A Train, an Old Guy with a Banjo, a Chained Dog: On Jeff Silva and Vic Rawlings’s “Linefork”

November 28, 2016   •   By Peter Trachtenberg

FOR A DOCUMENTARY about a musician, Jeff Daniel Silva and Vic Rawlings’s Linefork is striking for how little music it features. None plays during the opening, a rapt overhead shot of an endless coal train filmed from a bridge as it passes from the top left of the frame to the bottom center with a funereal howl and clatter, car after empty car, for so long that the image seems to wear a trench in the screen. There’s a long scene of a square dance where Lee Sexton, an 88-year-old banjo player who’s one of the last living exponents of the mountain music that predates bluegrass, plays with a group of younger musicians. Sexton is often described as a legend, but he’s a legend known mainly to the small group of people who’ve listened to the record Mountain Music of Kentucky, recorded in 1959, on which he played four songs. Two were in the downstroke-heavy clawhammer style that he had to abandon in late middle age because of a hand injury: specifically, a raccoon bite. The other two were in the two-fingered style he continues to play today — a style that’s largely been superseded by the three-fingered picking of bluegrass. Compared to the virtuosic breathlessness of the newer music, his playing sounds deliberate and percussive. Its momentum isn’t irresistible; it doesn’t pull, it is pushed, and you can hear the effort of the pushing, down to the snap of a thumb on a banjo string. Of course some of that may be the effects of Sexton’s age — a few times during the square dance he drops his pick and has to grope for it on the floor — and the black lung disease he got working in the mines when he was younger.

Actually, you hear Sexton playing a fair amount in the rest of the film. He teaches three students of varying ability, including the off-screen Rawlings. He plays the standard “Shady Grove” while sitting on his back porch, and “Leather Britches” in a jam with a tattooed fiddler at a community center. I’d forgotten those moments because the music is presented without the framing that customarily sets off such scenes in movies, even in movies that pass as cinema vérité — those visual and aural tropes that announce we are witnessing a species of artistry. In Linefork, music is presented matter-of-factly. It’s work, which makes sense, since Sexton is a working musician. The scenes of him playing music are of a piece with the ones of him pushing a rototiller and picking beans with his wife Opal on their farm in Linefork, Kentucky, an unincorporated town of 200 people about three hours south of Lexington. As captured by the directors in long, unblinking takes, music becomes part of the ambient sound of labor: unglamorous, ill paid, its dignity residing in the fact that it’s not extorted or suborned, and in what it evokes in its audience — and in its players, too. The look that crosses Lee’s face when he plays is a look of shy joy.

The film’s power derives from the same thing that made the first moving pictures so mesmerizing: the spectacle of life passing before your eyes, in all its tedium and strangeness, including the strangeness of life drawing to its end. We hear Lee talk about a friend with dementia. We see Opal, who is diabetic, being slid into the gullet of an MRI, and later a milky image of some part of her appears on-screen. What it is and why she needs the test are not explained.

Not that anybody dies in this movie, but it does contain at least one vision of hell. In the yard outside the Sextons’ trailer a little dog — a Yorkie mix, by the look of it — is standing on a cinder block. It jumps down, then jumps back up, then jumps down once more. It goes on doing this. After the first or second time, you realize somebody has chained it there, to the block — you don’t know whether to keep the dog from running off or from getting in a fight. Later in the movie, Sexton says something about “the hatefullest dog” he’s ever owned, and maybe it’s this one. [1] But Lee and Opal don’t look like people who’d willfully hurt an animal.

Throughout the scene, you hear shrill barking. The first two times I saw Linefork, I thought it was that chained dog — and only later did I realize it was coming from elsewhere, for when the camera pulls back we see several more small dogs jumping up and down inside a pen, and two or three others that are running free. They’re the ones that are barking. One of them barks right at the camera. [2] The combination of frantic barking and running and jumping lends the scene a degree of comedy, especially as the action is contrasted with the stolid patience of Opal, slowly walking among her charges, dishing out food. But that little chained dog, so silent you can hear the click of its nails on the block — his misery feels sharpened by the freedom of the others. The scene presents an entire hierarchy of freedom and confinement, a dog’s Inferno, with the chained Yorkie in the ninth circle.

I haven’t compared the length of this scene to that of the one with the coal train. Both seem to go on forever, but the monotony of the passing train weighs only on the viewer, who has the freedom to look at his phone or walk out of the theater. You can do the same thing during the dog scene, if you want, but the dog has no relief from its captivity, which has driven it wild. Most of the time it jumps at the same unvarying pace; it might be following a metronome. But once, after it jumps down from its perch, it pauses for a moment and tilts its head to the side. It seems to be considering whether it wants to do this. In that moment, the scene stops being a representation of a Christian hell and becomes a vision of a Buddhist one, though I’m also reminded of a hell one encounters in Talmudic lore: that one is situated next to paradise so the damned can pause in their labors to look up at the blessed, who look down at them with unctuous compassion, trying to hide their smirks.

Sometimes I think this is the ordinary hell most of us inhabit — I mean, those of us who are lucky enough to have some choice in the matter of our suffering: not the fact of the chain or the sight of the other creatures that run free while we cannot, but having to confront whether we want to go on leaping off our little platform, which is so low we don’t even have the option of hanging ourselves. Do I want to keep doing this?

But I’m probably making it sound better than it is — hell as a teachable moment. And everybody knows you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

The pause lasts barely a second. Then the dog goes back to jumping.

Had I encountered this scene in another movie or come across some variant of it in real life, I’m not sure the thought of hell would ever have entered my mind. What did I see, really, but a small dog tethered to a cinder block jumping ceaselessly up and down? But Linefork compelled me to look at it longer and less distractedly than I’ve ever looked at a dog before, on a screen or in life, where my automatic response to the ordinary, unspectacular suffering of any being is to look away and move on. Joan Didion quotes an elderly survivor of the Donner Party counseling her granddaughter: “Never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.” When you are made to gaze at it long enough, maybe all suffering is revealed to be hell, hell burning before your eyes, unquenchably, forever. For the same reason, an old man playing banjo on a porch or guiding a rototiller across a muddy field may turn out to be a citizen of heaven — I don’t mean an angel, but something much humbler, some order of being that labors even before the Throne.

It’s no accident that most of the world’s religious traditions cultivate the practice of prolonged attention, of sitting still and looking. So too did the first movies, the ones in which a stationary camera recorded a train pulling into a station or workers filing out of a factory, for 50 unwavering seconds. In French, such films were called actualités.


Peter Trachtenberg is the author of Another Insane Devotion (Da Capo, 2012), which was named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.


[1] Actually, it’s another dog, a Corgi mix named Tiny.

[2] Tiny, again.