A Fine Place, by Craig Schroeder
I’ve never understood the mystique and reverence that fishermen have for their sport. As a native of the South, and the child of a once avid fisherman, I have been surrounded by passionate “fish stories” that could have been lifted from a Hemingway novel; and they are all boring. They’re tantamount to stories about traffic or the retelling of a dream. But amongst others fishers, these stories are next to godliness. Low & Clear is a fish story, but unlike the exaggerated tales I grew up with, this fish story is more interested in the fisher than the fish.
Low & Clear, from directors Khalil Hudson and Tyler Hughen, follows two fisherman: J.T., a businessman from the Texas Gulf Coast, and Xenie (pronounced Z-KNEE), a flamboyant outdoorsman who makes his money by cutting down dead trees and selling them for firewood. The pair are friends, brought together years earlier by their mutual love of fly-fishing. The film begins as the two, who have fallen out of contact, prepare for a fly-fishing trip in the wilderness of British Columbia. Low & Clear is not really about fishing. Instead it’s a meditative study on friendship and obsession, and for J.T. and Xenie, fishing is an intrinsic value in each.
There isn’t a lot of exploration into Xenie or J.T.’s history, the film is more interested in revealing their bond through their relationship with fishing. J.T., a bearded man in his thirties or forties with a long face and sad eyes, is the more reserved of the two, and has a more bitter relationship to the sport. Xenie, a decade or two older than J.T., is a mustachioed, wild eyed character, who has amassed a collection of pictures, in the tens of thousands, of every fish he has ever caught. He is the better fisherman of the pair and has forfeited every other aspect of his life to fish. He shows the camera two or three months worth of pages on a wall calendar, each square filled with notations on where he fished and what he caught.
Hudson and Hughen have an obvious talent for finding the beauty in nature and relating it to the human condition. Whether it’s the weather-beaten shores of the gulf coast, the Colorado wilderness or the snow-capped trees in Canada, there is hardly a shot that isn’t spectacular. Doug Major’s score is a combination of contemplative shoe-gazing melodies and folk riffs, as reflexive and brooding as the imagery. The sound track is also sporadically scattered with acoustic folk and country tracks from J.T., an amateur musician with a hurt voice, a choice that humanizes both men and makes their rather banal tales of fishing more personal and wistful. The beauty in the film is used to accent that cathartic feeling that makes us love the things we love, be it fishing or baseball or bird-watching.
The second half of the film is devoted to J.T. and Xenie’s trip to Canada and the rivalry that ensues. Both men are expert fly-fishers, but J.T. is rusty and is out fished by Xenie in every stream and riverbed. Though they aren’t competing, rivalry amongst friends, and how that affects a friendship, becomes a running theme. Fly fishing, the thing that brought J.T. and Xenie together and has been the cornerstone in their relationship, could also be the reason they aren’t closer and more intimate. By the end of the film, the context of the phrase “fly-fishing” changes from a literal definition to a metaphorical stand-in for any obsession, passion or hobby.
Despite the film’s pensive reflections on friendship and passion, Low & Clear is often unintentionally macabre in its depiction of harming animals for pleasure. I realize this is a subjective opinion informed by my own feelings towards hunting and fishing for sport, and I’m not sure if my visceral reaction to this is a ding against the film or a testament to its power. Neither men kill fish on camera and all of the fish they catch are released, but it is nonetheless jarring when the film switches focus from the psyche of the hunter to the thrill of the hunt. It should be noted, a title card after the credits informs the audience that a percentage of the film’s profits are going to the Wild Steelhead Coalition, which advocates for the fish that Xenie and J.T. find at the end of their rod most often.
Filmmakers Khalil Hudson and Tyler Hughen are humanists; J.T. and Xenie are fisherman. Low & Clear is a concise, emotive study on each. The film won’t make “fish stories” any more exciting, but it’s not trying to. Instead, it’s exploring the pathology of the fisher. The film succinctly examines the innate beauty of shared passion that makes fishing relatable to everyone from cinephiles to stamp collectors.