First Words illustration

Debra Granik’s 2010 film Winter’s Bone haunts me. I’ve taught it, I’ve written about it, I’ve seen it over and again. And every time I watch it, its devastating beauty holds me in place. But I don’t mean that I become lost in its world. I sit alongside it in my own world, whether I’m in a movie theater, a classroom or my own home. Like a spectral presence, this film hovers around me.

Adapted from Daniel Woodrell’s novel, Winter’s Bone is the story of teenager Ree’s search for her father; he’s disappeared, and without his physical body—dead or alive—Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), her two young siblings and their mother will lose their house. The film takes place in rural Missouri, Ozark country, and was shot on location. In fact, as Granik herself said at a screening at Amherst Cinema in December 2015, her team didn’t even dress the sets. They simply shot in the homes of the people who lived there, some of whom had parts in the film, including Ashlee Thompson (as Ree’s little sister), whose family’s house is the stand-in for Ree’s home.

December 2015 was also the month when I was preparing to undergo critical medical treatment: daily radiation for six weeks to treat the return of my noncancerous meningioma. I had undergone surgery 11 years before, but now the brain tumor was even more complex in shape and therefore inoperable. The recovery from the surgery had been long and difficult, so I was relieved I didn’t have to go through it again. But during that long-ago recovery, movies were like a refuge for me. It’s not that films functioned as “escapes”; rather, movie theaters themselves provided sanctuary. Because the tumor had affected my optic nerve, some of the challenges I faced in my recovery were visual. But in a movie theater, surrounded by darkness and directed by the light on the screen, looking was made easier.

During the weeks of my radiation treatment, I thought of Winter’s Bone often. Or, put more accurately, I thought of one particular scene. In her ongoing search for her father, Ree travels from house to house, met with hostility and threats. But one evening her best friend, Gail (Lauren Sweetser), wrangles a truck from her husband to help in the search. Before they start up the truck, the three of them sit in the darkness of the cab. Gail asks Ree if she’s told her mother where she’s going. “I guess she couldn’t help anyway,” Gail says. Looking away and into the darkness, Ree simply answers: “Nope.”

That’s when the banjo begins to beckon. We hear it before we see it. And suddenly the screen is full of light, awash with the sound of this gorgeous, quiet music, a respite from hostile relatives and an impoverished home life.

As is common during critical medical treatments, I had many ideas about how I would change my life after the experience was over. One in particular began to take hold: I would like to play the banjo. All my plots for the future seemed equally out of reach and equally possible.  Like Ree in Winter’s Bone, I found hope amidst what was exhausting and painful. Beauty was within reach.

Five weeks after the end of my treatment, I bought my first banjo on my birthday. But 10 days later, I lost my beloved dog Arlo to cancer; a few weeks after that, I left my banjo in Massachusetts and left Massachusetts for the West Coast. Months later, I returned and started lessons.

It’s been two years, and I’m still barely a beginner. I have a new banjo—I call her “Beauty”—who beckons me from across the room. I have another dog—a displaced Southerner named Sally Sue—who is finally learning to be serenaded. I still think about Winter’s Bone when I play sometimes, but my banjo, my Beauty, has become my own.

But then, my idea was never to inhabit the space of Granik’s film or to recreate it in my world. That is antithetical to how I understand film. For me (and, I trust, for my Amherst students), films do not provide simple one-to-one relationships between our world and what we see on screen. They do tell us something about the world, particularly about systems of belief and states of feeling. When I sought out the banjo, I sought the state of feeling it elicited for me in Winter’s Bone: a sense of beauty and calm in the midst of something that had neither of those things.

During my brain surgery, I lost my sense of smell when vision in my right eye was saved. Losing olfaction has also meant a loss in the way I taste. The recent radiation saved the vision in my other eye, though I’m left with the slightest loss of clarity in each. When I play my banjo now, it ignites a sense of light, another kind of spectral presence, I suppose. I touch the neck, I pluck the strings, I hear its plaintive sound.

Professor Hastie came to Amherst in 2010 to develop the Film and Media Studies program. She teaches courses in film and television studies, with an emphasis on theory, writing and history. She writes “The Vulnerable Spectator” column for Film Quarterly and is at work on a book about the 1970s TV series Columbo.