of coastal Maine, sure, but there's character to everything that serves as contrast, whether it be Merchant's craggy face or plant where he works. That's a weird environment as seen here, large empty spaces with only Merchant filling them, alternately antiseptically clean and full of fish guts. Sabin & Redmon convey a lot of information with their camera even when not much is going on.
Is it enough? I suppose that depends in part on one's mood when seeing it, although one's satisfaction can vary moment to moment as various segments wear out their welcome or establish a rhythm. It's got some odd bits that seem like they should go somewhere but don't, and others that seem oddly poignant for no obvious reason. It's uneven, but it's a variability that seems to arise naturally rather than from the filmmakers pushing things in different directions.At only 68 minutes, it at least goes down fairly quickly and easily, and by being resolutely focused on one person, it gives the audience a look at the sort of loner who seldom shows up in movies about different people interacting. It also makes me a little curious to see "Downeast" just to see what connections there are between the two.