The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Two Years at Sea

The 2012 Wisconsin Film Festival began last Wednesday night with London filmmaker Ben Rivers’s Two Years at Sea (2011), his majestic feature-length portrait of an eccentric recluse named Jake Williams, whom he had filmed previously in a fourteen-minute short This is My Land (2006). The film documents and explores Jake’s isolated rural existence within the clutter and junk of a sprawling ramshackle dwelling in a forest in Scotland. Throughout the course of Two Years at Sea, we never see another human being, but hear sounds of sheep, cows, birds, and other wildlife.

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of Jake, as we observe him in his daily rituals: trudging through the snow from behind, sleeping in various places, bathing in a home-made shower, washing clothes, chopping wood, fishing on a primitive raft, listening to cassette tapes, reading a book, and so forth. There’s a story there, to be sure. Why does Jake live the way he does? Why has he chosen this type of existence? Rivers, however, has little interest in issues of conventional narrative, despite the fact that Jake looks at old photographs (there’s one of an attractive young woman; another of an older man; and an overexposed one of two kids) that hint at some type of missing back story.

In an interview with Michael Sicinski in Cinema Scope, Rivers explains: “Because the film is also a world, it’s something I want to exist in and of itself, rather than being about something. This all brings me to J.G. Ballard, one of my all-time favourite authors. His work is all about the transformation of landscape into something that somehow frees the central character from all their preconceived norms, a place that is consciously significant to every decision made about how one is living and proceeding through the mire.”

At times, we feel as if Jake might be the last human being left on earth. Yet, to me, the film feels less about the present or future or a self-contained world than a depiction of a present that’s nonetheless imbued with a strong sense of the past. Rivers shot the film in anamorphic 16mm film, which he hand processed in his kitchen sink. It was subsequently blown up to 35mm. There’s a sense that we’re viewing historical footage. It feels, at first, as if we’re back in the 1960s or early 1970s, observing an old hippie who has dropped out.

As the film progresses, however, there’s an odd sensation that we seem to be moving backward in time. The shots of Jake asleep in various locations and situations reminded me of post-mortems, those antique photos of loved ones preserved through photography. In one sequence, we watch as Jake makes a long trek over rugged terrain. In a wide shot, he walks toward the camera, carrying some type of rig on his head and four oblong plastic containers. Jake gradually blows up air mattresses and constructs a raft that he uses to fish in a loch. This shot of him fishing, which lasts nearly 7 minutes, is a key scene in the film’s trajectory back in time – as if we’ve suddenly been transported to the 19th century.

It’s difficult to make an intriguing film with a single character, especially if it’s going to be feature length. We watch Jake go through his daily chores, routines, and rituals, some of which seem to be of the filmmaker’s devising (this is a somewhat contrived or fictional quasi-documentary portrait), especially when he transforms an old camper into a sort of tree house. The shot shows the trailer, like a flying saucer, magically rising up in the frame to eventually perch atop trees. The artifice of how this is accomplished is deliberately withheld, which adds a sense of mystery. Throughout the film, Rivers focuses on formal shots of clouds moving through the sky, a thunderstorm, steam rising from a kettle on the stove, and a black cat who stares curiously at the camera.

Jake’s lifestyle nevertheless embodies the past. The film mimics this in a number of ways. It’s shot on film, for one thing. The photo-chemical process (as was evident in the retrospective of exquisite films Phil Solomon presented in subsequent programs at the festival) contains its own inherent magic that somehow continues to fascinate, even as it heads toward extinction. Whether acknowledged by the filmmaker or not, death hovers like specter over the film, not only in the imagery (a photo of a tombstone and other old photographs) and in its obsession with earlier technology (phonograph and cassettes), but even in the lyrics of the Scottish song “The Carpenter and the Sexton,” which we hear on the soundtrack at one point.

Certain shots are remarkably crisp, yet deliberately grainy, which gives Rivers’s film a liveliness lacking in most digital films. Processing blotches from home development swirl about the image, and the light within certain shots pulsates and flickers, giving an energy and sense of materiality to Two Years at Sea. Rivers’s rigorous framing often places the subject at the right hand side of the frame, such as in the scenes of him showering or fishing, or the extended portrait shot of Jake at the film’s end.

In the final shot, which lasts close to 8 minutes, the camera frames Jake in close-up in front of a cracking fire that illuminates his face. He has a contemplative expression. At one point he rubs his head and rests his head on his hand. His eyes momentarily dart around the frame. He repositions his body and appears to get sleepy as the dying fire’s light ever so slowly begins to fade. This spectacular shot conjures up an antiquated Andy Warhol-like Screen Test, as the image of Jake gradually fades to black and transforms into bouncing grain.

Postscript: The Wisconsin Film Festival was pretty awesome. I saw many great films over the course of 5 days. Ben Sachs of the Chicago Reader provides a very humorous, outsider perspective on the festival.

Posted 28 April, 2012

Without

Mark Jackson’s debut feature Without is the latest independent film to leave me excited by the work that young indie filmmakers are able to accomplish on very low budgets these days.

Without tells the story of a 19-year-old young woman, Joslyn (Joslyn Jensen), who takes a temporary job as a live-in caretaker for an elderly man named Frank (Ron Carrier). He appears to have suffered a major stroke and is now wheelchair bound. The film begins with a close-up of the young protagonist’s face, which the camera holds on for over 30 seconds. Her head is tilted slightly down and her eyes quiver ever so slightly. Following the opening credit, we see that Joslyn is actually looking at her Smartphone while on a ferry boat to her new job. Without is a film that deals with technology’s impact on the young, who depend on it to communicate with peers and validate their own existence. Finding herself isolated on an island off the coast of Washington State without either the Internet or a strong cell signal, Joslyn gradually becomes unglued.

A hulking taxi driver, Darren (Darren Lenz), initially picks her up at the ferry. He comes on to her right away and turns out to be a persistent suitor. She cleverly fends him off by pretending to be going to a different house. Through pictures on her Smartphone, we discover that Joslyn appears to be infatuated with a young Asian woman, suggesting that she’s already in love, which provides an explanation for her indifference to Darren. Things, however, turn out to be far more complicated than we imagine. Left without a means of communication with the outside world, Joslyn’s situation begins to parallel that of Frank.

Frank is unable to speak, but, according to his family, he still remains very willful. They insist on a regimen that they refer to as the “Bible” – he only watches the fishing channel, the sound on the TV has to be set at a certain prescribed level, knives can’t go in the dishwasher, and Frank won’t share his whiskey. While the family’s own relationship with Frank is shown to be perfunctory at best, they act condescendingly toward Joslyn, especially by inundating her with all their house rules, which they’ve written down for her. At one point later in the film, she performs a very funny skit for the helpless Frank that satirizes their ridiculous restrictions regarding the use of the television.

As Joslyn cares for Frank, she seems oddly remote. She quickly becomes bored with her daily routine: the strenuous work of caring for Frank (spoon feeding him meals and lifting him into bed), the occasional trips to get a chai with skim milk at a nearby coffee stand, physical fitness exercise, and yoga. Cut off from the world except for photos and videos stored on her cellphone, Joslyn sets up an old computer with a Skype camera. Questions begin to arise for the viewer, but Mark Jackson, the film’s writer and director, is very careful to parcel out the pertinent details of the story very slowly, so that the viewer is forced to connect the ambiguous dots.

The silence between the two characters and their inability to communicate becomes a major source of friction in the film and a catalyst for what follows. Joslyn begins to suffer her own torments in the isolated environment, so that her feelings toward Frank begin to shift. When she first changes his soiled undergarments, she discreetly looks away. Given what we discern to be her sexual orientation, it’s understandable. Yet a strange sexual undercurrent eventually develops between her and Frank, especially as her loneliness causes her own sexuality and pent-up anger and remorse to surface in shocking ways. Before long, Joslyn finds herself in conflict with nearly all the other characters in the film.

The film plays with a number of different genres. As one might expect, the situation of a woman alone on an island contains elements of suspense and horror. What exactly is that skin rash that mysteriously appears on her back? Frank’s groans start to sound like a howling wolf. Her incapacitated client may or may not be as helpless as he seems. And the spurned Darren may actually pose a threat. Jackson is adept at making us wonder what’s real, given Joslyn’s growing instability, and what’s merely inside her head. The film’s strength is how Jackson is able to use a simple story and few elements to create such riveting dramatic tension.

Much of the film’s success is a result of Joslyn Jensen, who gives a brilliant, uninhibited performance as the film’s lead character. If there’s one thing certain these days, it’s that there are a bunch of terrific young performers out there. Jensen is so good, however, that it’s hard not to concentrate solely on the subtleties of her rendering of the character, especially in how she is able to portray steamy eroticism. Much of her performance is communicated nonverbally – through facial expressions, bodily movement, abrupt mood swings, and a song she sings while playing the ukulele that expresses the pain and grief of her character with such depth it will haunt you long after the film is over. Ron Carrier is excellent as well. He portrays Frank with a slight sense of menace, so that we’re never quite sure how to read his character.

Without was shot with a Canon 5D camera. This relatively inexpensive HD camera is notorious for giving shallow depth of field to an image. The film’s cinematographers, Jessica Dimmock and Diego Garcia, utilize this defect to great advantage. In an early scene, the camera is placed behind Joslyn, so that we move in with her toward the blurry shore as the ferry docks. The muted background of the shots often seems to suggest her own tenuous psychological state.

It’s hard to imagine the film being passed over for the Sundance Film Festival last year, especially given some of the other films that were programmed. Without played at Slamdance instead. It has also screened at Locarno and other film festivals and been nominated for a number of prestigious independent film awards. I’m told by Mike King, one of the programmers, that Without has been selected to play at the 2012 Wisconsin Film Festival in April, along with Sophia Takal’s Green, which I have written about previously. Both films are not to be missed.

Mark Jackson’s Without represents a remarkable debut feature. An impressive character study, the film addresses issues of human communication and technology, as well as memory and loss. In exploring a young female character’s fragile psyche with an economy of means, Jackson uses the inability to communicate as a means to evoke what’s percolating under the surface. At the film’s opening, we view Joslyn’s seemingly innocent face, unaware of how much it hides. And the Smartphone she stares at so intently, little do we realize how much of her past life is contained in such a small handheld device.

 

Posted 1 February, 2012

Green

Sophia Takal’s Green delves into the lives of a young urban intellectual couple from New York. Sebastian (Lawrence Michael Levine) and his girlfriend, Genevieve (Kate Lynn Sheil), retreat into the country, presumably somewhere down south, for an extended period. Sebastian is a writer, whose project is improbably about sustainable farming, while Genevieve has tagged along to be with him. Fissures begin to appear in their relationship, especially when a neighbor, Robin (played by Takal), in her own naïve way, exacerbates the hidden tensions between them. Interviews with the director suggest that the film is about female jealousy, but, for me, Green also explores class difference, which, as we all know, has recently developed into class warfare. Given the current polarized political climate in this country, this is precisely what makes Takal’s film resonate so deeply.

We get a sense of Sebastian and Genevieve’s relationship in the pre-credit sequence when they sit around with peers (Alex Ross Perry, the director of The Color Wheel, and Dustin Guy Defa, the director of Bad Fever, among others) and compare Philip Roth to Proust. Although it occurs early on, so that we don’t yet have a grasp of the characters, Sebastian puts down Genevieve’s difference of opinion by suggesting that she only read the first 30 pages of Roth’s novel When She Was Good. She claims otherwise. In defending his love of Roth, Sebastian drapes his arm around her, winks to the others, and smugly tells them, “I’ve read a little bit more.” This cuts to a wide shot of two lawn chairs on the bottom left of the frame of a rural landscape, as their car pulls up and they begin to unpack.

As Sebastian writes, Genevieve quickly becomes bored by life in the country. Suddenly left on their own, the two are revealed to be utter strangers, whose hip intellectual snobbery is the only glue that holds their fragile relationship together. Once Robin shows up – they initially find her asleep on their front lawn – she becomes an easy target for their ridicule. A southern working-class country bumpkin, she intrudes upon their lives, without quite realizing that she’s the object of their scorn (as well as their desires). Early on, Robin comes over with some groceries and a magazine. When Robin asks Genevieve what she’s reading, she answers, “Georges Bataille.” The clueless Robin responds, “Oh, cool.”

Sebastian and Genevieve’s stint in the country begins to feel like a regression into ’60s nostalgia, especially when Sebastian begins to wear a headband. But the hippie idyll has its dark side. In one telling scene a good forty minutes into the film, Genevieve and Sebastian make love. Her refusal to play along with his sexual fantasy exposes a deep personal rift between them and appears to trigger what follows. Green may take its sweet time to get going, but once it does, it moves with the swiftness of a natural disaster. As Green continues to unfold, Genevieve gradually bonds with Robin, before beginning to unravel. She views her relationship with the older Sebastian with a sense of disdain mixed with extreme insecurity, especially when she starts to imagine him being sexually involved with Robin.

Genevieve wants to go back for an art show, which has gotten a good review in Artforum, but Sebastian pontificates: “Honey, I knew this guy at Dalton. Okay? He couldn’t even string a complete sentence together; no less create a coherent piece of art.” As Genevieve shakes her head in disagreement, Sebastian insists, “He basically fills a room with junk and then a group of moronic quasi-intellectuals come in, mentally masturbate, and decide it actually has some meaning to it.” As he tries to explain installation art to Robin, Genevieve becomes openly rude to her. When Robin unexpectedly shows up with a date one night, Genevieve finally loses it. In a field, the film reaches an ambiguous climax, but the film’s resolution is cruel enough to spark a class uprising.

Shot in a mere two weeks, Takal’s directorial debut won a prize at SXSW and has been playing the festival circuit. Some scenes were initially improvised and then later scripted – a technique that’s being used more and more these days. Takal is not interested in naturalism, but what lies beneath its surface. In an interview in Hammer to Nail, she commented: “I think mumblecore movies are really honest and natural, but I wanted to use the medium to explore someone’s psychology, and what was going on inside of [Genevieve]. That was important to me. So I definitely did want to step away from handheld naturalism.”

Takal, who has a budding career as an actress, conveys such genuine sincerity as Robin that she exposes the mean-spirited flaws of the other two characters every time she opens her mouth. A psychodrama with overtones of the horror genre, Sophia Takal’s Green has the feel of a sharp spike rammed into an unsuspecting heart.

Posted 12 December, 2011