Off Label: A Tragicomically Beautiful Art-Doc

The profound, personal tales stemming from the commercialization and subsequent abuse of prescription drugs deserve a penetrating exposé, but don’t discount October Country filmmakers Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s tragicomically beautiful art-doc, which sensitively favors unflinching testimonials and visually impressionistic observations over journalistic activism. In a tangentially linked, cleverly edited medley of portraits, a 22-year-old army medic gripes about the inapt pharmaceutical dregs offered him to combat PTSD from his Abu Ghraib stationing, while a former inmate forgives the institutional villains who ruined him through forced medical experiments. Other guinea pigs step forward, like the neo-hippie couple who undergo drug trials to pay for their wedding, and a young Asian American who gets mistaken for a junkie because of his oft-punctured arms. As their stories unfold, the camera seeks out the nearby environment’s fleeting, Malick-friendly poetry—in bonobo babies, insect cocoons, and a passerby carrying a giant cross down the Vegas strip behind a subject sadly crafting balloon animals for tips—but even a graphic combat-death photo montage doesn’t chill the bones quite like the reform-fighting mom who recounts the ghastly specifics of her son’s antidepressant-study-caused suicide.



October Country’s Days of the Living Dead

The white, working-class, Upstate New York dead-end of Mohawk Valley is surely not the milieu metal frontman Al Jourgensen had in mind when he wrote the Goth call-to-arms “Everyday Is Halloween.” But Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s document of a year in the lives of Mosher’s extended Valley family calls to mind the Ministry hit nonetheless. October Country follows four generations of Moshers from one October 31st to the next, and, in between, the spooks linger. Halloween itself is a Mosher obsession, a leveler across generations, and the only opportunity all year to take back the night from the family ghosts.

Inspired by Mosher’s writing and photography, and shot by Palmieri, whose background is in directing music videos for the likes of Beck and the Foo Fighters, October Country is best understood as a work of creative nonfiction. The directors employ art-film techniques to aestheticize a swamp of big issues—the military, poverty, madness, family planning, spousal and child abuse—and give a family’s (and America’s) angst a clear voice and seductive form without leveling judgment.

A munitions factory—staffed by post-traumatic vets like family patriarch Don—is all that keeps the town alive. It’s a place where women are attracted to monster men who impregnate, beat, and then leave them. Unable to learn from the past or break through to the future, the Moshers live in a zombie state of stasis here. No wonder one member of the family claims to be “more afraid of the living than I am of the dead”—even as the Mosher women compulsively breed new life.

“You probably never should have had kids,” says Dottie, the family’s grande dame and supportive glue, to her daughter, Donna, who, in a family pattern, became a mom while still a kid herself. “Because you never got to enjoy your life.” Donna agrees, but insists it isn’t as bad as all that: “My kids are grown up, and now, I want to be happy.” Cut to Desi, Donna’s loud, lonely, extraordinarily self-possessed pre-teen daughter. With Mom “being happy” and much of the rest of the family preoccupied with Desi’s sister, Daneal, a welfare mom before she could legally drink, Desi amuses herself with video games. “There is a bright side to it,” she says. “I watch less TV.”

There’s a strain of suspense running through October Country: Will Desi, on the verge of puberty, soon fall for the charms of dangerous, virile losers like the Mosher women before her? Or will her preternatural awareness that the choices made by her sister and mom qualify as “retarded” crack the family’s tradition of arrested development?

Though Donal Mosher never appears on camera, his insider presence is always felt, as secret family horrors reveal themselves casually, organically, unvarnished in the telling. In standard documentary, there’s often a just-perceptible force field keeping the subjects separate from the eye of the camera. In October Country, that border between watcher and watched doesn’t exist—or, at least, isn’t felt; the Moshers’ rage and resignation seems as if it’s coming through unfiltered. October Country delivers an unadulterated shot of the kind of poor white American despair and frustration that most media treats as caricature.

Dense with painterly, almost abstract imagery rendered in vivid, lurid living color, and a wildly variant score composed by the filmmakers, October Country uses elliptical montages to emphasize the cyclical nature of the lives onscreen. If the film doesn’t get anywhere narratively, that’s just form following content: The Moshers themselves don’t go anywhere, either.