Monday, September 02, 2013

Two Experimental Films

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (Terence Nance – USA) 93 minutes

Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel – USA) 87 minutes

New York filmmaker Terence Nance offers a protean, hard-to-classify feature, which is at times film essay, at others video diary. Nance cannibalises his own 2010 film, How Would You Feel? to use as the basis of a film about his love for, infatuation with and failed relationship with a young woman. As the title suggests, the love affair is pored over in microscopic detail, sometimes to the point of ennui, but Nance is refreshingly unbridled by anything resembling formal concerns. He flits between the earlier film – which, intriguingly, he says he screened at a film festival without telling the audience that the woman at the centre of it did much of the filming – and his own framing narrative, marking the shift with a retro cassette-pause effect.

Much of An Oversimplification of Her Beauty has a retro air to it; the mannered, faux-Panglossian narration reminds you of short films from the 1960s such as Martin Scorsese’s It’s Not Just You, Murray! or Jorgen Leth’s The Perfect Human and if there are any gimmicks at play, they are certainly not the gimmicks familiar from contemporary art cinema. This old-school texture gives it a surprising freshness, which is further invigorated by some delightful animation sequences that enrich and inform the live-action ones in a way that Ari Folman’s The Congress failed utterly to do.

If there is a criticism to be levelled at the film though, it is that it is at time too interrogating, too inquisitive and too circling. Nance’s decision to nestle his tale of his unrealised love within others, both successful and failed, also makes it at times hard to follow. You suspect the idea is to scramble the memory in a way that corresponds to the mémoire fleuve of its narrator but it can be hard to find one’s bearings. Likewise, though Nance’s formal experimentation is admirable, convention can be a cruel mistress. The voice-over at times sounds annoyingly arch and the joins, though clearly exposed by Nance, are also a little weak – you feel you are not watching a short film within a longer one but a sequence of several tenuously connected shorts. Like most experimental filmmakers, Nance would surely have factored such risks into his undertaking, but it is none the less frustrating for that. All in all, though, it is a film that is well worth a look and Nance is likely to make some fine films in the years to come.

Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s 2009 documentary, Sweetgrass, (co-directed with his wife Ilisa Barbash) was as gentle as its title suggested, a languorous, non-narrative observational documentary about a Montana sheep station that was nearing its closure after a century of activity. There is a similar nominative determinism in his latest film Leviathan, an impressionistic portrait of life aboard a fishing trawler, off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts, the very same locale Captain Ahab sets sail from in Moby Dick. The leviathan of the title though is an untangible, if nonetheless powerful, presence – the sea elements. The film is entirely shot at night, as the fishermen haul in their catch and grapple with the dark, the cold, the wet and the thundering redound of wind, boat and winch. There is no dialogue in Leviathan, and only snatches of speech are heard amid the wild sound (and wild it certainly is) but it is quite possibly the loudest silent film ever made.

Castaing-Taylor, a British-born Harvard anthropologist, runs the Sensory Ethnography Lab at the university, which specialises in producing aesthetically-inclined media work like Sweetgrass and Leviathan. It is a bit surprising there is so little context in his films – something that in the case of this film can be disconcerting as it is never terribly clear to the casual viewer if the boat is involved in sustainable fishing practices – but perhaps Castaing-Taylor feels he is already sufficiently steeped in the studies, the field work and the statistics. Still, his co-director on this film Véréna Paravel herself has a background in more conventional documentary, having made the 2010 film Foreign Parts, which documented the final days of junkyards in Queens in the shadow of the new New York Mets stadium. Though shot in a tangible working environment, Leviathan often takes on the guise of a visceral abstract painting.

The filmmakers use dozens of miniscule waterproof cameras which bob about in water catching images of flailing fish floating past them – the movements are aleatory and jerking, and the sequences resemble the point-of-view experience of trying to negotiate a large crowd at a rock festival while drunken or panicked. There is also gore aplenty, as the fishermen fillet the fish on the go; nervous ‘pescatarians’ might find their convictions challenged as they see machetes chop through the flesh of the doomed catch. I have to say I was even a bit surprised to see so much of the ray that is hauled in is discarded once the commercially desirable wings are lopped off. The heads, bodies and tails of the fish are tossed aside and swept overboard through open gullies, to be picked up by seagulls that loom in screeching masses alongside the boat.
The film’s nocturnal palette, its shadowy forms bathed in the trawler’s green, red and white lights, is a shifting, swirling delight, at turns claustrophobic and dizzying. It reminds me of the paint-on-film camera-less animation of Norman McLaren, Len Lye and Caroline Leaf. You don’t know where the film’s field is going next, what shape it will morph into. The only times I got impatient were when Castaing-Taylor and Paravel allow the camera to linger statically on the fishermen in quiet moments back in the cabin. It is a little hackneyed and arty, something culled from dozens of other observational documentaries, and it doesn’t really belong in this film. It’s a minor quibble though with an astoundingly original and sensuous film such as Leviathan is.