Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Cane River: Restored and Finally Released

For years, only LP collectors had heard of Horace B. Jenkins’ debut film, but our knowledge was limited to a rare soundtrack LP featuring funky jazz vocalist Phillip Manuel. The album existed, albeit in limited quantities, but the film was never properly finished. After one work-in-progress festival screening, Jenkins tragically passed away before he could finish mastering it. Years later, the negative and audio tracks were rediscovered and fully restored. Finally, nearly thirty-eight years after it was first produced, Jenkins’ Cane River opens its first legit theatrical run this Friday in Brooklyn.

Peter Metoyer has just returned to Cane River, a traditional Creole community outside New Orleans, where he is the most eligible bachelor, as a scion of the most prominent family. They are successful horse ranchers, but they are not exactly rich, at least not anymore. Yet, Metoyer has ambitions of reclaiming the family lands his crazy grandmother was swindled out of. It was a pressing concern for him, until he meets Maria Mathis and gets a little sidetracked.

Metoyer and Mathis are not exactly Romeo and Juliet, but his Creole relatives and her dark-skinned African American family are deeply skeptical of their relationship, especially Mathis’s widowed mother. She fears the socially established Metoyer is just toying with her daughter. Nevertheless, their mutual attraction is quite real, even though their perspectives are very different. Frankly, it is hard for Mathis to come to terms with Metoyer’s heritage as the ancestor of a slave-owning matriarch, whose family openly sided with the Confederacy. Louisiana: complicated state.

The soundtrack, composed by Roy Glover and showcasing Manuel’s vocals is indeed smooth and soulful. Musically, Cane River is catchy and distinctive, as you would expect, since this used to be all that survived of the film. In fact, the film functions as an inadvertent time-capsule, capturing the vintage sleaze of the French Quarter in the early 1980s, as well as the wide-open spaces of the Northwest Country.

It is pleasant sinking into the film, but Jenkins’ unhurried pace and his tendency to soak up the landscape will try many viewers’ patience. There is a whole lot of gamboling in here. It is not even entirely clear what the central conflict of Cane River happens to be, until late in the third act.

Still, there is no denying the charisma and chemistry of Richard Romain and Tommye Myrink as the young couple. Admittedly, their inexperience peaks through from time to time, but the camera loves them and their relationship feels genuine, in an appealingly sweet and upbeat kind of way.
Cane River is not a re-discovery on the magnitude of the missing Magnificent Ambersons reels, but it is nice example of regional cinema. Frankly, it is cool just to finally have a film to go along with Manuel’s music. For record collectors, it is sort of like finally getting to see Stony Island several years ago, except that film really existed and was released in theaters around the time its OST was issued. Recommended as a curiosity, especially for anyone for loves New Orleans culture, Cane River opens this Friday (2/7), at BAM.