" Look how she moves! That’s just like Jell-O on springs. "
— Jack Lemmon (regarding Marilyn Monroe), Some Like it Hot

MRQE Top Critic

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

With any luck, The Sorcerer's Apprentice will conjure up a bigger audience on Blu-ray. —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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October Country is a documentary about people from a strange culture called the Mosher family. It’s a bit of filmed anthropology that makes me wonder how my own species could look so foreign.

Who’s Who

October Country shows a year in the life of the Moshers, from Halloween to Halloween. “Family member” Donal Mosher (we don’t know how he’s related to his subjects), is a photographer and essayist collaborating with filmmaker Michael Palmieri.

Grandma Dottie holds everybody together. Her husband Don came back from the Vietnam war a changed man, troubled and broody and negative. Her daughter married an abuser and had a child too young. Of her daughters, one made the same mistakes, (a child too young, an abusive boyfriend). The other is 13 or so, chubby, addicted to video games, but pretty smart at least. The infant Ruby... who knows how she will turn out. Oh, and Don’s sister is a witch. If that weren’t enough, Dottie and Don took in a foster son, Chris, who is a kleptomaniac, or maybe just a punk.

None of this is meant to demean the Mosher family; they seem comfortable to admit their flaws. That’s not to say they aren’t mindful of them, just that they have no illusions. Someone, either Don or Dottie, says “we wouldn’t know normal if it fell on us.” Daneal (pronounced “Danielle”), Dottie’s granddaughter with the abusive boyfriend, says “I would love to break the pattern but I don’t think it’s going to me that does it. It’s going to be Desiree” (the video game addict).

Reality Film

Reality TV is certainly ... TV... But it lacks reality. For that you need to turn to documentaries on American families like this one or Stevie. Watching October Country, I was riveted by what seemed like a train wreck of bad decisions and situations. In hindsight, the Mosher’s probably don’t really have it so bad. But then I think of the B-roll footage of the laundry- dish- and litter-strewn house and then I think maybe it really is that bad. Then again, if I invited a filmmaker and a photographer to study my life, I wonder if I would fare any better.

I don’t know for sure how I’m supposed to read October Country. I see the troubled family and I feel pity for their lot and frustration at their stupidity, and yet I recognize the arrogance in that reaction. Yet is that what the filmmaker intended? It feels that way. Or does my saying so say more about me than about the subjects in the film? As you can tell, this is a great film to discuss over coffee after the screening.

Unforgettable

There are a couple of serendipitous scenes in October Country that really make the film unforgettable. In one, we learn that Don hates his obese witch sister, who takes 13 medication for conditions from asthma to rheumatoid arthritis. She also collects unicorns, fairies, and dragons, and she visits cemeteries with her video camera to capture footage of spirits and apparitions (she’s obviously never read Joe Nickell).

Dottie gently characterizes Don’s dislike as a difference in beliefs that makes it difficult for them to communicate. Then Don explains he flat-out hates his sister because she’s useless: “So you’re a witch, fine, but contribute to society. Open a witch store. I’ll even go pick toads for you if you pay me.” The logic of the contempt made me laugh, but it’s the afterthought that Don mentions that makes the scene take on gravity — he says the last thing his sister told him before he shipped out for Vietnam is that she hoped he would die in the war.

Stevie, a documentary about a filmmaker’s “little brother”, has an unbelievable, they-cant-make-this-stuff-up scene of the world’s most passive-aggressive birthday party. October Country has its own claim to fame on a scene that is too good to be true. The film’s climax is Dottie’s big Halloween party; she thinks if the family can come in costume, that maybe they can all get along. The witch sister astutely observes that maybe people will really come as their true selves. By donning masks, they won’t have to put on their family faces; they can reveal their true selves by pretending it’s all a costume. And then the family, out trick-or-treating, run into foster son Chris, in costume, as , well, view this page’s source code if you really want to know. Suffice it to say it’s an unbelievably astute summary of what he learned living with the Moshers.

October Country is a dense, thought-provoking, and unforgettable documentary about a uniquely American family. It’s a documentary made by a filmmaker and a photographer, which means the B-roll footage is gorgeous and evocative, and the occasional A-roll shot is framed in exactly the right way to heighten the story. Topping it all off is a clean musical soundtrack that occasionally adds a new angle to the tone of the film, yet which is never too intrusive or demanding. It’s about as good as documentaries come.

  • Michael Palmieri: Hi Marty,

    Although I am very happy that you gave our film 4 stars, I'm concerned about certain ways you have chosen to portray Donal's family in your review. You used terms like "stupid", and "chubby", unintentionally demeaning words focused at a group of people we have set out to examine in an intense, provocative, but ultimately loving way. I think Desi's a beautiful, smart young girl finding her way through a really dark world. I think Desi's a beautiful, smart young girl finding her way through a really dark world. Her weight is not an issue of importance to me. And I don't think Chris has learned about beating women from Donal's mother or other siblings, I think he's a kid that's been beaten up on psychologically since he's been born. He's a kid trapped in a cultural scenario that keeps feeding in on itself. Given this, the people of the Mohawk valley make fun of the horrors that surround their everyday life as a last ditch effort to deal with that life. The "dark humor" of the Mohawk Valley may not be laughable to you in any way, but it is a coping mechanism to them, and has been painstakingly presented as such.

    The weird thing about writing this letter to you is that you really like the film, and for this I am grateful. But as you mention in your own review, I think your writing about the film and about Donal's family does a disservice to them, and I think it does reveal much more about your view of people from certain class spectrums than it does about ours and our film's own perspective of them.

    I'm very glad you were compelled to write about the film, and that you think it is a film worth discussing afterwards. Perhaps that's what we're doing right now in this email. It's just incredibly strange to us that in Denver, of all the places we've shown the film around the world and around the US, we've received unintentionally rude and insensitive comments about Donal's family. The Mosher's are not a freak show, and they are never portrayed as such. They're a standard American family with standard problems that many people don't want to face up to, look at, or consider in the broader scheme of what most of our country really is made up of. We all have fucked up families and we all have problems. We all have fantasies we hide behind (I make movies for goddsakes) and we all have shortcomings. These shortcomings are never things to attack; they are elements of character to examine, to hopefully give us a better understanding of our situation in this world. At least that's how I like to think of it. It's basically the reason why I make documentaries to begin with.

    I hope you are not hurt by this email, and please feel free to respond to it. My personal email is mike@michaelpalmieri.com
    November 15, 2009 reply
    • Marty Mapes: Mike, thank you for writing. It's great to hear from you. As I said in the review, wondered whether my reaction was the intended reaction or not. It sounds like not.

      The families I know are much more boring and conventionally "normal" than the Moshers. If you were to make this film about my own family, I think the audience would fall asleep. I think that's why the Moshers make such an interesting subject, and I assume that's why you made a film about them. I think you have tapped the same vein as Precious, which opened the DFF. Your films show America what non-Hollywood families look like.

      If I was cruel to the Moshers, I apologize to them, but I don't think I said anything that they themselves wouldn't acknowledge. Tell Desi she can call me fat if she wants, because I am, and you're right, that had nothing to do with the story. Sorry, Desi.
      November 15, 2009 reply
      • Michael Palmieri: Hi again Marty,
        Thanks for such an honest and open response, Donal and I both really appreciate it. Personally I think we should all go out and share a big fat greasy burger with a double side of fries and talk more!
        :) Mike November 15, 2009 reply
        • Jed Ryan: Please stop it, guys... I'm on this really Spartan diet and all this talk about burgers and fries is making me hungry... :) February 13, 2010 reply