|Written by Paul Lingas|
|Tuesday, 03 February 2004|
This is a documentary that really emphasizes how little I know about large sections of this country. Director Bradley Beesley sets out to learn more about the tradition of noodling in his home state of Oklahoma. For those of you uncouth enough not to know, noodling is another word for hand-fishing, mainly for catfish, which is apparently legal in only four states: Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Shot on video and film, “Okie Noodling” follows three main groups of Oklahoma hand fishermen. Each one has their own take on what noodling is all about and what the secrets are. One of the noodlers has been mentioned prominently in the past, even having appeared on David Letterman, though I apparently missed that episode. They each come from very small towns in the backcountry and their passion happens to be catching giant catfish with their bare hands. One of the first shots of the film shows the self-proclaimed noodling champion up to his neck in dirty, placid river water, grimacing and then pulling to the surface a three-foot long, 35-pound catfish that has its mouth around his hand. You can also see the man’s fingers coming out the gills, which is how he gets a grip on the fish. According to the director’s commentary, this shot has elicited many a gasp from film festival crowds, and it is indeed a good way to start.
While the subject matter of “Okie Noodling” is certainly interesting, bizarre and funny at times, the film suffers from some lack of proper pacing and editing. About 20 minutes in, it begins to drag and doesn’t pick up again until another 15 minutes have passed. The total running time of the film is 57 minutes, but even this seems long. Now, it should be understood that noodling requires a great deal of patience, and that some of this is called for by the viewers as we follow the noodlers, but after a while, we get the point and the film needs to move on. Unfortunately, due to a lack of underwater photography, a great portion of the film is spent watching the noodlers’ heads moving above the impenetrably murky water as their hands and feet do all the fishing below the surface. Therefore, some of the most interesting parts of noodling are missed; while it is intriguing to see the noodler’s hand pull a huge catfish above the surface, the novelty begins to wear off after thirty minutes. More history of noodling would have been interesting and helped to break up the film, and while they do have some brief clips with the author of a noodling book, there is very little shown about the genesis of this fascinating sport. Partly, this is shown to be because it has long been a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation, mostly father to son. Nevertheless, this again begs for a little more history on the subject, beyond what the main subjects tell us about their ancestors.
While there are some interesting moments in the commentary, for the most part it seems to be less a technically or aesthetically interesting feature than a function of DVD-extras feature inclusion. I know film students who have done audio commentary for their 10-minute films, because this is the thing to do nowadays. One of the interesting parts of the director’s commentary occurs during an aerial shot of a farm, when it is related that we are looking at the barn where they shot two of The Flaming Lips’ previous videos. Obviously the band and the filmmakers have known each other for some time. The soundtrack is appropriate but not extremely exciting. In fact, the audio-only selections are comprised of three tracks of music and makes one realize that a great deal of the music is used over and over again throughout the film. The limited outtakes seem to be their own possible submissions to “When Animals Attack,” though it makes me wonder why these parts, which show just how dangerous noodling can be, were cut out of the final version.
“Okie Noodling” is an interesting film because of its subject, but the novelty of the sport and the people begins to wear off quickly, and with little else to fill the void, the length of the film only seems to aid in showing the oddness of the subject.