2023 seems to be quite the year for Christopher Jason Bell. Earlier this year, his four hour archival record of the George W. Bush presidency, Miss Me Yet, aired on Means TV (the world’s first worker-owned streaming service), and his new film co-directed with cinematographer Mitch Blummer, Failed State, just premiered at the Torino Film Festival. Working on the cutting edge of doc-fiction hybrids, the incisively titled Failed State never makes any grand narrative geopolitical indictments or descends into journalistic op-ed type explanatory-ism. Instead, our failed state of regulated poverty, unaffordable housing, and corrupt wage-theft is glimpsed solely through the life of one man who lives particularly close to the mechanisms and symbols of failure, the non-professional actor and New York City delivery person Dale (Dale Smith) as he completes real deliveries for his day job.
Failed State follows Dale early on in the pandemic as he completes strange deliveries, navigates poverty, and makes new friends. From my understanding, the filmmakers supplement the real-life of Dale with fictionalized interactions created with a “cast of characters pulled from all of our experiences.” He is an intensely friendly and sociable man with a bushy (but not unkempt) beard and hides the stories (that he eagerly shares) that he holds near-and-dear. I couldn’t help but think of Keith, the zamboni driver at the ice rink where I grew up playing hockey, eating stadium food, and flirting with the figure skaters. Keith was like Dale in both personality and appearance, bushy beard and black greasy hair included, if not in economic status (though I can’t imagine zamboni drivers are swimming in disposable income either); he was a quiet, professional man who cared deeply about his job and possessed an endless supply of stories for nearly any topic—not unlike Dale, whose professionalism and effort to finish his deliveries surly impresses so much that the only way to make sense of it is through economic motivation.
Of course, not everyone who sees Failed State will be blessed enough to have known Keith and to see him in Dale. That doesn’t matter. Dale has one of those every-man faces and is depicted in such vulnerable humanity by Bell & Blummer, from doing wall push-ups to almost losing his job over a broken bottle of wine, that he becomes knowable in himself by the end of the feature. Somewhat mysterious and with a vague past, Dale and the performing non-performance by Dale Smith, become a proxy for the Dales and Keiths that inhabit the lives of everyone. This is the film’s most significant achievement.
I’ve always found it interesting to pick apart various images of New York City in the imaginations of different filmmakers. And as a sketch of a troubled economy, the co-directors of Failed State’s decision to shadow Dale in his work as a freelance delivery person of sorts (also the subject of multiple shorts from Bell and Blummer) provides an easy excuse to shoot incredibly diverse portions of the boroughs. Rarely does a NYC film include so much of the gargantuan city, and rarely do filmmakers adequately capture the overwhelming feeling of the city. Blummer’s employment of a mobile-realist camera with a clean digital look does well to capture the small-scale chaos of the streets while also allowing the flexibility for easy maneuverability and strange angles. One simple canted low shot, for example, makes the towering skyscrapers of the city into landmarks of a foreign world largely inaccessible to Dale.
The film surprised me by departing from its documentary-realism, on a few occasions, with its fantasy abstraction of Dale’s deteriorating condition. With their highly-stylized interludes of distorted frame rates, funky editing, and vanishing effects, Bell and Blummer depart from the established conventions of the neo-documentary or doc-fic best exemplified in the works of Jafar Panahi (Taxi) and Danis Tanović (An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker), as well as Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue. Although it isn’t strictly speaking docu-fiction, I’m reminded by Jia Zhangke’s The World, in which the slow cinema favorite almost at random interrupts his film with entertaining animated sequences. The abstract interruptions of Failed State come with more ambition though, as they externalize the internal erosion of the main subject.
By incarnating (even with its moments of abstraction) the effects of the clogs in the state on a single man, Bell and Blummer give a stronger condemnation of neo-liberal economic failure and the dearth of a social welfare system than the traditional journalistic documentary would have been able to. The indirect criticism reminds me of the quote by the late medieval Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracian, “What should move us to action is human dignity: the inalienable dignity of the oppressed, but also the dignity of each of us. We lose dignity if we tolerate the intolerable.” Failed State, a record of exploitation in New York City, revives and challenges us to remember that intolerance for injustice the American public gained in the intense period of pandemic lockdown and quickly dropped. Maybe a human face will make it more difficult to drop next time.
dir. Christopher Jason Bell & Mitch Blummer
Screening in the Newworlds program at the Torino Film Festival.
Joshua Polanski is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and has contributed to the Bay Area Reporter, In Review Online, and Off Screen amongst other places. His interests include the technical elements of filmmaking & exhibition, slow & digital cinemas, as well as Eastern European film, East Asian, & Middle Eastern film.